Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy #BookReview

What’s your favorite character driven story?

Book cover for "Fruit of the Lemon" by Andrea Levy
Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy

In Fruit of The Lemon by Andrea Levy, the author describes the journey of self-discovery her character, Faith, takes to craft her identity as a British-born Jamaican while learning about her family’s heritage.

As a first-generation child of Jamaican immigrants, Faith is set adrift between her life in Britain & her family’s Jamaican cultural heritage. Surrounded by White friends & flatmates, Faith is the victim of casual racism & constant humiliation at her peers’ hands.

Faith’s parents & brother, on the other hand, treat her as an anomaly. To her parents, she is rudderless with no understanding of her Jamaican heritage. Yet, neither parent will tell her what she needs to know to grow closer to the country they love so dearly. Faith’s brother sees her as disconnected from her roots & writes her off as a “lost cause,” as he finds his footing in between the hyphen as a British Jamaican. It is not until a trip to the “Motherland” that Faith begins to craft an identity for herself.

Photo of the Author, Andrea Levy
Author, Andrea Levy

What I most enjoyed about Levy’s story is that it is a character-driven story. In Faith, Levy explores the nuanced feelings of being set between cultures and being made to choose which one you will embrace when you are the child of immigrants who raise you to be fit for all the opportunities they never had and distant from their homeland. This depiction of life “in between the hyphen” feels akin to real life.

Because of this angle, though, Levy’s exploration of Faith’s character climaxes when she finally gets Faith on Jamaican soil. The glimpses readers get of Faith’s interaction with her Jamaican family are fascinating. However, by the end of the novel, there is no sense that Faith had gotten any better at understanding who she is than when she first started off in Jamaica. When this section is held up against the section in London where Faith is mercilessly tortured at the hands of her White boss and friends experiencing continuous microaggressions, Levy’s work feels unfinished.

Book Cover of "Small Island" by Andrea Levy
Small Island by Andrea Levy

I will say, though, that Levy’s choice to explore the “hyphenated identity” of her character is something that any BIPOC person can understand regardless of their country or their economic class. 

This is because we all eventually go through some metamorphosis that moves us further away from our ancestral “home base,” be it through our economic status or geographical location. And due to this change, we often face scrutiny within our community or outside forces, who either see us as pretenders or as phony in how we present ourselves once we are removed from that home base.

Therefore, it’s easy to understand the struggles Faith faces as she battles intergenerational trauma, colonization, & casual racism to become self-actualized.

Fruit of the Lemon is a book everyone needs to read at least once!

Six Stories & An Essay by Andrea Levy
Six Stories & An Essay by Andrea Levy

If you enjoy it, I’d suggest reading Andrea Levy’s whole catalog. So far, I’ve started reading Every Light in the House Burnin’ and Small Island. Both are really good books and show the depth of Levy’s writing and exploration of characters.

If you’re a lover of short stories, Levy’s short story collection, Six Stories and An Essay, is masterful. The way Levy handles her subjects and shows the difference in her characters’ socioeconomic background with just a simple sentence or detail is something I admire. It reminds me of Alice Walker’s collection, In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women, and the way Walker only needed a few lines to tell such a detailed story.

Have you all read Fruit of the Lemon or any of Levy’s other books? Let me know in the comment below!

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The Issue With Race in the Brown Sisters Series by Talia Hibbert #BookReview

What type of books do you read when you need to de-stress?

When I need a break from “heavy books,” romance is one of my go-to genres.

In between my Spring finals, I finished The Brown Sisters series by Talia Hibbert, and it left me with some thoughts…

Hibbert has penned one of the hottest interracial romance series of the last three years, with each of her titles following one of the Brown sisters.

Chloe, Dani, and Eve Brown are all representative of individuals who are neurodiverse or who have mental health issues they are living with. The sisters’ love interest also share these diagnosis, allowing readers who are seeking diverse representation for differently-abled characters to find themselves in between Hibbert’s pages. 

However, where Hibbert’s books fell short for me is that they felt devoid of any cultural indicators for all of the characters.

Now, yes, each book does have a sentence dedicated in each book to let us know that Brown’s matriarch has some Jamaican ancestry a few generations back.

Author, Talia Hibbert
Author, Talia Hibbert

And, yes, the middle sister, Danika (Dani for short), does get a love interest of ambiguous Middle Eastern descent. 

But, just like I mentioned in my review of Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, I can’t help but feel as if Hibbert uses the same method of turning her Black and Brown characters into caricatures as Callendar does in their book as a means of ticking off the diversity box.

I say this because not one of the Brown sisters feels as if they were written with depth to their characters.

Instead, it felt as if all of the sisters were written by Hibbert for her readers to have a “fill in the blank” experience where that person could scribe themselves onto the sisters when it was time for the “steamy” scenes to jump off. While this approach could be a plus short-term, it irritated me and made me disconnect from the books halfway through each story, with the exception of Take a Hint, Dani Brown.

The one saving grace with Dani’s story is that Dani and her love interest, Zafir, were given exciting and fully fleshed-out backstories that were revealed early on, and this kept me interested. Eve and Chloe’s story felt fragmented, and the constant anticipation of an “angsty” reveal for these sisters and their love interests left me drained. And by the time the big “payoff” was finally revealed, I was just ready to throw the whole audiobook away.

Speaking of which, even though I love the narrator of Dani and Eve’s books, Ione Butler, the audio narrator for Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Adjoa Andoh, was not my favorite.

Andoh’s narration made Chloe read as if she was someone’s nan out on a bucket list adventure trying to get laid. This could’ve worked if Chloe’s character was meant to be a woman well into her sixties. However, Hibbert wrote Chloe to be in her mid-thirties, which made listening to Andoh’s interpretation of Chloe’s voice taxing on my nerves.

At one point, this audio narration made me put Chloe’s book down for almost six months and didn’t pick it up again until the final books in the series were out. This was actually helpful for me as a reader because I got to read all the books in rapid succession.

These close readings led me to the conclusion that while Hibbert’s books are great for their showing of differently-abled and neurodiverse characters (Eve and Chloe’s characters are especially excellent in this regard), they don’t have fleshed out backstories for characters. Nor do they show a complete showing of the Brown sisters’ racial background.

This leaves the Brown sisters in limbo as characters and makes this series little more than a trumped-up sex fantasy for readers. This would be fine if Hibbert was simply writing fan fiction. However, Hibbert’s series is a bestseller in the romance genre and constantly pushed forward as the contemporary Black authored series, which carries weight in terms of representation.

Not to mention, the Brown sisters are Black women living in the UK dating outside their race. Yet, the question of race is never even broached. Adding insult to injury, the sisters never even come into contact with any other Black people besides their families throughout the series, which is extremely peculiar to me.

Heck, the Brown sisters don’t ever even really discuss anything minor, like their hair texture in a frivolous scene where they wake up with bed head or have their partners ask about touching when they’re getting intimate. They instead focus only on agonizing over their disabilities and sexualities.

As much as these two identities are important, it just strikes me as odd that at no point in this series does Hibbert show Chloe, Dani, or Eve’s race intersecting with how their mental health or neurodiverse diagnosis and sexuality. The author instead glosses over race by writing the Brown sisters as being super wealthy and trust fund babies that want for nothing and live in an effective bubble of family and money. I again found this to be super unrealistic and weird, but okay.

I want to be clear, though, the insertion of a conversation about race doesn’t have to be in depth on Hibbert’s part for the Brown Sisters series or any of her other books. But, it would definitely be nice and normal to see how these characters exist as Black women in their everyday lives. After all, I don’t think every Black, Indigenous, or person of color (BIPOC) in literature has to be a martyr. However, some acknowledgment of their identity is preferable to them never addressing the racial elephant in the room and being used as blank slates for readers to scribe themselves onto when reading a romance novel.

I digress, though…

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If you’re interested in reading books that are just as steamy as Hibbert’s books and just as careful with neurodiverse representation, I’d recommend reading The Kiss Quotient series by Helen Hoang.

Author, Helen Hoang
Author, Helen Hoang

Only two books in the series are out, which are The Kiss Quotient and my personal favorite, The Bride Test

Like Hibbert, Hoang is an #OwnVoices author who writes characters who are neurodiverse. Hoang’s handling of characters on the spectrum is perfect because she, like Hibbert, is a part of this community. Hoang shows these characters as humans and does not allow her characters to be pitied.

Book Cover of "The Heart Principle" by Helen Hoang
The Heart Principle

Each of Hoang’s stories is infused with information about the Vietnamese culture, which the Diep brothers and their cousin, Michael Phan, who are all the love interest in this series, are each from. Learning about this culture and having characters openly talk about their cultures for more than one sentence was a welcomed change when reading this series from what I experienced reading The Brown sister series since it made the characters and their struggles more real.

Book three, The Heart Principle, is out on August 31!

Have you all read Hibbert or Hoang’s series?

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Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah #BookReview

Readers, what’s one book that’s made you want to learn more about another culture?

While one can never know the true depth of a culture from reading just one novel, Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah offers a rarely seen intimate portrait of life in Saudi Arabia through the eyes of her characters, Muneer, Saeedah, and Hanadi, over 40 years. 

Book cover of Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah
Bride of the Sea by Eman Quotah

Quotah tackles heavy topics, such as parental abduction, women’s rights in patriarchal societies, how one can lose their identity when separated from their culture, and the mental toll of being estranged from family by choice and through force. The richness of Quotah’s writing, her attention to Jidda’s setting, and the detailing of the messiness of her characters’ life drew me in as a reader. However, I couldn’t help feeling as if there was a considerable chunk of Saeedah’s story missing and a lack of a climax when I turned the final pages of Bride of the Sea that kept me from truly loving this book. 

The fact that Quotah’s story was an #OwnVoices narrative was apparent in how much attention to detail was paid in scenes where the author shows the transplanting of Muneer and Saeedah from their lives in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to Cleveland, Ohio. For example, I loved the scene where the young couple is trying to learn to cook and spend “a month’s rent on phone calls to their mothers” to get cooking tutorials. 

These scenes were relatable and drew me in since they reminded me of learning to cook family recipes over the phone from my parents doing my college and graduate school days. The same is true of Quotah’s attention to the mental strain put on Hanadi as she forms her identity and works through the trauma of being abducted and becoming a mother and reunited with her father. This deep dive into the characters’ emotions is where Quotah shines where Muneer and Hanadi are concerned.

Saeedah’s character, though, never feels fully formed compared to Muneer and Hanadi. As honest and plausible as these two’s actions feel, Quotah seems to skirt around what motivates Saeedah to abduct Hanadi and keep her away from her family for over seventeen years. There are moments when readers are given glimpses of Saeedah’s erratic behavior. But, the lack of a first-person perspective for this character leaves the narrative feeling disjointed and keeps the story from ever climaxing. 

Author, Eman Quotah
Author, Eman Quotah

For instance, when Muneer is in Jidda looking for Saeedah and Hanadi, I was invested in his quest because I was shown why he wanted to reunite with his family. Even Hanadi’s choice to reunite with Muneer in Jidda and the subsequent fallout in her life makes sense because I heard her reasoning in her own voice. Saeedah’s choices, on the other hand, are a mystery to me because she’s never given a chapter to explain herself, and her inner dialogue is shielded from readers. Everything we know about this character comes to us filtered through other characters’ perspectives of her.

After finishing this book, I was curious about this writing decision and researched Quotah’s process for developing her characters. In her author interviews, she pointed out that she was never really clear about Saeedah’s motivation for abducting Hanadi when writing her novel. This gave me pause since I was always under the impression that an author needed to understand their character’s intentions to help bring about the actions of their novel to life. While the motivation for Hanadi’s anger is obvious, hearing how Saeedah felt in this moment would have added another layer to Bride of the Sea. It also would have let out the tension in the narrative to give closure to Quotah’s story, in my opinion. 

Hear Quotah talk about her writing process with The Writing Center

Overall, I am appreciative of how much care Eman Quotah took in writing Bride of the Sea. This is one of those rare novels where a reader comes to understand that every book is not meant to have a nice, neat ending. Yet, the lack of closure to Saeedah’s narrative and omission of her point of view from the novel left me thinking, “is that it?” 

If I could suggest one novel that compliments Bride of the Sea, it would have to be Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Book Cover for Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Divakaruni tells the story of three generations of women in a family: Sabitri, the matriarch of a family who grew up poor in rural Bengal and dreamed of going to school; Her daughter, Bela, who flees to America with her husband, who is a political refugee causing strain on her relationship with her mother; and Tara, Bela’s daughter, who feels the weight of the other two women’s choices as she tries to forge her own path.

Like, Quotah, Divakaruni explores mother-daughter relationships perceptively as she relays each woman’s story. However, where Quotah relied so heavily on others to tell Saeedah’s story, Divakaruni allows each woman to speak for herself within Before We Visit the Goddess. This balances out the narrative and allows readers to understand the frustrations each woman has with their mother.

Have you all read Quotah or Divakaruni’s novels?

Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee #BookReview

Cover of "Jasmine" by Bharati Mukherjee
Cover of “Jasmine” by Bharati Mukherjee

Something that I enjoy when I read stories about people who have immigrated is to see how their identities change as they go from place to place. This transformation of character belies an unshakable strength that escapes many people who stay stagnant all their lives.

In Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine, the main character, Jyoti, transforms several times within the book to survive. Jyoti’s story shows the immigrant’s struggle and the danger of being female while immigrating.

For the immigrant woman, the threat of being denied her agency and personhood is much higher than for their male counterparts. Sadly, women face the danger of being sex trafficked, raped, and a slew of other dangers as they make the journey to a better life that is often not faced by men. Mind you, this isn’t to say a male immigrant’s path to a new life is riddled with ease, but Mukherjee places emphasis on the difference in her female character’s struggle to pin down their identities. This left me questioning how different subgroups of immigrants build their identities once they start their new lives.

Author, Bharati Mukherjee
Author, Bharati Mukherjee

It would seem that the author also wanted to prove a point about the flexibility of women vs. men as they move into their new lives. According to Mukherjee in a 1990 interview with the Iowa Review, women are more likely to be the family member who has to go out into the community when the family arrives to speak on behalf of their families. By doing these things, they can build ties to their new homes. 

Men often spend time living in the past and remembering their homes fondly, which can sometimes hinder their progress toward building new ties with their current community. This was an interesting argument because it’s a point that Mukherjee makes about Punjabi men who have immigrated and the American men who still long for the “glory days” of their country.

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If I had to choose a book I’d recommend to read after Jasmine to showcase how immigration intersects with women and those who are impoverished, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid is an excellent follow-up to Mukherjee’s book.

Book cover of "Lucy" by Jamaica Kincaid

In Lucy, Kincaid explores the vapid and consumeristic undertones of American culture through the eyes of her teenaged protagonist. Fleeing her British-ruled Caribbean island, Lucy Potter, a nineteen-year-old au pair, comes to New York to take care of an upper-class White couple’s children. Lucy goes through all the steps of disillusionment with her life in America after having dreamed of escaping her island life and colonialism in general.

Where Jyoti in Jasmine comes to America and seems to insert herself wherever she goes seamlessly, Lucy questions ev-ery-thing she sees and all those around her. And this singular decimation of the world Lucy inhabits is why I love this book.

Lucy is for you if you’re a lover of books where there is an exploration of character and heavy emphasis on internal dialogue. Be warned, though, Lucy is not a “go with the flow” type of character. Kincaid’s writing is definitely not about smoothing the way for a reader to have a “feel-good experience.” You will feel everything about this slim volume, and like Jasmine, you will think about the main character long after you close the book.

Tell me what books have left you thinking about the characters well after closing the book in the comment section.

Interview With Liselle Sambury, Author of Blood Like Magic

The Book

A rich, dark urban fantasy debut following a teen witch who is given a horrifying task: sacrificing her first love to save her family’s magic. The problem is, she’s never been in love—she’ll have to find the perfect guy before she can kill him.

Cover of Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury
Cover of Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury

After years of waiting for her Calling—a trial every witch must pass in order to come into their powers—the one thing Voya Thomas didn’t expect was to fail. When Voya’s ancestor gives her an unprecedented second chance to complete her Calling, she agrees—and then is horrified when her task is to kill her first love. And this time, failure means every Thomas witch will be stripped of their magic.

Voya is determined to save her family’s magic no matter the cost. The problem is, Voya has never been in love, so for her to succeed, she’ll first have to find the perfect guy—and fast. Fortunately, a genetic matchmaking program has just hit the market. Her plan is to join the program, fall in love, and complete her task before the deadline. What she doesn’t count on is being paired with the infuriating Luc—how can she fall in love with a guy who seemingly wants nothing to do with her?

With mounting pressure from her family, Voya is caught between her morality and her duty to her bloodline. If she wants to save their heritage and Luc, she’ll have to find something her ancestor wants more than blood. And in witchcraft, blood is everything.

The Interview

Adira: Ms. Sambury, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you! Congratulations on your debut novel, Blood Like Magic! 

As a lover of the fantasy genre, the idea of a family of modern Black witches is something I haven’t gotten the chance to experience in my 25+ years of reading until this year. This led your book to be one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.  Can you tell me what influenced you to write Blood Like Magic and what publishing your first novel was like for you?

Liselle Sambury: At the time I decided to write Blood Like Magic, I was feeling homesick for Toronto and wanted to write something set there. And I had the idea of writing about a family of Black witches floating around in my head. I’ve always loved the paranormal, and witches definitely held a particular draw for me. Like you, I hadn’t really encountered Black witches in my reading, and when I saw them in movies and TV shows, they were often sidelined or slighted characters. I loved the idea of being able to focus solely on the story of a Black witch. 

Checkout Liselle Sambury’s AuthorTube channel!

A: The magical lore and technology in your novel set your book apart from anything I’ve read or watched on television in recent years. How did you go about crafting this world for Voya, your main character, and her family to inhabit?

LS: Once I decided that I wanted to set the book in the near future, I made a concentrated effort to blend the technology and the magic together as best as I could. I was worried about being told “why not just make this a fantasy and take the sci-fi parts out?” But that wasn’t the world I wanted to craft. I was excited about being able to blend the two genres.

As for creating them, I started out with simple rules for both the magic system and how the genetics technology would work. From there it was a lot of layering on and building up in each revision. I would get feedback and would make adjustments to make sure that everything that needed to be explained or fleshed out was getting that treatment.When it came to Voya and her family, that was a lot more organic. I had a good idea of a lot of the characters in my head, and so I just wrote their stories as I imagined them. Later on, I definitely had to do more tweaking to make sure all their goals in the story and motivation behind how they behave was clear and made sense for their characters.

A: Voya and Luc’s characters tugged on my heartstrings. Along with the rest of the characters, you emphasize that each character you’ve written has many intersecting identities (e.g., Being a dark-skinned and voluptuous Black woman who dealt with anxiety for Voya and being a Mexican and transgendered for Luc) that color how they view the world and make decisions. Did you set out to showcase specific things with each character’s personality, or was this something that just happened organically?

LS: A lot of the characters were nearly fully formed in my head, but some things just came out as I wrote them. But one thing I made sure of, is that once I formed a character’s identity, I did my best to do my research and due diligence to make sure they would be represented well. So, it was all well and good to know that Luc is trans and Mexican-Canadian, but I had to think about how that would affect his worldview, and how he moves through the world and interacts with other characters. And I thought about, okay, if this is a dark-skinned Black character, how am I portraying them? Am I falling into any traps of colorism? I love my cast of diverse characters and I wanted to make sure that real world people reading the book could experience representation that was as accurate and respectful as possible. 

A: My favorite part of Blood Like Magic is how you showcase “community” and get the nuanced nature of what it means to grow up across the African Diaspora, drawing on a collectivist nature where the group’s needs and desires are sometimes placed before the individual. This idea of community is a big thing for Voya as she tries to complete the task her ancestor, Mama Jova, set for her. As an author, were you working from a specific definition of community? And if so, did it influence how you developed your characters or any of the action in the book?

LS: I wasn’t working from any definition of community. I was really just writing what organically felt right and important to the characters. I also grew up in a house with a blended family and so that colored a lot of my experience, and in the book, I expanded it further to the community in which Voya grows up. 

A: Keeping with the theme of community, your magic system is based around the “intimacy” of your characters “knowing” their ancestors and safeguarding their family’s history. You acknowledge in your work that across the African Diaspora, this isn’t an easy thing for a lot of Black people to do because of the act of Slavery. When you were world-building, how did you compensate for your witch characters who may not have had a connection to their ancestors? Would this keep the character from becoming a witch?

LS: When I was worldbuilding, I was thinking of the question around if you could have a connection to your ancestors. And that’s something that every witch has, but that non-magical people do not. I liked bringing in that dichotomy of a world full of magic and connection to your heritage that Voya has while also acknowledging that those of us in the real world may not have that because of colonization and enslavement. It felt important to me to say so, because I think some people don’t understand that disconnection and the pain of feeling that your heritage is lost to you.

Hear Liselle Sambury and Tracy Deonn talk about approaching feedback & world building

A: You did a magnificent job in creating a diverse and inclusive future by showcasing the natural use of gender pronouns in everyday settings and having characters from various body types and heritages on display. Yet, the one place that felt as if it teetered on the edge of being regressive was the Black community. 

In Blood Like Magic, violence permeates the Black community at the hand of its members and outsiders. This can be seen in the separation into “pure” and “impure” families to the reliance on specific acts of violence that are visited on members of the community and used in magic rituals. 

When constructing Voya’s world, why was it important to show that Black bodies are still targeted with violence inside and outside their communities even in the future?

LS: Within my own worldview, I am familiar with the fact that there can be a lot of social progress in one area and not as much in another. And I’m also aware that even within already marginalized communities, Black people can be further marginalized. So, while there is progress in things like the consequences of racial-based violence, being in the future hasn’t made it stop.

I think this is grim in some ways, but it also felt real to my experience with the amount of years that have passed, and the racial injustices Black people continue to deal with. I think of Voya’s community as being complicated and there are extra challenges because those past traditions they are handing down can be overseen by the very ancestors who created them.

I feel like it is difficult to grapple with the effects of white supremacy and white power structures as a Black person, and it affects both external violence, and also how things are done within communities. The violence that exists within Voya’s community is a direct result of people trying to protect themselves based on what they suffered in the past. That is the insidious nature of it, and it can create a very complicated community in which sometimes things that seem obviously terrible, are traditions that are carried on because trauma persists. I definitely wanted to showcase the nuance there.

A: There’s been a lot of talks lately in the book-o-sphere about the idea that publishers are pigeonholing Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color (BIPOC) into writing stories based around “trauma” since many publishing houses deem this as the key to having a bestseller. With topics, such as referencing American Chattel Slavery, substance abuse, and missing Black girls, Blood Like Magic walks very close to the edge of dealing with Black trauma without it being the primary catalyst for the novel’s plot. How did you approach balancing these topics without having this aspect of your book take the narrative over completely?

LS: When I first wrote Blood Like Magic, I didn’t set out to tackle a lot of those topics. Those were things that became salient to me while I was writing, and so they were incorporated into the novel. That being said, I was definitely aware of that idea of pigeonholing, and went into my novel wanting to show a fun (though dark because it’s my style) story of a family of Black witches and what this one girl is struggling with. That has always been the core of what I’m trying to do. So, as I added in more serious topics, I never worried about it overtaking the book, because they’re all parts of a world in which the focus is a girl grappling with how to carve out her future under the pressures of her family. 

I do think those stories that deal with trauma are important and necessary, but they’re not the only stories that we have, which I think is important. And I do think that publishing is improving in that I see more of those stories coming out now. 

An Author panel with Liselle Sambury, Chrystal D. Giles, Sarah Days, Louisa Onomé, & Shakirah Bourne

A: Luc’s status as a “sponsored” son of the NuGene CEO, Justin Tremblay, is one that bought up a larger conversation in the novel about colonialism and even, to a degree, the exploitation of children and the lack of resources (even in the future) in the Global South.

While I know your book is set primarily in Canada and references parts of the American South, will readers ever get to see where Luc grew up in Mexico to observe the toll of how magic and NuGene’s technological advancements have changed the trajectory of this area’s culture?

LS: This isn’t something that I plan for readers to see directly in that setting, but they will definitely see Luc reckoning with that system and how it affects Mexico and other countries with that program.

A: I know that you are an avid creator on #AuthorTube and have offered a lot of advice and reflections on your writing process in your vlogs. But, can you tell readers who may not be familiar with your content what the most valuable writing advice you’ve learned from writing your debut is?

LS: I have two! One is for before the book deal, and at that stage in my career the advice of being persistent was the most helpful. Sometimes it takes several books to where you want, and sometimes you need to take breaks, and that’s all part of the process, and the persistence of keeping at it is what will help you the most.

The second one is for after the book deal, and that was to focus on the one thing you can control: the writing. To write the best book you can, and to focus less on things like marketing and sales because you can’t control that. At the end of the day, you can come away knowing that you did your absolute best.

A: I saw on your YouTube page that you’re working on edits for the Blood Like Magic sequel. Is there anything you are able to share about the sequel?!

LS: The sequel will be out next year, and readers can look forward to Voya reckoning with the decisions made in the first one. We’ve also only really seen three of the five major Black witch families, and in the sequel, you’ll get to see them all. I’m really proud of what I’ve done with it and think it will be a satisfying series conclusion.

About Author

Photo of Author, Liselle Sambury
Liselle Sambury

Liselle Sambury is a Trinidadian Canadian author who grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and her brand of writing can be described as “messy Black girls in fantasy situations.” In her free time, she shares helpful tips for upcoming writers and details of her publishing journey through a YouTube channel dedicated to helping demystify the sometimes complicated business of being an author.

Books That Got Me Through My 20s (Pt. 1)

I turned thirty this Fall, and I felt super reflective. This milestone made me think about some of my favorite reads and songs that got me through my 20s.

"Golden Years": Books that I read in College - "Far From the Tree" by Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant and "Babylon Sisters" by Pearl Cleage

The "Golden Years" were about just reading water I want and passing times.

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The “Golden Years” were about just reading whatever I wanted and passing times.

Borders used to be my go-to spot on the weekend when I was at Howard University. Whenever I went to the bookstore, I would get either a Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant or Pearl Cleage book to get me through the week to read.

Before there was an online reading community to turn to for recommendations, I stayed in that one stack designated for “African-American” books in Borders, Barnes & Nobles, and Books-A-Million. Before there was an online reading community to turn to for recommendations, I stayed in that one stack designated for “African-American” books in Borders, Barnes & Nobles, and Books-A-Million. Here is where I found DeBerry & Grant and Cleage’s books. By the time I was a junior in college, I’d read these three authors’ catalogs cover to cover and was hungry for more.

If you’re a lover of Bernice McFadden books, check out DeBerry & Grant’s books. Far From the Tree is If you’re a lover of Bernice McFadden’s books, check out DeBerry & Grant’s books. Far From the Tree is my favorite from DeBerry & Grant. This book is about “sisterhood, family secrets, and the ties that bind.” Cleage writes about two sisters who inherit a house in Prosper, North Carolina. While figuring out what to do with the house, they begin to come to terms with their tangled relationship with each other and their parents.

Babylon Sisters is for readers that enjoy mysteries and doing deep dive into Southern Black culture. Cleage’s writing exists within a specific universe/neighborhood called “Wed End” that she created in Atlanta, Georgia. Babylon Sisters is the second book in the West End series where the author tackles everything from crime in the Black community, gender roles, and other social justice topics using these really intricate character studies. They’re so good because they remind me of Walter Mosley‘s books and a touch of Black Futurism type reads where characters use Black Spirituality to draw conclusions and carry out tasks. 

You have to read these books to know what I’m talking about.

Grad Years: Books that I read in Graduate School

Books Listed:
- "The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman
-"Changes: A Love Story" by Ama Ata Aidoo
-"Lucy" by Jamaica Kincaid
-"The Spook Who Sat by the Door" by Sam Greenlee

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In my “Grad Years,” I was able to read more African & Caribbean Literature

My first stint in graduate school for my Masters in Literary and Cultural Studies allowed me to go more in-depth, learning about African and Caribbean Literature and reading classics from the African-American canon I’d never been introduced to in high school. I read books, like Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo and Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, in my Globalism and Transnationalism course and did an individual study of Sam Greenlee’s Blaxploitation classic, The Spook Who Sat By the Door, for my final project. But, most importantly, this was the first time I found myself delving deep into a book when I wrote my entrance paper on The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman.

During this time, I felt super isolated since I was the only Black person in my program and felt behind since I was going into the program as a Psychology student. This lead me to constantly fall behind in my reading and constantly feel disconnected while I was in the program.

The one thing that I loved about the program was taking courses with my favorite professor at the time, whose specialty was Postcolonial Studies. In her class, it was the only time I felt myself coming alive and being excited to read.

My favorite book that I studied during that year was Aidoo’s book, where I got to look at feminism and woman’s rights from the perspective of Ghanaian Literature. Getting to see how Aidoo used Changes: A Love Story to talk about intimate relationships and gender roles through the lens of another culture from the Diaspora were eye-opening and made me curious about African Literature.

Reading Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid was one of the first times I felt myself becoming possessive of a character. I remember one instance where I ended up verbally sparring with my classmates about Lucy’s character and her choices in contrast to her white employer. Having to defend Lucy’s character against my classmate’s ire was one of the first times I found myself experiencing the fact that I, as a Black woman, experience life and literature differently than my white peers.

London: Books I read Studying Abroad

Books featured:
-"White Teeth" by Zadie Smith
-"Quicksand" and "Passing" by Nella Larsen

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London is one of the first study abroad trips I took as a college student that involved literature specifically

If I could give anyone advice to someone in their 20s who has the means, I would say to try and get out of your comfort zone and travel to new places. If you can, travel and travel widely.

Throughout my time in school, I’ve had the chance to travel to three locations to study abroad as student. As an undergraduate, I went to Florence, Italy and London, England to study film and literature for a semester as a junior and senior. During my graduate education, I spent the summer learning about social work practices and social justice issues in Prague, Czech Republic.

My favorite experience by far is the Fall semester I spent as a senior in London. During this semester, I read Zadie Smith for the first time and Nella Larsen, which my best friend introduced me to when we were Sophomores by gifting me a copy of her novels, Passing & Quicksand.

Going to London was amazing because I got to experience theatre and literature almost every day in a way where it was integrated into my studies and curriculum. In our courses, we’d follow the paths of literary greats’ journeys throughout the city and connect them to our interests. My semester in London was the first time I ever got to see an August Wilson play performed live or saw a Shakespeare play with colorblind casting. Experiencing these types of art after having spent almost two years at a PWI where I rarely read any literature from the African Diaspora was refreshing.

"Digging Deeper": Books that provided foundational knowledge

Books Mentioned:
-"Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Paulo Freire
-"Black Skin White Masks" by Frantz Fanon
-"On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century" by Timothy Snyder

Caption: My 20's involved learning how to approach knowledge differently than in my teens.

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My 20’s involved learning how to approach knowledge differently than in my teens.

You know when we talk about older generations living through technology shifts and how seeing all those tech innovations must have affected them in their lifetimes? I was randomly thinking about this and how by the time I was in college, social media was embedded into our global culture and a part of our daily lives to the point it was becoming taught in certain curriculums.

Technology affected my life in many ways, but I’ve seen the greatest impact on my reading. In college, I was an avid YouTube watcher. I would usually spend my nights watching YouTube videos instead of doing homework or as entertainment in college and graduate school, and this lead me to join BookTube in 2011.

During that brief stint as a content creator on YouTube, I realize how many genres I’d neglected as a reader from watching other bibliophiles across the world. This time period lead me to delve deeper into reading theory books I’d just started hearing about in graduate school. It also made me read more diversely and intentionally.

The first theory book I’d ever tackled on my own was Black Skin White Masks by Frantz Fanon. This was a book I read chapter by chapter in the library. I was so proud of myself because I remember having to go over each line annotating Fanon’s words with my dictionary and Google search tab open to guide my way. Finishing this text made me feel super confident as a reader. Through posting about Fanon’s book in 2015-ish, I connected with my current reading group, with who I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. From there, I’ve read a lot of other theory books, with the above two being my favorites, along with On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder.

Readers, what’s your favorite books that you’ve read over the last ten years?

Interview With Debbie Rigaud, Author of Simone Breaks All the Rules

The Book

Late bloomers unite! Simone Breaks All the Rules fresh and funny #OwnVoices novel from rising star Debbie Rigaud is perfect for fans of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Booksmart.

Cover of "Simone Breaks All the Rules" by Debbie Rigaud
Cover of “Simone Breaks All the Rules” by Debbie Rigaud


Simone Thibodeaux’s life is sealed in a boy-proof container.

Her strict Haitian immigrant parents enforce no-dating rules and curfews, and send Simone to an all-girls school. As for prom? Simone is allowed to go on one condition: her parents will select her date (a boy from a nice Haitian immigrant family, obviously).

Simone is desperate to avoid the humiliation of the set up — especially since she’s crushing on a boy she knows her parents wouldn’t approve of. With senior year coming to a close, Simone makes a decision. She and her fellow late-bloomer friends will create a Senior Year Bucket List of all the things they haven’t had a chance to do. On the list: kissing a boy, sneaking out of the house, skipping class (gasp!), and, oh yeah — choosing your own prom date.

But as the list takes on a life of its own, things get more complicated than Simone expected. She’ll have to discover which rules are worth breaking, and which will save her from heartbreak. 

Author Interviews

Can you tell me a little about your writing process and inspiration behind Simone Breaks All the Rules?

It’s a pleasure to speak to you. Certainly, I can tell you. This is a book that has been on my heart for years. It was just about a decade ago that I wrote a very rough draft of the prologue, which is like Simone’s whole origin story. And over the years, I built the plot, tore it down and rebuilt another. This is one of those books I had to let out my system, particularly after the summer I had multiple conversations with friends about growing up in overprotected households. We exchanged war stories and laughed a lot, but underneath the laughter was a lot of head shaking and even some bitterness. I wanted to explore those feelings around the matter more.

A: Simone has a strong community built around her as the child of Haitian immigrants, and with her squad of friends, she calls the “HomeGirls.” How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and setting in your novel?

To me, community is a network of familes coexisting and becoming interconnected by extension. I say families, but I mean that in all forms of “related” people. But communities don’t necessarily have to be place-based. They also can be connected by common experiences, common interests or goals. I leaned on this aspect of community as I wrote the book. Yes, Simone is from the Haitian-American community, but by strongly relating to her HomeGirls, she finds an emotional home in their welcoming, newly-formed late bloomer community.

A: Were the items on the bucket list inspired by any real-life events from your teenage years? If so, did you have any experiences that were your favorite to use for Simone and the HomeGirls?

Like Simone, I was raised in a strict but joyful Haitian-American household, and during my teen years, I’d marvel at all the things friends were allowed to do and go. TV shows with teen house party scenes,  dates, etc. especially had me wondering whether other teens were really out there living their best life. Simone’s bucket list includes a couple of those best life events I yearned for. Simone gets to experience way more than I did, which was fun to write. But that feeling of watching the clock when you’re having an adventure, and coming up with alibis and yes, lies to throw your parents off your scent, are very much pulled from my own experiences.

I Read YA North Texas Teen Panel

A: I was watching a live stream you were a part of for the I Read YA North Texas Teen Panel from March, and Leah Johnson said something that really resonated with me about your novel, which was that it is “so culturally specific without feeling voyeuristic.” This assessment felt so spot on because Simone’s love of her Haitian culture and how you use the Haitian Creole dialect and history inspired me to want to look up all the cultural references from your book. Was there a greater role you wanted your usage of the Haitian Creole language and Haitian history to play in reader’s understanding of your novel?

Even though Simone isn’t fluent in Haitian Creole, nor does she speak it all that much, she understands the language fairly well. From the perspective of someone a generation removed from their parent’s country, language has a way of interplaying with emotions. It’s a wildly expressive outlet, because your parent may only speak it when you’re in trouble, for example. I wanted to convey that in this book because it deals with so many hot button emotional triggers. No one can rile you up or make you catch the fuzzy feels more than a parent or guardian who knows you best. You’ll find that Creole or Kreyol punctuates the more contentious or humorous scenes. And not to worry, I had to look up some of the phrases while writing this. Plus I consulted with a language scholar of Haitian descent, who read over the book. Shout out to Professor Cécile Accilien!

A: Even though there is a slight “tug of war” between what Simone wants and what her parents desire for her, Simone remains mindful of how much her parents have sacrificed for her as immigrants. As a parent yourself, how did you go about writing this balance into your story when writing from the perspective of a teenager?

Interesting that you mention it, because there is this balance of carrying two buckets—one that draws from my teen years and the other from the well of adult/parental experience. A lot of times I tipped that balance in favor of teen me. Even during the audiobook recording, which I narrated, you may hear in my voice when those feelings bubbled up. I felt a lot closer to a teen than a parent in those moments. The teen part of me was still very much present in those moments. It was a sweet reminder that no matter how adult you are, you’ll always be a child to the one who raised you.

A: There’s been a lot of talks lately in the book-o-sphere about this idea that publishers are pigeonholing Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color (BIPOC) into writing stories based around “trauma” because many publishing houses deem this as the key to bestsellers. What I found so refreshing about your work as a Black woman is that Simone’s story allows her to have the type of “ideal teenaged experience” that I’ve always seen on television or in rom-coms. Why was it essential for you to tell Simone’s story from this angle?

Cover of "Truly Madly Royally" by Debbie Rigaud
Cover of Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud

It is because of the diverse body of work Black kid lit authors who came before me that I am able to ground Simone’s story in this much joy. Their work showed the world that we are more than our trauma. Their characters knew terrible heartache, but also sweet joy. Their voices spoke of our ambitions, even if those ambitions remained tragically out of reach. It’s a privilege to be able to give Simone the space to work on herself, express her desires and claim her ambitions. Just like a lot of her white counterparts in kid lit, she is not so overburdened by the trauma threatening her existence that the act of indulging a prom fantasy is a luxury. And even if something traumatic were to befall her, it would be clear that she is so much more than her trauma. And this is also thanks to writers who are still engaged in the labor of birthing Black characters who view themselves through their own eyes.

A: On the Writer Writer Pants On Fire Podcast, you and Mindy McGinnis talk about how YA authors are called to help in “guarding the hearts of young people” as your write. You do an excellent job at pairing social justice with romance in your books, like Zora in Truly Madly Royally and Ben’s character in Simone Breaks All the Rules, without turning them into a trauma-filled narrative. 

How do you approach striking such a well-rounded balance in your writing that allows readers to be informed without centering trauma as an author or for your readers?

Thank you for that feedback; I appreciate it. I write contemporary, and just like all of us, my characters aren’t immune to the times we live in. They are impacted by society and a part of them is understandably shaped by society. They contribute to society in ways that align with their interests and personalities. Keeping all this in mind helps me touch on social justice themes in a way that is accessible to the reader. 

YouTube Episode of Writer Writer Pants On Fire with Mindy McGinnis

A: Do you have any advice for young writers or tools that you’d recommend for them?

My advice is to recognize the storytelling happening all around you. Studying storytelling in all forms and on all platforms can help you become a better writer. In the same way your education and training happens in and out of the classroom, writing instruction comes from the world of literature and outside of it. Pay attention to storytelling in all forms and in all the platforms that interest you. Why is there a strong emotional connection to a particular story? What makes the voice so engaging, the characters so layered? It’s a fun exercise and you’ll get great at identifying what storytelling structures and themes work and don’t work for you!

A: Thank you for answering my questions and sharing your art with us, Mrs. Rigaud! I can’t wait to read your next story!

Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions. It’s been a pleasure connecting. 😀

About the Author

Author, Debbie Rigaud
Author, Debbie Rigaud

YA author Debbie M. Rigaud began her writing career covering news and entertainment for magazines. She’s interviewed celebs, politicians, social figures and “real” girls. Her writing has appeared in Seventeen, CosmoGIRL!, Essence, J-14, Trace, Heart&Soul and Vibe Vixen, to name a few. Her first YA fiction writing was published in the anthology HALLWAY DIARIES (KimaniTru Press/September 2007). 

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender #BookReview #UnpopularOpinion

Disclaimer: All opinions that follow in this review are my commentary on the fictional characters I name and not the social groups that the characters represent regarding gender identity or ethnic cultures

I checked Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender out from the library almost four times and tried to finish it to no avail and eventually ended up DNFing it at about 57% because through Felix’s actions and verbal and internal dialogue made this character out to be a horrible person as a friend and a son.

Cover of "Felix Ever After" by Kacen Callender
Cover of “Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender

How Felix was able to idolize the parent who left while treating the one who stayed and sacrificed so completely for him was beyond me. This character treated his dad like crap and didn’t allow him the grace that Felix so readily demanded for himself, and that made me so angry at Felix since his dad was literally jumping through hoops trying to give him the most comfortable lifestyle (e.g., expensive tuition & hormone therapy) he could on a limited budget.

Unlike Felix’s mom, the dad stayed and was trying so hard to support Felix every step of the way. He made one mistake in mentioning Felix’s dead name through a Freudian slip, and Felix went off the deep end. Int hat moment, Felix didn’t offer his father the grace of trying to understand that just as he was questioning his new reality, his dad was also getting used to having a son who had transitioned. The dad even immediately apologized right after making a mistake, but Felix leaves the house and doesn’t until chapters later and the discussion is never really resolved.

Callender also does this thing where diversity appears to have been inserted into their novel to check boxes as opposed to adding depth to their story which causes the characters to be caricatures and only written at surface level.

For example, Felix’s best friend is a “Patel.” This allows him to make him generically rich, as is the stereotype in America for people with this last name (at least where I live). They add that the BFF is also generically pansexual and just “bonds with the soul” of his lover while being promiscuous. This promiscuity bleeds into the stereotype the author writes into the LGBTQ+ characters in their book. Here, Callender leans heavily into making most of the queer characters they write avid drug users and has them all swapping sexual partners within their friend group throughout the book. These tropes all feel very generic and lazy when executed in Felix Ever After because the author doesn’t examine any of these topics further in the narrative and just leaves it up to readers to chalk these tropes up to teenage angst.

Author, Kacen Callender
Author, Kacen Callender

My biggest issue, though, is nothing about Felix feels concrete ethnicity-wise. He’s supposed to be Latinx and African-American. Yet, the way he back talks and runs away constantly without his dad even trying to put boundaries on him or at the very least acknowledging the disrespect of the house rules feels unauthentic. I’ve yet to meet anyone in a Latinx or African-American household who’d ever be able to get away with this regardless of our class level. And while I admit my reality is not indicative of the Latinx or African-American experience in its totality, Felix’s character felt very surface level and as if it was built around racial tropes.

My major issue with Callender’s book, though, is Felix’s entitlement. Felix spends over 3/4 of Callender’s books feeling entitled to an art scholarship to Brown University over his peers when he RARELY goes to class and is never shown creating any art of quality. Yet, he constantly harps on others who are creating art and being praised by their teachers. 

And this is where this book started to fall apart for me. 

Felix has this thought process that only he is deserving of grace. He doesn’t extend it to his nemesis, who is a better artist than him, because he puts in the effort and time to work on his craft. He doesn’t extend it to his best friend who didn’t ask to be rich or get to choose his parents and the opportunities he’s been given. Nor does he extend grace to his father, who breaks his back to provide him with all the comforts, like hormone therapy and the ability to live as his true self without ridicule, that other transgendered teens would kill to have.

In spite of all this, Felix feels everyone should extend grace to him regardless of how foul he treats others.

My last straw with this book came when Felix decided to catfish his nemesis without proof and attempted to ruin the other boy’s life out of jealousy and spite. Even when his BFF pointed out that he had no obvious proof that his nemesis outed him, Felix doesn’t back down. Instead, he blames the nemesis for no other reason than his nemesis has been “mean” to him by pointing out the obvious fact that Felix is never working toward his goal of a Brown acceptance by creating any actual art. Why no one ever backs the nemesis up on this obvious point is beyond me.

I know many people will counter the above points by saying Felix is a teenager, and this book has meant so much to the Trans community. And I want to speak to the latter point, I understand how comforting this book is, and I take nothing away from that. However, no one should be allowed to be so selfish and emotionally violent toward others regardless of how marginalized their voices are. 

Felix is a toxic character that gets given unfathomable amounts of grace to wreak emotional havoc on his community because of his character’s background of trauma, which is not healthy in the least. 

I truly wanted to love this book as much as the hype, but Felix’s behavior left a bad taste in my mouth, so that I couldn’t recommend this book to anyone in good faith as a mental health advocate.

"What to read Next" banner

Now, if you want a book that gets trans and Latinx representation correct, check out Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Cover of "Cemetery Boys" by Aidan Thomas
Cover of “Cemetery Boys” by Aidan Thomas

Thomas’ book follows Yadriel, a young wannabe brujo, as he attempts to complete a ritual to join his family and participate in the Brujeria traditions. Unfortunately, not everyone in his family accepts his decision or his identity as a transgender male. To prove everyone wrong, Yadriel attempts to complete his ritualistic rite of passage alone and inadvertently summons the ghost of Julian Diaz, his school’s resident bad boy.

Cemetery Boys gave me everything I wanted in a book! I especially loved that the trans representation was multifaceted and layered. The Latinx representation and aspects of Brujeria culture also had me hype. I was also happy to see that Thomas handled the “toxic” traits in his characters, like Yadriel’s family not accepting his trans identity with care. Moments where Thomas shows Yadriel’s family not accepting his identity felt nuanced and realistically on the family and Yadriel’s end, which was my biggest gripe with Callendar’s book.

Now, I will say that I guessed who the villain in Cemetery Boys was within the first 30 pages or so and their motivation for committing the killings. However, it didn’t take away from the story or the tension between the two main characters. 

Regardless, read this book now! 

Interview With Tanaz Bhathena, Author of The Wrath of Amber Duology

Author, Tanaz Bhathena
Author, Tanaz Bhathena

Adira: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to me about The Wrath of Ambar duology, Ms. Bhathena!

Tanaz Bhathena: Thanks for reading the books and your thoughtful questions! ❤

A: Can you tell me a little about your writing process and the inspiration behind writing Hunted By the Sky and Rising Like a Storm? Was the process for the two novels similar to each other or to when you wrote your contemporary novels, A Girl Like That and The Beauty of the Moment

TB: In terms of the inspiration for HUNTED and RISING: I really wanted to write a fantasy series that was set in medieval India, a historical period that I was obsessed with as a teen. I also wanted to bring fierce girls and women to the forefront of the narrative; I was very inspired by a North Indian welfare organization called the Gulabi Gang, which had vigilante roots. 

Photo of Sampat Pal Devi & the Gulabi Gang

Source: Gulabi Gang website
Sampat Pal Devi & the Gulabi Gang

On the writing process for the duology: In terms of plot and characterization, it was not very different from writing a contemporary novel. The main difference really was with the worldbuilding, which was really quite fun and also a process that required a lot of thinking as this was a secondary world historical fantasy and not historical fiction. Though historical accuracy isn’t paramount in such fantasy, in many ways, it can be more challenging as you really need a deep knowledge of the world you’re developing and have to think about using your research in creative and inventive ways. 

A: My favorite part of reading your duology was how rich and layered the setting and magic system of Ambar was. How did you go about researching and carrying out your world-building for Ambar? Were there any specific books or resources you drew upon when you created the magic system and mythology for the duology?

TB: Thank you! I used primary historical sources such as Ayeen Akbary by Abul Fazal Mobarak and reading historical non-fiction by authors like Ruby Lal, Abraham Eraly, and William Dalrymple. I also researched museum archives online, and made dozens of secret Pinterest boards about Mughal and Rajput miniature paintings, clothing, jewelry, and weapons. 

Cover of "Hunted By The Sky" by Tanaz Bhathena
Cover of “Hunted By The Sky” by Tanaz Bhathena

I used existing mythology from Hindu and Zoroastrian sources (such as the Mahabharat and the Shahnameh) to create my own myths and magical creatures. I also took inspiration from a popular Indian mythical trope of the avatar: where gods take on human or animal forms and come down to earth. My magic system is more of a soft magic system, which doesn’t have hard rules, but there is a definite logic to how it works. Magic also comes at a deep cost to its users. 

A: Your story is told through a split narrative between Gul, the series “Chosen One,” and Cavas, her love interest that has his own checkered past. What was your inspiration behind creating these two different characters, and did you find it hard to balance them against one another to build up to their romance and the plot twist that comes in Rising Like a Storm?

TB: I love writing multiple perspectives, so I knew from the beginning that there would be at least two if not more characters narrating this series. Both Gul and Cavas are important voices to this series because both are being persecuted in different ways. Their unique perspectives add layers to the book that wouldn’t otherwise be evident through a single person narrator. 

A: As an aspiring mental health worker, I appreciated how well you approached the topic of trauma in your books, especially in Rising Like a Storm, in regard to Gul and Cavas and how they handled what could be seen as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as they are pushed into the new roles of leading the charge against the Sky King and their enemies. Why did you feel it was necessary to take the characters through the process of acknowledging and grieving their losses before you allowed Gul to unlock her magic and pushed Cavas to face new dangers?

TB: When you write about something as immense as a political revolution or a war, you need to also reveal the physical and mental toll it takes on people. I feel it’s important for readers to see that courage isn’t inherent, that it takes time to develop. Gul and Cavas facing their fears is pivotal to the storyline, but that could only happen once they understood why those fears existed in the first place. 

Drawing of the Sisters of the Golden Lotus by artist, Aishwarya Tandon

Source: Aishwarya Tandon & FierceReads.com
Drawing of the Sisters of the Golden Lotus by artist, Aishwarya Tandon

A: A large part of Gul and Cavas’ storylines is their families and the communities they draw on to prepare to fight the Sky King and their other enemies. How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote your main characters and side characters, like the Sisters of the Golden Lotus, and areas such as the Tenements, in your duology? 

TB: Community to me is about family—the one you’re born into or the one you find for yourself—and this definitely plays into the storyline. While I was placing my characters in difficult situations, I also wanted to show them having support systems: they were not entirely alone. 

A: As a lover of the fantasy genre and a child of the 90s who had a limited amount of reading material in the fantasy genre that centered on characters with Black, Indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC) who I could relate to, your mantra of “decolonizing [the] imagination” to not center the West rings so true to me. An area where I saw this happening is in your usage of language throughout The Wrath of Ambar duology. Was there a conscious choice on you and your editor’s part not to go the traditional route of italicizing or explaining phrases for Western readers that aren’t English? If so, is there a significant role you wanted language to play in your novels and world-building? 

Drawing of Gul & Cavas, the main characters in The. Wrath of Ambar duology done by Aishwarya Tandon

Source: Aishwarya Tandon & FierceReads.com
Drawing of Gul & Cavas, the main characters in The. Wrath of Ambar duology done by Aishwarya Tandon

TB: Yes, it was a conscious choice on our parts to not italicize non-English words—doing so felt like othering them. Language is a huge part of worldbuilding as it’s a gateway into a place and its people and their culture. I wanted readers to feel like they were in an Indian-inspired setting and language was a big way to bring in that immersive experience.

A: Keeping with the topic of “decolonizing imagination,” I watched a panel you did with the Carl Brandon Society called “Our Literary Mothers – Desi Authors on Influence and Inspiration,” and a topic that really resonated with me from that panel was how you and your fellow Desi panelists point out that as authors of color, you’re each telling your stories even when you draw on cultural mythology. However, you’re not always going into the writing process to “teach” the reader about your race or culture or to act as a spokesperson for any one marginalized group you belong to. As an author, have you ever felt pigeonholed to mold your writing to the will of what you think the reader may want or to protect the image of your culture or religion while staying true to the integrity of the stories your writing?

TB: All the time. It’s really a delicate balance—staying true and authentic for readers who are familiar with a culture, while also trying to be as clear as possible for those who aren’t. One thing I like to do is leave clues within a sentence to help readers interpret what a word means, without dumbing things down. I also add a glossary at the end because I feel it’s a nice little reference for readers who want to know more about the culture and it can be their starting point to Google and YouTube deep dives!

Carl Brandon Society Talk – Our Literary Mothers: Desi Authors on Influence and Inspiration Salon

A: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers or resources that you’d recommend to help perfect the craft of writing?

TB: Advice: Finish the book, it won’t write itself. 

Cover of "Rising Like A Storm" by Tanaz Bhathena
Cover of “Rising Like A Storm” by Tanaz Bhathena

A couple of resources: Absolute Write Water CoolerPoets & Writers. But the best advice I can give is read a lot of books! You will learn more from reading books than you will from any creative writing class. 

A: I loved The Wrath of Ambar duology and am sad the series has ended. Are you working on any other books I can put on my TBR List?

TB: I’m hoping to be able to announce something in the coming year. 😁

A: What’s on your Summer TBR Reading List?

TB: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

and Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee.

Thank you for your time, Ms. Bhathena!

Rising Like A Storm is out now!

 

A Woman in Her Prime by Asare Konadu #BookReview

Cover of A Woman in Her Prime by Asare Konadu
Cover of A Woman in Her Prime by Asare Konadu

If you’re looking for a “Backlist” read from the African Diaspora, look no further than A Woman In Her Prime by Asare Konadu. This Ghanaian Lit novel centers around the coming of age of Pokuwaa, an industrious farmer from a traditional African village, as she attempts to conceive.

Coming in at a mere 107 pages, this book is excellent for readers who are looking to read something short this week without feeling overwhelmed by their page count. 

The drama in A Woman In Her Prime centers around infertility. However, the way Konadu describes the daily activity of Brenhoma, the village Pokuwaa lives in, readers come to understand Pokuwaa’s infertility is not the main focus of the book. Instead, we see the various interpersonal relationships within Brenhoma and get a feel for how every character that’s introduced fits into village life.

The author also explores the role of traditional religious practices in the character’s lives, the “seasons” of the village as they move from harvest to planting and back, and even inserts a brief mystery to push the story forward. All these topics and actions are condensed within what could technically be considered a novella.

Author, Asare Konadu
Author, Asare Konadu

I think what most pleasantly surprises me about this book is that while Konadu positions Pokuwaa as having infertility issues, he does not make this her only characteristic in the story. Likewise, outside of a few characters, he does not let the villagers of Brenhoma harass Pokuwaa about the particulars of her womb. And these two attributes of his story were refreshing because it felt as if he not only understood that Pokuwaa is more than her womb, but as a male author he showed significantly more empathy for his character than I was expecting from him as a writer.

A Woman in Her Prime shows how important a woman’s role is in society is as the vessel of life even though society can often strip a woman of her agency. By emphasizing the traditional religious sacrifices and gender norms Pokuwaa goes through as she’s trying to conceive, Konadu allows room for commentary on the psychological toll infertility can take on a woman and her partner.

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My 2020 Instagram post for The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin
My 2020 Instagram post for The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

If you’ve read this novel before, I’d suggest following up with The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta and The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. Each of these stories deal with infertility in women from the African Diaspora.

I’ve done a blog post for The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives which you can check out earlier on my blog and even added some additional books you may enjoy to follow up with. Check it out and tell me if you’ve read any of the books in the comment section.

My 2015 Instagram Post of "The Joys of Motherhood" by Buchi Emecheta
My 2015 Instagram Post of The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta

I read Emecheta’s book in 2015 and was BLOWN away by how simplistic the writing was. The story follows a woman named, Nnu Ego, as she grows from being a young woman in her father’s compound all the way up until she has kids of her own and onto her passing. Subjects like colonialization, women’s rights in Africa, and how cultural religion is carried out versus the colonizer’s religion are all talked about in The Joys of Motherhood. A lot of critics compare this book to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, but If you enjoyed Beloved by Toni Morrison, you’ll definitely enjoy Emecheta’s book.

Readers, have you heard of any of these books before?