INTERVIEW: ‘Adorably Awkward Gay YA: Simon James Green talks New Book Alex in Wonderland’

With his new novel Alex in Wonderland already breaking hearts and flying off the shelves, the acclaimed YA author of Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never, Simon James Green, spoke to our European Officer Anthony Stepniak about what readers can expect from Alex and realistic queer YA representation.

Simon and Anthony GTW

Following on from the success of your two novels: Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never, you are now moving on to pastures new with Alex in Wonderland. Having established such success with Noah Grimes and co, was it difficult to move away and write a new character? 

Yes, it was terrifying, to be honest. A lot of readers are enormously fond of Noah, and I didn’t want them to be in any way disappointed with Alex. The difficulty I faced was that there are some definite similarities between the two boys: they’re both gay, they both have a strong awkward and geeky element to their personality, and they’re both about the same age. So the challenge was making sure that Noah and Alex would be distinct; that Alex wouldn’t be a ‘less funny’ version of Noah, but a fully-formed character in his own right. The other challenge was that I genuinely adored writing Noah – he’s such a fun character – so I needed to find that same love for Alex.

Alex in Wonderland Picture

What can readers expect from Alex in Wonderland and how does it compare to your already established work? 

In that it’s a gay, coming-of-age, funny story (with some mystery elements!) it occupies the same sort of space that the Noah books do. I’m a big fan of humour, and I wanted to continue to use that to tell feel good LGBTQ+ stories that basically show gay kids embracing the ups and downs of life, falling in love, getting it all wrong, messing it up and putting it all back together again – just like any other teenagers. From a personality point of view, Alex is a little less highly strung than Noah, and whilst just as awkward, Alex is more shy, whereas Noah has a (admittedly misplaced) confidence in his own abilities. So I think that lends itself to perhaps a sightly more gentle humour in Alex, whereas in Noah it’s sometimes bordering on slapstick. Although that’s not to say Alex doesn’t have those slapstick moments – there’s one scene in particular where he’s chased into the sea by a dog, whilst dressed as a flamingo. That was a particular joy to write!

With the Alex in Wonderland being explicitly Queer YA, as were the Noah novels, first, do you feel a certain responsibility in representing young queer people in your stories and secondly, do you think you would ever move away from writing YA which has a queer protagonist?

Absolutely. I’m well aware of some of the crap young LGBTQ+ people have to go through, and I feel a definite responsibility to both acknowledge that, but also show an experience that is positive and happy. There’s a need for all types of stories, and it’s important we see both sides, but I don’t personally want to dwell too much on ‘gay pain’ in my books – I want those kids to see that life can be joyful and a laugh, and that there’s good days and bad days, but that you can find your people, you’re loved and you’re going to be OK. In terms of future books, I don’t see myself moving away from queer protagonists at the moment. I think we still have a lot of catching up to do, not just in terms of gay YA books, but in terms of gay UKYA. The market is very US dominated, (and don’t get me wrong, many of those book are great and fully deserve every accolade going), but the British experience is just as important, and the experience of queer kids going through the British secondary school system is going to have differences to the American High School one, so it’s one we need to not just see represented, but actively promoted and talked about, with the same buzz that the US releases tend to get.

In Noah we met a character who was endearingly awkward, and now obvious from the cover and blurb of Alex in Wonderland, we meet a character who is painfully shy – did you intentionally want to write queer, especially young gay male characters, who maybe do not fit some of the dominant stereotypes portrayed in mainstream culture of gay men and gay male characters?

That was part of it, yes. Both Noah and Alex have body confidence issues, because they don’t fit that stereotype you see everywhere of the ripped and toned gay guy, fashionable, sophisticated…  Alex and Noah are both a mess compared to that. Of course, this is an issue that is prevalent throughout society, and I think it weighs on a lot of young people (and older ones for that matter!) – this idea of ‘perfection’ and having to be a certain way if anyone is ever going to fancy you. It’s horrible. It’s toxic. And it’s also the worst type of bullshit. With Noah and Alex I wanted to say that this is a beautiful romance, between two boys who are none of those things you see on the cover of a magazine, but look how lovely it is. Look how they support one another. Look how cute they are together. Look how beautiful their souls are. Look how those are the things that really matter. Too much of our media chases and celebrates that which is shallow and fake, where they should celebrate things like intelligence, kindness and wit.

Do you think that there is a possibility of revisiting Noah in the future or have you closed the book, literally and figuratively on him?

The door is always open for more Noah and he’s a character I would love to revisit. As ever, these things are ultimately up to my publisher, and that’s really going to come down to whether the books are selling well enough to warrant another. But I do have an idea for a third Noah story, and it would be huge fun to write, and the idea of following Noah and Harry’s relationship as it changes and develops I think would be fascinating, and not something you often see. So, let’s keep our fingers crossed, shall we?

You can connect with Simon via Twitter @simonjamesgreen and via his website simonjamesgreen.com

An Interview with Hafsah Faizal, Author of We Hunt the Flame

By Meriem R. Lamara @Meriem_Lamara

images

 

 

 

People lived because she killed.
People died because he lived

 

 

 

 

 

 

Set in a fantasy world inspired by Ancient Arabia, Hafsah Fiazal’s debut novel We Hunt the Flame comes out May 14th 2019. YALMC’s North African Officer, Meriem, had the chance to ask Hafsah some questions about her writing inspirations, being a #ownvoices writer, and more!

 

We Hunt the Flame comes out in May 14th. How do you feel now that it’s almost here?

We’re little over a month away! It feels surreal. I still can’t believe I have an agent, let alone a book deal, despite it being nearly two years since it all happened. I think it’ll really hit me when I finally hold the hardcover in my hands!

The characters in the story represent a culture that we don’t often read about in YA Fantasy. What can you tell us about the characters of Zafira and Nasir? And what do their characters mean to you as a #ownvoices author?

Zafira is a huntress who will do anything for her people. Nasir is the crown prince and the greatest assassin alive. Both are legends, neither are content with their lives. By those descriptors alone, they could fit the bill for almost any YA fantasy, which is why they exist—one of the main reasons I set We Hunt the Flame in a Middle Eastern inspired world was to introduce readers to a world that isn’t as twisted as the media leads us to believe. You’ll find characters who wear turbans, who know the difference between dates, who speak Arabic, and know what it’s like to live amidst the ever-shifting desert.

As someone who has always been fascinated by the world of ancient Arabia with its rich history, mythology, and customs, I am very pleased to see it represented in YA Fantasy. What attracted you to it? And what type of research did you conduct for the story?

I think I was attracted to ancient Arabia because of my own ties to it! I wanted the world to feel fantastical, yet clearly inspired by the Middle East, so most of my research pertained to place names, language, weaponry and sometimes legends.

I am really curious as to how your process is when it comes to world building. What can you tell us about the world of Arawiya?

I love world-building, which I like to think stems from my career as a designer. The visual aspect of the story is my favorite—whether it’s constructing a palace down to the latticework along the wall or adding ornamentation to a character’s clothing. Having the Middle Eastern as a baseline for Arawiya most certainly helped. The world of We Hunt the Flame is lush and full of tiny details that I think work to immerse readers that much deeper into the story.

Did the title ‘We Hunt the Flame’ come to you fully formed or did you have to experiment with other ideas first?

It didn’t! The story was originally titled something else, which was more apt for what the story used to be (a tournament). It felt too concrete a title, so when brainstorming more abstract ideas, We Hunt the Flame made the list of a few titles I sent to my agent before we submitted the story to editors!

We can’t talk about the book without mentioning the stunning cover with Arabic Calligraphy nicely reflected in the title’s typography. Did you have any input on the design of the final official cover?

 Oooh, yes. My editor knew right from the start that I wanted to be a part of the cover design process. As a lettering artist (as well as a designer), typography is important to me, and creating something that emulated Arabic calligraphy was a dream come true, thanks to Erin Fitzsimmons! I was also asked for “scene” ideas for the cover artist, Simon Prades, to depict. Zafira standing before the shadow of an ominous palace is an unseen moment-between-moments that occurs in the story—it’s also a huge pivoting moment and I love that we were able to portray it so beautifully.

What do you think you’ve learned as an author in the process of writing We Hunt the Flame?

We Hunt the Flame is my fifth manuscript, yet I’ve always felt that it was, in my ways, my first. It was my first fantasy. My first time writing in the third-person, and my first time writing in the past tense. I’ve learned so much more while working with my editors—my favorite is how to differentiate the heart of the narrative from the bulk of the story—and I continue to learn as the days progress!

 What do you like to read? Was there any book that inspired We Hunt the Flame or inspired you as a writer in general?

Fantasy is my favorite genre. I also enjoy science fiction and the occasional contemporary, though I rarely read outside of YA. I’d say every young adult novel I’ve read over the years has contributed to my writing in some way. It’s taught me more than I could learn from any syllabus!

 

We Hunt the Flame is out on the 14th of May 2019!
Hafsah Faizal, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with Meriem. ❤

Author Interview: Cethan Leahy

About Cethan

Cethan Leahy is a writer, filmmaker, and editor of Irish literary magazine ‘The Penny Dreadful’. His short stories are published in ‘The Looking Glass,’ ‘Wordlegs’ and ‘Five Dials’ and he has written two Fiction Express eBooks for Middle Grade, ‘The Chosen One (and his mum and his dad and his sister)’ and ‘Prince Charming and his Quest for a Wife’. Cethan’s animation short ‘The Beast of Bath’ was broadcast on national television. His short film ‘The Amazing’ appeared in Cork film anthology ‘Cork, Like’ in 2013. His radio programmes, including children’s drama ‘Tales from the Fairy Fort’, have appeared on LifeFM and RTEJnr digital radio. He has also contributed illustration work to Cork comics press Turncoat Press.

Tuesdays Are Just As Bad, Cethan’s debut YA novel, follows Adam, an Irish teen who struggles with his mental health. When he wakes up in hospital after a suicide attempt, Adam has company: a ghost. Narrated by this‘ghost’, Tuesdays is a witty, heartfelt novel that follows Adam’s journey back to the realms of normality – if such a thing exists.  I (Jennie) caught up with Cethan recently during an interview at Waterstones Belfast; here’s a print (and slightly expanded) version of what we talked about that day.

Jennie: Hi! How are you? Are you excited to have your first YA book in print as a real, physical thing you can hold in your hand?

Cethan: I’m super excited! I can scarcely believe it is a thing that happened.

J: Tell us a bit about the book. What inspired the title?

C: The book is about a boy who attempted to kill himself. He succeeds briefly so his ghost appears but on the way to the hospital he is revived but the ghost is still around. In essence, he is haunted by himself.

The title is a long story but it involves a terrible dinner, a moon and someone singing a blues song wistfully on the DART.

J: I know Tuesdays won the Mercier Press Award; can you tell us a bit about that process and the novel’s journey from idea to publication?

C: There was a call out for fiction entries, someone told me about it, so I decided to enter it in. Like most writers, I really did not expect to see my name published so it was a dream come true, if you pardon the cliché. The editing process was intensive but enjoyable and then eventually it was a physical thing I could hold in my hands and see in shops and point both loved ones and strangers to.

J: You’re a man of many talents, also dabbling in illustration and filmmaking. How have these areas influenced your writing, if at all?

C: The illustration not so much (other than my doodles when I should have been writing notes) but the film making I think proved very influential in two ways. The dialogue scenes I was very conscious of what it sounded like if it was spoken by real people and so I made sure it didn’t sound like aliens. Also it trained me in economy of storytelling. The book moves quickly and I think that is due to a film background than a literary one.

J: Tuesdays has been compared to Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It and Claire Hennessy’s Nothing Tastes as Good. How does it feel to have your debut novel up there with some of the heavyweights of the Irish YA scene?

C: Oh I’m honoured and slightly intimidated! Louise and Claire write excellent books that really encapsulate their subjects so it’s a good sign that if I’m compared to them, then I haven’t gone too wrong. I have to say the Irish YA scene seems to be very welcoming in general and I am delighted to be a member of it.

J: Tell us a bit about your writing routine. What’s a typical ‘day in the life’ for Cethan Leahy: author?

C: I used to write sitting in bed in the middle of the night, but that proved to be not very good for the old back so I now do most of my writing at various kitchen tables at more sensible hours. If I need a kick, I go to a cafe and write there. I also listen to music, either movie soundtracks or songs I know so well I don’t get distracted by them. I know some writers who need nothing but complete silence, but I always need some level of background noise. I write next to an open window as we speak!

J: Given the sensitive subject matter, when you were writing Tuesdays did you find yourself invigorated or totally drained? How did you distance yourself from the work?

C: I was so happy with the initial concept that I blasted through the first draft pretty quickly. After that, I was always careful to alternate between lighter and heavier chapters, so that I wasn’t spending too long in a particular headspace.  

J: The topics of suicide and mental health are being brought more and more into the spotlight at the moment – I’m thinking particularly of the controversial Netflix adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why. Despite what people might think, the book really beautifully blends humour and wit with the darker aspects of the narrative. That said, because you’re dealing with such a serious topic, did you feel a sense of responsibility while writing? How did you approach the challenge of discussing suicide sensitively in a YA novel?

C: Oh of course. It’s a difficult topic to approach and it’s easy to tip over into either saccharine irrelevance or lurid glamourisation. With “Tuesdays Are Just as Bad”, I tried to use the ghost to create a distance from the main character, Adam, which allows the reader to see the subject from a more digestible perspective while avoiding pat answers or easy solutions.

J: Recently, The Guardian reported on a study which found that only 4% of the children’s books published in 2017 featured BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) characters, while only 1% of books published in the UK last year had a BAME main character. Of course, one of the main characters in your book, Aoife, is of colour, but how do you think YA can do better? What are the steps the industry needs to take moving forward?

C: The main thing is to publish more BAME authors and to have more hiring diversity in the publishing industry. Beyond that, if, like me, you are a white author, writing POCs in your book is good, but you have to investigate your intentions. If they are characters by their own right, great! But if they are just props for your white protagonist, you need to reconsider your direction.

J: Other than your own (of course!), what are some of your favourite YA novels?

C: I am a big, big, big fan of Deirdre Sullivan’s “Primrose Leary” trilogy. It made me completely reconsider how one could approach an Irish YA book. Alice Oseman’s “Solitare” is a fascinating book I return to often and I would happily read anything by Sheena Wilkinson and David Levithan.

J: What do you get up to when you’re not writing? Any guilty pleasures?

C: I watch a lot of horror movies. Did you know that there is a movie where the ghost girl from “The Ring” fights the ghost girl from “The Grudge”? It’s everything you could possibly dream of. 

J: Any plans for Book #2 or other future projects?

C: I am working on a supernatural YA novel set in West Cork. It features unrequited love, missing persons and a lesser known creature from Irish folklore.

J: For any aspiring writers out there, YA or otherwise, what would be your main advice?

C: There is so much writer advice out there, my main advice is try out all of them until you find whatever works for you (which will most likely be a mishmash of several ones). Oh also buy a copy of “On Writing” by Stephen King.

J: YALMC founder, Leah Phillips, and her colleague Melanie Ramdarshan Bold are currently working on a research project called Adolescent Identities. As part of this, they’re asking what YA character you identify with. So, Cethan: what’s your YA identity?

C: Oh interesting question! The only person I can think of offhand is Cassandra from “I Capture the Castle” as I too like decrepit houses and am more of a Bronte than an Austen.

J: Finally, since we all love books (and are also insufferably nosey), what are you reading right now?

C: In YA I’m reading the most poetic “Spare and Found Parts” by Sarah Marie Griff and in non-YA, I’m reading “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

Thanks, Cethan! Tuesdays Are Just As Bad (9781781175644 ) is available to buy now.

 

 

 

 

Black Snow Falling (MacWhirter) – Flash Review and Author Q&A

BSF Front[1]

I was sent a copy of Black Snow Falling by Scotland Street Press in exchange for an honest review — I’m thrilled they reached out; I loved it.

Synopsis:

In 1592, a girl with spirit is a threat.

Ruth has secrets. An old book of heresy belonging to her long-absent father. A dream that haunts her. And love that she and Silas hide from the world.

When she is robbed of all she holds true, her friends from Crowbury slide into terrible danger. Hope is as faint as a moonbow. Dare Ruth trust the shadowy one who could destroy them all?

This is a story about hope overcoming evil, written with satisfying moral complexity. Ruth’s devastation breaks apart time. She sees that her hopes and dreams are a visceral halo of rainbow colours spinning to white… and that evil dream thieves are severing these halos from sleeping victims, many of whom she knows. Those disturbing dreams of black snow lead Ruth to a perilous discovery: one dream thief is connected to her past.

For young adults and up.

Before I even opened the book, I was hooked: secrets, heresy, black snow, a girl with spirit, dream thieves, hope. The premise felt simultaneously new and fresh as well as deeply rooted in the past — no small feat!

A time slip novel, the story opens with Jude’s dream being stolen, with dire consequences for his life, before transporting us to Ruth, some fifty years in the ‘future’ (it’s difficult to call 1592 the future). Ruth lives with her stepmother, stepsisters and an array of servants. Her father is off on an exploration. Yes, there’s a nod to Cinderella motifs, but it’s a nod more about the saturation of such material within our collective consciousness — a passage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a quote from Queen Elizabeth I paratextually frame the story — than it is about telling *another* Cinderella tale. The way in which MacWhirter handles the many, many threads of story is the treat of this novel.

So, in lieu of my ramblings, let’s have Liz tell you a bit more about Black Snow Falling (as well as a few cheekily requested recs!)
For those who haven’t yet read Black Snow Falling (BSF), could you tell us a little bit about it — without giving anything too important away?

In this Elizabethan fantasy, 15 year-old Ruth is betrayed and trapped by monstrous sexism. Her devastation splits apart time itself, where she encounters dream thieves coming to steal her hopes and dreams.

Dreams, dream thieves, black snow – what inspired BSF?

The idea came to me a long time ago in 2002. I was volunteering for a charity in Glen Etive in the north of Scotland with young adults who had all suffered a very hard start in life. One was telling me how much he wanted to become a gardener. I was struck by his strength. He’d faced more trauma than most of us will ever have to cope with, and yet he still had hope. I found myself wishing that nothing would ever happen that could snatch this away… a chilling What If? struck me.

What if our hopes and dreams were actual physical entities that could be stolen from us? A physical dream, I thought, would surely be close to our minds, where we imagine and think. They could look like the halos in old paintings, which symbolised purity… a white dream halo.

William Wordsworth called Glen Etive ‘the land of rainbows’, because of the many waterfalls and incredible light in this dramatic valley. Rainbows are an ancient symbol of hope. I imagined a rainbow arcing in the sky then plunging down into dark, hard places and out the other side, a circle. White light refracts into the colours of the rainbow. So a dream halo would start as a tiny circular rainbow and spin to white as it started imparting its goodness to the sleeper.

I loved the idea. I knew I had to write about this. Ruth and her haunting dream of black snow came to me later.

Given the timeslip elements – but also not through them alone! – there’s a deep sense of history, an embeddedness in place, and almost mythological feel to the novel. How difficult was it to weave the strands of story together? (or, did they perhaps weave you?).

Good question, thanks Leah. The idea felt so simple but the weaving together was a challenge. I think the creative process is often like this. It can start with a simple idea, then you have to write through the complexity until the story starts to feel simple again, as though it has always existed.

I felt the idea would best work as magical realism, placing my characters in a real setting where they could lose all hope. This would have happened more easily in the past when there was no safety net in society. So I chose the time of the Tudors for all its fascinating dynamics – it’s early modern Britain grating against tradition, which traps my characters, Ruth and Jude. I loved the research, finding documents such as the medical records and personal letters of Elizabeth I in a very old book in a second-hand bookshop.

What’s the publication story? I feel like I read (maybe on your blog?) that the novel was a project of love.

It took 16 years from first idea to publication! For most of those years, I was a lone parent working as an advertising copywriter. So I wrote in the margins of the day and couldn’t have persisted unless I completely loved the story. The novel inched forwards.

Around 2007, I had lunch with a lovely editor with a major publisher, who suggested making the time slips closer. Ultimately the rewritten MS didn’t receive an offer. The rejection, while ‘positive’, I found discouraging and had to set the story down. I started another novel set in WW2 Paris, spent over a year researching it and writing three chapters, then had to set it aside while writing a 30,000-word website for a client. When I returned to the WW2 novel, the urge to write it had vanished, although I may return to it one day. I re-read the manuscript for Black Snow Falling, completely loved it and saw exactly how I wanted to restructure it.

Another major publisher then considered it. Their feedback was that my writing was ‘very strong’ and the concept was ‘fantastic’ but sometimes overshadowed the main character, Ruth. I rewrote it, adding in another point of view: Ruth’s secret love, Silas. At the end of the process, for the first time I felt that the novel had reached that ‘simple’ place, where it just felt real. Sadly, it didn’t make acquisitions. The editor commented that I had cracked it, but that it was ‘too serious’ for their list at that point. The publisher who made a firm offer, Jean Findlay at Scotland Street Press, said that it’s that very seriousness that she loves.

After so many rewrites, it was ready. My agent was willing to take it to Bologna, but I felt that Jean ‘got’ the novel and I decided to go with this small traditional press. They may be tiny but they have seriously invested in its production. It’s a beautiful hardback with debossed silver foil. It looks gorgeous! I am so proud of it.

BSF is effectively a book about hope, as well as its absence, across centuries. Do you feel that’s a particularly important narrative for contemporary culture?

Yes, I feel hope is such an important narrative. There are so many things that can take hope away – the modern monsters of today – especially for young people. Some monsters are faceless, such as the climate crisis, the tyranny of the beauty myth for women or masculine stereotypes that won’t allow men to be vulnerable or fail, or bullying amplified by social media. Other monsters have faces, a politician, teacher or relative.

Perhaps by reading shadowy stories about myth and monsters, we can connect with our fear, and somehow, following the narrative, move through it. Once we do that, we can do something about it, like Ruth in Black Snow Falling. Whatever is frightening us, by facing it, we ask ourselves if it’s okay? If it’s not, we can make the first small step and do something about it. Even a small step makes a difference. Taking action creates hope – hope that things could be better in the future. Going on a climate protest march, or voting with our feet and leaving an abusive relationship, or telling someone about a bully. Otherwise, we can get stuck, and hope shrivels away.

BSF has been published as YA. Did you set out to write it as YA? Did it just happen? Did someone suggest it?

I’ve worked as a copywriter in advertising for years, so I have a fairly good nose for ideas and audiences / ages. When the idea came to me, it ‘felt’ like YA… a spirited girl coming of age, where hope is the driver for the story. I love writing YA.

When the manuscript was under submission, we had lots of feedback saying that they felt it was genuine crossover with adult fiction. Perhaps this is why it took a while to find the right publisher.

Could we have a few recommendations? Books, Netflix…

Stranger Thingson Netflix, for the upside down world. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel for making Cromwell and the time of Henry VIII feel so real. More than This by Patrick Ness for compelling science fiction.

Finally, anything else we *need* to know? About Black Snow Falling? About any works in progress?

Black Snow Falling is nominated for The First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. If you love it, please vote for it! My first ever book event was there on Saturday, Feisty Fantasy with Alice Broadway.

There’s a follow up bubbling away, but I’m currently writing a love story set 100 years earlier. There’s also a contemporary thriller set in a mining town in the North of England.

Thanks for interviewing me, Leah. I loved answering your questions.

 

L.J. MacWhirter[2]

L.J. MacWhirter was born just outside London, grew up in the North of England and today lives in Edinburgh with her husband and family. After studying English Literature she went on to become an award-winning creative copywriter. Black Snow Falling is her debut novel for young adults and up. @LizMacwhirter

 

Last but NOT least, Scotland Street Press is up to some pretty cool things, and they’re on twitter! @ScotlandStreetPress

Q&A – Savita Kalhan author of The Girl in the Broken Mirror

I was utterly thrilled when Savita asked if YALMC would be like to be included on the blog tour for The Girl in the Broken Mirror — and even more excited when she agreed to doing a Q&A!

 

What’s your favourite thing about YA? About writing YA?

I love YA because it is really a ‘meta-genre’ which encompasses a whole range of genres from contemporary to historical, crime fiction to psychological thrillers, fantasy to dystopian, science fiction to magical realism. YA books can be read by all young people, from teenagers to the age of a hundred years old! I guess the only commonality is the writing must be immediate and accessible.

When I was growing up I read the contents of the children’s library, which basically meant that I read books in all those genres. I think it’s the reason why I read so widely today. I think it’s also the reason why I love writing YA. There is so much scope and range that a writer can explore in YA, so many voices, so many stories waiting to be told.

girl in the broken mirror jpeg

Do you have a favourite character in The Girl in the Broken Mirror?

Apart from Jay, of course, I adore Sita. I think she is a great role model – she had a career as well as a family, she understands girls from having worked so closely with them, and whilst she shares a similar heritage to Jay, there are some very big differences. To be Indian is to be many things. It is a country so vast that each region has its own language, traditions, and religion – and that’s before you factor in people of Indian origin all over the world. For Jay it is an eye-opener that being Asian can mean so many different things, and I think the same would be true for any non-Asian reader too.

I also have a soft spot for Ash, who tries to be a friend to Jay, and sticks by her despite the huge problems he knows it will cause him with his family.

For most of the novel, Jay is obsessed with Tess of D’Urbervilles, which makes me want to ask several questions! Stories shape the ways in which we view the world, and “the power of story” seems to be a theme running throughout the novel. Tess, in many ways, serves as a (broken?) mirror for Jay. What stories did you read when you were young Jay’s age?

I have to admit to a Thomas Hardy obsession when I was Jay’s age! I read everything he wrote when I was a teenager. I also read everything that Wycombe Library had on their shelves. So you are so right when you say there is a “power of story” theme that runs throughout the novel. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that books and stories had a huge impact on my life. I grew up in a very strict household where our only outings were to school and to the library. Education was very important to my parents – equally for girls and boys – so we were taken to the library every week. My world was my home and school life, and the worlds that existed in the pages of books. Stories opened my eyes to so many worlds, to a whole range of experiences, to so many characters and their thoughts and experiences and interactions.

Tess does serve as a ‘broken mirror’ for Jay. Jay’s life feels as splintered as Tess’s life was, despite the centuries that divide their stories. There are so many strands that run through Tess of the d’Ubervilles that reflect upon Jay’s life. The poverty, the reliance on someone else’s good will, the rape, the promise of love, the betrayal felt by both Tess and Jay by their parents, the need for revenge, and, ultimately, the feeling that there can be no happy ending.

Related were those stories mirrors for you? If so, where did they succeed? Where did they fail?

No, none of the stories I read growing up were mirrors for me. I didn’t see my reflection in any of the books in the library. I don’t recall reading any Asian writers as a child, or as a teenager, or as a young adult. I didn’t think I could be a writer as I thought that people like me didn’t write books. Stories for me were ultimately about escapism and the library was my safe space. So, there may not have been stories that specifically served as mirrors, stories meant something else to me. I lost myself in fantasy epics, which have remained a passion, in thrillers, in historical fiction, in contemporary fiction, in classics, in world literature, in…everything. I lapped up all the different, disparate experiences and stories of a huge wealth of characters. But very few were like me.

I discovered Asian writers when I was older. I would absolutely love teenagers and young adults to come across more diversity on the shelves of their libraries and bookshops, because not only might they find mirrors of themselves and their lives, other kids would read about them, too, perhaps understand the differences and commonalities in cultures and backgrounds better. With understanding can come tolerance, which I think is one of the most important things young people’s eyes should be opened to in today’s world.

Jay’s story covers some difficult ground – culture clashes and rape, specifically – what drew you to it? Made you want (need?) to tell it?

There are very few books that deal with the issue of culture clash in young adult literature. I think to some extent there is always a clash of culture in the lives of most young adults – their views on life, on politics, on social issues, their whole world-view can vary in a few degrees or more radically from their parents – and some of these clashes are present in young adult literature. But there are not many books that deal with the conflict in culture for a young adult living in a society where the culture in his/her home life is radically different to the general society they are being raised in.

In the UK, I know of only a couple of books that deal with rape in YA. Anne Cassidy’s No Virgin is an uncompromising read, and in Ireland, Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It. I highly recommend them. Both books deal with very different circumstances surrounding the rape. There is nothing in YA literature that tells the experience of a British Asian girl who is raped. It is a very different story to both Anne and Louise’s, yet it is a story of our time, sadly. Rape knows no boundaries, it’s a crime that’s not confined to any one community – so it needs to be talked about in everycommunity. Only by talking about it and raising awareness of the global nature of this crime can we move forwards in dealing with it.

Rape is also a very personal attack. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that it is a horrifying experience – yet it is one where the victim is often as much on trial as the perpetrator, and too often this stops the victim from speaking up. When society points the finger at you and says it was your fault, you shouldn’t have dressed that way, you shouldn’t have behaved in that way, then you will begin to believe that maybe it was your fault. It was very important for me to make it clear that it is NEVER the girl’s fault – in a patriarchal society where girls and women are often treated like second-class citizens, it’s even more important to speak up for girls like Jay, and to give girls like a Jay a voice.

I have to ask about the chapter from, Jay’s mum, Neela’s POV (it’s 15, for curious minds). I loved it! YA stories so rarely include parents (feel free to discuss!), and when they are present, they’re usually relegated to the periphery. Why was it so important to not only include the mother/daughter relationship but also to give Neela a voice in the novel – a YA novel (which typically excludes such)?

One of the most important relationships in any young person’s life is the one with their parents – necessarily so because the child is dependent on the parent, relies on the parent for everything, and as the child becomes a teenager, that relationship begins to change. Writers for teenagers and young adults usually keep any adult involvement to the minimum. Editors generally don’t want to see stories with too much parental or adult involvement. The same is often true of middle-grade books too. The question of how to get the kid away from the parent so they can have their adventure is one that’s often in a writer’s mind.

But children, teenagers and young adults don’t exist in isolation to their parents, and most of my writing reflects that. Their actions, reactions, views and opinions are informed by their parents – whether they subscribe to them or are in opposition to them.

For me, the relationship between Neela and Jay was central to the book. I think it was important to show how close they are, how much they rely on each other and how they are there for one another in the earlier part of the book. So that when they drift apart because of force of circumstance with the move to Primrose Avenue, the reader really feels the pain of Jay’s loss.

Neela’s voice, her chapter, came about naturally. I didn’t even think about the sudden change in POV when I wrote it. In that moment when Jay is in Sita’s house on her own, waiting for her mum to arrive, and she stops to think about what her mum might be going through – did she know or even guess at what had happened to her daughter? Was she oblivious to the pain that Jay was going through? And suddenly I really wanted to know what Neela was thinking, how she had spent her day, and where she thought her daughter was? That was when I wrote Neela’s chapter.

I was asked by an editor to consider removing it. But I think for readers it’s not only really interesting to see both sides of the same day, but also helps the reader understand both Neela and Jay’s very different points of view. They see Neela go through a whole range of conflicting emotions.

If you had to identify one theme dominating The Girl in the Broken Mirror, what would it be? I ask because there’s one jumping out at me (readers, I’ll confess mine below – after reading Savita’s answer!).

For me, the theme in The Girl in the Broken Mirror is that of survival after trauma. Coping or dealing with a difficult, dangerous or traumatic event is, I think, a recurring theme in my writing. In The Long Weekend, two eleven-year-old boys are abducted after school. The book is essentially a thriller, but the theme is that of survival in very tough circumstances. My next book has a similar theme, although the subject of the book is very different to both The Girl in the Broken Mirror and The Long Weekend.

I look forward to reading your answer to this question, Leah!

Mine relates! The dual theme of having a voice and being heard.
I feel like it underscores culture clash, trauma and rape, as well as Jay’s relationships in the novel. Jay feels like her mum doesn’t hear her. She’s afraid Matt won’t like what he hears. She struggles to speak about what happened, to voice how much its changed her. She discovers a true hear-er in Sita… 

Anything else you want to tell us? Next project? The thing you’re most looking forward to reading?

I’m not sure I am allowed to discuss the next book yet! I will say that it is a much easier read in that it won’t be harrowing – it has a much lighter touch, it’s funnier without losing sense of the more serious subject of the story – and there are some great characters in the book! And, yes, I definitely have my favourite characters in the new book!

There are lots of books I’m looking forward to reading – my must-read pile is literally about to topple over! I was very lucky to meet Pooja Puri at the YA Shot event a few weeks ago, so I have a signed copy of The Jungle to read. I’m also looking forward to reading Toni Adeymi’s Children of Blood and Bone, and The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X R Pan.

* * *

Leah, thank you so much for your questions – they were really interesting and insightful, and made me think! It’s an amazing thing to have a book out there in the world and in the hands of readers, and even more thrilling for the book to be The Girl in the Broken Mirror.

If your readers want to know more about me they can head to my website http://www.savitakalhan.com, or tweet me @savitakalhan. I love to hear from my readers!

Djinn by Sang Kromah

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I’m rather tempted to spend this book review singing the praises of Sang Kromah herself but — aside from giving HUGE praise to Project: Girlspire — I’ll resist. Djinn is worth a read and a review. Besides, Kromah tells you a bit about it in the Q&A following my review!

 


Synopsis:

When sixteen-year-old Bijou Fitzroy and her grandmother, Gigi, move to Sykesville, Bijou finally gets the chance to lead a normal life: attend high school, make friends, and enemies. Only, it doesn’t stay normal for long. Set apart, not just because of her changing colour and an uncanny ability to feel what other people are feeling, Bijou is different, and she’s quickly sucked into a world intrigue and mystery as mythical creatures become real. With the help of Sebastian and Amina, Bijou begins to navigate a world she didn’t know existed, finding powers within herself she never knew she had.


 

Admittedly, I wasn’t sure how hard I’d fall before starting it – I’m not usually a fan of fantasy set within our world – but from the beginning, I was hooked. Bijou’s story drew me in – I had to know how her mad desire to attend high school would play out (I HATED high school). In the end, I also adored the contemporary US setting. It’s where Djinn needs to be:

“Western civilization … has romanticized the djinn by turning it into a friendly blue creature that resides in a magic lamp, granting wishes… They have turned what most Africans and scholars refer to as Mami Wata into a singing girl with a tail and call it a mermaid, but if you were to encounter the real deal, it would be nothing to sing about” (Loc 941).

How do we see things? What stories are we told? are both at the heart of Djinn.  Western culture is a sponge, absorbing and sterilizing (academic me would say homogenizing) characters, and stories from across the world. For the people and groups whose stories are taken, this absorbing isn’t a particularly nice process, which is why stories like Djinn are so important. They help those of us enmeshed in Western culture see beyond the trappings and packagings we’re fed by mainstream media. Kromah’s interweaving African, especially Liberian, folklore into contemporary Western culture — fans of Buffy are certainly in for a treat — unwraps the packaging allowing readers to see, to know, more about the world.

“Seeing more” is reflected in Bijou’s empathetic abilities.

“With the Typicals, their emotions rub off on me when they’re in close proximity. It’s even worse if they happen to make eye contact; I see things — sometimes truly horrible things” (Loc 60).

Dividing the world into Typicals (humans) and Others (something else), Bijou can see more than a person’s external packaging, and I think this is where the true beauty of Kromah’s book resides… For the rest, you’ll really just have to read! (I’m more than happy to talk about the 9-million other things I loved once you have!!). — Leah


I recently had the change to ask Sang a few questions about YA, Djinn, her favourite stories from childhood, and the power of words – plus a sneaky little slipping in of GirlSpire. I’m thrilled to share her responses!

1) What drew you to YA? It’s a field I adore — must do, I did a whole PhD on it (#DorkLove) — so I’m always curious to know why others want to write it, write about it.

First let me just say, I think it is so cool that you have a PhD in YA. If I had known that was a possibility, I would have definitely done that as well.

I write YA because childhood is a time of simultaneous uncertainty and fearlessness. That’s what YA represents. I think there are so many older readers of YA because it’s unapologetic. The characters are finding their place in this world, and whether we’d like to admit it or not, most adults don’t have it all together and can still relate to this uncertainty. But the thing about YA is that it has the power to humble readers because many times these characters are going through so much and they find a way to deal with it, while being so honest about it. I think that’s beautiful. I went through a lot as a young adult. My parents were always opening our home to others and often my younger brother and I felt like we got lost in the cracks. My adoptive sister was terminally ill and sadly passed away, and so much more. I constantly remember wishing I was an adult and wishing that part of my life was over. But having to go through that made me impeccably strong. I often find myself reminiscing about those days because, in all honesty, they were the best days of my life. Writing YA reminds me of that strength because I often need a reminder of how strong I can be and what I’m capable of.

2) I desperately want to read more (more about) West African folklore. Any favourite stories? I adore trickster figures…

You would love my parents. As a kid, my parents wouldn’t read stories like Cinderella to me, because I could read those on my own time. They’d tell us stories from Liberia. Many about the djinn, which are calla jena in Liberia, stories about Mami Wata (mermaids), or Spider (Anansi). Spider is the most infamous of all the tricksters. One story comes to mind where greedy Spider gets invited to two parties, but rather than accepting one invite and declining the other, which was in a neighboring town, he accepts both, not wanting to miss out on any food. The plan was to tie a rope around his waist, and when the food was ready at one party someone was supposed to pull at the rope, so he could go to that party. The problem arose when both parties decided to serve their food at the same time, resulting in the rope being pulled at both ends, all at once. Spider screamed and screamed, but he was being pulled from both directions. When the pulling ceased, Spider’s waist was so small that his entire shape had changed. And this is how Spider got a small waist.

Another story that may be semi-familiar to those who read Djinn is the story of Femeni and a notorious jena/djinn named Zoom. Femeni was known for being disobedient. She never respected her elders and no amount of discipline changed her behavior. There was a lagoon that the town’s children used to swim at, but everyone knew that it was forbidden to swim there during a certain time on Fridays. One Friday, Femeni daringly went to the lagoon and spent the afternoon swimming, declaring that nothing would happen to her. That evening as she began her walk home, the moon was full and soon, the ground began to shake. Femeni heard a voice begin to sing in Mandingo, “Where is Femeni? Femeni was here. I’m looking for Femeni.” As Zoom sang his song, Femeni ran as fast as she could back to town, knocking on doors, but as she approached, singing in Mandingo, “Help! Help! It’s Femeni. Open the door. Zoom is After me,” door after door shut before her. As Zoom got closer, Femeni was certain, this was the end for her, but as she ran she realized she was drawing closer to a familiar house. Her grandmother’s. When she knocked on the door to announce herself, her grandmother asked, “If I open the door, will you behave yourself from this day forward?”

Femeni answered, “Yes Maman!”

Her grandmother then asked, “Will you respect your elders from this day forth?”

Once again, Femeni answered, “Yes Maman!”

The door flew open, and Femeni to her grandmother, who shut the door before Zoom, saving Femeni from what could have been death or being taken to the Otherworld.

As you can probably tell, Femeni’s story was my favorite and over the years I’ve written countless stories about Femeni. ‘Djinn’ is the story of Femeni’s daughter.
There are so many stories, but the problem we face is that most of our stories are told orally and as our worlds become bigger and we leave our places of origin, many of these stories die with our old people. This is why it’s important that we write our own stories before they’re all lost.

3) I feel like within Djinn there’s a real sense of “the power of words,” the power to speak things into existence… I’d love to know more about your sense of the power of words, stories, representation.

Think about how in many of the stories we read and here, simple words are what changes the state of a character’s world. It could be a spell or a threat. Words, if not chosen carefully can save or cost a life. Think about Rumplestiltskin and the power vocalizing his name held over him. Or even historical figures; it’s their words that live long after they’ve perished. Once they are uttered, they can’t be withdrawn. Growing up, my grandmother always puts an emphasis on being conscious of the words we speak. She used to say, “Our mouths are like prayer books, speaking things into existence.” She used to tell me to be careful of what I say because you never know what/who is listening. Those words have always had a great impact on how I speak and what I say. With all the stories of djinn I’ve heard and some of the things I’ve seen, I don’t doubt at all, that there’s some truth in the cautionary tales we’re told.

In ‘Djinn’, diversity is at the forefront. Most of the character’s names aren’t common and everyone looks like they’re from a different part of the world. This was very important to me, because growing up, characters that looked like me and the people in my world weren’t represented in the books I read. We come in so many hues with such rich histories, and I wanted my book to show that. Growing up, I would read beautiful books, and always find myself wondering, why can’t fantastical things happen to people like me? That type of diversity is necessary, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t necessarily fit into the defined boxes society has created for us. For example, even though I was born in America, both of my parents were born in Liberia, from very diverse backgrounds. I was very proud of my heritage and my very ethnic name, but going to school was difficult. Although I’m black, I didn’t necessarily look like the other kids at school and my full name is very African, so I was called an “African booty scratcher.” And then, I moved to the suburbs, and I spent many years as the only person of color in most of my classes until high school. In these situations, bullying arises or silly questions are asked due to the lack of positive examples of people that are different. This is why it was so important for me to create characters that don’t quite fit into those designated boxes I mentioned earlier.

In the second book of the series, it delves deeper into the past, allowing Bijou get a better understanding of where she comes from with the introduction of Rugiatu, who you met in “The Curse of the African Bootyscratcher,” the short story I recently published on Project GirlSpire.

4) I *know* we’re meant to be talking about Djinn, but Project READ and Project GirlSpire? Tell us more, please!

Project READ (Restoration Education Arts Development) is a female-led library initiative I started. The plan is to open a public library in Liberia that is run and managed by an all-female staff with programs specifically tailored for girls. It will be a safe place for girls…something that is drastically needed in Liberia.

Project GirlSpire is a digital media platform I started for women and girls, where we create the narrative. I am passionate about this because the biggest flaw in the current media landscape is that our stories get lost in translation because someone else is speaking for us. With Project GirlSpire, I have created an interview series which sheds a light on who successful women were at 15, who they are now, and asks what message they have for their 15-year old self. It’s a fun way of revisiting their younger selves, facing their pasts, and relishing in the women they’ve become. Most importantly, this is a great way of letting today’s girls know, it does get better. Many of our writers are in high school and college with notable guest writers like Newberry Medal-Winning author, Erin Entrada Kelly.


 

Kromah’s Djinn is a captivating #ownvoices YA fantasy novel and a part of an exciting new chapter in YA fantasy (I’m currently revising a whole book chapter on this topic!). It’s out on the 20th of March, so not long to wait!

 

 

 

 

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