15 Authors Discuss Journalism, Gender Pronouns, and More in January’s YA Open Mic

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, eight authors discuss everything from journalism to gender pronouns. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.

Atia Abawi, author of A Land of Permanent Goodbyes

I’ve survived some pretty intense moments in my life.

Some would call them cool, others would question my judgment.

I’ve been shot at by the Taliban. I’ve stepped on a roadside bomb that luckily didn’t detonate. And I have been chased by an angry mob wielding metal bars looking to bash into human flesh. I guess these examples would tilt more to the stupid than the cool.

As a journalist I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to share the stories I have covered.

But it isn’t so much the violent stories that stick in my mind and heart. There is so much more to a warzone than just “war.”

People live in these places.

It’s their home, their life—and I’m just a visitor wherever I go.

I still smile thinking of the young Afghan women kicking butt at the boxing center in Kabul, or the families at the Baghdad country club who still found ways to enjoy life despite the bombs going off down the road.

But covering conflicts can weigh on your heart and mind. In the first few weeks after I arrived in Afghanistan I saw the difficulties so many people lived in, suffered through, and survived. It was a feeling I experienced again interviewing Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean to flee war.

My instinct was to take it all in and internalize it. I found myself falling into a state of sadness and depression.

That was, until I realized I was being selfish.

Their lives were hard enough, the last thing they needed was a person to wallow when I could try to be of help. This was my opportunity to share their voices in an attempt to give them what they wanted—someone to listen and to tell their stories without agenda or flash.

As much as my years as a journalist were a blessing, my experience now as a young adult author is as significant to me, if not more. I feel a heavier burden to share my subjects’ stories—both factually and with impact. Because it is today’s young readers who will be the leaders of tomorrow and influence all our lives.

Claire Kann, author of Let’s Talk About Love

I am a crier. If someone cries in front of me, you better believe we’re about to full-on sob together because I have zero control over my tear ducts anymore. I just have all these feelings now, whereas, for a long time, I felt like I only had one.

I was barely eighteen the first time someone called me an Angry Black Woman. Now, I have the language and tools to say, “It’s not anger. It’s passion.” It took some time to learn how to make people listen to me without falling into that ABW trap that’s always waiting to be sprung.

But real talk? Back then, it wasn’t passion. I was a sharp, mean, and vicious thing that could snap you in half with a single look. My very existence scared the absolute shit out of people. I was angry. All the time.

The fact that it was okay for the white kids at my school to be just as rage-filled only made me angrier. They got the empathetic looks, the offers of counseling and second, third, fourth, fifth chances even though their grades were awful and they missed entire weeks of school. I got terrified, pearl-clutching looks even though I had fantastic grades, never bothered anyone, and almost never missed a single class, let alone an entire day. It wasn’t fair.

That first time I was called me an ABW, I knew they weren’t talking about my actual anger. They weren’t being a good friend and validating my feelings. They were insulting me, trying to intimidate me, make me feel ashamed, and put me in my place. Black girls are always told we’re too loud, too brash, too angry, and that those are all terrible things to be.

Spoiler alert: they aren’t. It’s okay to be those things just as it is to be joyful and soft and loving and quiet. It’s okay to be whole, complex, and unique individuals, stuffed full of contradictions that don’t fit into perfectly shaped white boxes. Eventually, my anger calmed, evolving into a full spectrum of feelings, and I realized something else important: I’d rather be too much and full of life than not enough and palatable.

Marieke Nijkamp, author of Before I Let Go

I was talking with a coworker about HR management and diversity when she suddenly brought up gender diversity. “…and then some people don’t have binary genders, I think it’s called? They’re neither male nor female? Or they’re both? I don’t quite understand.”

I braced myself. “I could tell you about it.”

She looked at me oddly, but, for all that I could assess, not threateningly. (For every queer person I know, threat is a fairly constant assessment. And sometimes too, the benefits of not heeding that threat.)

“I am. Nonbinary.”

“Oh.” Beat. Neutral tone. “Interesting.”

Another beat. I stopped breathing in that silence. I respected this coworker. I lost people over coming out before.

Then she smiled and neutrality melted to curiosity. “Would you tell me about it?”

It was the umpteenth time I came out to someone, in various countries and various languages. It was the first time I came out as nonbinary, in Dutch, to someone outside my direct circle of friends.

It was terrifying. It was, for a moment, exhausting, to realize once more that coming out never ends.

It was empowering too. It won’t be the last time.

The thing is: it’s strange to be nonbinary in a country that doesn’t have native words for gender diversity. It’s strange to be curious about pronouns when your mother tongue is highly gendered and without gender-neutral options. It’s strange to be agender among people who voted “gender-neutral” as the most annoying word of 2017.

Still, I am.

Nonbinary. Agender.

And I would probably experiment with pronouns—I would probably use they/them pronouns, if I could do the same in my native tongue.

But as it is, I talk about it instead, when I can, to the people who need to hear it, even without a language. Because I am. We are. And that’s a start.

Claire Hartfield, author of A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

When I was three years old, I told my mother, “Mama is black and Papa is Jewish. I think I’ll be French.” I thought race, religion, and nationality were things you could choose. Though I would not get to France for another twenty years, somehow as a toddler, that’s the identity I chose for myself. (I still love everything French!)

As I grew up, I learned that choosing who to be is not so simple. Other people were always trying to define me. And the comments differed, depending on who was checking me out. Black kids would say, “Your hair is so straight.” White kids would say, “Your hair is so curly.” Black kids would say, “Your skin is so light.” White kids would say, “Your skin is so dark.” In the morning when I brushed my teeth, I looked at my reflection in the mirror and wondered who was right.

I worked hard in high school and when I applied to college, I got into Harvard and Yale and Oberlin. I decided to go to Yale. I was so excited! And pretty proud, too. A white friend at school said, “You got in because of affirmative action.” He didn’t know my grades or test scores. He only knew I was black.

As I grew older, I became more confident about who I am as an individual. Still, I think we would have a much better world if people did not think in terms of race and religion first. When we start off greeting each other as fellow human beings, we learn much more quickly about what we have in common. I write about these things for young people because I know that you will shape the future.

Rachael Allen, author of A Taxonomy of Love

I’m one of those people who gets weirdly excited about beginnings. A new year. A new semester. A blank notebook filled with dazzling white pages. These are things that make me feel positively gleeful, relentlessly optimistic.

So, it feels really strange to have a year like this year, when it’s harder to find that reservoir of hope. I wrote A Taxonomy of Love for all the kids in small towns who feel like they’ll never fit and nothing will ever change. It’s easy to feel that way.

But it isn’t true.

Things do change. I have to keep reminding myself of that this week. You find your people (and, oh, are they some wonderful people—the kind that talk to you on the phone the day after an election while you sit on your kitchen floor and cry). You go away to school and do things you never dared to dream of. And that small town where nothing ever changes? They don’t allow confederate flags in the high school anymore.

These are the things I hold in my mind as I greet the new year. And if you’re feeling the same way, I’d love to hear about That Thing you’re going to do in 2018 that gives you hope.

Maybe in 2018, you’ll start writing a book that will change the world. Or you’ll make a new friend that will change your life. Or you’ll fight injustice using your phone and your computer and your wallet and every brilliant idea in your head.

But things will keep changing – we’ll make them. Because I believe in the power of beginnings.

 

Samira Ahmed, author of Love, Hate, and Other Filters

I moved to New York City for love.

We met at a party when I was visiting friends in Manhattan. We barely spoke.

Two months after that party, he called me out of the blue. I never forgot you, he said. I can’t remember what you look like, I responded.

I lived in Chicago at the time and he flew out to see me every weekend. He sent me red roses at work, every week.

And he won me over. And I moved to NYC. Left friends, family, a great job and a city I loved. To take a chance. To bet on me. To hope this love was right.

It wasn’t.

Almost from the moment I unpacked my boxes, I knew that things weren’t going to work out—that this guy loved the chase, not so much the quarry—and there aren’t any winners in that game.

But I gave it the old college try. If only because I was too proud to admit failure, believing that only a spectacular crash and burn would mean we were totaled.

What I didn’t see is that even when I was trying to figure out what else I could do, how I could steer us right, we weren’t just about to crash, we were already wreckage.

I could’ve moved back to Chicago, to my old friends and my old job, but I didn’t. Because when I stepped away from the rubble of that relationship, I looked up and around and realized I was still standing and I was resilient and that somewhere along the way, I had fallen in love with New York. So I decided to stay to try and build a new life there on my own.

And I did. I took that chance. I bet on me. This time, it was right.

Melissa Albert, author of The Hazel Wood

I don’t mean to brag, but I had a Cool Boyfriend once.

I did! He read only the darkest graphic novels. He lived in a punk rock house that never had toilet paper. He had tattoos inspired by the art of Mark Ryden. He was Cool.

And two months in, I was hanging on by my fingernails. I tried to do everything right. He was in a hardcore punk band? Great, now I liked hardcore punk! He revered boniness and disdained those who ate? No problem, black coffee is a delicious alternative to doughnuts and joy! He was by turns sullen and snarky, with an anemic sweet streak I made far too much of? Game on, I will just not talk in order to keep from driving him away!

But man is it hard to hide your own personality. He hated when I told funny stories about my parents (I wasn’t supposed to like them). He called me out for constantly starting sentences with the words, “You know what I could go for right now?” (Whoops, I forgot I wasn’t supposed to eat.) When my friend and I laughed and used French fries to reenact nights out, he was pained and embarrassed by my dorkiness.

And so, we broke up. In the end, I had to dump him, because I could see the ghosting coming from a mile away. Still, I was very sad. He’d just been so damned Cool. I wrote bad poetry while bathing in the glow of moody Christmas lights. I listened to a lot of Bright Eyes. I went back to dating nerds, but I’d flown too close to the Cool Boyfriend sun, and it took me a while to appreciate them again.

Years later, of course, I realized maybe he wasn’t that cool. That maybe an obsession with looking and acting ice-cold was more exhausting than hip. And years after that, I recognized that he probably didn’t know who the hell he really was either, and was just as at sea as I was about appearances and love.

My point here isn’t to avoid Cool Boyfriends. (Get it, friend!) It’s that it’s a super bad sign if you find you’re flattening who you are in order to make yourself acceptable to someone else. You’ll know when you’ve found your people: they’re the ones who make you burn brighter and better and weirder. They may or may not be the people who are Cool. They may just be the ones who are, ya know, cool.

Lianne Oelke, author of Nice Try, Jane Sinner

I had botox injections in high school. In both armpits. The procedure was supposed to reduce excessive sweating, and though it did for a time, the sweat always came back. It’s a condition called hyperhidrosis, and it made life hell.

It started in late adolescence. Whenever I’d leave the house and feel the slightest bit uncomfortable (which, as an introvert, was all the time), my armpits would start to prickle and feel sticky. Then wet. Which made me even more uncomfortable, which made me sweat even more. I’d never raise my hand in class. Instead, I’d count down the minutes until I could find a washroom so I could stuff paper towel under my shirt. Public washrooms became a safe haven. Medicinal antiperspirant, extra shirts, thick sweaters—I’d tried it all. And still I sweat through everything. I was desperately uncomfortable with myself, and did my best to hide how my body constantly failed me.

I wasn’t happy with my grade 12 yearbook photo. I’d requested a reshoot, but when the day came, I had completely forgotten. I hadn’t worn a thick sweater, and of course, the thought of the dark half-moons under my armpits being immortalized forever made the sweat flow faster. Panicked, I ran to the bathroom. My best friend followed me. I assume she already knew about my condition—I couldn’t exactly hide it all the time—but until that day, I was too ashamed to say it out loud. She didn’t judge me when I raised my arms. She didn’t ask questions. She just handed me sheet after sheet of paper towel while I tried to dry my shirt. At that moment I thought that just maybe, I’d end up okay after all.

It took another few painful years for my body to outgrow hyperhidrosis. Now, I don’t shy away from sweat. I earn it, with every kickboxing class or run or hike.

And yet every time I enter a public washroom, I’m still overwhelmed with relief.

Danielle Ellison, author of The Sweetheart Sham

I was twenty-seven when I had my first kiss. Until then, I never thought I’d get a love story.

I’d resigned myself to dying alone, since I’d never been on a date, or kissed someone or had serious relationship. It wasn’t that there weren’t opportunities, I’m sure there were, but I never saw them. I didn’t believe anyone would want to be with me. I felt I wasn’t pretty enough, talented enough, smart enough; I felt undeserving, unable, unattractive, a lot of uns. I thought had nothing to offer—and I was the fat girl. Who wanted the fat girl? That answer was a resounding no one, which I could justify because I was an adult and hadn’t gotten to experience romance or love. Obviously something was wrong with me.

And there was.

Me. I was wrong.

I was a strong woman. I took risks without a second thought. I went on adventures. I tried new things. I worked hard…but I was scared. I was hiding in my excuses, terrified to put myself out there, terrified of wanting something and not getting it. I let my insecurities control me. I hadn’t gotten to experience love because I didn’t love myself. I didn’t see all the things I had to offer.

I don’t know what shifted inside me, but that year I finally saw the full scope of who I was—and it was way more than what I felt I wasn’t. I had to stop comparing myself to what it felt other people had, and live my life. It was a journey, but eventually I did that.

All of this led me to love myself. It led me that first kiss, to a second, to relationships, to a fuller version of me. I am a person who fully knows, accepts and loves myself—and that’s the most beautiful love story yet.

Gina Ciocca, author of Busted

I wouldn’t say my parents were overly strict when I was growing up. Sure, I spent eight years at a Catholic school where I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup, or more than one ring on each hand, or necklaces that didn’t have a cross or crucifix. But those were the school’s rules, not my parents’.

Still, there were moments when the guidelines my mom and dad did enforce seemed kind of ridiculous, or just plain weird. Like the time I got grounded for “breaking curfew,” even though I was in the driveway of our house, talking to my boyfriend in his car. Literally, just talking—no air quotes needed. We were in plain view from any of the front windows.

But that wasn’t good enough for my parents. And I won’t even mention the times my younger sister waltzed in at 4 a.m. with zero consequences (though I guess I just did, didn’t I?).

My parents also had dual cows any time I wanted to hang anything on my bedroom walls. We lived in a small, modest, definitely not-new house, but to hear them talk, you would’ve thought that a few pushpins and pieces of tape would’ve brought the entire structure crumbling to its foundation.

And here’s how deeply that mindset rooted in my brain: fast forward to 2014, when I was revising a pre-pub Last Year’s Mistake. I stopped in the middle of scene where Kelsey hangs a postcard on her bedroom wall, and thought, “Can’t do that. No tape allowed.”

Then it hit me. This was a fake postcard, being hung with fictional tape, on walls that existed only inside my head. I could do whatever the heck I wanted.

And to me, that will always be the beauty of writing novels. Your world, your walls. Make them as spare or as elaborate as you please. Because on the page, you make your own rules.

Jen Calonita, author of Turn It Up

See this happy, smiling girl with the frizzy hair swinging on a rope tire? That’s me my junior year of high school. I wasn’t the bravest back then. I never made a move without my friends. I didn’t try out for sports, join a club, or go to a party unless an army of friends did, too. We didn’t have any a capella groups at my high school like they do in my book Turn It Up, but we did have a chorus, which I was a part of. (I think there were a hundred people in it, so there was safety in numbers.) Then our choral director, Mr. Wickey, announced he’d be holding auditions for an elite choral group called the Ensemble Singers who would make appearances around Long Island and go away on school trips. It sounded amazing, but this follower hesitated. Audition? Alone? And be judged? What if I didn’t make the group? What if they hung up the yes/no list for the group and everyone knew I didn’t make the cut? And yet…

Even junior year, I already had some regrets about high school. My best friend had been in the school play the previous year and loved meeting so many new people. Was I really going to let myself miss out again because I was afraid to sing a few notes in public?

No.

I don’t remember what I sang at that audition, but I do remember seeing my name on that list of “yeses” and screaming my head off. Joining that group, going to Williamsburg, Virginia, and meeting so many new friends, are some of my best memories of high school. That small choral audition even led to bigger steps—trying out for a dance team and auditioning for the school musical, and getting a lead part in The Pajama Game senior year.

So that girl on the tire swing? I’m proud of her for finally stepping out of the shadows and taking a swing at something bigger than she could have imagined on her own.

Rati Mehrotra, author of Markswoman

I never wanted to study Economics. Even today, I think it is a boring and dismal subject. And yet, I devoted several precious years of my life to studying it—two of those at the PhD level, teaching grad students. I dreamed in equations, for the few hours I managed to sleep every night. After leaving university, I worked as an economist for several years.

Why? Why did I subject myself to this? My love was for literature, poetry, and languages. As a child, I devoured books. I read everything in the school library and the local lending library. I wrote poems, drew cartoons, and poured my lonely heart out in diaries (which my mother sneakily read, but that’s another story). If I dreamed of anything, it was being a writer. (Or working with animals).

And yet, it has taken me decades to accept that I am one, and that it is an okay, even a good thing to be. At the age of forty-two, I am finally going to see the release of my debut novel, Markswoman, this month.

The ten-year-old me would be horrified. What have you been doing all this while, she would ask. I thought we would be rich and famous by now!

I could tell her I’ve been living, working, raising kids. I’ve moved countries thrice.

But I think she’ll see through my excuses to the doubt and fear that drove me into a field of study I did not like. I was afraid I wouldn’t get a job if I studied the arts. I was afraid of being poor. Of disappointing my very strict Indian parents.

Letting go of fear is the most difficult thing in the world. But until you do this, you will not know what you are capable of.

Alice Broadway, author of Ink

I am a messy person. And telling you this makes me cringe, because I feel I’ve just told you that I am a mess. In my mind, my “mess” rhymes with lazy, failure, grubbiness, and fault. And the thing about mess is that it’s really obvious: by its very nature, mess is all out there for anyone to see if they get near enough. I’ve been trying to write about the shame I feel about my messiness, and it got impressively melancholic. So, instead, I chose to redeem some of my thoughts and feelings, and my imaginings became the poem below. I love the way writing and story can do this—as we write, something that felt hopeless can be made new.

Mess

I wish I had a place

For everything.

But I possess chaos.

I am afraid to let you see

Mess that has been strewn about.

It uncovers my secrets.

This space.

But perhaps you are an explorer

And you know that chaos is where creation happens.

A big bang…

And see! A universe.

Planet, star, moon

Perfectly placed.

Strewn about.

Expansive galaxy.

Undiscovered secrets

Stars dance unwatched.

See this space.

A little universe.

My mess, the music of the spheres.

Lyndsay Ely, author of Gunslinger Girl

“Would you like to join our writing group?”

I don’t remember exactly how it was phrased, but that was the gist, the invitation offered at the end of the workshop.

It wasn’t my first writing course. In high school, I took one or two; in college, a few more. But even though I loved doing it, writing was never my main focus of study. Then, in my post-college twenties, my life went through a bit of an upheaval. In reaction, I did something I highly recommend: something that scared me.

This came in the form of signing up for a science fiction and fantasy-focused writing workshop at a local cooperative. I was one of the youngest and least experienced people in the class. There were other newbies, of course, but there were also professional and published writers, people with advanced degrees, an award-winning instructor—real grownups. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was terrified.

When my turn came, I submitted a short story I’d written and survived the subsequent critique. Then, far too quickly, the ten weeks were up. The fear wasn’t entirely gone, but I knew I would be signing up again. Unfortunately, it would be a few months before the next session.

“Would you like to join our writing group?”

It turned out some of the class regulars met outside of it. Soon, in addition to the workshop, I had my first critique group. My experiences with them gave me the confidence to keep writing, keep learning, and eventually to form a new group when I moved a few years later.

I’ll always be grateful for that invitation. It’s also a constant reminder that no gesture, especially when it comes to the writing community, is too small, because it might be arriving exactly when someone else needs it.

Tanuja Desai Hidier, author of Born Confused

The Census asked: What are you? Asian/Pacific Islander? “Other”?

Neither. I alternated, out of fairness. Hesitated, out of brownness.

It was the ’70s, then the ’80s. Still wasn’t sure by the ’90s.

Everywhere: a box to tick. A side to pick.

Except in books. Ramona, Nancy. Harriet, Huckleberry. Nose sunk in their tales, I walked into walls. Walked through them.

Windows appeared.

Slipping under different skins, chapter by verse, to where we all fit in, I wasn’t I.

I was We.

And the books whispered: We’re in it together.

Off the page, Kevin threw sand in my face, said you’re the color of dog doo. In high school, Jay proclaimed I had the best tan he’d ever seen. In the mirror: my parents’ child, glad to be. Through the window: no one like us for miles and seas.

Nor on the bookshelf. We pledged allegiance to the red, white, blue. Me to black type, white page. But how to spill blue ink from brown hands?

I didn’t speak my mother tongue (Marathi), nor my father (Gujarati). I dressed as an Indian girl for Halloween, in Diwali saris sent by aunties.

Later, I discovered a name for this in-between: ABCD. American Born Confused Desi, as college friends from Pakistan, India, addressed me. An inkling of a We out there—where?

(And shouldn’t WE be naming ourselves?)

In late ’90s NYC, I found these kids of the diaspora, founding South Asian Student Associations, the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, bhangra parties where the dancing, music harmoniously we mixed our motherland and modern-day selves.

I found us.

And I saw:

This box we think we have to tick, fit into, doesn’t exist.

So many of us in the margins…they become the page itself.

So many of us finding our voices, we make a resounding chorus.

Confusion turning Creativity. I to We. Community.

In honor of this We, here’s the Deep Blue She #Mutiny2Unity #MeToo WeMix music video with 100+ artist/activists, mostly women of color (many authors). We filmed ourselves on cellphones, all over the world, over the course of the year, idea being that WE tell the tales, shine the lens, ourselves. And provide support for others to, too (all artist proceeds from the remix go to charity).

Because your story matters. Tell it.

Your voice is vital. Raise it.

We can be heroes. Believe it.

And: We’re in it together.

Happy New Year!

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