25 September 2020
The American YA author discusses her experience of co-writing a book to enable difficult conversations about race and privilege
When I set out on this journey to write for teens, my partner Gilly and I were very clear on what we wanted to do. We wanted to create material that gave parents and teachers a portal to enter into difficult conversations about race and privilege with their students and children.
We did not enter into this writing relationship lightly, as there was no room to do so. With two women, one White and one African-American, coming together to write about race would inevitably result in tough discussions. In order to allow these conversations to flourish productively, we created systems to ensure a safe space. This was extremely important, because we needed to avoid perpetuating stereotypes while keeping to my personal need to honor the ever-evolving language of the African-American community. We both had to be specific about why we made our writing choices, preparing arguments for push-back when necessary, to make sure that the important points got across.
Writing about race was not a space where ego could reside and rule. For us, we didn’t see compromise as a place found somewhere in the middle. The person with the strongest convictions won, and our book was better served for it.
As we constructed how our work would fit into the canon of American Literature, I personally felt that all stateside musings were about race. Making the choice to describe someone based on their appearance, or the idea of writing an all-White community that has the privilege to showcase a lived experience that believes there is no race problem. Also, making the choice to discuss or not to discuss race in a racially intensive society like the US, is commentary on the matter in itself. We aimed for our book to spotlight implicit bias, white supremacy, delusion, and shear avoidance as guilty parties in the stagnant healing of American’s original sin, racism.
The global unrest in response to the outcry of the base level acknowledgement that Black Lives Matter backdrops even deeper expressions of the movement that could be found on the written page by authors of color for nearly a century. These books were once shoved in the back of libraries, schools, bookshops, and literary marketing plans. But with the world awakening, these words spun like Rumpelstiltskin gold to illuminate our lives with raw truths, unearthed facts and celebratory moments of small victories that have now found their place in the sun. It hits us in our chest when we escape for just a moment into the mind of a character’s backstory which informs their perspective. Offering us a chance at a new view of the world.
If you choose to write about race, do so with the understanding that it comes with a great deal of responsibility. You should ask yourself if you’ve done the necessary work to be knowledgeable and add to the conversation. The great Toni Morrison once said, “Writing is really a way of thinking — not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet.” Imagine someone retelling an important moment in your life and not caring if they get the details right or not, even if it sculpts how they view you. This is why we took our time with our words, and anyone tackling the discussion of race should do the same.
Just as much as books can nurture empathy, in the wrong hands they can cause pain. No one wants to feel intentionally misrepresented. A well-informed piece of work in the end should be the goal.
I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal is published by Source Books.
You can read more about representation in writing for young adults in this piece from Marieke Nijkamp