YA Open Mic is a monthly series in which YA authors share personal stories on topics of their choice. The aim of the series is to peel away the formality of bios and offer authors a platform to talk about something readers won’t necessarily find on their websites.
This month, eleven authors discuss everything from coming out to Farsi school. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Dhonielle Clayton, author of The Belles
I never came out as a teen.
I’m not sure what that even looks like. Maybe in high school I could’ve gotten on the loudspeaker, or held a family meeting and informed everyone that I was interested in both women and men, or once we got dial-up internet, sent out an email from my hotmail account and acknowledged the feelings I’ve always had.
Catholic school in the early 1990s didn’t make room for identity exploration. It didn’t leave space for things aside from homework, rules, battling acne, negotiating what it meant to be one of the few black students at school, and getting to mass on time.
I grew up with wonderful uncles who I knew were gay. We never spoke about it. Even when Uncle Maurice would bring his “friend” and “roommate” to Thanksgiving dinner or Uncle Ollie wore makeup and frilly clothes, the family never addressed it or acknowledged it. Their identities were erased and left unspoken. There was no space for them to be open in the confines of a conservative, religious, and “nosey” black American family. No one wanted to talk about it. No one wanted to be open about it.
But the teen me knew. We shared a secret.
I learned to stay quiet. I learned to keep secrets. I learned to figure things out in the dark.
I learned to hold my breath.
But if I could do it over again, I’d love to send out colorful postcards announcing to the world that I’m bisexual and queer and proud to experience love in all its forms. I’d tell my now deceased uncles that love is love and that their partners are valued and welcome. I’d be less of a coward.
I guess this is me coming out.
Hi world, this is me.
Kimberly Reid, author of Prettyboy Must Die
Just be yourself. Sounds easy, but it’s tough to do. In ninth grade, I used lye to straighten my hair so I’d fit in at my mostly-white school (in the eighties, people were still asleep) and kept using it for thirty years. It seems safer to just fit in until someone, probably you, gets hurt. My hair had to fall out of my head before I allowed it to just be itself.
It’s a lesson I’m always learning. I love authors who entertain but also study the human condition. Toni Morrison is my favorite, and in the beginning, I tried writing like her. This cannot be done. By anyone. So I wrote the story I really wanted to tell, a dark and serious memoir. It sold. Validation! They like me! I kept writing dark and serious, but couldn’t give those manuscripts away.
When I stopped trying to write like other people, I wrote a humorous YA mystery that sold as a series. A few published books later, I was flailing around for the next idea when an Oscar-winning screenwriter asked to option my memoir. Validation squared! Certain I was meant to be a writer of serious things, more bad writing ensued. Fortunately, Tor Teen called. Was I interested in writing a fun spy thriller? Yes, please.
But we’d just entered this glorious age of amazing, serious YA fiction written by and starring people of color. I worried how Prettyboy Must Die would be received. Then I remembered why I write what I do: every teen deserves to see themselves in all kinds of books. They need stories that reflect their lives, but they should also get to be the princess, the detective, the wizard, the spy. There’s room for all of us.
So yeah, go be you. We need you. Don’t let the world miss out on the real you because it seems easier to play someone else.
Sara Saedi, author of Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card
I grew up a proud latch key kid. My parents were small business owners who were never home before dinnertime, but I didn’t hold it against them. We were immigrants and we needed the money. Plus, I enjoyed the independence. I liked getting home from school on my own, unlocking our door with a key tied to a shoelace, fixing myself a snack, and settling down in front of the television to watch The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was the life.
The only downside was that my parents’ work schedule also meant they couldn’t drive me to things like softball practice or gymnastics. After school activities were out of the question. Except for Persian dance class. Despite our protestations, my mom insisted that my sister and I take weekly lessons, so that we could learn to properly gher (this is Farsi for “move your hips”). My older cousins were also roped into signing up, so they were able to drive us to and from class.
Our teacher “Bijan” (not his real name) was a middle-aged Iranian man with jet-black hair and a beauty mark on his cheek. He was patient, light on his feet, and seemed to get lost in the sounds of Persian music. He often danced with his eyes closed, which was good, because it meant he couldn’t see us rolling our eyes. My mom and aunts loved Bijan, but even more, they loved his American wife. She was blond and blue-eyed, and danced flawlessly to the drumbeats of Persian music. For us, she was like a unicorn. Nothing made us prouder of our culture than seeing it celebrated by a native-born American. And though I hated every minute of Persian dance class, I too loved watching Bijan and his wife dance together. He’s like the Iranian Patrick Swayze, I thought to myself.
After a couple years of lessons, and one humiliating recital, I convinced my mom to let me quit. I reserved my repertoire of dance moves for weddings and birthday parties. I could now shimmy my shoulders with the best of them.
I’m not sure how much time passed when my mom broke the news to me that Bijan had AIDS. I was shocked. This was the early nineties, and Magic Johnson was my only association with HIV/AIDS. The news stunned the Iranian community, but I don’t recall anyone passing judgment. All we felt was sadness for his wife and young daughter, and a sense of loss for ourselves. I remember our local Iranian news channel interviewing him about his illness. As I watched him reflect on his life, I wished I had never quit dancing, and that I’d matched his enthusiasm and gusto.
Recently, I discovered that Bijan was only thirty-seven when he died. That’s how old I am now. He seemed so much older back then. He didn’t have enough time to leave behind a proper legacy, but because of him, a generation of Iranian-Americans learned to embrace their culture, close their eyes, and gher with abandon.
Tanaz Bhathena, author of A Girl Like That
I hated wearing dresses as a child. My earliest memory of one is from my fourth birthday, when I wore an itchy blue frock that made me look like cotton-candy on legs. It wasn’t until I turned six that my distaste for dresses reached an all-time high, when a boy flipped up the skirt of my school uniform and flashed my underwear to the class, laughing while I cried.
“Wear stockings,” someone said. “You know what boys are like!”
I attended an Indian school in Saudi Arabia, where boys and girls studied together until grade three before being segregated into separate classrooms. After the incident, I wore long stockings with my school pinafore. Outside school, I shunned dresses and shorts. When you live in Saudi Arabia, you learn fairly quickly that it’s a bad idea to draw attention to yourself in public. Especially if you’re female.
When Zoroastrian girls hit puberty in India, they’re dressed in colorful saris and paraded to the fire temple—a way of announcing their womanhood to the world. In the absence of a fire temple in Saudi Arabia, my parents acquiesced to my request of not wearing a sari. It didn’t matter anyway. What a sari celebrated in Mumbai with unneeded pomp and show, an abaya and scarf did in Jeddah with cool, subtle efficiency.
At school, makeup and fashion were not encouraged, let alone dating. In grade ten, when a girl was abruptly withdrawn from school, rumors suggested pregnancy, a botched abortion. I don’t know if there was any truth to the stories. I do know that the whole incident made me angry. With the friends who spread the rumors. With the teacher who lectured us on the danger of “having loose morals.” Mostly, though, I was angry with myself for remaining silent the way my classmates did when I was six and a boy flipped up my skirt for all to see.
Living in Saudi Arabia was like inhabiting a fish bowl: I knew little about the world beyond. Moving to Canada was like being tossed into an ocean. Here, women drove taxis, buses and cars. Girls wore whatever they liked, interacted easily with boys, walked home alone, without fear.
The summer I turned eighteen, I gathered the courage to wear a pair of shorts and made a twenty-minute trek to the library. The further I walked, the more I relaxed. No one followed me. No one leered at my bare legs. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t worry about being a girl.
Today my wardrobe contains dresses in many cuts and colors. There’s also a sari in pale, cotton-candy blue.
Alisa Kwitney, author of Cadaver & Queen
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes. That Walt Whitman quote appears on my senior high school yearbook page, along with a photograph of me looking 35 or so—world weary, wistful, possibly being strangled by my turtleneck.
There are pictures of me at age 35 that look way younger.
At age 17, I was exhausted from contradicting myself. I was a feminist who would go to school one day wearing no makeup and baggy men’s shirts and carpenter pants. Then, the next day, I suited myself up for some imaginary job interview in tailored shirts and pencil skirts, wearing a full working-girl mask of blush, eyeliner, mascara and gloss. Other days, I wore my mother’s vintage sixties hot pink velour minidress and attempted the cat eye look (which usually resulted in my looking a little bit like Grizabella the Raddled Old Glamor Cat right before she belts out “Memories”.)
I read George Bernard Shaw plays for fun, and historical romances, and X-Men comics. My music collection (ABBA, Roxy Music, Bowie, Steeleye Span) looked like evidence of a truly disordered mind.
When I was on a summer program abroad, I always volunteered to lift and carry things, arguing with the staff members who kept asking the boys and not the girls. I fell in love with the same enthusiasm, and if one relationship didn’t work out, I jumped into another.
I was told I had a reputation.
That same year, I decided I was too heavy, went on a crash diet, and launched myself into a cycle of binging and dieting that sent my weight careening up and down.
I also became bulimic.
I graduated high school feeling confused about who I was and how I wanted to define myself in the world. Now the characters I write struggle to piece together their contradictory parts into a semi-coherent whole, but I’m fairly comfortable with my patchwork self.
I still can’t do a decent cat eye look, though.
Gloria Chao, author of American Panda
Writing helped me through dental school. Kept me company in a new city. Then, it created a rift between me and my parents, who didn’t approve of my decision to put aside dentistry to write full-time. And then… writing helped my parents and I learn to communicate.
American Panda is a story about a teen named Mei trying to figure out who she is, but it is also my story. Mei’s parents want her to become a doctor and marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, and just like me, she has different aspirations.
As I wrote, I started asking my mother questions in order to flesh out Mei’s mother, and it forced us to talk through our past and present. Three years and many conversations later, my mother and I reached a mutual understanding I never dreamed possible. And many pieces of our real-life conversations worked their way into the book.
Mom: I raised you the way I was raised because I thought it was the only way.
Me: There isn’t just one way to parent, one way to live.
Mom, after many conversations: I want to redo it. I want to shove you back in my womb and start over.
So now, though I would have never imagined this when I first started writing, I hope American Panda will also show readers that things can get better.
And on a separate note, I also hope the book imparts a few laughs. Because no matter how difficult the situation, humor can make things better!
Voicemail from Mei’s mom:
“Mei! I read today that using a tea bag more than twice will give you cancer. You’re not doing that, are you? But you shouldn’t use it just once either—waste of money. Use it exactly twice, okay? Call me back immediately! This is urgent! It’s your mǔqīn.”
Arvin Ahmadi, author of Down and Across
Weekends are universally sacred in the adult world. There’s fun to be had, books to binge, brunches to make boozy. There are errands, gym plans, dinner plans, going-out plans, nursing hangover plans. The “perfect weekend” looks different for everyone, but across the board, it’s a coveted gem of time when you’re free from your grown-up responsibilities.
That wasn’t necessarily the case when we were kids. Because if you were Iranian like me, or Chinese, or Korean, or Jewish or even Christian, chances are your weekends were spent at school.
Yes, more school.
I went to “Farsi school” for the better part of my childhood. As you can probably imagine, it wasn’t my choice. If I had it my way, I’d have slept in and watched reruns of Pokémon. But my parents are Iranian immigrants, and they wanted nothing more than for their children to stay connected to their heritage.
Every Saturday morning, my siblings and I were forced out of bed and shepherded across state borders—we lived in Virginia, but the better Farsi program was in Maryland—for a five-hour shot of lessons. We learned to read and write in our parents’ native language. We studied the history, literature, and poetry of ancient Persia. The only un-Iranian part of the day was when they served pizza for lunch, which we relished.
I used to think growing up was meant to be synonymous with hating the things your parents forced you to do. Making your bed. Eating healthy. Learning. Exercising. (Once I scored a goal on my own soccer team and they still made me play for the rest of the season.) But if that’s the case, then adulthood means learning to appreciate those things in hindsight.
My debut novel, Down and Across, is about an Iranian teen who runs away from home to figure out who he is. It’s about seeing the ways in which you’re “different” as a gift, not a burden. Because when you really grow up, you realize how little you actually know—and the permanent parts of you, the parts of your identity you can’t shed? It turns out they matter that much more.
NoNieqa Ramos, author of The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary
Until I moved to New Jersey, I didn’t understand what being a “minority” meant.
I had experienced racism in the Bronx, like this white lady at the bus stop guarding her purse when my 90 pound self (ten of those pounds being hair and hoop earrings) sat next to her, but I had my peeps. I grew up with Zia, an Italian-Venezuelan who herded us Puerto Rican, Afro-Latinx, and Polish kids to Jones Beach.
The day I strut into my new high school in my hoodie and baggy jeans I saw more whites than I had ever seen in one place and I was trippin. I could count all the black and brown kids in the school with two hands. The principal kept calling me Miss Rodriguez. Even though I was in honors English and AP History in the Bronx, my schedule showed me demoted to regular classes.
Diversity Day was a joke.
Then there was health class. Everybody had to get “married” and carry around a white egg that was supposed to be our baby. I set my “baby” down on an empty desk—conveniently near my Cubano crush. Well, the white dude who felt he owned the desk told me to get up. He talked to me like dirt, so I said no. He hurled my desk—with me in it—across the room. The egg lay cracked on the rug.
After a beat, my crush tried to lighten the mood by drawing chalk lines around my egg. (Had that white dude told my Disturbed Girl Macy to get up—he would have been the one with chalk lines drawn around him.) I had to beg to get a new egg so I wouldn’t fail health. The teacher said she didn’t have any white eggs left. I’d have to take a brown one. She never said one word to my assailant, though. Nobody did.
I have the words now. I teach so no child doubts that they matter. So every child can have a voice. I write to amplify those voices and release them into the world.
Nilah Magruder, contributor to All Out
I remember Dave.
Actually I’m pretty sure that was not his name, but let’s pretend it was.
Anyhoo, somehow I met Dave in high school; I say “somehow” because I don’t remember how it happened, we didn’t have any classes together. Our interaction was confined to early-morning rendezvous in a small building at the corner of our high school’s large campus. That’s where computer and technology-based classes were held, the hallways were always a little dim and so quiet. It was weirdly private, weirdly magical.
I don’t know how I met Dave, but we hit it off right away. We would meet in one of those dark halls, before the bell rang at 7:10 a.m. to signal the start of classes. We chatted about computers and Internet—it was the new big thing—and other techy things that we both enjoyed. Did I even have class in that building on those mornings? Did he? It didn’t matter, because our connection was electric.
And then I got wind from mutual friends that Dave was planning to ask me out.
I only recall talking with Dave once outside of that quiet hallway, at lunch one day, just as he was walking in. I met him at the door and told him, gently but frankly, that I was not interested in dating. He accepted this information cheerfully and assured me it was no big deal, he just wanted to be friends. Relieved, I went back to my lunch, glad our friendship would continue as it was.
We never spoke again.
It would not be the last time I rebuffed a friend’s romantic feelings. I’ve never regretted my choice, but a small part of me hopes there is an alternate universe where I said yes, and got to experience first love.
Ashley Poston, author of Heart of Iron
I was always an anxious child.
Things I couldn’t control made it feel like the world was spinning and spinning and it was—as John Green so eloquently puts it—Turtles All the Way Down. I was afraid to tell my parents how helpless I felt, how there was this feral, gnarled monster deep in my gut, and how the most innocuous thoughts could feed it. Why do I have a rash on my elbow? I would think, and the monster would howl, BECAUSE IT IS CANCER AND YOU WILL DIE.
It would say that about everything. Headaches, spots on my skin, a stubbed toe—YOU WILL DIE.
As a twelve-year-old coming to grips with the fate of my mortality, it was a waking nightmare. I couldn’t escape this monster in my head. When I finally told my parents, they were supportive, and the doctors ran tests, and there was never anything physically wrong with me. And yet still, the monster would simply cluck disapprovingly, and remind me that something could be wrong with me soon. And I couldn’t keep this monster quiet, I couldn’t defeat it because it was part of me, inside of me, clawing at the gray matter of my brain whenever I—for even a moment—forgot about it.
As a way to cope, I began to write fanfic…and the strangest thing happened. The monster was quiet—it was still there, still twisting and churning in my gut like a ball of angry snakes—but I couldn’t hear it.
So, I wrote my way through middle school, through high school, through college, giving this monster substance in my writing so that I could defeat it—again, and again—if only in a story.
And the monster is quiet.
Dana Mele, author of People Like Us
I’m not a fan of Valentine’s Day. I’m all for chocolates and cookies, but flower deliveries make my stomach turn.
I was fifteen and I’d never had a boyfriend when I met Boyfriend. He was a year younger but roughly twenty times cooler. He had intense brown eyes and perpetually tangled hair. His smile was so evil. That was the thing.
I possessed zero self-esteem at this point in my life. I was moderately depressed and a guy in my grade actually wrote a comic strip about what a loser I was. So I didn’t buy it when Boyfriend started to show interest in me. But he sat next to me in the theater during rehearsal and gave me a candy heart that said “will you?”
I forgot about those stupid hearts. I have no use for them, either.
I said yes.
I was so into him, it was irresponsible. We hung out behind the school, smoking on rotten tree stumps and looking blankly at each other. When he kissed me, I couldn’t kiss him back. I was breathless. I blinked and missed the moment.
There was a party and because his coolness factor was so disproportionate to mine, he was invited and I wasn’t.
A cool girl, who would never in a million years speak to me, pulled me into the bathroom. She apologized for being the one to tell me. Boyfriend had been boyfriendly with another girl. Very boyfriendly.
He was still the one who broke up with me. His friends made fun of him for going out with me.
To top it off, the booster club still delivered the rose and card he’d bought me earlier. Love, Boyfriend.
One way to deal with painful experiences is to write them. I did and still do. It helps.
But I still prefer books to flowers.