One of the reasons I leave space for people who say “Freshwater” is about mental health is that multiple things can be true at the same time. “Freshwater” does talk about mental health, but that’s not the center. The book is about embodiment. So like in “Freshwater,” you could say Ada is depressed and suicidal. But she’s depressed and suicidal because she’s a spirit trapped in flesh. And so it’s not one replacing the other. Both exist at the same time.
Tell me about “Pet.” How did you get the idea?
I thought about what I would want to read if I was in my teens now, in this current climate — what I would be worried about or could possibly be stressful for me. I was looking at what’s happening in the world now, and I’m like, oh, this is a lot of people not calling things what they are, not calling monsters monsters, not calling evil evil, or not calling white supremacists white supremacists. And I thought, well, what does it look like if you’re a young person and it’s this mass gaslighting, where everyone’s just like everything’s fine, nothing to look at here and you’re like, but did you see what I just saw? So I decided to write to them and write this young girl who lives in what’s supposed to be a better world, but there’s a thing happening, it’s not being acknowledged yet, but it not being acknowledged doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening. What do you do if you’re a young person stuck in that gap? Do you wait for everyone to acknowledge it before you do something? Do you play along with them?
How was writing for young adults different from writing for adults?
All my adult books, every single one of them, has multiple narrators, multiple perspectives; that is actually my default. And with Y.A., I was just like, how about you have one protagonist and the book goes linearly, in a chronological order. Living on the edge here. [laughs]
I also wanted to veer away from some of the things that showed up in my adult books more. I was like, what does it look like to write a book that doesn’t have sex in it? What does it look like to write a teenager who’s not sexual? Because I was not at all as a teenager. I was just like, I love my books and Jesus. What does it look like to write a black girl like that — especially because I think a lot of the times teenage black girls are so sexualized. I wanted to write this tender, shy, nonsexual black girl. Those were kind of the challenges: Take sex out, take some of that darkness that comes with my adult books. Write something that’s a little more distilled, a little clearer, a little more innocent in some ways, and write it in a straight line with one protagonist. You’d think that would be easier, but it’s not.
Can I ask you about the decision to make Jam, the protagonist of “Pet,” transgender?
Chris [Myers, who started Make Me a World] told me his kind of philosophy about books, which is that books are spells that you put into the world. And he likes to think about, like well, what impact is your spell having on the world? How is it changing the world?
When it comes to trans characters, especially black trans girls, black trans women, when they’re being amplified, it’s usually because someone died. Trans people are already living their reality. So I was like, if I’m writing something for black trans kids, what spell do I want to cast? I want to cast a spell where a black trans girl is never hurt. Her parents are completely supportive. Her community is completely supportive. She’s not in danger. She gets to have adventures with her best friend. And I hope that that’s a useful spell for young people. I hope that’s a spell where someone reads that and they’re like, this is like what my life should be like. This is a possibility.
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