II: Mrs. Boulley, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you! Congratulations on your debut novel!
A: Thank you so much! Please call me Angeline. (I’m not a Mrs.)
II: I just finished Firekeeper’s Daughter, and it absolutely blew me away! Can you tell me what influenced you to write this novel and what the process of writing and publishing your first novel was like for you?
A: It has been such a long process! I first had the idea when I was 18, but I didn’t start writing it until I was 44 and my own children were teens and pre-teens. I spent ten years writing and revising. Finally in 2019 I was ready to get an agent and try for a book deal. So I had a very long incubation period for the story but everything took off quickly at that point. I had an agent three weeks after I started querying. I did a modest revision over the summer based on my agent’s feedback. The manuscript went out on submission in mid-September and two weeks later there was a 12-party auction. Two weeks after that, there was a film option deal with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions for a Netflix series.
II: As a biracial Anishinaabe and Ojibwe woman who also has French roots, there is a strongsense of community that Daunis Fontaine frequently references within Firekeeper’s Daughter. How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and setting in your novel?
A: I define community as people bonded by their connection to land, family, teachings, and history. I wanted Daunis’s heritage to reflect the history of Sault Ste. Marie. Her background is that mixture of Anishinaabe, French, and Italian that made the town what it is now. I did this because our struggle for identity is also a struggle for a community to recognize the contributions of all.
II: My favorite part of your novel is the way that you center Ojibwe and Anishinaabe culture. This can especially be seen in the way that Daunis and her family use the Anishinaabemowin language throughout the novel. Was there a conscious choice on your part to not go the traditional route of italicizing the Anishinaabemowin phrases and categorize these lines as “out of the norm” for readers to truly have to immerse themselves into Daunis’ world and see from her point of view? If so, is there a greater role you wanted language to play in your novel?
A: Yes. It was a conscious decision not to italicize because Anishinaabemowin is not a “foreign” language. I wanted the language to feel very organic, where readers could figure out what a word meant through context instead of a glossary. The story is told from Daunis’ point of view and the language is a big part of her cultural teachings and upbringing. I couldn’t have readers inside her mind without immersing people in the language. I was extremely fortunate to have Dr. Margaret Noodin from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee be part of the editing process with my publisher. She loved the story and saw its potential as a teaching tool for people learning Anishinaabemowin. So, yes, I saw a greater role for language to play in the novel.
II: You mentioned on your website that you were apart of the We Need Diverse Books(WNDB) Young Adult Mentorship Program for the 2018 class. This non-profit’s movement to diversify the publishing industry has brought forth amazing novels from voices that were once pushed to the publishing field’s margins. As a Native writer who is writing in this “new era,” do you ever feel pressure to represent the broad spectrum of Indigenous culture within your work? And if so, how do you pushback on that narrative of the “single story” that Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color are still forced into despite the WNDB movement?
A: No. I don’t feel pressure to represent a broad spectrum of Indigenous culture. I am committed to telling stories set in my tribal community, while acknowledging the diversity within bands, clans, and families. I’ve been vocal about pushing back on the “single story” narrative. I bring up in interviews and conference panels that there are so many stories from underrepresented communities. BIPOC authors may have other storytelling formats – beyond the typical Three Act Structure – that are like treasures readers haven’t experienced before. I’ve also discussed how important it is for the publishing world to recognize the richness, depth, and nuance that can come when an author writes from their lived experience.
II: Who are some of your favorite authors or literary influences that have inspired your work?
Angeline Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, is a storyteller who writes about her Ojibwe community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She is a former Director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Angeline lives in southwest Michigan, but her home will always be on Sugar Island. Firekeeper’s Daughter is her debut novel.
A: Thank you for your time, Ms. Dixon! I got a chance to read your essay collection, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and your poetry collection, No God In This Room, last month, and both pieces really resonated with me!
What was the process like writing and getting The Incredible Shrinking Woman published? Did you find your experience with an independent press different than working with a larger publisher?
AD: The manuscript started as a series of individual essays in 2012. I was going through a pretty rough breakup and I found poetry wasn’t giving me the space I needed to express everything I was feeling. I began writing personal essays as a remedy. In 2016, I attended a creative non-fiction conference and started toying with the idea of pulling together a book. I threw together every essay I’d written over that four-year span and started trying to make sense of it. It didn’t go too well and I went back and forth in adding and subtracting pieces from it. I continued to write and publish work from time to time and in late 2019 I thought I’d come up with a decent manuscript. I researched presses I thought would be a good home for the book and came up with a list of four. I did not pursue publishing with a larger press at all. Fortunately for me, Split/Lip was on my first-choice list and wanted to give the book home.
Working with an independent press has been great! From the very beginning I’ve felt that they were not only interested in the book, but also me as a person. Writing personal essays can be a very scary thing and having a group of people working on your project who respect that is a gift. Being with an indie press allowed me to have a stronger voice in the kinds of edits I was willing or unwilling to accept. I also had amazing freedom in deciding on my cover design, promo events, and blurbs. It felt more like a collaboration than someone doing me a favor by publishing my work.
A: Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were writing The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
AD: I generally consider myself my first audience and from there I hope to find a connection with people who’ve had similar experiences. I hope that I am writing for people who feel on the fringes or invisible—kinda like background music. Those people who help make the world go ‘round but aren’t necessarily the ones in the spotlight. I think it is important to craft stories for audiences who are dynamic and interesting in ways that may not always get attention. There is a world of people who feel as if they don’t have a voice and I hope that in my exploration of my own invisibility and shrinking I am helping them be seen and heard as well.
A: In a virtual craft chat with The Writer’s Center, you mentioned “wanting to be seen and then being afraid when you [were] seen [and] working through what you’re asking people to see.” Did this sentiment play into naming your essay collection The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
AD: The collection had several names, but this one seemed to fit the best once the final slate of essays was solidified. When I began writing, I thought I was writing about something completely different, but as the manuscript progressed it seemed more and more, I was writing about ideas of shrinking and invisibility. I’d never considered just how much time I’d spent trying to fit into boxes and roles that never seemed to contain all I believe I am. But I also had to confront what it means to be seen. Asking for it and actually having it are worlds different. There’s a bit of a play on words with the title, too. There is the active shrinking that takes place, but there are also elements of a sideshow or exposure in the use of the word incredible.
A: My favorite essay in your collection is “Reader’s Insert.” In the piece, you say:
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve slipped myself into roles that don’t quite fit, roles that aren’t quite real…I’ve always felt invisible, so accurately telling the story of me starts with a disappearing act.
Invisible. It’s a word that has gotten blowback from friends and family in ways I never expected. I suppose they think they see me. But I don’t think anyone really does. At least in terms of a whole person, that is.”
This quote resonated with me because, as a Black woman, there seems to be a substantial gap between the expectations placed on us individually and as a group versus the actual empathy that is offered to us as human beings. Instead, we seem to be rendered as invisible or treated as pieces of a whole. Did your perception or definition of yourself change as you wrote this collection of essays and came into your voice as a writer?
AD: My greatest fear putting the collection in the world was being exposed and judged. I thought people would see me as weak or damaged in some way, but I found that I grew more confident personally and creatively as the collection took shape. I think it is partially because I was able to let go of some experiences that had been weighing me down and also realizing there are dynamic parts of me I should share with the world despite my fears. As well, by examining some of the issues in the collection, I was able to see parts of myself I couldn’t while I was in the thick of it. I learned I am much stronger than I knew and that I have so much to offer to not only myself but also the world. I think writing the book helped me unlock portions of myself I’d hidden away in order to fit what I thought the world wanted to see of me.
A: Your essay, “Native Tongue,” was another favorite for me. One of the things I loved about your essays is the way that you give voice to those Black girls who aren’t labeled as being “conventionally Black” in the way you described your cousins as being with their “Salt N’ Pepa hairstyles” or even your best friend, Greta. Why was it important for you to tell this particular story of coming into your Blackness in “Native Tongue?”
AD: It was important for me because I think sometimes there’s an idea that if you are born into a particular background you settle in smoothly. For me, I always felt loved and cared for, but I struggled to find where I fit within the confines of the culture around me. I so badly wanted to be like my cousins and my parents, but I never considered the idea there were other avenues that were tailored to me. And I think it was important to recognize and acknowledge my own narrow view of what I thought Blackness entailed.
A: There’s a line in “Vagina, Slightly Used,” where you say:
“It’s because I’d felt so invisible my entire existence that I gathered greedily what was laid out before me. I’ve always felt like my being deemed desirable by a man was a fluke.”
In the same way you give voice to the “non-conventional” Black girls, you represent for women who are believed to take up too much space physically with their bodies and those Black women who are denying themselves a “fairytale ending” because the world said we can’t/don’t deserve one.
Currently, soundbites of “image consultants,” like Kevin Samuels, and celebrities, like B. Simone, are going viral for shaming Black women for daring to believing we deserve a happy ending. Do you feel as if there is starting to be a movement to commodify the inherent “shame” that Black women, like yourself and I, are fed throughout our lives by mass media and brands?
AD: I do. I think people are so intent on solidifying their own importance, and pockets, that they are willing to sacrifice the well-being of others in order to do so. I think it’s easy to prey on people’s insecurities while setting impossible standards they can never achieve because the goal posts always move. There is a part of me that feels some of this is a backlash to the “less desirable” women starting to gain confidence or ignoring what society thinks they should be. The shameful part of it is when other Black people, who know discrimination and harm first hand, take part in it denigrating their own people for the sake of profit and popularity.
A: The Incredible Shrinking Woman is raw and has so many visceral moments that left me, as a reader, swept up emotionally in your words because of their authenticity and how true they rang in my lived experience as a Black woman. How were you able to draw on so many powerful emotions as a writer, and not become bogged down by them long enough to get your thoughts onto the paper?
AD: I was able to do that in some instances, but there were a few times that I got lost. I couldn’t read “Liturgy” without crying for about a year after I wrote it. Part of that was because I hadn’t really dealt with that grief. Fortunately, I’d processed, or started to process, most of the other topics I covered in the book. I look at my subjects as a bruise. If I can touch it and there is only an ache then I feel safe writing about it. If there is marked pain, then I know that I am not ready to fully explore that topic for public consumption.
A: Music is heavily attached to your writing with your father being a DJ. What’s on your playlist now?
AD: I have a playlist for everything, but there are few things I have on repeat right now. “Everything I Wanted” by Nuq, “Moment” by Victoria Monet, “Good & Plenty” by Alex Isley, “I Mean It” by PJ, “Vibe” by Cookie Kawaii, and “Whoa (Remix)” by Snoh Aalegra feat Pharell Williams. I’ve also been using “Whatever Lola Wants” by Sarah Vaughn and “All Blues” by Miles Davis to craft a few pieces on my plate at the moment.
A: What writers or pieces of art have influenced your writing?
A: Do you have any advice you would give to people who want to write?
AD: I would say write for yourself before anyone else. If there is no heart or passion behind what you are writing your audience can tell. If you don’t like what you are writing why would your readers?
A: Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Dixon! I can’t wait to read more of your work!
Athena’s work has appeared in various publications both online and in print. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee (2016, 2017), a Best of the Net nominee (2017), a Callaloo fellow (Oxford 2017), a V.O.N.A. fellow (2018), and a Tin House Workshop attendee (Winter 2019). Athena is a member of the Moving Forewards Memoir Writers Collective. Additionally, she has presented at AWP (2013, 2020), HippoCamp (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020) and The Muse and the Marketplace (2019) among other panels and conferences.
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Fans of Netflix’s On My Block and readers of Elizabeth Acevedo and Angie Thomas will love this debut novel about a girl whose life is turned upside down after one local act of vandalism throws both her relationships and neighborhood into turmoil.
Chinelo, or Nelo as her best friend Kate calls her, is all about her neighborhood Ginger East. She loves its chill vibe, ride-or-die sense of community, and the memories she has growing up there with her friends. Ginger East isn’t what it used to be though. After a deadly incident at the local arcade, most of her friends’ families moved away. Kate, whose family owns the local corner store, is still there and as long as that stays constant, Nelo’s good.
When Kate’s parent’s store is vandalized and the vandal still at large, Nelo is shaken to her core. And then the police and the media get involved and more of the outside world descends upon Ginger East with promises to “fix the neighborhood.” Suddenly, Nelo finds herself in the middle of a drama unfolding on a national scale.
Worse yet, Kate is acting strange. She’s pushing Nelo away at the exact moment they need each other most. Now Nelo’s entire world is morphing into something she hates and she must figure out how to get things back on track or risk losing everything–and everyone–she loves.
A: Congratulations on your debut novel, Like Home, Ms. Onomé! What was the process like writing your first book?
LO: Thank you! The process was honestly pretty fun. I love every stage of writing a book because I tend to treat them as separate opportunities to fine-tune a story. When I was drafting, I had the most fun making things up and throwing things together to see what stuck. My process is a little chaotic. When I was revising (which I learned to do effectively while writing this book), I enjoyed asking myself tougher questions about how each character or each plot point was showing up. Overall, it was such a great learning experience.
A: The neighborhood of Ginger East felt so authentic to the story you’re telling about gentrification and coming of age in a place that others have written off as being “rundown” or “unfavorable.” Did you have any specific places that inspired the creation of Ginger East?
LO: Ginger East was loosely inspired by the neighbourhood I grew up in just west of Toronto. While the place I lived was more residential and had a mix of household incomes, it also had a growing immigrant population and was enriched by the experiences people brought to the neighbourhood. I was honestly very fortunate to have had that experience.
A: There is a strong sense of community that Chinelo constantly references within Like Home. How would you define community and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote Chinelo and the characters of Ginger East in your novel?
LO: I define community as a place where you are seen and heard for who you authentically are. As such, Nelo really feels at home in Ginger East, not only because she grew up there and doesn’t know anywhere else, but because the people there understand her as well as she understands the area. It was important for me to define it that way because sometimes, as shown in Like Home, we live in communities where not everyone has our backs, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a part of the fabric of that neighbourhood.
During the lecture, Lee touched on how gentrification was ruining the local neighborhoods in the boroughs of New York City in his rant asking, “Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?… What about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore!”
Why was it so important for Chinelo, a sixteen-year-old teenager, to evoke the same disdain and possessiveness over the gentrification of her Ginger East community in your novel as Spike Lee, a then fifty-seven-year-old man, did for his neighborhood of Fort Greene?
LO: That’s such a great quote! In Like Home, Nelo’s possessiveness comes strictly from her inability to accept change. She’s sixteen and all she knows is the place she grew up. To see it change so brazenly without any regard for the people who live there, her family and friends, it begins to make sense how she would have such anger over new businesses moving in or rent prices increasing. Something she knows so well is being pulled out from underneath her by people she knows don’t care about people like her. That feeling of being neglected, of not really being seen, is a strong pain point for her and I think is something a lot of marginalized people can relate to.
A: In the same vein, Chinelo is facing an uphill battle trying to convince people in her age and friend group that fighting against Ginger East’s gentrification is important. This is in direct opposition to Maree, one of Chinelo’s ex-best friends, who becomes a social media influencer and capitalizes off her connection to what she deems her “old trashy neighborhood.” Why was it essential for you to include a character like Maree in Like Home and the discussion of gentrification in contrast to Chinelo?
LO: Great question! It was important to me because a lot of us have to deal with people like Maree in our daily lives. There is a recognition there, unfortunately. Maree represents the largest block that Chinelo has to face when it comes to attitudes about Ginger East and places like it: apathy. It’s one thing to try and change a place, but it’s harder to try and change someone’s mind. Chinelo believes if more people cared, then it would be possible to make a difference, but Maree exists in direct opposition to that in many ways.
A: Black girlhood is a multi-faceted thing that can hold joy and beauty. However, it also can be a scary time in a Black girl’s life. Like Home strikes this wonderful chord where it is perfectly nostalgic of what being a teenager is like in the age of social media while also honoring the fact that Chinelo’s character is the child of immigrants and held to a different standard than others in her age group maybe. Were there any parts of your childhood as a Nigerian-Canadian author that you used as inspiration to writing Chinelo’s character?
LO: Yes I agree! It’s such a delicate time, but so multi-faceted. There were small instances I mined from my experience as a Nigerian-Canadian that I put into Nelo’s experiences, such as the chain messages from family, but not a lot of overt things. Instead, her Nigerian-Canadian identity is more in her way of being and existing in the world. I guess it’s like that for everybody, though.
A: In a blog post you did for the “Her Story: Ladies in Literature” series on Pop Goes the Reader’s last year, you made mention of the fact that when reading, you “[identify] with the quieter characters; ones whose motivations maybe are subtler, or ones who aren’t at the forefront of a conflict….[since] our motivations aren’t always lived out loud.”
This quote really resonated with me because when reading about Chinelo, her character felt relatable. There’s a debate currently in the book community about how #OwnVoices authors are often asked to draw on traumatic or stereotypical experiences to get published, which does not always leave room for a “quiet character” in areas like Black Literature. Did you feel any pressure to make Chinelo or the story you wrote fit into either of these categories?
LO: Thank you, I’m so happy to hear that resonated with you. I’m thankful in that I didn’t feel that kind of pressure to make Chinelo anything other than who she is. I modelled her after the girls I had seen and the girl I had been growing up in the Greater Toronto Area. I know so many Chinelos. She’s not an uncommon figure around here: someone who has opinions, doesn’t always speak when spoken to, and prioritizes her friends and family above all else. I didn’t want to write a character who was meant to be some sort of martyr or one-size-fits-all representation for Black girls, because as we know, Black people aren’t a monolith. I hope readers can find comfort in knowing that even though Chinelo isn’t necessarily what you’d expect of a YA protagonist, she still has value.
A: Often, when I’m reading stories about activism in YA, it feels as if it’s taking place in a parallel universe based on how outlandish the methods and situations authors give their characters to carry out. Yet, the way you write about the grassroots movement Chinelo and her community put together to protest the gentrification of Ginger East feels very “do-able.” Is there a message about community involvement and activism that you want readers to take from Like Home?
LO: Yes, for sure. Oftentimes, labels can be somewhat daunting for those of us who just want to help in any way we can. I’d love for readers to take away the fact that all forms of help are different, and you don’t need to have the loudest voice to move the needle. I think it’s important to recognize that starting where you are, doing what you feel most comfortable with, is still good enough.
A: What are some of your writing influences or authors you deem as “must-reads?”
LO: My biggest writing influences are usually music or video games, because I love to try and recapture emotions. But also, I’m such a fan of Nicola Yoon’s work. I think her writing is so sincere and so magical. I’m a big fan of the characterization in Mary H.K. Choi’s work too.
A: What advice would you give to young writers looking to break into the publishing industry?
LO: Just like with reaching out and helping with causes you care about, it’s important with writing to start where you are. Write what makes you happy, write what makes you sad, write easy things, write hard things, find readers you can trust, take feedback, leave feedback, grow, continue to learn. Be as ready as possible for when your number is called, because it will be!
Thank you so much for your time and for the opportunity to interview you, Ms. Onomé!
With her newly completed PhD in astronomy in hand, twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She’s a straight A, work-through-the-summer certified high achiever. She is not the kind of person who goes to Vegas and gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she doesn’t know…until she does exactly that.
– Blurb from Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers
What surprised you most about the process of writing this first novel?
The thing that surprised me most about writing this novel was that it did not become this novel until maybe the fourth or fifth iteration. There were things about Grace Porter that didn’t surface until my very last time editing. Some of her motivations and wishes and desires were still hidden until I had both the input from my amazing editor and also an entirely different headspace. I always hear the phrase, “writing is re-writing,” and I think the depth of that truth didn’t really hit me until I was knee-deep in revisions and realizing, like, wow, I needed so much more time to figure out how to say this, but now I can. Surprise!
In an interview she recorded with Balticon 34 in April 2004, Octavia E. Butler talks about wanting to “desensitize” readers with her writing and show them the “world as she wishes it worked” in her novels. One of the things I really loved about Honey Girl is that you don’t waste time explaining or trying to convince the reader that Grace Porter, your main character, and the rest of her friends, who are LGBTQ+, deserve to exist when it comes to their sexuality.
Instead, your writing creates these characters as messy and flawed human beings doing mundane day-to-day activities, like going to graduate school, trying to live up to their parents’ expectations, and falling in love. Why did you feel this was a significant angle to take with your writing? And did you feel, like Ms. Butler, that you were simply writing the world as you saw it or as you wanted it to be in your writing?
I know in theory it’s significant, but honestly, it doesn’t feel that big to me. Grace Porter is queer. Grace Porter is a lesbian. All her friends are queer. Queer people do really mundane things like work and go to school and date and even disappoint their parents for reasons other than being queer! I wrote a world that is very similar to mine, because I’m a queer person with queer friends and we just do really boring things like complain in our group chats and forget to pay bills. It doesn’t feel revolutionary to me because we are out here living our not-very-exciting lives, but then I remember in the larger scheme of things, us living our lives is revolutionary.
All of that is to say, I didn’t go in with any particular mindset except portraying queerness the way it is in my little corner of the world, and now in Grace’s, too. In academia and the corporate world adjacent to it, the reality is very cis-heteronormative and white, so that’s the reality I put on the page. I wish the world did not work that way, but it does. So, to answer the question, I feel like I was writing the world as I saw it and also how it really is, which is a world in which queer people, especially queer people of color, live and breathe and survive for as long as we can.
There is a strong sense of community and collective care that is frequently referenced in Honey Girl. At times, Grace is treated with more love and acceptance from her “chosen family” than her blood relatives. What made you create such a multilayered approach to family and community care when portraying Grace’s support system?
I say this all the time, seriously, but I feel like “found family” or “chosen family” is such an important component of the varied queer experience. It’s so hard to be alone, especially with people who are your blood, and may still love you, but can’t really understand something that makes up such a huge part of you and influences the other intersections of your identity. You need queer friends and queer friends that feel like family because those are the people you lean on and learn from and support on your respective journeys.
For Grace, her chosen family provides her with unconditional love and unconditional honesty. She makes a lot of mistakes, and she gets in her head a lot, and they are right there to be like, hey, you are not the only person going through this thing. They all have their own lives and issues, and though not every problem revolves around their LGBTQ+ identity, because they are all sharing this queer identity, they are able to be their full, authentic selves when they are vulnerable and asking each other for help.
At the same time, I wanted to show Grace’s mom and dad as people she thinks should be infallible and all-knowing, but she has to realize that’s not possible. Parents are not perfect. Parents don’t know everything, or even half of everything. They are flawed people who make mistakes like anyone else. Sometimes those mistakes can be apologized for and relationships redeemed and repaired, and sometimes not. Sometimes the best thing is for people to break off from their parents entirely. It was important in Grace’s journey for her to start to think about the type of relationship she wanted with her parents that was best for all them and didn’t sacrifice her mental and emotional health. Basically family, in all of its manifestations, can be really complicated and intricate and nuanced, and there are so many different ways to build one or multiple with the different people in your life.
What books have you read recently and loved, that inspired Honey Girl in some way or that you very much look forward to reading?
Recently I’ve read and loved Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West, Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid, The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey, and of course, Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.
There are so, so many books coming out this year that I want in my eyeballs immediately. I can’t list them all, so here’s five:
I saw in your talk with Madeline Dyer for 2020’s YA Thriller Con that one of the inspirations behind this novel came from the loss of your uncle in Jamaica. I’d first like to extend my condolences for this personal loss. I know as an artist, drawing on personal pain is sometimes a source of inspiration. But, how were you able to balance grieving while also going through the writing process of telling such a detailed story about gang culture, police brutality, and political intrigue without being sucked back into that headspace?
Desmond Hall: I really like what the great actor Francis McDormand said about her art. She felt she had to figuratively pick at her wounds to keep them fresh, so she’d be able to access her pain, and apply it to her work. She actually dreaded the closing of her psychological wounds. This is a type of method acting that I think applies to writing as well.
A: So often, the way that many people get introduced to Jamaica is as a country that’s akin to “paradise.” In my course on Globalization and Transnationalism, we watched the documentary Life and Debt, which spoke about how often we as tourists are never seeing the “real” Jamaica or partaking in the actual culture when we come to this island to visit. This made me think of how when reading your novel, readers are introduced to another viewpoint of your homeland that lingers just under Jamaica’s surface in the form of gang culture. Why did you feel that this story was important to talk about as a Jamaican?
DH:Your Corner Dark is a specific story, but also a universal one. The book touches on police brutality, gang culture, defining masculinity, and political intrigue. Those topics are just as relevant here in the States. I’m just telling the truth that I know.
A: In your talk with Dyer, you mentioned that the title of your book is the Jamaican equivalent of the saying, “between a rock and a hard place.” In true fashion, Frankie is stuck between two worlds. On the one hand, he is a student who aspires to be an engineer and create things that will ease the hardships of he and his neighbors’ lives. Yet, Frankie is also living in a world that wants to box him in and make him become a part of gang culture even though everyone around him acknowledges that Frankie is “too smart” to go down this path. How did you balance telling Frankie’s story between these two realities while making it believable?
DH: I think one of the keys is Frankie’s interiority. We get to know how he experiences the angst of having a father who he feels doesn’t understand him. We understand Frankie’s fear and admiration for a dangerous and charismatic uncle. We sympathize with the evil acts he feels compelled to commit. We also get to feel his shame when he ventures into a social class above his rank, and gets intimidated by sushi.
A: One of my favorite parts of Your Corner Dark is the usage of Jamaican patois, the “unofficial language of Jamaica.” For me, the richness of this dialect draws from hearing Jamaicans speak their language out loud, similar to how I feel about hearing African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) being spoken. This got me thinking about Nate Marshall’s poetry collection, Finna, where he mentions that AAVE isn’t necessarily a dialect that’s meant to be written down but is meant to be spoken. Did you find a similar issue come up with your characters as you shaped their dialogue?
DH: I’m not familiar with Mr. Marshall’s thoughts on the matter, but I do believe It’s important to note that a lot of Jamaicans speak the Queens English as well as patois (Patwah in Jamaica). We have a lot of fun with the language, verbally, and in written form. In fact, a lot of the newspapers run social commentary cartoons, and the characters often speak in a thick patwah.
A: I mention this because, at one point in the story, when Frankie hears Leah “chat patois,” he is shocked because he says that some Jamaicans aren’t comfortable with speaking in patois. As a reader who is not an #OwnVoices reviewer, I was unsure if this was indicative of the class issue between Leah and Frankie, which is a topic that comes up several times, or if there was a variation of the dialect that Frankie, a person from the country would speak, versus Leah, who is from the city.
The Jamaican upper middle class has a tendency to be very conservative, even to the extent of reviling Rastafarians, even though Rastas are featured in our tourism advertising. This disdain also extends to speaking patwah. It’s similar to how some Americans look at the southern drawl (Dolly Parton actually points this out!). Frankie is aware that Leah is from the upper middle class as most kids are in his fancy school, and he worries that Leah may harbor some of those upper middle class tendencies.
A:In your talk with Dyer, you also mention that Your Corner Dark is your “love letter to Jamaica.” What is the one thing you want your readers to take away from this story?
DH: I want them to understand more the complexity of Jamaica. Seven days and six nights at the resort won’t show people the real Jamaica, even with excursions.
A:Your background as a screenwriter really shines in this novel! As I was reading Frankie’s story, I was in awe of the fact that so much of the story’s content’s felt as if they are primed to be on the “big screen.” Have you thought of turning this book into a screenplay?
DH: It’s funny you ask because I’d originally written this story as a screenplay, and back in the day, it was a runner up in the IFP Screenwriting contest in NYC.
Over the last few months, we’ve been having meetings with a few TV producers, so we’ll see.
A:You also mentioned that you moved from Jamaica to Jamaica, Queens in New York City. Does this shift in geographical location have any bearings on the types of stories you write about?
DH: I think all my experiences come into play when I write. I remember talking to the great screenwriter, Budd Schulburg. I asked him how he came up with that great line from the awesome movie, ON THE WATERFRONT. “…I coulda been a contender…instead of a bum.” He said he was in Gleason’s boxing gym, and overheard a palooka saying those words to his manager. Mr. Schulburg said he quickly jotted down the line because he knew he would use it in a script one day. That day didn’t come until many years later, but he knew to catalogue the encounter. Essentially, he was telling me to draw from all my experiences, and use anything relevant to help render the story I want to tell.
A:What are some of your writing influences or authors you deem as “must-read?”
I’m moved by Richard Price, and how he imbues crime stories with so much humanity. I wish I could be as harshly real as James Baldwin or as deep as Toni Morrison.
In the YA space, I love reading Jason Reynolds and Courtney Summers.
A:Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
-Grubstreet is a great writing school.
-There’s a famous quote about how published authors are the ones who didn’t give up.
-The SAVE THE CAT book(s) are quick and easy ways to add the power of story structure to your arsenal. If you want a more in depth way, take the Mckee Story Class, and buckle up.
Thank you so much for your time and for the opportunity to interview you, Mr. Hall!
Desmond Hall was born in Jamaica, West Indies, and moved to Jamaica, Queens. He has worked as a high school biology and English teacher; counseled teenage ex-cons after their release from Rikers Island; and served as Spike Lee’s creative director at Spike DDB. Desmond has served on the board of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Advertising Council and judged the One Show, the American Advertising Awards, and the NYC Downtown Short Film Festival. He’s also been named one of Variety magazine’s Top 50 Creatives to Watch. Desmond lives outside of Boston with his wife and two daughters.
2020 has been the year of “escapism” for me. Along with science-fiction and fantasy, romance has been the genre I’ve consumed the most of this year. Thanks to Hear Our Voices Tours, I got the chances to read A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey early.
Checkout the novel’s blurb and an interview with the author below!
For Lila Reyes, a summer in England was never part of the plan. The plan was 1) take over her abuela’s role as head baker at their panadería, 2) move in with her best friend after graduation, and 3) live happily ever after with her boyfriend. But then the Trifecta happened, and everything—including Lila herself—fell apart.
Worried about Lila’s mental health, her parents make a new plan for her: Spend three months with family friends in Winchester, England, to relax and reset. But with the lack of sun, a grumpy inn cook, and a small town lacking Miami flavor (both in food and otherwise), what would be a dream trip for some feels more like a nightmare to Lila…until she meets Orion Maxwell.
A teashop clerk with troubles of his own, Orion is determined to help Lila out of her funk, and appoints himself as her personal tour guide. From Winchester’s drama-filled music scene to the sweeping English countryside, it isn’t long before Lila is not only charmed by Orion, but England itself. Soon a new future is beginning to form in Lila’s mind—one that would mean leaving everything she ever planned behind.
II:Congratulations on publishing your second novel! What was the process like writing A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow?
LTN: Thank you so much! Writing this book was like entering a time capsule of both my experience as a teen trying to figure out life and love, and my childhood growing up in a large Cuban family. I truly enjoyed the process and there is a part of me who would always like to be the drafter of this book, over and over again.
II: What is the inspiration behind A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow?
LTN: I’m the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and grew up in a huge, wonderful Cuban family. This story is my tribute to all of them, and all of the things I witnessed as a child. I took all of those themes, lessons, and the spirts of those who loved me best, and reimagined them into a modern story about legacy, loss, and love.
II: There is a strong sense of community that Lila constantly references within A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow. How would you define community and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and setting in your novel?
LTN: I have always thought of community as a tight physical and metaphorical place of nurturing and belonging that we can call our own, within a much larger environment. It shapes us and our worldview. Community is what Lila is almost obsessively invested in at the start of my book. She feels her place and role as a teen Cuban baker and future owner in the West Dade area of Miami is so rooted and crucial to her success, it grows to inform much of her identity. This is why she is so opposed to going to England for the summer. Orion also has deep roots in his community within Winchester, England. He relies on the steadfast consistency of great friends and his small, tight knit network to help him cope with, and navigate the trauma and uncertainty plaguing his family.
II: On your website, you have a mood board and write up about the inspiration behind Lila. However, I was wondering about the creation of Orion Maxwell. How did you decide to write about a character who is dealing with an ill parent but who remains resilient?
LTN: There are some special people in my life who have experienced what Orion is going through at home with his cherished mother, and I wanted to honor this as part of my story. The way Orion processes a different, but parallel form of loss stands in contrast to Lila’s response. I enjoyed their interplay as they discuss their losses and situations, and learn from one another. They tug each other’s emotional arcs forward (and maybe a bit sideways!)
Also, while Lila’s loss is fresh and acute, Orion has had longer to adjust to his “new normal.” Orion has created a distinct method for living through his grief. It allows him to go on, but it also makes him extremely cautious as to where and how he gives his heart. Orion is looking for things that last. Permanence appeals to him––as his mother, and to an extent, a growing teenage sister––are slowly slipping away. Yet, he begins to fall for a certain Cuban baker who is only in England temporarily. She has big plans to return to in Miami. How does this work out or end up? I won’t spoil, but writing the building and changing relationship between Lila and Orion is my favorite thing I have written so far.
II: A major theme in your novel has to do with dealing with loss (e.g., of love, family, and to a degree, self). How do you get into this mindset for building characters that feel so much pain while keeping enough mental clarity as a writer to create such a wonderful story?
LTN: Truthfully, there were moments drafting this book where I became overcome by the emotion and memories I was harnessing to tell the story. While I was writing, two of the family members I heavily reference in the narrative passed away. This was incredibly tough. But I pressed on though the pain and tried to use it to make the storytelling real and raw and viscerally authentic.Lila suffers great loss in this story. And I did too, as its author. That, plus many of the experiences I still remember so clearly from my teenage years that greatly shaped my emotional upbringing came back strong. I didn’t realize how overwhelmed I’d be at some points. Much of this story was penned through streams of tears. But I also found it an incredibly cathartic and healing experience. It was as if I had this ink and paper center with which to reconcile my emotion––past and present. I ended up with a preserved tribute to some amazing people who loved me well. And to a teenage girl used to know––myself.
II: Lila calls Miami her “charm city.” Do you have a city that you feel is your charm city?
It’s a tie between London and Paris. I have left parts of me inside each city and I can’t wait until I can go back and find them again.
II: In A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, Lila’s family runs a panadería, and she makes a lot of delicious pastries as an offering to others and as comfort food for herself. Were any of the pastries she cooked based on your family’s recipes? Also, did you have a favorite recipe that you gave Lila to cook in the book?
LTN: All of the pastries and dishes in this book are foods that my family ate and cooked. My mom and tías are so skilled at adapting Cuban recipes and making them their own. As for a favorite, it’s kind of Cuban-cliche but it’s also real, so the fact that Lila chooses to cook arroz con pollo for a big dinner party for her new British friends has a lot of personal meaning. It’s the first dish that comes to mind from my childhood that makes me think of my mother as a consummate Cuban cook.
II: There’s a constant conversation within the literary community about “own voices” and the way that we as readers engage with the text we are given when we are outside a novel’s targeted demographic. What I love about A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow is that when Lila is speaking Spanish, it does not go the traditional route of italicizing her speech to categorize these lines as “out of the norm,” but instead forces readers who may not speak Spanish to truly immerse themselves into Lila’s world and see the story fully from her point of view. Is there a greater role you wanted language to play in your novel? If so, how does having a bilingual character inform the dialogue of your novel?
Thank you! And early on I made the decision with my editor not to italicize, as this is an #ownvoices work and the Spanish language is an important part of both my and Lila’s heritage. This is not something I added to a story, it is a foundational element of the story. I wanted to showcase the way many Florida Cubans in particular use Spanglish and code switching. This is only a peek! Cuban Spanish has a distinct flow and “gate” to it. Cubans drop vowels at the end of words, and often run their speech together like they’re on a word slip-n-slide. I also have a couple of tías who speak at speed level 10,000. You have to really be paying attention to understand! These are all things I grew up listening to and absorbing. I couldn’t convey the whole effect of the speed and sound, but I tried to add a bit of the flavor of what Lila’s family sounds like.
II: In A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow Lila is forced from her beloved Miami and planted in England, where life is the total opposite. How did you get into the head of this character to write about this type of journey?
In writing Lila’s journey, it was first and foremost important for me to establish a clear sense of place and purpose for her back in Miami. I really spent time fleshing this out, and creating my Lila as a fixture in her community of West Dade. I had to firmly ground her in Florida, and have that be real and pressing and believable before yanking her out of her comfort zone into a new place. Because if her home isn’t calling out to her so deeply, it doesn’t matter as much that she’s being forced to leave to recover and recoup. With that foundation in my head and in my pen, England blossomed with all of these fun and frustrating ways for Lila, and for me in writing her. It was fun to throw experiences at her and watch her adapt and change. It was a joy to surprise her.
II: Do you have any books or authors that inspire you?
II: What advice would you give to young writers looking to break into the publishing industry?
LTN: I say this every time but it never fails: read fifty books in your chosen genre and age level. Read for voice, pacing, narrative tricks, character development, and to get a general sense of the bounds and possibilities within the genre. Also, join the online writing community early on. Get used to sharing your writing as soon as possible and try to align yourself with like-minded peers who can walk with you during your publishing journey. Find your squad––you won’t be sorry!
Laura Taylor Namey is a Cuban-American Californian who can be found haunting her favorite coffee shops, drooling over leather jackets, and wishing she was in London or Paris. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two superstar children.
This former teacher writes young adult novels about quirky teens learning to navigate life and love. Her debut, The Library of Lost Things, published 10/08/19 from Inkyard Press/HarperCollins. Her #ownvoices sophomore project, A CUBAN GIRL’S GUIDE TO TEA AND TOMORROW is coming November 10, 2020 from Atheneum Simon and Schuster, with a third title to follow fall 2021.