13 Authors Discuss Homophobia, Head Shaving, and More in October’s YA Open Mic

YAOM OctoberYA 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, 13 authors discuss everything from homophobia to head shaving. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.

Anna Marie-McLemore

Anna-Marie McLemore, author of When the Moon Was Ours

Online, I call him the Transboy. In real life, I call him my husband or mi marido. In our teens, everyone called him my girlfriend, a word that made us both flinch, because we both felt the distance between that word and the truth.

The Transboy was assigned female at birth. Though he hadn’t yet come out as transgender the night I met him, I assumed he was a boy. A young one, granted; I thought he was someone’s younger brother. He was actually in his late teens.

When I realized, I apologized.

“Don’t,” he said (I’ll call him ‘he’ even if, then, no one else was).

I flushed.

He laughed.

“No,” he said. “I mean don’t apologize.”

In that moment, something true passed between us that we wouldn’t speak of again for years. He didn’t come out to me as transgender until our early twenties; he needed another two years after that to come out to our communities. As a partner, I made a lot of mistakes. I’m grateful he gave me the grace to learn.

Sometimes, he reminds me of the night we met. How, before he ever came out, before all the ways I faltered in supporting this boy I love, there was that moment I saw him and he let me see him.

My second novel, When the Moon Was Ours, is about many things. A girl who grows roses from her wrist and a boy who paints the moon. Two best friends, both of color, who share a history of being othered in their small town. A boy claiming his gender identity, and the girl who’s loved him since the moment he found her in a brush field.

But it’s also a little bit about this, the moment of seeing someone as they are, letting them see you, and sharing between your hands all that you’re still learning.

Sonia Patel

Sonia Patel, author of Rani Patel in Full Effect

Historically, when an Indian woman shaved her head, it wasn’t a personal choice for bold self­-expression. It was typically an oppressive act forced on widows or encouraged in poor women by patriarchy in the name of Hindu religious tradition.

So when I shaved my head, like the protagonist Rani in Rani Patel In Full Effect, my mother cried. Straight­faced, I told her that it was better than smoking crack. Or killing myself.

She didn’t get it. No one got it. Heck, I didn’t get it. It’s not like I’d ever experienced poverty. Or widowhood—or so I thought.

Year later, I got it. Shaving my head was my instinctual response to a crisis that exposed the role I’d played in my family—the object that served the intimate needs of my father. It led me to the worst emotional pain of my life. I felt depressed. I hated myself. My nightmares about being kidnapped and gang raped by older men increased in frequency. It got so intense, so bad, that I had to do something. Something to release the explosive anguish inside. I ended up indulging in self­-hate and quick fix self­-destructive behaviors, starting with the act of shaving my head. My bald head showed the world what I couldn’t explain. My bald head was my punishment for being unworthy.

My hair grew out. But I damaged it. I dyed it blonde. I chemically straightened it several times. I damaged my hair like I damaged my life—by making impulsive, bad decisions that hurt me and those I loved.

It took time, tears, and struggle, but I eventually found my way out the other side. The side of self­-worth, boundaries, and good decision­-making.

These days I get haircuts, but nothing extreme. Nothing chemical. I don’t need to mess with my hair like that anymore.

These days when I think of my past, I see it as a gift. It’s given me the empathy that I couldn’t have learned in medical school or residency. It fuels my desire to help young people through difficult circumstances, both in my professional work as a child and adolescent psychiatrist and as a young adult novelist.

These days I am the best version of me. I’ve toiled through my complicated past. I’ve finally learned how to love myself and others. It started with shaving my head—my icky widowhood of sorts and my clean slate that allowed me to reinvent my identity from an object for men to my own person. These days, as Rani would say, I’m in full effect.

Sarah Everett

Sarah Everett, author of Everyone We’ve Been

There’s this story we all tell about my first few weeks of elementary school and how I’d constantly disappear from sight, giving my teachers a conniption, only to be found much later balled up under a tiny desk in another classroom. It is legend. It is one of many stories we recount at family events and holidays. For me, it is the first time the world feels too big, like too much. It won’t be the last.

And we won’t describe it in those words.

She’s: shy the sensitive one jumpy dramatic emotional sad.

When you are a first-generation immigrant, with parents who want their legacy to be having given you the very best life, it’s hard to admit to yourself or others that sometimes the world is too much.

When people, even those you know, live in poverty and constant turmoil?

No.

She’s: trying her best overwhelmed distracted just needs to relax not trying hard enough okay.

In Everyone We’ve Been, Addie chooses to deal with one of those moments when everything feels like too much by having her memory erased (I don’t think this is a spoiler!). Though it was always clear to me why she did this, I struggled with writing it, because what if it seemed inconsequential to everybody else? What if her problems didn’t seem big enough?

Here’s the thing: Different things make the world feel like too much for different people.

The truth is that most of the time I still struggle to admit when I’m not okay.

Other people are starving around the world.

Everybody else seems to be coping just fine.

Katniss didn’t even blink when that happened to her.

If nobody has ever told you, it’s okay not to be okay, I will.

More than that, whatever the reason you’re not okay? It’s okay.

Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld, author of Swarm

It doesn’t matter how old you are—when your mother dies, the world goes into eclipse. No matter how distant she was geographically or physiologically, she had always been there, and now she’s gone. That absence is a loud echo that dulls the beat of your heart.

When my mother died in 2003, I had six YA books that needed to be written. I’d signed a lot of contracts, taking small advances to pay our bills. Some of these books were almost finished, but none had been published yet.

My wife and I traveled from Sydney to Dallas for the funeral, a fifteen-hour flight. When I tried to think about my mother’s death my mind revolted. Instead, I thought about deadlines. Six books in various states of copyedits, edits, unfinished, unwritten. That was enough despair for me.

When we landed, my father filled me in on her final moments. She’d been ill a long time. She’d wanted to die, and had refused any visitors. But I won’t go through all that. It’s private, and what I really want to talk about is the six weeks that followed. We flew back to Sydney, then to New Zealand, where we’d scheduled a writing retreat.

I was supposed to write a book called Uglies. It was due in two months, and I hadn’t started yet. I wrote steadily, three thousand words a day. Faster than I’d ever written a book before, buried in the story. Talking about it on the long walks and bicycle rides we took when I wasn’t writing. My head hurt when I wasn’t writing it. My heart hurt when I was.

I don’t remember the actual writing very well, but I remember the south island of New Zealand. Seeing an albatross rising up over the horizon as big as a hang-glider, the cold nights that didn’t feel like the height of summer, a crumbling cemetery on the side of a hill overlooking the ocean. Mostly I remember descending a steep hill on bikes, and coming around a corner at a flock of sheep blocking the road. They scattered, sh*tting themselves with such abandon that their excrement coated our wheels, flew up and spattered our legs.

That was the first time we’d laughed since my mother’s death.

And the first time I cried was when I finished the draft. Tears because it was finished. Because my mother was gone.

There is an old, pernicious lie that tragedy is the basis of creativity. That artists must suffer to excel. It isn’t true, of course. Art comes from a multitude of aspects of the heart, and joy is one of the most productive. But it is true that my most successful book was written at the darkest point in my life, and that although the beat of my heart was dulled in those weeks of writing Uglies, something sharp had risen in its place.

Something that tuned that story in a way that resonated with millions of readers.

But one thing will always be missing from its pages.

My mother had read all my books. She would never read this one. Or the one after. She was gone.

Caleb Roehrig

Caleb Roehrig, author of Last Seen Leaving

My senior year in high school, two of my best friends came out, and a third—we’ll call her J—refused to support them. Taking me aside, she confessed through wrenching sobs that, for religious reasons, she did not “agree” with what our friends were doing.

I was startled and enraged. Still in the closet myself, J’s reaction represented exactly what I feared most: the abandonment of someone I trusted. I told her she had no business calling someone a “friend” if she couldn’t be there for them when they needed her; I told her she had a lot of audacity, playing the victim and seeking my comfort; I called her selfish, and when I stormed off that day, I intended to never speak to her again.

I didn’t. Three years later, J died in a car accident.

I was still angry at her.

Looking back, I wish I’d handled myself better. With the advantage of perspective, I now understand that she was truly anguished—torn between long-lasting friendships and uncompromising religious beliefs, she was honestly stricken. I wish she could have lived to change her mind, and that I could have been strong enough to help her do it.

One of the themes I chose to explore in my debut novel, Last Seen Leaving, is closure. Two teenagers fight, and then one vanishes, leaving the other to navigate a minefield of anger and shame and regret—to make peace with these feelings on his own. With the chance to reconcile gone, how does one come to terms with leftover guilt, leftover rage?

More than a decade since J’s death, I still wrestle with two big questions:

  • If I’d known what was to come, would I have acted differently?
  • If J hadn’t died, would I still have the same regrets today?

The honest answer to both is that I don’t know. Maybe I never will.

Martina Boone

Martina Boone, author of Illusion

When I was five, my mom, stepdad, and I left what was then Czechoslovakia because of communists. We didn’t have enough money to pay a ferry to take our old red Skoda from Rostock, Germany, across to Gedser, Denmark, on our way to Copenhagen. It took us three years to get to the United States where my dad had finally gotten a job. We were lucky; he had marketable skills. Those skills also meant we could have stayed in Prague. I could have grown up with my grandmother and my birth father, my family, my friends, all the people that were my world. But I know now that however much being wrenched away from that world hurt me, it was nothing compared to the loss my parents felt at leaving everyone and everything they had ever known.

I’ve been obsessed, lately, by the idea of what makes people leave someone they love behind. What a huge leap of courage and faith it must be for the people who arrive in this country with hope in their pocket and a determination to carve out a space for their families. I remember not speaking English, not fitting in, not being entirely welcome. We’re not always kind to difference in this country. We pretend we are, but really, we still have a long way to go.

That unkindness is the reason that I write, though, so I’m grateful. It’s what made me stronger.

If it wasn’t for a second-grade teacher who mimicked me when I couldn’t pronounce the wh sound properly in reading circle, I wouldn’t have been so determined to speak English perfectly. I wouldn’t have read so much. And I wouldn’t have fallen irrevocably in love with fictional worlds and fictional characters. I wouldn’t have a world full of characters in my head.

Lindsay Smith

Lindsay Smith, author of A Darkly Beating Heart
Writers lament the challenge of writing characters smarter or cleverer or flirtier or stronger than they are. When I set out to write A Darkly Beating Heart, though, I had to channel someone who was angrier. Yet the more I wrote Reiko, the less certain I felt that I’d never shared her angry thoughts.

I didn’t get teased much in school; I didn’t give people a chance to. I dressed outrageously (corsets, dark lipstick, spiked jewelry, the works) because it was a suit of armor, a barbed wire fence to keep people away, and it worked. But everything Reiko strives for, I strove for too: to be taken seriously, to be better, even to disappear. And like Reiko, I wanted control.

When you live inside your head, it’s easy to wander the same path over and over, wearing it down until it’s the only path you see. Obsessive thoughts pin you in like that, and angry ones run on some kind of self-sustaining energy, running and running in circles. Depression becomes your theme music, playing everywhere you go. You wrap these repetitive thoughts around you like a blanket. You curl up and listen to them on repeat.

So I wrote Reiko for every girl who’d ever felt the same as me—alone, misunderstood, yet terrified to let someone in, let them understand. For every girl who was angry without good reason, but felt the anger burning anyway.

I don’t want those girls to be alone anymore.

The truth is, we don’t write characters smarter or wittier or angrier than ourselves; we just have the benefit of time and research and revisions to make them so. They’re still subsets of ourselves. When I held that anger out in front of me and studied it, I knew it was all inside of me. But it was only a part of me. I didn’t have to surrender it to become something more.

Kami Garcia

Kami Garcia, author of The Lovely Reckless

I’ve always been a fighter, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. I have no idea how many fights I’ve been in, but most of them took place in high school. You’re probably wondering if I was the target of vicious bullies or—worse—if I was the bully. But there’s a third possibility.

At barely five feet tall, I was the high school equivalent of Batman—minus the cape, cool gadgets, and the Bat Cave. (Okay, so not exactly like Batman.)

So after three ninth-grade boys showed up to government class with busted lips and broken skateboards, they spent the next two years eating at my lunch table. When I walked into the girls’ bathroom and caught three of my school’s “chosen ones” tormenting an awkward girl on the verge of tears, I shut it down.

My friends weren’t always thrilled about sharing a lunch table with an ever-growing group of strangers. They wanted to know if I had some kind of hero complex. Why did I have to rescue all the misfits? The same thought ran through my mind every time they asked…

Because I’m one of them.

No matter how many friends I had, I never felt like I fit in. I was scared all the time. And even though my fears were different, I understood how helpless the boys with the broken skateboards felt, how alone the girl in the bathroom felt. I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone else feeling that kind of pain. Not if I could stop it. Looking back, I’m not so sure I saved any of those so-called misfits. I think they saved me.

Becky Allen

Becky Allen, author of Bound by Blood and Sand

When I was a junior in high school, I got the lead in the school musical—Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie. On its surface, that was great! But it came with a few major downsides, the biggest of which was my boyfriend. At the end of the show, Rosie kisses her love interest. My boyfriend was very jealous, and very angry, and didn’t care that we were only acting.

I was miserable for the months we rehearsed, trying to figure out what I could do as a girlfriend that would make up for this supposed betrayal. I worried about my boyfriend, who didn’t like me even being good friends with other boys, let alone stage kissing anyone. Plus, between school and rehearsals, I was so busy we barely saw each other, and somehow that was all my fault, too. I felt like a fraying rope, about to snap.

But I was very lucky, because when I told my parents something was wrong, and that I wanted to talk to a therapist about it, they helped me find one immediately. I did about four months of therapy—long enough to carry me through the play. I learned a lot of coping strategies that would later help get me through college.

Of course, the therapist couldn’t just tell me the number one thing I needed to do: end things with my jerk of a boyfriend (which happened the next year, thanks to college). That was a lesson I needed to learn for myself.

Sarah Marsh

Sarah Glenn Marsh, author of Fear the Drowning Deep

In my debut, Fear the Drowning Deep, my main character, Bridey, has to face her fear of the ocean to save the people she loves. She doesn’t think she can go near the water, but when her family’s lives are threatened, she beats back her fear long enough to act.

As a little girl, I was afraid of everything: Men (to this day, I have no idea where that fear came from), sand at the beach, fellow preschoolers, having my picture taken, and—thanks to a ghost book I snuck from my mother’s nightstand at age 6—the dark. I slept in my parents’ bed until age 8 or so. I pulled the covers up around my ears so ghosts couldn’t whisper to me at night (awesome logic, I know). I swore something was hiding in my closet.

I later grew out of those fears, but life provided me with new ones in the form of a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis when I was 20. It wasn’t until I was being asked to jab a needle into my stomach before eating every meal that I realized I was more afraid of needles than I’ve ever been of the dark. But you know what? I did it. When my life depended on it, I pushed back the bone-shaking, mouth-drying fear and gave myself a nearly painless injection before each meal. I’ve since moved on to an insulin pump, an artificial pancreas, but I still deal with needles frequently.

While I always feel familiar stirrings of fear when holding a needle, I now know the thing I hope readers will take away from Bridey’s story: whoever you are, however great your fear, it *can* be shoved aside in those moments when you most need to be your own hero.

Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde, author of Cloudbound

As a teen, and even earlier, I was a terrible patient. Not the normal kind of terrible either: I was a terror. I defaced the brace I had to wear with paint pens and rock band logos; I left pages from secondhand copies of Deenie (all there was available at the time that discussed scoliosis) in exam rooms for the next patient to find. Snarky margin notes, of course, courtesy of me. I ferreted my charts and records out of the system when no one was looking. I thought I was brilliant and sneaky.

Actually, what I was, instead, was frustrated and angry. I spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices, especially specialists, both before and after I was diagnosed and cast for a full (very ugly) brace. And I sat around a lot waiting for doctors to tell my mom what the latest measurements were, what study or X-ray was going to happen next, and generally what was going to happen at all, ever. The doctors told my mom all of these things. They looked right past me most of the time. And what I really wanted more than anything was for them to talk to me, not my mom, person to person—as if I was a person, not a patient. As if this was my spine on the X-rays, because it was. But the doctors we saw preferred to talk to my mom, and I gather now that all my questions made them uncomfortable. My own discomfort with them came through in the kind of patient I became.

I find myself looking, now, for people who talk to each other as people. Who acknowledge differences and celebrate them, but who never talk above or around the person at the center of the conversation, no matter what. When I find those people, I let them know how valuable they are.

Destiny Soria

Destiny Soria, author of Iron Cast

Gym class. Middle school. The coach led us down to the track and told us to run a mile. I was the slowest in my class by several minutes—nowhere near the 12-minute mark required to pass. “Try harder next time,” Coach told me with zero sympathy, as if the crying, nauseated mess in front of her was merely the result of too little effort. No one told me that if I started jogging regularly I could improve. No one told me that not being able to magically run a continuous mile didn’t make me a failure.

The next round of humiliation came with the dreaded Presidential Fitness Test. I ranked in the lowest tier on everything. I couldn’t even do a single pull-up. “Try harder next time” was the constant refrain. All I heard was “Everyone else can do it. Why can’t you?” Again no one pointed out that with some dedicated training, I could.

I didn’t run a 12-minute mile until college. That’s also when I did my first pull-up, after months of weight training and daily cardio. It still felt harder for me than it was for my friends. I hated that I had to work so ridiculously hard to achieve goals that seemed like everyone else’s default. Some days I was that crying, nauseated mess from middle school again.

But that was okay. Because I was still ridiculously proud of myself. Because I’d finally figured out what I wish someone had thought to mention in middle school. You can’t measure your own success against someone else’s standard. Even the President’s.

Kim Zarins

Kim Zarins, author of Sometimes We Tell the Truth

I was six or seven when I decided to stop talking.

No specific reason, but I was often confused. Once, when I got benched at recess, the teacher told me to sit down and not get up until she said so. When the whistle had blown, she demanded to know why I didn’t line up. I’d been waiting for permission to move. She sent me to the principal’s office, again.

The day I held my silence, I felt a kind of secret power.

I was a quiet kid, but my parents caught on and called me over. Lying in their big bed with me standing at the foot, they asked point blank if I’d stopped talking on purpose. I nodded.

Why? they wanted to know.

I didn’t answer. I had no answer. Just, I was heavy inside, needing to slow down, sort out what hurt, control just one thing—though I had no words for any of that.

Their solution came immediately, the solution of many well-meaning parents of that generation.

“If you don’t start talking, we’ll spank you.”

I hadn’t expected that at all. I thought spankings were for fighting and things like that.

“Don’t spank me.” Saying it out loud hurt. I was furious at them, furious at myself for giving in. Furiously ashamed. I gave up on my silence, and it was like giving up on my voice.

Eventually, though, writing became a much better way to find myself. It gave me the voice and the space I was missing in regular life. My debut novel is about teens swapping tales on a long bus ride, and they deal with their own tangle of silence and speech. Some characters carry feelings and experiences that are painful to talk about, but telling stories helps them open up and begin to heal.

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