YA Diversity Book Club: Q&A with Willa Strayhorn

Most Anticipated Diverse Titles
Welcome to the latest edition of the YA Diversity Book Club, a monthly feature we created in partnership with three other book bloggers: Kiki at Gone Pecan, Lucy at The Reading Date, and Kristan at We Heart YA. This month we read THE WAY WE BARED OUR SOULS by Willa Strayhorn, who was kind enough to do an interview with us about her process for writing the book. We thought it was fascinating what she had to say about writing diverse characters outside her own experience.

The Way We Bared Our Souls

Five teenagers sit around a bonfire in the middle of the New Mexico desert. They don’t know it yet, but they are about to make the biggest sacrifice of their lives.

Lo has a family history of MS, and is starting to come down with all the symptoms.
Thomas, a former child soldier from Liberia, is plagued by traumatic memories of his war-torn past.
Kaya would do anything to feel physical pain, but a rare condition called CIP keeps her numb.
Ellen can’t remember who she was before she started doing drugs.
Kit lost his girlfriend in a car accident and now he just can’t shake his newfound fear of death.

When they trade totems as a symbol of shedding and adopting one another’s sorrows, they think it’s only an exercise. But in the morning, they wake to find their burdens gone…and replaced with someone else’s.
As the reality of the ritual unfolds, this unlikely group of five embarks on a week of beautiful, terrifying experiences that all culminate in one perfect truth: In the end, your soul is stronger than your burdens.


 

Willa Strayhorn1. Describe your book in a sentence or two. The Way We Bared Our Souls is about five exceptional teenagers in Santa Fe who are fighting to relieve themselves of the burdens in their lives. But after their spiritual journeys are set in motion by an unconventional shaman, they begin to see that the destructive capacity of their worst experiences—sickness, death, trauma, addiction, etc.—can’t compare to the regenerative power of their core selves.

2. What was your inspiration for writing The Way We Bared Our Souls: Like many people, I’ve suffered hardships that at the time seemed like they might define me for the rest of my life. I’ve been emotionally leveled by my share of burdens. But I’ve always wondered about the forces that give us hope again and allow us to go on living through the pain. Those forces are far more powerful than any of the tragedies that life can throw at us. Even if you’re not religious at all, the concept of the soul is a helpful one to have when you’re feeling lost or broken. So I think in some ways this book is the pep talk that I’ve needed at different times in my life, especially when I was a teenager.

3. What kind of research did you have to do to make sure your characters were authentic? Before I started writing I probably did too much research out of fear of actually putting pen to paper. I studied PTSD and drug addiction and the Second Liberian Civil War and Kit Carson and child soldiers and Georgia O’Keefe and the Pueblo Indians. I flew to Santa Fe so I knew how to describe a tamale better and I read dozens of novels set in New Mexico, all in an effort to immerse myself in the world of the people I wanted to capture in the book. And research is important. But I think in my next novel I’ll better trust the characters to lead me toward what I need to know and not let myself procrastinate so much at the library. Though I do love my library.

4. How did you come to incorporate the diverse elements in your book? My main characters are somewhat racially and culturally diverse, but for this book I felt that it would be inauthentic for the first-person narrator (Consuelo) to be anything but white, because I am white. So the worlds that are unfamiliar to Consuelo are all filtered through her eyes. That being said, I don’t dance around racism and prejudice and especially the U.S. government’s appalling treatment of Native American tribes. Those things are all very real and very painful and can be seen by anyone. Ultimately, however, this book is about the beauty and strength of individual humans, and the diversity of their souls is far more important than the diversity of their skin color.

5. How does the diversity in your book relate to your life? Living in the U.S., you can’t help but think about diversity on a regular basis because so many minority populations are still underrepresented here in positions of power. Plus I live in a pocket of Brooklyn where blacks and whites and Hasidics and Muslims and Africans all cross paths every day. As a writer, also, I often note with alarm that the publishing industry is still pretty monocultural. It’s a problem that hurts everybody. On a more personal level, writing Thomas brought back a lot of memories of my late foster brother, a black man, and it was nice to feel that closeness again.

6. What are some of your favorite YA books about diverse characters? Sadly I have to say that there weren’t a lot of diverse characters represented in the YA literature I grew up reading in the 80s. At least not in my school library. Was there a single black character in the Sweet Valley High series? Somehow I doubt it. And as the AICL points out (http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/p/we-are-not-people-of-color.html), Laura Ingalls Wilder refers to Native Americans as “wild animals” in her Little House on the Prairie series. Probably the closest I got to a diverse cast of characters in my youth was in Lord of the Rings, but I don’t think fantastic creatures count. Looking back from a slightly more enlightened period in history, it’s astounding how little diversity there was on the average kid’s reading list back then. It really wasn’t until high school that I was exposed to a broader range of literary characters, but by that time I was interested in novels geared more toward adults. If only we children of the 80s had been lucky enough to have Sherman Alexie on our shelves. But obviously whitewashed bookstores are still an ongoing problem.

7. What areas of diversity do you want to draw attention to or do you feel are underrepresented in books? All of them! I particularly hate the idea that there are people out there who think promoting diversity in literature somehow translates into doing underrepresented populations a favor, when it’s really the underrepresented populations who are doing the dominant culture a favor. Reading literature teaches us empathy for all human beings, no matter how unfamiliar they may seem at first, so the more diversity the better.

Interested in the book? Make sure to read a Discussion Recap at Gone Pecan, The Reading Date’s What to Read Next: Native American YA, and We Heart YA’s post Diversity Is Not a Free Pass.

Stay tuned in February when we discuss Jasmine Warga’s MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES!

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