“Sometimes we want comfort, sometimes we want to work to crack something open,” says the poet and young adult author, whose book “With the Fire on High” is new in paperback.
What books are on your night stand?
Naima Coster’s “What’s Mine and Yours” is a novel I blurbed but that I’m rereading for pure pleasure, and Clint Smith’s forthcoming nonfiction book, “How the Word Is Passed.”
What’s the last great book you read?
I adored Safia Elhillo’s novel in verse, “Home Is Not a Country.” She’s a transcendent writer.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I recently began “The Joy Luck Club” on audiobook and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to enjoy this story! Being someone who is obsessed with the interconnected stories of women and the communities they build and occupy, I know I’ve long been remiss not to have arrived at this novel.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Ahhh. This is an interesting question. I think a great story can be poorly written, right? The story an author carries in their head or heart might not transcribe onto the page in a way that holds the narrative in a rich way. I find ultimate delight when a story is matched by equally riveting language, but people read like they eat: Sometimes we want comfort, sometimes we want to work to crack something open. And so I know that the writing pivots I might dislike are someone else’s bonbons.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Underneath all of the covers, before I put on my contacts or check my phone, ideally midmorning on a Saturday. And if it’s raining outside — not a storm, but loud enough to create ambience? — be still, my heart.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I consider Kiese Laymon my secret prose mentor. At the level of craft and of always working to say exactly what he means, I think Laymon is untouchable.
I was utterly blown away by the playwright and director Radha Blank’s film “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” The writing legit had me taking notes.
I admire too many poets to name them all, but I’m often struck by the work of the essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib. He teaches me so much in all the text he makes; and for someone who writes in many genres and is prolific in all of them, that’s saying quite a lot about his pen game.
The last collection that drove me to write poetry was Natalie Diaz’s most recent collection, “Postcolonial Love Poem.” Diaz is my antidote to being uninspired. I never leave her work empty-handed.
And although you didn’t mention M.C.’s, I consider rappers my original workshop leaders and I’ll say that Chika’s “Industry Games” was on repeat all 2020, as was Benny the Butcher’s latest album, “Burden of Proof.”
You’re adapting “With the Fire on High” for the screen. What book, not your own, would you most like to see turned into a movie or TV show that hasn’t already been adapted?
“Juliet Takes a Breath,” by Gabby Rivera. I want that Boricua hippie queer babe all over screens!
What writers are especially good on adolescent life?
Meg Medina is the author I studied, and still study, to learn how to write for children. Her ear is impeccable; the way she captures not only dialogue but also communicates adolescent feelings without being condescending nor pitching extra soft softballs. Few people get the balance of writing about and for teens right.
How do you distinguish Y.A. books from adult fiction?
Partly voice, but my own personal ethos is that Y.A. requires hope. I’m less stringent on my requirement for hope in books for adults.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
My husband and I often read the same books, and the short story collection “Friday Black,” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, brought up so much for us. As two racially Black people, but of different ethnicities, we found fruitful conversation in the questions about race, class and gender. It was also just brilliant. In absolute. So, it brought us closer together and also raised questions, and I appreciate the work doing both.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
“Deaf Republic,” by Ilya Kaminsky. A teacher who organized a visit to her school gave me the collection as a thanks for presenting. And what a collection!
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Most people describe their childhood reading habits as voracious, no? And in my case it still applies. Mami would take me to library every Saturday, and as I grew older she attempted to shoo me outside more since I could lie in bed and read the day away. I wound up taking the books with me and reading on the stoop instead.
I loved all things. “The Baby-Sitters Club” books, “Because of Winn Dixie,” “Miracle’s Boys,” Jacqueline Woodson. “The House on Mango Street” was a game changer, as was Julia Alvarez’s “Before We Were Free.”
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I find myself reading a lot more nonfiction these days. And at the top of the pandemic the only thing I had head space for was short story collections. I think what I look for in books changes as I do, but also based on what my need is. Books truly are nourishment for me. I get book hangry: crabby and mean when I go too long without going into a text. And in that way, my reading palate grows and matures and returns to nostalgic, comforting favorites.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Invite #1: The O.G. Toni Morrison.
Invite #2: The Beloved Lucille Clifton.
Invite #3: The Prophet Octavia Butler.
Oh, goodness! I would need to sneak in a last guest because Audre Lorde, Audre Lorde, Audre Lorde, has got to be seated at the table!
What do you plan to read next?
“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” is getting rave reviews and I can’t wait to dig in.
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