16 Authors Discuss Ballet, Online Dating, and More in May’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, sixteen authors discuss everything from ballet to online dating. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.

Nisha Sharma, author of My So-Called Bollywood Life

On my 29th birthday, my mother decided I needed a little help in finding my future spouse, so she bought me a premium subscription package to Shaadi.com.

Marriage.com. That’s literally the website translation.

On Shaadi.com, all roads lead to a compatible marriage. Search criteria include blood type, parents’ professions, siblings’ professions, and place of citizenship.

My parents set up my profile and wrote “simple, respectful, fair-skinned, educated, U.S. born girl seeks spouse.” Educated and U.S. born were the only two parts of that statement that were accurate.

I received tons of matches from men looking for the perfect 1950s housewife. However, when I spoke to them, and I gave quite a few a chance, they were instantly turned off by my personality.

“You talk too much.”

“You American girls think too highly of yourself.”

After six months of trying it my mother’s way, I decided it was time to adjust my profile to reflect my true nature. “Strong-willed, independent woman working as attorney and romance novelist seeks progressive-minded partner—must enjoy early bedtimes and food.”

The rush of emails and interested candidates stopped. I was faced with the reality that a lot of South Asian men still enforced traditional gender roles established by the patriarchy.

My mother suggested I compromise and change my profile to something a bit more generic, but I refused. I’d rather be single than with someone who didn’t accept the fact that I write romance novels. I was neck-deep in My So-Called Bollywood Life, so the struggle between free will and destiny had become personal.

Then, in October of 2016, I received a message. A 31-year-old male, born and raised in Alaska, Indian on the outside, progressive-minded early bedtime foodie on the inside, wanted to get to know me. Fortunately for me, he was also the victim of parental meddling.

In the end, publishing and online dating taught me the same life lesson: if you refuse to settle, refuse to give up, and you wait for the right moment, magical things can happen.

MariNaomi, author of Losing the Girl

Once upon a time, I was approached by a publisher to come up with a book idea for a YA graphic novel. At the time, I’d just learned that a friend had, many years prior, been having a secret affair with my boyfriend, who I’d thought was the love of my life. After he ended it with her, she broke off our friendship under the guise that I hadn’t been a very good friend.

Even though the affair had happened long before, it was fresh information for me, so the feeling of betrayal was new. All those years, I blamed myself for the end of our friendship. After I learned what had happened, I spent many sleepless nights trying to see the situation through her eyes, trying to understand how she could have done that to me, her supposed best friend.

I used this experience to fuel the story that ultimately became Losing the Girl, which is book one of the Life on Earth trilogy. Artistically, I tried something new: Each chapter follows a different protagonist, illustrated in a style particular to their point of view. I invite my readers to step into each character’s shoes, feel compassion for them through good and bad decisions (as I was trying to do with my ex-friend), and to understand the depth and complexity of each person’s inner life.

I didn’t end up working with that publisher, but a decade later, my book has been brought to life. I hope my experience can help others realize that their own narratives are part of a greater story, and that not everything is what it seems.

Christa Desir, author of Four-Letter Word

TW: Sexual assault

I was sexually assaulted as a six-year-old at a mall where I had wandered away from my parents and gotten lost. So much of my life is informed by this one experience. But I never told anyone what happened until well into my teenage years. Prior to that, I was a hot mess of bad choices and a general disregard for myself, particularly from a sexual standpoint. I was a hole for other people’s use. So when Gestapo, this horrifying boys-vs-girls game with no real rules and a ton of high-risk possibilities, was first introduced to me, I did what any person who had little regard for themselves or their choices would do: I agreed to play. It was dumb. Even today, when I tell people about this game, I feel a tremendous amount of shame and embarrassment about ever playing, and not just because of the horrifying name. When it came around to writing Four-Letter Word, I knew that I wanted to say something about how girls don’t value themselves enough, about how when we’re young, we constantly sacrifice our own moral compass for other people. This book took me twenty years to write, with so many drafts and so many fits and starts. And in the end, I think part of the reason for that was that all along I had to find a way to reconcile my own choices as a teenager, the things I did or allowed to be done to me because I didn’t have a real voice. When I found that voice, I was able to find the heart of the story.

Polo Tate, author of Deep Dark Blue

TW: Sexual assault

I was recruited out of high school by the FBI for my first love; people. Or, the assigned technological term; profiling. Essentially, studying people’s behavior, and what makes them both unique and similar to others who share their proclivities. My desire to go through intense military and law enforcement training, and to help secure the safety of our nation and its citizens, was attractive to the alphabet soup of government agencies. And being an empath made reading people and getting inside their heads more exceptional than the average recruit.

And so, with a fire in my belly, and a work ethic steadily, strongly beating in my heart, I blazed a trail all the way to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I earned an NCAA spot on USAFA’s varsity volleyball team, and a rank among the incoming class of cadets. I was well on my way to going through the challenging military and specialized training that I had always wanted. I was well on my way to graduating a second lieutenant, and being able to finally use my study of people to join a behavioral analysis unit within the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Well on my way to fulfilling my dream of helping those who need help, helping keep our country knowledgeable and safe. Well on my way, that is, until the middle of my first year at USAFA.

When my body became the crime scene.

It took nearly a full year to erase the metaphorical chalk lines from around my body, my psyche. And far longer to “close my case” physically, emotionally, psychologically. Sexual assault and violence can take a lifetime to overcome. Or so I’ve learned in the time since.

And though I don’t work for the FBI, I do use my love and curiosity for people to help them connect with their inner beings, their deepest emotions, their most profound desires. Every single day.

And it makes me sublimely happy.

Brendan Kiely, author of Tradition

As high schools go, mine was fairly strict, formal, and buttoned up. We had a dress code. We went to Mass. It was an all boys’ school, and we were often reminded what kind of men they hoped we’d become, projections that too often seemed too conservative for who I hoped to be—I wanted to rebel.

But once a year, teachers and the administration looked the other way and seniors were allowed (by our standards) unprecedented freedom. We came dressed as we pleased. We smoked cigars (or a pipe in my case) between classes—even though many of us, including myself, were still 17. We tailgated before school in the parking lot. We hung and swung on the rope that rang the bell in the tower.

Though much more dangerous, particularly for young women, the traditions at Fullbrook Academy in my new novel, Tradition, share the same “let boys be boys” attitude as my own high school’s Senior Day—and it was only later in life that I realized that that attitude fuels a cultural misogyny that protects boys and men who abuse their power and position. I wanted to rebel against the conservatism of my own high school—that’s why on Senior Day I dressed like the hippie I was in my heart (see photo)—but I didn’t rebel enough against the ways I was encouraged to behave in reckless and entitled ways, especially as a man.

But now, in Tradition, in the friendships formed between boys and girls in the novel, I hope to ask the question I should have asked when I was a senior in high school: How can men be better feminists?

Britta Lundin, author of Ship It

My parents moved out of the house I grew up in this month. It’s sad, but I understand it was time to move on. The hard part was going through the two hundred boxes of things I somehow still had stored in my parents’ basement. Okay, not two hundred. But a lot.

I opened up a box of Easter dresses I wore in the years before I learned long division. My mom cooed as I held them up. They are alien to me now. Pink and pale and lacy and frilly, they resemble nothing I would wear today. I barely remember wearing them then.

Going through the boxes was like watching myself grow up. The rest of my elementary school years, I was testing out my “smart but weird” persona. I wrote a lot, and apparently my mom saved every single story I ever churned out. Middle school was about sports, and then TV. In seventh grade we got dial-up internet in our house, and my exploration of fan culture began, as evidenced by the stacks of X-Files fanfic printed out from the internet on our dot matrix printer I saved.

In high school I tried out a wide array of fashions, from the loudest polyester shirts I could find at the vintage shop, to a pair of jeans with fuzzy neon orange strips I sewed into the side seam, to a giant bag full of ’60s- and ’70s-era ties I adored wearing.

At every stage of my life, I was experimenting with different identities. Some of them I’ve discarded—the polyester shirts are out; I like my fabric to breathe now—but I still love wearing ties, and you better believe I brought home that X-Files fanfic to read later. Because even though I’m older now, some things never change.

Julie Murphy, author of Puddin’ 

I think, to date, my greatest unrequited love is ballet. Even when I was young, there was something so lovely to me about how simultaneously romantic and brutal it was. By the age of five, I was hooked. I went for the tutus and stayed for the heartbreak.

As I got older, it became clear that my body was growing in different directions than the tall, slender beanpole girls in my classes. Growing up, we were always broke, but no matter where we moved or how bad things were, my mom always found a way to scrape together enough to pay for classes. I loved it. It was hard and I didn’t fit in. Poor, fat girls aren’t really the ballet brand. But I stuck with it until fourteen. I was growing understandably tired of recital costumes that only went up to a size large and the way my teacher and peers treated my cellulite-covered thighs like two diabolical intruders in the hallowed halls of their strip mall dance studio.

One evening, a school friend invited me to hang out. Watch trash TV with people who liked me or stare at my reflection while the girl behind me snarled at my ass every time I stretched during barre work? I skipped class. Then I skipped again. And then I just never went back. I ghosted. I still feel guilty about wasting my mom’s money on that last semester. More than that, though, I’m still angry with every ballet instructor I ever had. Not a single one of them fought for me or made a single move to let me know that their studio welcomed my body.

So these days, I don’t wait for an invite. I take up space wherever I damn well please. I try to encourage others to do the same. And who knows? Maybe one day my fat ass will once again grace a ballet studio.

Sandhya Menon, author of From Twinkle, with Love

Being a mother is one of the greatest joys of my life. I always knew I wanted kids (except for a brief period in my teens when I felt very emo and nihilistic). I had them in my mid-twenties, on purpose, and never looked back. But it’s interesting. I can’t help but shake the feeling that, in some (many?) circles, being a mother equals being unsuccessful or not as serious of an artist or being dismissed.

It’s not just men who make these comments, though they are certainly not exempt from them. I’ve heard it from women, too. Lauren Sandler infamously said that women couldn’t be successful authors if they had more than one child (and then was eloquently refuted by Zadie Smith). Often, when acquaintances find out I travel for work, I am asked, “But what about your children?” Interesting fact—my husband also travels for work. Number of times he’s been asked, “But what about your children?”: Zero.

If you’re an author who is also a mother, I want to go on the record as saying it is entirely possible to do both, and do them well. To paraphrase Zadie Smith, time is at a premium whether you’re a mother, a senator, a trucker, or a doctor. No matter what else you are, if you are also a writer, you have to find ways to carve out time for your art. It’s incredibly difficult to not feel guilty in a world that tells you that you must feel guilty, that to take time for yourself is tantamount to gross negligence.

I’m finally in a place in my life where I don’t feel guilty pouring myself into my art. I don’t feel guilty closing my door and saying I’m on deadline. Part of it is having a wonderfully supportive spouse. But the other part, the equally large part, is giving myself permission to be a writer and a mother, and giving myself permission to be equally excellent at both.

Lygia Day Peñaflor, author of All of This Is True

When I was thirteen, there was an ad for something called “The Get Him System” in the back of popular teen magazines like YM, Seventeen, and Teen. The system was a booklet on “How to get the guy you really want,” “What to do on Monday so he’ll ask you out by Friday,” and the claim of all claims, “The 5 little secrets to make any guy yours.” I had to have it. The final selling point? It promised to ship in a brown, unmarked package. No one would know—my brother wouldn’t laugh his ass off at me!

I’d never ordered anything through the mail before, but I couldn’t resist “How to turn ‘just a friend’ into a boyfriend,” so I filled out the order form, put $10 cash plus $2 for shipping in an envelope, and mailed it out.

I told no one. The wait nearly killed me. Had I mailed $12 to a scammer? Or worse, had I given my home address to some pervert? I was mortified and yet so…exhilarated. What if “The GH System” was exactly as promised? I could actually make the cutest boy in school be my boyfriend.

When an unmarked package did arrive, I ran to my room and ripped it open. The pamphlet was flimsy, amateurish. I imagined a grown man printing them out in his garage. But the advice wasn’t too terrible: make eye contact, talk about mutual interests, show your sense of humor!

It was worth a shot. I said hello to my crush, and we chatted about music videos. I even made him laugh. So, did I “get him”? Did he ask me out by Friday? No. I was, indeed, crushed. But looking back at it now, I’m proud of my thirteen-year-old self for trying, and I think it was $12 well spent.

Anat Deracine, author of Driving by Starlight

When I was six, I decided to walk home from school and take my friend along with me. I lived a forty-minute drive away by the school bus, and didn’t actually know the way. After an hour or two of walking, I picked sunflowers off the street, twirled them in my hands and dropped them, announcing that “home” was where the flowers pointed. We were picked up off the side of a highway by a nice lady who didn’t speak much English, who knew enough to call the phone number on our name tags so our panicked parents could pick us up.

Everyone who hears the story sympathizes with my parents (she was just six? How long was she gone?), but those who know that this happened in Riyadh usually ask a different question first. How did a girl take it into her head to do something like that?

I’ve had many adventures since then: gone riding horses in Jordan, traveled on my own through Iran and Egypt and Myanmar, and always come back to hear that question from friends and family. The difference is, I now know the answer. Books.

Books were my friends when I wasn’t allowed to explore the physical world, and the kinds of books I loved were adventure stories. Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, Around the World in Eighty Days…and it never once occurred to me that just because I was reading books about boys, I couldn’t one day go where they went, do the things they did.

I hope everyone who reads Leena’s story in Driving by Starlight sees the desert the way she does, not as prison but as liberation.

Maurene Goo, author of The Way You Make Me Feel

Here’s a short list of the sports I attempted as a child and teen and promptly quit: Tennis, horseback riding, golf, and swimming.

P.E. was my enemy. I hid behind the bleachers during the mile run, my baggy red sweat shorts unflattering and loose on my stick legs. I was last to be picked for teams. For all sports. Watching my friends wake up at the crack of dawn for water polo practice or track was baffling. I felt like they were brainwashed. Because sports sucked.

Like many teens, I wasn’t comfortable in my body. It was all sharp angles and awkward, loping movements. That’s kind of normal. But even as a child I wasn’t into, well, movement. I didn’t want to do cartwheels or chase after other kids. I liked not moving and being comfortable, thank you very much.

But when I was in my twenties I took a ballet class for the first time. I imagined transforming into this graceful swan. In a class of beginners, I was consistently the worst. I wanted to quit immediately. I had never been trained to get over that discomfort—to know that being bad at your body moving in new ways was normal, that you would get better at it. And I did get better at it. Even if I wasn’t ever great, I grew to love it.

And now, in my thirties, I’ve taken up boxing, of all things. Here’s why dancing and boxing are particularly wild for someone like me: It involves performance. You can’t blend into a team. Your body and the way it moves is on display for other people to see. It’s been kind of incredible to know that with practice, I can do a pirouette and throw a left hook with considerable force.

I’ve grown stronger from all of it. I know because I can now heave my own carryon bag above my head on a plane! And I feel very comfortable attempting any new physical activity. I no longer feel awkward in my body. I think…I…like…sports?!

I get it now, everyone. I get it.

Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka, co-authors of Always Never Yours

When we were in high school, we agreed on nearly everything important. The imperative of outdoing each other on AP exams. The perfect TV (Buffy and Battlestar Galactica). Our disinterest in parties and school sports.

Not YA.

Emily: I’ve loved YA since middle school, pretty much because of Twilight. Austin took longer to come around. Because of Twilight.

Austin: I have no real problem with the Twilight books in themselves. The problem was, before Emily and I went out, I dated a big Twilight fan.

The year was 2008, a year every Twihard remembers for the release of the first Twilight film, and I had a great idea. I would read the first book without my girlfriend knowing, then take her to the movie and reveal I’d read one of her favorite books. She would be touched by the gesture.

I read the book in secret over a series of late nights. Then she dumped me brutally in her car, in front of my house, the weekend before the film opened in theaters. I implored her to change our Facebooks to “It’s complicated” instead of “single,” imagining this would give her room to reconsider. I cried. Then she cried, and I ended up comforting her, thinking, is this really happening?

I never even had the opportunity to tell her I’d read Twilight.

Emily: I knew none of this when Austin and I got together the next year, or when I eagerly pressed my copy of City of Bones into his hands. Fortunately, he told me he preferred the read to a certain chronicle of Cullens and werewolves.

Of course, neither of us fell in love with YA contemporary or the idea of writing in the genre until we read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. For Austin and me, Fangirl illuminated the literary precision the genre could embody and the infinities of emotion to be found in the ordinary lives YA contemporary captured.

The rest is history—though we both kind of enjoyed the Breaking Dawn: Part I movie.

Leila Sales, author of If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say

When presented with almost any choice, I don’t trust myself to make a good one. I go through life with overwhelming uncertainty on everything from what I want for dinner, to where to live and how to be.

If someone tells me something with great certainty, like, “You need this hair product,” I believe them, because I have basically never felt that sure about anything. I assume other people know the right way to do things and I don’t.

I suspect this all goes back to middle school, where it was drilled into me that I was doing everything wrong. Other kids knew where you were supposed to shop and who was acceptable to have a crush on and what music to listen to, and I didn’t know, which meant I should trust them and not my own instincts and preferences.

Part of the protagonist’s arc in If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is trying to figure out how she can trust herself ever again after she has majorly screwed up. The world tells her she has a broken sense of morality, and she believes the world’s certainty. But once you’re convinced you don’t have a trustworthy compass directing you where to go, then how do you possibly go anywhere?

For me, the relief from uncertainty has always come through writing. I can confidently send my characters in any direction knowing that, if it doesn’t work out, we can start over. I sent the main character of If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say off in hundreds of pages of wrong directions before I found the right one. I don’t trust myself to get things right the first time. But I believe that I can get there someday.

Aisha Saeed, author of Amal Unbound

My mother tells me I was four years old when I began writing stories at our kitchen table. They probably didn’t have strong plot or character development, but the desire not just to tell stories but to write them down began at a very young age for me, and anchored me through my teen years and well into adulthood. And while I wrote nearly every day, I never considered trying to publish any of my stories until one day a friend accidentally stumbled upon a book I was drafting. When I walked in on him reading it, I was mortified. Why aren’t you trying to get published? He asked me. I explained how low the odds were. I may as well dream of tap dancing on the moon, I said. He told me just because the odds are low, it doesn’t mean you don’t try. What’s the worst that can happen?

Because of that conversation, I tried. And that book my friend stumbled upon became my debut novel, Written in the Stars.

A few days from now my next book, middle grade novel Amal Unbound, hits shelves. The name Amal means hope in Arabic, and Amal’s story is about the power of hoping and never giving up. I am so thankful for the conversation I had years ago with my friend and the hope he helped spark within me to see my stories in print someday. No matter how hard it may seem, it’s worth trying for what we want and it’s always important to hold on to hope. I hope Amal Unbounded will inspire others to hold on to hope and to try even when the odds feel impossible.

Dana Davis, author of Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now

If you hear me laugh it sounds haughty. Like a British royal, perhaps? If you saw my iTunes playlist you might scratch your head. Tchaikovsky and Singin’ in the Rain are among my faves. When my mom took me to pick out movies at Blockbuster as a kid I’d make a beeline for the musical section. I memorized all the songs to Cabaret when I was ten. “Everybody loves a winner…so nobody loved me.” Best. Lyrics. Ever.

Yet for some reason, who I was…seemed to be perceived as something not real. There is an American cultural divide. And when I was young, you couldn’t toe the line. You needed to pick a side. But I was a shade of grey—too dark to be white and too white to be black.

“She’s so fake.” Black girls at my school would say loud enough so I could hear. “Nobody laughs like that.” They’d shake their heads when they saw me walk by carrying my viola in tow headed for orchestra practice.

“So you guys live in like…an apartment?” The rich white kids would ask condescendingly.

I was an outcast. Stuck in the middle. All alone.

I wrote a book about a sixteen-year-old girl named Tiffany Sly who isn’t defined by the color of her skin. She listens to rock and roll. Samwise Gamgee, Skittles, and rainbows are her happy thoughts, and Ireland is her dream vacation. But boy oh boy is she proud to be who she is. She is a new generation of teenager. She is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream realized. Defined not by the color of her skin, but by the content of her character.

It took me years to find peace with who I am. But I hope books like mine help girls…and boys too…who might not be okay with their beautiful shade of grey. Of being somewhere in between. Not the black race. Not the white race. But the human race. After all…that’s really the only race there is.

Laura Sebastian, author of Ash Princess

I didn’t have real friends in high school. Oh, I was friendly enough with just about everyone, but I always felt isolated—sealed away behind a thick pane of glass. Visible, but mute even when I was screaming at the top of my lungs.

Depression does that, and anxiety convinces you that everyone knows what a black hole your brain is, that they’re all judging you, talking about you. That everyone hates you. Individually, they’re awful enough, but the potent cocktail of both muddled with the unique torture of high school was a nightmare I didn’t know how to wake up from.

I was drowning. I knew the person I wanted to be—I could see her like bits of sky refracting through the water’s surface, but I could never manage to reach her. I remember standing at my bus stop and wondering what would happen if I just left, if I ran until I couldn’t run anymore, until I could find some kind of peace.

Sometimes, my wonderings took a darker turn, and those times are still difficult to put into words. Suffice to say they never manifested into actions but that the thoughts were never far from my mind.

Things got better in college. I met people who understood me in a way I didn’t know was possible. People who heard me screaming.

“Oh,” I thought. “This is what friendship is—trusting someone with the scariest parts of you.”

I also realized I wasn’t alone, that depression and anxiety are not rarities but because talking about it is so taboo, we all suffer in silence. I decided I wanted to talk about it until I had no voice left.

There is no cure. For me, it tends to come in waves, sometimes one, sometimes both twisted together. I can feel when a wave is creating, when it’s about to come crashing down over me. I’ve gotten better at holding my breath. I’ve learned not to suffer in silence and that there is no shame in mental illness, only a strength that teenage me didn’t know she possessed.

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