What was the last book you read that reminded you of yourself?
When I was in high school, my parents paid for me to go on a class trip to Europe. On the trip, I had my first real taste of a world that was culturally different from my own.
Upon my return home, I couldn’t stop talking about this trip, & I found some way to always tie the conversation back to what I had seen while I was away. Fed up, my father finally told me, that he hadn’t sent me there to come back & question he & my mother or the life they were providing for me.
I was stunned. In my mind, I’d only been sharing my observations about the vastness of the world. But to my father, I had presented my observations in juxtaposition to the life he & my mother had provided me, & this was akin to blasphemy to my proud African-American parents. This experience mirrors Tee’s awakening in Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge.
Published in 1970, Hodge’s novel is celebrated as a significant work in the Caribbean Literature canon. Set in Trinidad, Hodge’s story is a coming of age story of Tee, a young girl who is shuffled between two aunts’ houses. Tee’s Aunt Tantie and Aunt Beatrice represent the working & upwardly mobile classes of Trinidad & Tobago, respectively, & both vie for a chance to raise Tee & shape her views on the world.
While this novel is not “action-packed,” it made me think of how forcibly “whiteness” gets thrust upon Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. We as minorities often never question ourselves or our cultural traditions until we’re sent to be educated in White spaces or come in contact with a White person who strips us of our humanity.
Watching Tee’s views of places she loves unravel as she‘s forced to try to move closer to an ideal of wealth & whiteness that‘s ever present on her island helped me began to understand why my father rebuked me waxing poetic about Europe so long ago.
Fans of Netflix’s On My Block and readers of Elizabeth Acevedo and Angie Thomas will love this debut novel about a girl whose life is turned upside down after one local act of vandalism throws both her relationships and neighborhood into turmoil.
Chinelo, or Nelo as her best friend Kate calls her, is all about her neighborhood Ginger East. She loves its chill vibe, ride-or-die sense of community, and the memories she has growing up there with her friends. Ginger East isn’t what it used to be though. After a deadly incident at the local arcade, most of her friends’ families moved away. Kate, whose family owns the local corner store, is still there and as long as that stays constant, Nelo’s good.
When Kate’s parent’s store is vandalized and the vandal still at large, Nelo is shaken to her core. And then the police and the media get involved and more of the outside world descends upon Ginger East with promises to “fix the neighborhood.” Suddenly, Nelo finds herself in the middle of a drama unfolding on a national scale.
Worse yet, Kate is acting strange. She’s pushing Nelo away at the exact moment they need each other most. Now Nelo’s entire world is morphing into something she hates and she must figure out how to get things back on track or risk losing everything–and everyone–she loves.
A: Congratulations on your debut novel, Like Home, Ms. Onomé! What was the process like writing your first book?
LO: Thank you! The process was honestly pretty fun. I love every stage of writing a book because I tend to treat them as separate opportunities to fine-tune a story. When I was drafting, I had the most fun making things up and throwing things together to see what stuck. My process is a little chaotic. When I was revising (which I learned to do effectively while writing this book), I enjoyed asking myself tougher questions about how each character or each plot point was showing up. Overall, it was such a great learning experience.
A: The neighborhood of Ginger East felt so authentic to the story you’re telling about gentrification and coming of age in a place that others have written off as being “rundown” or “unfavorable.” Did you have any specific places that inspired the creation of Ginger East?
LO: Ginger East was loosely inspired by the neighbourhood I grew up in just west of Toronto. While the place I lived was more residential and had a mix of household incomes, it also had a growing immigrant population and was enriched by the experiences people brought to the neighbourhood. I was honestly very fortunate to have had that experience.
A: There is a strong sense of community that Chinelo constantly references within Like Home. How would you define community and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote Chinelo and the characters of Ginger East in your novel?
LO: I define community as a place where you are seen and heard for who you authentically are. As such, Nelo really feels at home in Ginger East, not only because she grew up there and doesn’t know anywhere else, but because the people there understand her as well as she understands the area. It was important for me to define it that way because sometimes, as shown in Like Home, we live in communities where not everyone has our backs, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a part of the fabric of that neighbourhood.
During the lecture, Lee touched on how gentrification was ruining the local neighborhoods in the boroughs of New York City in his rant asking, “Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?… What about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore!”
Why was it so important for Chinelo, a sixteen-year-old teenager, to evoke the same disdain and possessiveness over the gentrification of her Ginger East community in your novel as Spike Lee, a then fifty-seven-year-old man, did for his neighborhood of Fort Greene?
LO: That’s such a great quote! In Like Home, Nelo’s possessiveness comes strictly from her inability to accept change. She’s sixteen and all she knows is the place she grew up. To see it change so brazenly without any regard for the people who live there, her family and friends, it begins to make sense how she would have such anger over new businesses moving in or rent prices increasing. Something she knows so well is being pulled out from underneath her by people she knows don’t care about people like her. That feeling of being neglected, of not really being seen, is a strong pain point for her and I think is something a lot of marginalized people can relate to.
A: In the same vein, Chinelo is facing an uphill battle trying to convince people in her age and friend group that fighting against Ginger East’s gentrification is important. This is in direct opposition to Maree, one of Chinelo’s ex-best friends, who becomes a social media influencer and capitalizes off her connection to what she deems her “old trashy neighborhood.” Why was it essential for you to include a character like Maree in Like Home and the discussion of gentrification in contrast to Chinelo?
LO: Great question! It was important to me because a lot of us have to deal with people like Maree in our daily lives. There is a recognition there, unfortunately. Maree represents the largest block that Chinelo has to face when it comes to attitudes about Ginger East and places like it: apathy. It’s one thing to try and change a place, but it’s harder to try and change someone’s mind. Chinelo believes if more people cared, then it would be possible to make a difference, but Maree exists in direct opposition to that in many ways.
A: Black girlhood is a multi-faceted thing that can hold joy and beauty. However, it also can be a scary time in a Black girl’s life. Like Home strikes this wonderful chord where it is perfectly nostalgic of what being a teenager is like in the age of social media while also honoring the fact that Chinelo’s character is the child of immigrants and held to a different standard than others in her age group maybe. Were there any parts of your childhood as a Nigerian-Canadian author that you used as inspiration to writing Chinelo’s character?
LO: Yes I agree! It’s such a delicate time, but so multi-faceted. There were small instances I mined from my experience as a Nigerian-Canadian that I put into Nelo’s experiences, such as the chain messages from family, but not a lot of overt things. Instead, her Nigerian-Canadian identity is more in her way of being and existing in the world. I guess it’s like that for everybody, though.
A: In a blog post you did for the “Her Story: Ladies in Literature” series on Pop Goes the Reader’s last year, you made mention of the fact that when reading, you “[identify] with the quieter characters; ones whose motivations maybe are subtler, or ones who aren’t at the forefront of a conflict….[since] our motivations aren’t always lived out loud.”
This quote really resonated with me because when reading about Chinelo, her character felt relatable. There’s a debate currently in the book community about how #OwnVoices authors are often asked to draw on traumatic or stereotypical experiences to get published, which does not always leave room for a “quiet character” in areas like Black Literature. Did you feel any pressure to make Chinelo or the story you wrote fit into either of these categories?
LO: Thank you, I’m so happy to hear that resonated with you. I’m thankful in that I didn’t feel that kind of pressure to make Chinelo anything other than who she is. I modelled her after the girls I had seen and the girl I had been growing up in the Greater Toronto Area. I know so many Chinelos. She’s not an uncommon figure around here: someone who has opinions, doesn’t always speak when spoken to, and prioritizes her friends and family above all else. I didn’t want to write a character who was meant to be some sort of martyr or one-size-fits-all representation for Black girls, because as we know, Black people aren’t a monolith. I hope readers can find comfort in knowing that even though Chinelo isn’t necessarily what you’d expect of a YA protagonist, she still has value.
A: Often, when I’m reading stories about activism in YA, it feels as if it’s taking place in a parallel universe based on how outlandish the methods and situations authors give their characters to carry out. Yet, the way you write about the grassroots movement Chinelo and her community put together to protest the gentrification of Ginger East feels very “do-able.” Is there a message about community involvement and activism that you want readers to take from Like Home?
LO: Yes, for sure. Oftentimes, labels can be somewhat daunting for those of us who just want to help in any way we can. I’d love for readers to take away the fact that all forms of help are different, and you don’t need to have the loudest voice to move the needle. I think it’s important to recognize that starting where you are, doing what you feel most comfortable with, is still good enough.
A: What are some of your writing influences or authors you deem as “must-reads?”
LO: My biggest writing influences are usually music or video games, because I love to try and recapture emotions. But also, I’m such a fan of Nicola Yoon’s work. I think her writing is so sincere and so magical. I’m a big fan of the characterization in Mary H.K. Choi’s work too.
A: What advice would you give to young writers looking to break into the publishing industry?
LO: Just like with reaching out and helping with causes you care about, it’s important with writing to start where you are. Write what makes you happy, write what makes you sad, write easy things, write hard things, find readers you can trust, take feedback, leave feedback, grow, continue to learn. Be as ready as possible for when your number is called, because it will be!
Thank you so much for your time and for the opportunity to interview you, Ms. Onomé!
Thank you to Harper Teen, Simon Teen, and Mahogany L. Browne for allowing me to receive finishing copies of the following books. Originally, these novels were meant for my Instagram Kwanzaa Giveaway. But, I wanted to give back to my subscribers for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Synopsis: This coming-of-age debut novel explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King Riots. Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year. Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.
As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?
Synopsis: A novel-in-verse about a young girl coming-of-age and stepping out of the shadow of her former best friend. Perfect for readers of Elizabeth Acevedo and Nikki Grimes.
She looks me hard in my eyes & my knees lock into tree trunks My eyes don’t dance like my heartbeat racing They stare straight back hot daggers. I remember things will never be the same. I remember things.
With gritty and heartbreaking honesty, Mahogany L. Browne delivers a novel-in-verse about broken promises, fast rumors, and when growing up means growing apart from your best friend.
Synopsis: Justin A. Reynolds, author of Opposite of Always, delivers another smart, funny, and powerful stand-alone YA contemporary novel, with a speculative twist in which Jamal’s best friend is brought back to life after a freak accident . . . but they only have a short time together before he will die again.
Jamal’s best friend, Q, doesn’t know he’s about to die . . . again.
He also doesn’t know that Jamal tried to save his life, rescuing him from drowning only to watch Q die later in the hospital. Even more complicated, Jamal and Q haven’t been best friends in two years—not since Jamal’s parents died in a car accident, leaving him and his sister to carry on without them. Grief swallowed Jamal whole, and he blamed Q for causing the accident.
But what if Jamal could have a second chance? An impossible chance that would grant him the opportunity to say goodbye to his best friend? A new health-care technology allows Q to be reanimated—brought back to life like the old Q again. But there’s a catch: Q will only reanimate for a short time before he dies . . . forever.
Jamal is determined to make things right with Q, but grief is hard to shake. And he can’t tell Q why he’s suddenly trying to be friends with him again. Because Q has no idea that he died, and Q’s mom is not about to let anyone ruin the miracle by telling him. How can Jamal fix his friendship with Q if he can’t tell him the truth?
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Over the last month, I had the chance to read Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam thanks to the kindness of Harper Collins and Karina @AFirePages. As an avid Ibi Zoboi fan and an admirer of the tenacity of the Exonerated Five, getting an ARC of this book was one of the highlights of my year.
Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam book follows the story of Amal, a sixteen-year-old Black artist, who is convicted of a crime of aggravated assault against a White boy. But, Amal’s real crime stems from being born Black.
Thus, when readers see Amal claiming his innocence in court and being convicted to a harsh sentence at a young age, it hurts. As a minority reader, you will more than likely not only remember Dr. Yusef and the Exonerated Five’s case, but probably can also relate to Amal’s plight because you remember the a loved one or friend who’s also experienced harsh sentencing and lost years behind bars.
What I enjoyed most about this #OwnVoice novel in verse is that it is not only raw and real, but it feels honest. Amal is a character that I saw my brother, cousins, and nephews in. He is a boy who has high hopes, but gets painted as a monster by society instead of embraced for his art and potential.
The White educators and lawyers in his life masquerade as these Anti-racist figures and do-gooders, but when their feet are held to the fire, they act in their own self-interest.
Zoboi and Dr. Salaam’s book is an essential read, and I hope that you also pick it up and read it alongside Just Mercy by Bryan and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.