"I Hate [begin strikethrough]You[end strikethrough] Everything": Reading Adolescent Bad Feelings in Tamaki's Skim.
The photo is mounted on a large memorial bulletin board that hangs in the hallway of the private girls' school Skim attends. The headline from the newspaper article accompanying the photo is "Teen Taken: Too soon" (Tamaki and Tamaki 89). Throughout the book, this bulletin board, created and maintained by the "Girls Celebrate Life" club, sits at the centre of the conflicting atmospheres surrounding John's death. The school is officially concerned with mourning John by "celebrating" life and investing in staying alive themselves. This official program of mourning, which involves participating in balloon-releasing ceremonies, watching Dead Poet's Society, and taking part in public and semi-private grief exercises, is required of all students, whose compliance is monitored by teachers and counselors as well as popular students. Despite the intensity of the demand for compliance--or perhaps due to it--an oppositional discourse squeezes over and over into the school arena. This other discourse resists the requirement to have appropriately sad feelings about John and positive feelings about the future, joking instead that "death is cool" (77). The bulletin board, adamantly proclaimed to be "school property," and therefore, ideally at least, immune to being undermined, offers students a site to express aggression, either passively, by sticking gum to it, or actively, by vandalizing or even destroying it. The homophobic inscription of "fag" is one such expression of aggression.
In the larger scene, Skim walks a trail of letters--as long as she is tall--into the snow. This primary scene would be unseen by eyes on the ground: it's only visible from our vantage above the action. We can thus read this as a deeply personal moment, in which Skim simultaneously expresses her feelings and keeps them obscured. Shuffling one foot in front of the other she inscribes the field with "I hate you," then crosses out the "you" three times, replacing it with "everything." We catch her before she finishes (she has written only "everythin") and find her gazing back at her progress, even as we know she would be unable to make out her own words from her perspective. The co-presence of these separate but clearly related panels sharing the page signal that her school, social, and romantic/ sexual situations are weighing on her. We can read the force of her hatred as directed at John, at the bulletin board containing this image, at the school hallways where the board hangs and where the unseen hand has inscribed him with "fag," or at what readers know about Skim's queer and complicated sexual life, which feels further complicated by the likelihood that this popular and supposedly well-adjusted boy's suicide is attributed to the rumours that he is gay.
This simple panel, which temporally stretches through a quiet afternoon, arrests me every time I arrive at it. Like other quiet, expansive moments in this sparse text, the panel invites me to dwell inside of it: not only to read its surface but to feel and read its textures, to experience the time and weight and temperature it contains. Sara Ahmed offers this dual description of what it means to dwell, speaking not directly about comics' texts but productively to them: "dwelling refers not only to the process of coming to reside, or what Heidegger calls 'making room,' but also to time: to dwell on something is to linger, or even to delay or postpone" (554). In this paper, I describe the ways in which comics invite us to dwell inside adolescent difficult feelings, working with what it might mean to learn this way: from inside representations that themselves dwell within the emotional lives of adolescents. Skim's expression of hate offers a case study of the adolescent's bad feelings. While acknowledging the events in the text more widely, I work closely with this one panel and trace the textures of Skim's hatred. This is what comics offer us--the potential to stay inside one or two powerful images for a long time, and think with them. Here, I ask: What might hate do for adolescents and what might they do with and to their hate? Following D.W. Winnicott, I consider Skim's articulation of hatred as a productive, rather than a destructive, representation of a symptom, and working with this panel, I consider how reading might help adults offer compassion and even hospitality to adolescent expressions of hatred--in short, how we might bear them.
The roots and textures of adolescent hatred and aggression
It is common for adults to push past or push through the adolescent's expressions of hatred and aggression, treating them as signs of bad behaviour, of pathological anger, and of "acting out," which is immature and should be outgrown. Hate, we tell young people, is the worst thing we can say. Adolescents are often represented as hateful toward adults, to systems they experience as unfair, to their friends, especially those who prove or seem to be disloyal, and also to themselves and their unruly bodies and emotions. Beginning in the late 1950s, Winnicott wrote a series of lectures and papers about the understandably turbulent behaviours of adolescents and how their behaviours, extreme as they may seem, reflect the immensity of the developmental tasks of the time. He argues that the adolescent's expressions of hatred are a response to feelings of betrayal, disappointment, fear, and also to passionate love. The problems he takes up--of antisocial and delinquent youth--were both specific to a particular moral panic at work in postwar Britain and also have general implications for our modern thinking about young people. Winnicott's primarily male delinquents posed a social threat due to their tendency to become a nuisance--stealing, vandalizing, staying in bed all day listening to jazz, having sex, doing drugs, and generally being a bother. In his view, each of these behaviours can symbolize the adolescent's aggression, facing the emotional, social, and familial changes that take place in adolescence. While acknowledging that adolescence presents a social problem, Winnicott offers the adolescent (and the adult) hope: "Most adolescents do in fact achieve adult maturity, even if in the process they give their parents headaches. But even in the best circumstances where the environment facilitates the maturational process the individual still has many personal problems and many difficult phases to negotiate" (Deprivation and Delinquency 146).
Winnicott's writing here is reassuring--just because adolescents behave badly doesn't mean adults have failed them, and it doesn't mean anything in particular is wrong--adolescent bad feelings are part of growing up. Of course, adults and adolescents are still tasked with finding ways to live through this time. Alyson King writes that Skim is "clearly suffering from some degree of depression" (80). What King reads as clear signs of pathological emotional experience--"skipping class to smoke, sleeping during the day, suffering from insomnia at night, and feeling cut off from others" (80)--I read, following Winnicott, as common, ordinary, and even healthful reactions to the difficult emotional terrain of adolescence.
Because for Winnicott the conflicts of adolescence are often acted out in the form of clashes with authority--by acting out, the adolescent tests the environment set by the adult, and when she is confident in that environment can set herself to the work of forging an adult identity--and because so much of his work is addressed to the actual people--judges, teachers, and parents--who interact with young people, we can read the adult as occupying a difficult and important place in adolescent development. The adult, even if all has gone well, is subject to adolescent aggression and must find a way to act as an effective container. This is not a new role for the adult--the relationship of adult-as-facilitating-environment and infant-as-environment-tester is established at, or even before, birth, when the "good enough mother" empathetically understands what the infant needs and offers "ego support," thus helping the infant to feel confident in the environment and establishing the groundwork for sanity. The "good enough" mother is a concept Winnicott develops to describe a person who has "this tremendous capacity that mothers ordinarily have to give themselves over to identification with the baby" (Home 144). Over the course of early development, the mother comes to understand when the infant will be ready to face "a graduated failure of adaptation" (Davis and Wallbridge 53) and she begins to allow the infant to be disillusioned by delays in care. This graduated reduction in the mother's attention follows the growth of a productive sense of infantile aggression, as Winnicott writes, "in health, the mother is able to delay her function of failing to adapt, till the baby has become able to react with anger rather than be traumatized by her failures" (Deprivation and Delinquency 22).
Initially, the Winnicottian infant (in a substantial departure from the work of Melanie Klein) feels no aggression for the mother, only absolute dependence. The infant still courts the aggression of the mother, by interfering with her private life, by dominating her, by hurting her in pregnancy, birth, and nursing, but the baby is initially unaware of her separateness from the mother and only acts with "ruthless love" (Winnicott, "Hate in the Counter-Transference" 73). Thus aggression, for the infant, is initially tied only to appetite (Davis and Wallbridge 70). That the mother can survive all that the infant does to destroy her, leads, over the course of development, to the infant's loving her. This love arises precisely because the mother can withstand and contain the infant's need and destruction--the infant can use the mother, who becomes the first not-me object to obtain a sense of permanence (70). Again later, out of the infant's sense of and need for destruction, arises her capacity for concern (77) and the development of the maturity reasonable for her age. Once the infant develops a capacity for concern, she is able to tolerate the ambivalent co-existence of love and hate (Winnicott, Deprivation and Delinquency 97).
For Winnicott, adolescence is marked by the need for the young person to make a "new adaptation to reality." This new adaptation raises the youth's sense of vulnerability and need for dependence (Davis and Wallbridge 81). In infancy, the child has a crisis responding to the facilitating environment when she is left too long, allowed to go hungry too soon, is cold, doesn't have her head supported, or is in some other way left in need. In adolescence, even normal adolescence, the youth needs no such failure of the environment to feel deprived. Because growing up involves taking the parents' place, and this involves a psychic murder (81), the adolescent experiences a rupture in environment, where "things went well and then they did not go well enough" (Winnicott, Home 91). Here, the adolescent once again relies on the adult to help her regain a sense of what has been lost--a stable facilitating environment that can withstand all she does to destroy it. The psychic agenda of adolescence involves negotiating new relationships between the strategies for bearing conflicts developed in infancy and those required for adulthood, establishing a new identity and personality based on, among other things, identifications with parents and peers and the development of sexual relationships and independence. Margot Waddell defines these conflicts as requiring "the capacity to manage separateness, loss, choice ... and perhaps disillusionment with life on the outside" (140). These conflicts prime adolescents for what Adam Phillips calls "excessiveness": "with adolescents there is always what the adult thinks of as excessive behaviour around: excessive isolation, excessive gregariousness, excessive madness" (On Balance 37). For Phillips, excessiveness, which characterizes the adolescent's experience and articulation of hatred and aggression, is both a problem for young people and at least a short-term cure. Adolescents "[tend] to meet excess with excess: excessive boredom is caused by excessive excitement, excessive uncertainty is cured by excessive conviction" (37). Those moments, which, for the adolescent, feel overwhelming and ambivalent, might usher in feelings of hatred and aggression that seem "too much" for the adult. The adult, faced with the adolescent's strong feelings, may be unable to recognize that the strength of her feeling indicates that the experiences of adolescent emotionality are likewise too strong for the adolescent.
While young people's expressions of hate might seem excessive and even pathological (after all, hate is fracturing), for Winnicott, the young person's "greed, hate and cruelty" is simply part of her mind and is a part to which she must have access. Farley notes that Winnicott was not concerned with the young person's experiences or expressions of hatred but, rather, that he believed "the inability to express aggression--such as in an inhibited or compliant child--was a sign of greater difficulties than those experienced by one who could risk expressing feistier impulses" (12). For Winnicott, aggressive destructiveness can be both honest and effective for the adolescent, as it represents an "acceptance of one's personal destructive urges directed towards the object that is felt to be good" (Home 89). Thus the articulation of hatred may be a sign of health, even as feeling consumed by hatred is a symptom of an interruption in health. The adult has a special role to play in meeting an adolescent's aggression. As is true beginning in infancy, the adolescent's aggression must be met by the adult who shows herself capable of handling it without relying on her own aggressive hatred or her own excessiveness. Adolescents' new movement to independence and adulthood forces young people into conflict between their desires for this independence--the want for time to speed up so they can finally become adult--and their childhood reliance or dependence upon adults. The adolescent simultaneously experiences the fantasy of becoming independent and a sense that she is not yet fully confident in herself (and may never become so once and for all) (82). The adolescent does not quite "feel real," as feeling real, like all other aspects of development, comes only in its own time, with support from both ego and facilitating environments.
The adolescent in Winnicott's writing is deeply conflicted: charged with a struggle between the family and the world, she behaves in destructive ways that are normally only acceptable in infancy. Many of the ways adolescents act out their aggressive feelings are represented in Skim--the perverse pleasure that comes from locking yourself in a bedroom, listening to sad music and writing hatefully in a diary about how everyone hates you, practicing witchcraft, sneaking out, sulking, eating too much (or too little), gossiping, bleaching your hair, and feeling melancholic. These impulses reflect coping mechanisms used by children--behaviours that would incite the adult's notice or attention. Winnicott's youth were, in his opinion, attempting to regain, through their acting out, a facilitating environment that has come to feel lost (even as the adolescent may simultaneously want separation from the environment of care in which she grew up). He writes:
[The adolescents' task] is the task of tolerating the interaction of several disparate phenomena--their own immaturity, their own pubertal changes, their own idea of what life is about, and their own ideals and aspirations; add to this their personal disillusionment about the world of grown ups--which for them seems to be essentially a world of compromise, of false values, and of intimate distraction from the main theme. (25)
Developing an adult identity that feels real, and not like a compromise, is a challenge for the adolescent, who may feel that adulthood requires excessive compromise. In an interview with Powers, comics' artist Lynda Barry talks of the adolescents she teaches in writing classes: "they still have this idea that the generation ahead of them has forgotten important things, or never knew them." The logic here is simple: growing up simultaneously means taking the place of the parents and locating an identity that feels real, without false solutions or compromises that insult the idealism of the adolescent. This idealism is immature but also, as Winnicott writes, "a precious part of the adolescent scene" (quoted in Davis and Wallbridge 84). While the adults who offer young people containment need to be dependable, they are experienced ambivalently. Adolescents might resent the compromises they feel adults have made, as well as the compromises they feel that they must make to become adults themselves. Thus those things adults seem to have forgotten or seem never to have known (for example, the passions of young love) provide the adolescent with anxiety and with disappointment. If, as dj Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince said in my adolescence, "parents just don't understand," and maturity requires that adolescents must become the parents, there is a clash where the youth resents and resists the costs of adulthood. And yet, the adolescent does not really want an immature or an idealistic adult (an adolescent adult) to rely upon. The adolescent needs to exert aggression, to push against the environment and to destroy it, and requires a "stable emotional situation" with discipline provided by adults who "can be loved and hated, defied and depended upon" (Davis and Wallbridge 149, 143).
Depicting ambivalence, adolescence, and time
How do adolescents and adults hold on to the ambivalence of adolescent aggression: the co-presence of love and hate, desire for independence from and dependence upon adults, desire to become adults themselves and anxiety over the kinds of compromises that will be required? What work must adults do to foster supporting and containing environments without seeking to cure those aspects of adolescence, including feelings of hate, that are sometimes symptoms of a lack of health and sometimes productive ways of engaging normal destructiveness? How can adults find ways to give adolescents time to come to terms with the normal ambivalence that comprises growing up, while also continuing to grow? For Winnicott, developmental flexibility is necessary for fostering the strength these relationships require. I suggest that reading closely and deeply helps adults hone the skills needed to adequately meet the adolescent's demand. Comics such as Skim can be ideal texts for working with the emotional landscape of adolescence; here, we find aggression, ambivalence, and contradiction.
The panel I've read here is not the first or only time Skim crosses out words or sentiments she feels uncomfortable expressing in this text. From the second page of part 1, when she crosses out her favourite colour (black) and replaces it with red, negated meanings creep through the text, exposing the forms of ambivalence common to adolescence and also powerfully expressing the difficult feelings and tasks of adolescence. Skim crosses out her initial writing when it comes too close, feels too true or too threatening, or when she isn't sure of what she thinks or if what she thinks about will be appropriate or acceptable. This technique allows readers to engage with both Skim's first and second thoughts and hold both meanings in mind, while also understanding how unsettled she feels. Skim is not the only text that makes use of this approach. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel's memoir about life with her father, she writes on a childhood bout with OCD during which she would strike out text in her diary. Speaking to Fun Home, Ann Cvetkovich writes, "the graphic act of striking out words with a mark that is a cross between word and image (and which in turn makes the drawings of the text of the diary become as much image as word) provides its own eloquent testimony to the impossibility of documenting truthfully what she is seeing or expressing" (121). The comics' form allows creators to graphically depict the impossibility of language to symbolize complex meanings. During a grief exercise, Skim writes "Then, we had to write about what makes us happy ... I didn't know what to write ... Because ... I'm not sure ... [begin strikethrough]I didn't know what other people would think about my answer ... [end strikethrough] It's a stupid question" (Tamaki and Tamaki 61). On her paper, she writes
SAD IGNORANCE HAPPY [begin strikethrough]TREES[begin strikethrough] [begin strikethrough]MY CAT[end strikethrough] art. (61)
These crossed out moments, as well as representing her simultaneous resistance to and engagement with the exercise, represent the key tensions at work in adolescence--between the adolescent and society, authority and the self. It also perfectly captures the sense that Skim doesn't quite know where she stands or who she is. Alyson King describes the tensions of the text as "the layers inherent in teen life--including heteronormative pressures, cliques in the school community, parental and family tensions, friendships and boyfriends, among others" (68). There is a profound sense of her discomfort present in this pattern of powerful negations that can be represented precisely because the visual aspect of the comics' form allows the uncomfortable meaning to both stand and be refused. Readers come into contact with both sides of that tension. While Skim thinks this exercise is stupid, she revisits it a third time in her diary, without crossing anything out, using punctuation to represent her ambivalence. Thinking about her feelings for her teacher, Ms Archer, with whom she has shared both intimate conversation and what appears to be a long kiss, she writes:
Things That Make Me Sad Love Things That Make Me Happy Love? (67)
As Hillary Chute comments, comics' narratives are "not only about events but also, explicitly, about how we frame them" (2). In Skim, there aren't many of what we might call "events," except represented elusively--events occur, but they are nearly all extra-textual. Yet the framing of these small moments, which allows us to read the ambivalence on the page by reading across the narrative and image lines, also recommends that we "look, and then look again" (8). This gives readers the opportunity to grapple with the representations, to read several competing possibilities at the same time and/or over the course of subsequent readings.
When I read Skim, a relatively short and, as I have said, sparse, book, I remain with it for a long time. And when I finish reading it, I take it with me. This is part of the power of comics--because they unite word and image, and because they are told in fragments they become suitable for carrying around. For me, Skim's articulation of "I hate [begin strikethrough]you[end strikethrough] everythin" (Tamaki and Tamaki 89)--comes to life, in the sense that after my reading is "finished," this moment is not. In The Deaths of the Author, Jane Gallop writes that in her readings, she "breaks the text into pieces that resonate for [her], breaking off those pieces of the text that are for [her] today, most alive with meaning" (50). Gallop's use of "today" indicates that this is a dynamic process--we may break off different fragments each time we read.
While Gallop's work with close reading focuses on what is on the page, her use of "today" points to the subjective nature of the textual fragments--she is interested in what resonates for her rather than what might be the main idea of the text. Each reader, bringing her own history of associations and emotions to the text, may find a different point of resonance. This way of reading, for Gallop, points toward "other theories, other thinking taking place" (Deaths 25) in our reading. Thus pleasure enters into the equation of close reading. Gallop, building on Roland Barthes's writing on reading and fragmentation, writes "the reader's pleasure is more profound when through reading, an other enters our lives, comes to live with us" (50). The profound pleasure I have when reading Skim has much to do with my sense that I build a closeness with the text by reading it slowly, by holding it in my mind when I am not "reading" it, by allowing it to creep into my mind and my daily life. This also means allowing my mind and my daily experiences to come into my reading. I come to live with Mariko and Jillian Tamaki; their work enters my imagination, and I think with it. Gallop quotes Barthes as writing that "living with an author ... is a matter of making pass into our dailiness fragments ... from the admired text" (49). Gallop's use of "today" may then reflect back to her desire for close reading to respect what is alive in the text, as well as a recognition that one thing alive in the reading relation is the reader's connection to the text itself. There is a reason we re-read--texts will offer new fragments for us upon our re-readings, while also reminding us of the fragments we have come to carry previously.
Hillary Chute writes that graphic narratives provide sites for readers to work with unthinkable, invisible, and inaudible occasions (3) and their complicated reverberations. Elusive meanings in graphic texts require readers to take a long look as well as a second look, filling in old readings with new meanings each time. Dennis Sumara notes that close reading requires returning to a text, reading it again, and inviting it to help make life and our readings more interesting:
Learning to notice the small details of a text means that it needs to be read over time. These [re-readings] create conditions in which aspects of one's out-of-text lived experiences become partly structured by repeated textual involvements. Immersing oneself into the details of a textual landscape can create conditions whereby other landscapes of one's life become more interesting. (121)
Living, reading, thinking: these actions can enliven one another, we can live inside of the text, as I previously referenced Sara Ahmed's writing, dwelling in it. Of course, the formal properties of the panel--it lacks a border and takes up an entire page--invite the kind of inhabiting I do. Jillian Tamaki's illustrative style in this and other texts references Japanese manga, in which silent splash panels work to evoke the kind of timelessness that invites readers here to dwell. Stanley writes of Tamaki and Tamaki's work that they manifest a visual pace that "deliberately slows down the reader's engagement" (192). While some comics' artists prefer to make use of exclusively or primarily uniform panel shape and size--for example, Lynda Barry's remarkable use of four-panel strips and Alison Bechdel's orderly paneling--the Tamaki cousins have created in Skim a logic heavily influenced by manga but unique to the book itself. In this text, there are a number of full page and even full-spread panels, the result of which is a readerly slowing down--a dreaming with. In comics, readers perceive time spatially, with each panel containing a degree of time that is neither set nor consistent. Chute and DeKoven write "the form's fundamental syntactical operation is the representation of time as space on the page" (769). Readers must take cues from the creators to discern the amount of time we rest with panels, but we also exercise a great deal of control in pacing a text. According to Scott McCloud, in splash pages and bleeds (where the scene defies a border and runs off the page), time "hemorrhages and escapes into timeless space ... such images can set the mood or a sense of place for whole scenes through their lingering timeless presence" (103).
The timeless quality described above facilitates a dwelling which slows readers down, encouraging us to linger. In Skim, the layout, the art, and the cross-discursivity of the story itself facilitate a slow reading experience that requires the reader to vary her pace and to return to panels, to reinvest in them again and again. The competing narrative lines--dialogue, exposition, diary entries, and images--subtly and directly undermine one another, forcing the reader to make meaning out of complex and elusive representations. The negations and adolescent-absolutes of the texts take time for the reader to unravel, in order to come to understand the resonance of this panel. Skim's crossing out her initial thoughts represents forms of ambivalence common to adolescents--to respect that coming too close to her feelings is tricky, that language might be ill-suited for expressing them (or too well-suited). We can learn as much or more from the negation of the cross-outs as we can from what is allowed to stand. Encountering these moments, we are invited to become adolescent again, to feel, along with Skim, the impulse to carve out a space to express aggression.
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes on how time functions in graphic texts. He refers to the logic of comics' timing as "infinitely weirder" than the idea that one panel depicts one "moment" (94). Rather than each panel containing a set duration, principles of movement, lengths of words or sentences in speech bubbles, the placement of the gutter, the presence or absence of narration and the size, shape, layout, and design of the panel itself each affect the length of time each panel contains. Unlike visual forms like film, the reader also has a say in how much time is possessed by the panel. Hillary Chute indicates that this is one aspect of comics' reading that encourages an ethical relation between reader and text, particularly when the images point to traumatic events:
That it cedes the pace of consumption to the reader, and begs re-readings through its spatial form, makes comics a categorically different visual-verbal experience for its audience. Releasing its reader from the strictures of experiencing a work in a controlled time frame can be a crucial, even ethical difference, especially in presenting traumatic narratives that may include disturbing images. (8-9)
In discussing this panel, I have referred to the "moment" in which we catch Skim. However, it is important to note that this "moment" is not stuck in time--it is of any duration. Gunning writes "the time of reading that Chute describes so well exemplifies such an authentic human experience (and use!) of time, not as an exterior quality, but as a lived dimension" (44). This silent panel contains narration inscribed later than the scene's action in Skim's diary. That the narration draws attention to the intensity of the scene as she lives it. "Dear Diary ... It's snowing" (Tamaki and Tamaki 89) is so inadequate at expressing the layers of emotionality at work in the scene further reflects Skim's inability to find language to express her meanings. Kahn describes this moment as "allowing the play of presence and absence to call up interpretive strategies on the part of the reader as we acknowledge the simultaneous presence of opposite meanings, presented by text acting 'under erasure' " (342). This disjuncture requires the reader to rest with this panel, teasing out its complex meanings and investing it with the meanings that language fails to capture.
Reading Skim: reading closely and reading again
When I work with this image, I follow the logic of Skim's ordinary hatred, and I find it coloured by my own experience. The reader, who may be an adolescent or an adult (as this book was published under House of Anansi's YA imprint, Groundwood) has Skim's difficult social and emotional life as well as her own to work with. Skim struggles with her unruly body, its desires for food and sex and affection and its capacity to both break and to expose itself as having been broken (since she goes through the text mostly wearing a cast). She hates her difficult parents: her abrupt and absent mother, whose own anger and aggression is seething, and her father, whose desires for Asian women throws her own ethnicity into high relief, as does the bullying of her primarily white classmates. The mourning and melancholia on offer at Skim's school, and her peers' fixation on the possible queerness that might have caused John Reddear to kill himself, reminds her of both her outsider-ness (by presuming her a suicide risk) and her possible queerness (which leads her to fixate on and be haunted by John). She forms an intimate relationship with her English teacher, Ms Archer, a relationship in which she is advised to " [wear her] rebel heart on [her] sleeve for a while" (Tamaki and Tamaki 27). Skim feels she falls in love with her teacher--a love that is at once tantalizing and deeply painful and confusing, particularly when her teacher rejects her and leaves the school. Her strange and strong relationship with her teacher alienates herself from her friend (she really only has one), to whom she can't reveal her feelings.
Readers are acutely aware that Skim has a lot to hate, and this awareness might offer a hint as to her inability to narrow her expression of hatred down to "you." In one possible reading, Skim walks "you" into the snow before realizing that "you" is painfully inadequate at describing where her hatred is directed. Perhaps she crosses it out once for her family, once for her school, and once for herself; then replaces it with "everythin" in a melancholic move where she loses sight of the hated object and instead invests the whole world with her bad feelings. In a slightly different reading, because the spectre of eroticism between teachers and students looms so large in contemporary schooling, and because first love is at the best of times so deeply charged with intensity and the potential for hurt, it is hard for me not to imagine the "you" as Ms Archer. This panel comes just after Skim learns that Ms Archer is leaving the school. Despite, or because of, their problematic intimacy, Ms Archer has not told Skim she's leaving and Skim has had to hear it from her friend Lisa. Here, the crossing out of "you" might indicate for us the precariousness of that relationship; Skim loves/hates her teacher, who inspires/hurts her. Far from providing an effective container for Skim, Ms Archer turns away from her, leaving her to deal with the aftermath of their erotic encounter on her own. We can extend this reading to all of the adult figures who populate the text, none of whom are capable of providing a container for Skim's bad feelings.
As a reader of Gallop's work on close reading, alongside my more imaginative readings of the movement from "you" to "everything" in Skim's feelings of hatred, I want to also return to a reading of this panel which stays on the page. Close readings, as Gallop explains, require noting "small, striking bits of text" ("The Ethics of Close Reading" 25)--the kinds of things most readers might gloss over on their way to reading the "good stuff" of the plot. This means attending to moments that "textually call attention to themselves" (8). This attention to narrative vocabulary must be slightly reconsidered for comics' texts, to consider as well words bolded or intentionally or accidentally misspelled, suddenly different sizes or shapes of panels, narration and images that don't speak to, or even speak against, one another, wordless panels, panels without borders, the use or lack of use of colour, close-ups and wide shots, facial expressions and body language, symbols that might consciously or unconsciously express something meaningful, and poses or landscapes that refer to other representations. Dennis Sumara writes that Gallop's technique of close reading asks readers to "learn the topography of the text," which will help "create the possibility for an interesting interpretive site that was not previously available to them" (121).
In this moment, close textual attention leads to two other reading possibilities. The first has to do with words: I notice that Skim has written only "everythin" by the time we encounter her here. I have already mentioned that this leads to the sense of timelessness that the Tamaki cousins wish to offer, but it also points to the centrality of Skim's difficult relationship with her body. Throughout the text, she struggles constantly with other people's discomfort and even disgust around her weight. It is from her body that she has received her quite-cruel nickname (Tamaki and Tamaki 27). Her difficulties with her body reflect her "unhealthy" and difficult desires, both in terms of what she wants to eat and for whom she feels and acts on her desires. Throughout the text, Skim observes the other schoolgirl's bodies, and they are nearly uniformly thin (they are also nearly universally white). She may hate every "thin" woman as a way to suffer her own softer self. Marty Fink argues that in Skim eating "not only frames the narrative but also becomes its key refrain" (133). Building upon disabilities' studies scholarship, they write that "bodies that transgress cultural norms of beauty and appearance become subject to the chastising stares of authority figures, healthcare providers, and strangers on the street" (134). Skim's body matters to the emotional situation of the story, both in moments where her body or her eating is commented upon by others and in moments where she comments on her body herself. Skim's relationship with her fat body is ambivalent. Her body becomes a magnet for the unwanted attention of those whose gaze she resists. But Fink notes that her body and her eating signify more: both desire and resilience. Early in her relationship with Ms Archer she acknowledges how her fat body influences her nickname, in a moment Fink calls "[enabling] queer seduction through a stated recognition of fatness" (132). Throughout the book, in moments where Skim suffers violence or exclusion, she takes refuge in eating, and the food that comforts her helps her to survive (138). A focus on Skim's body and the conflicts it both creates and reflects speaks to a wider difficulty adolescent girls have with their changing and out of control bodies, while Fink illustrates that it also calls up the strategies adolescent girls create for surviving high school and conflicts with family, friends, and self. While this literal reading of the panel certainly doesn't express the full story of Skim's embodiment, the call to remember Skim's body, more broadly the bodies of young girls, and more personally our own bodies is central to reading the text well. We might also understand that considering the bodies of adolescents is central to considering the conflicts of adolescence.
The second reading of bodies in Skim has to do also with queerness--that of both Kim and John Reddear. In the bottom right hand corner, Jillian Tamaki reproduces the defaced image of John posted on the Girls Celebrate Life bulletin board. We know that Skim is blamed for the inscription of "fag"; her gothness and her inability to mourn appropriately or to blend in appropriately make her suspect. She might here be frustrated by her suspectness. But readers cannot miss that Skim, who has queer romantic desire for her teacher (and a queer romantic relationship with her teacher), and who watches other girls at school, may hate John Reddear for his queer suicide and for what his decision to kill himself might express for her about her own difficult desires. Whether or not she did vandalize this bulletin board (and we come to believe she did not), she might hate herself for the forms of homophobia with which she is complicit. While she has a queer crush, she participates in the kinds of normalized homophobia that persist in her school, in gossiping about John and joking about lesbianism. Here Jillian Tamaki merely gestures toward Kim's feelings about John, with readers left to fill in the emotional weight of the scene. Her diary narration, so deeply disconnected from her action in this scene, points to the likelihood that she is unwilling to admit the force or the site of her feelings to even herself. I read John's presence here--complete with homophobic slang--as representing Skim's ambivalence regarding her queer self.
As I said, readers will be aware that Skim has a lot to bear and a lot to hate. This hate is not and does not need to be settled--Skim's bad feelings are diffuse because she and her life are both complicated. We might read her inability to focus her hatred on a "you" as a hint that she feels unable to bear all of the difficult feelings she possesses. Each one of these readings may point to one aspect of the emotional experience with which she struggles. The movement from you to everything indicates that Skim is stuck in what Eve Sedgwick, building on Klein, would call a "paranoid" moment of projection, where all of her bad feelings are pushed out into the world and the world--rather than the self, which is anxiously projected here--becomes too much to bear. This reading, which will encourage readers to look for moments of integration and reparation in the rest of the plot (which they will likely find, as Skim is offered a happy ending), can also offer space to ask us to think with the character about how it feels to be so full of hatred and what feeling hatred in this way might offer.
Returning to Winnicott, we might read this projection as a symptom, and we might follow him in reading projection as not, on its own, a sign of illness. Phillips writes that for Winnicott "symptoms are part of the way the child works on and through his inevitable difficulties in living; the healthy child has a flexible repertoire of symptoms that work as communications to the environment" (Winnicott 50). These symptoms only become a sign of illness when they become too persistent and too rigid for the youth to use as communication. Phillips paraphrases Winnicott as saying that even normal children will and must have these symptoms, because "life is difficult, inherently difficult for every human being, for everyone from the beginning" (50-51). We can read this alongside Avery Gordon's writing that "life is complicated," a "banal expression of the obvious" but also "perhaps the most important theoretical statement of our time" (3). Her theory that life is complicated represents a concern both about power and how power circulates and a reflection of the complex personhood of each subject. For Gordon, "at the very least, complex personhood is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people's lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning" (5). As a result of living, people--all people, including adolescents--struggle with how difficult life is. If the adolescent is healthy, the symptoms that reflect the immensity of the tasks of being adolescent are flexible, and she doesn't rely on any one set too long or too exclusively. The healthy adolescent is also able to act spontaneously (Winnicott, Home 54), a capacity she can only possess if she has had "an early experience of reliability" (64) which continues to feel reliable. What then is the adult to do in the face of the adolescent's aggressive symptom?
A reading of Skim's moment of projection as an engaged symptom invites readers to look for moments of integration and, borrowing Klein via Sedgwick's language again, reparation in the rest of the plot. Readers will certainly find this--for me, reparation occurred most evocatively in a late scene where Skim laughs with her whole body while spending time with a new friend. The sequence of diary entries written when Skim develops a close and relaxed friendship (with Katie Matthews, John Reddear's ex-girlfriend and another girl for whom life is complicated) is the most densely narrated passage of the book. Skim writes sentences--even paragraphs--with no ellipses, no words crossed out. Her narration is different, because by the end she has emerged from her bad feelings, she has taken her time and has found ways to articulate them. Here, the Tamaki cousins offer a reading of what adolescents need to surpass their bad feelings that aligns well with the work of Winnicott. Here, what the adolescent needs is to be tolerated and also contained by strong adults for the duration of her difficult adolescent experience. Winnicott writes that "one can help a depressed person by adapting the principle of tolerating the depression until it spontaneously lifts, and by paying tribute to the fact that it is only the spontaneous recovery that feels truly satisfactory" (Home 77)--an apt description of most adults in this text. The depressed mood, which is wrapped up with the normal adolescent experience of hatred, must be given time and space and the sufferer must be offered an effective and non-retaliatory or cheery container. For Winnicott, the adult desire to offer adolescents "good cheer" is one that causes adults to "make fools of ourselves" (Home 77). For Winnicott, the role of the adult is to foster a reliable environment in which the adolescent can work with her bad feelings. Ironically, this doesn't mean that the adult world must be merely supportive. Winnicott writes that for depressed people, "What may make a difference is a really good persecution: threat of war ... or a spiteful nurse in the mental hospital, or a piece of treachery. Here the external bad phenomenon can be used as a place for some of the internal badness, and produce relief by projection of inner tensions, the fog may start to lift" (77). By this reading, Skim's homophobic and unsettling school community might be just what she needs to work out the bad feelings she suffers from the inside. Certainly the Tamaki cousins offer a representation of adolescent bad feelings cured by time and by growth. Winnicott notes that people may emerge from their bad feelings "stronger, wiser and more stable" (77) than they were before, and this is certainly the case for Skim.
I position this panel--along with a wider reading of the book--alongside this psychoanalytic reading on adolescence and on bad feelings because I believe doing so can position adult readers more readily to respond compassionately and creatively to young people--actual and fictional. Alyson King writes that Skim evokes adolescence for adult readers of comics in two distinct but related ways: "First, the story with its images and text will draw the reader into her or his own memories of high school. Second, the comics' format with black-and-white drawings has the power, as [Gillian] Whitlock puts it, to 'trigger nostalgic memory' to bring the reader back to a time when comics were read" (71). By inhabiting this stretched-out moment of adolescent bad feeling, adults become vulnerable to remembering our own hatreds, both deep and petty: when our parents did the wrong thing, when our hero teachers exhibited themselves to be ordinary and flawed, when our best friends betrayed us, when we were bullied or bullies or bystanders, when we were made aware of our social and body difference, when we were flushed with unwanted hormones and got rounder hips and painful breasts and menstrual cramps and pimples, when we were painfully in love and when our secrets were revealed. Hatred is a bad feeling that feels bad, but it is also a human one. Reading adolescent hatred as a human quality invites adults to see ourselves as not above such feelings but as containing a history of them that has the capacity to be powerful, persistent, and even productive. And this, I argue, offers opportunities to make us better, more compassionate, and more empathetic educators--not perfect, but perhaps, in the Winnicottian sense, "good enough."
I would like to thank Drs Jen Gilbert, Lisa Farley, Chloe Brushwood Rose, Angela Robinson, Hannah Dyer, and Kate Doyle for their suggestions on early drafts of this article. I also thank the anonymous Esc reviewers and Kate McDermott for their keen and generous eyes.
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Michelle Miller is a lecturer in English at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto. She teaches queer literature as well as comics and graphic narratives with special attention to contemporary Canadian literature. Her work is motivated by a commitment to queer and feminist politics and focuses on representations of adolescent girlhood on offer in contemporary coming-of-age graphic narratives.
(1) Cheryl Cowdy notes that Skim possesses an "uncharacteristically expansive [relationship] to [her] urban environment" (292). While this text takes place in a 1990s-era Toronto, Skim frequently finds herself reflecting on and working through conflicts in unpopulated and unsupervised public and private space. Her romantic and sexual relationships likewise rely on outdoor space: she meets both Ms Archer and Katie Matthews in the woods behind her school.
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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