February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Importance of Girls’ Stories: SLJ Chats with Nova Ren Suma About “The Walls Around Us”

Photo by Erik Ryerson

Photo by Erik Ryerson

In her latest genre-bending YA novel, Nova Ren Suma explores the power of girls’ friendships, feminism, and unlikable narrators. Alternating between the points of view of two very different narrators—Violet, the up-and-coming ballet dancer with a dark secret and Amber, a teen who has been incarcerated since she was 13—the book has been much buzzed about and mentioned as one of the YA feminist reads of 2015. SLJ caught up with the author, who she shared what inspired her to write the ghostly The Walls Around Us (Algonquin, 2015).

The two narrators in this novel aren’t very likable or even relatable, but readers will still want to stick with them for the compelling stories that they share. What are your thoughts on whether protagonists in YA lit should be likable?

I don’t understand wanting to read a book to like the characters. I’m not reading for someone I want to be friends with. I’m reading for someone who’s interesting and fascinating, and that’s often a difficult character—a “bad character.” That’s not something I look for as a reader, so I certainly don’t think we should have to worry so much about creating palatable characters in YA lit. I don’t think there should be anything that “you should have to do” in YA lit. It’s an open plane..

I feel like this topic is problematic because it’s always the girl characters that are called out as being unlikable. Why doesn’t it come up with male narrators? Amy Reed recently wrote a piece on “Stacked” on just this issue.

It’s so much more fascinating to me to unpack someone who is not necessarily easy but someone who has many layers and is complex—that feels more authentic to me.

Which protagonist do you connect with the most?

You would imagine that I connect more with Violet because I studied ballet, jazz, and modern dance for years. I understand her ambition—not as a dancer but as a writer—to a frightening level. But actually, she is not the character that I most connect with. I’ve never been to jail or juvie, but I feel a much more personal connection with Amber. She’s telling the story from the [periphery], almost from the shadows. She’s telling everyone else’s story as if their stories are more important than hers.

I was such a shy kid growing up, and I completely understand putting yourself behind everyone else and being the observer. I love that she’s the storyteller. I have never been locked up when I was so young like she was, at 13, but if I was, I would have absolutely been drawn to the book cart. I would’ve devoured all of those books. I found my connection to her through her love of books.

We’ve heard the tagline for this book described as “Orange Is the New Black Swan.” Were either of those productions inspirations for any parts of Walls? I didn’t see the connection before I wrote the book, but I see it now, and I think it’s a wonderful way to bring readers to the book. I’m very flattered by it. I do remember seeing Black Swan, and I loved how dark and mind-bending it was. The book was sold on proposal to Algonquin in 2013. I kept seeing the posters for Orange Is the New Black on the subway, and I was curious. I worried, “What if this is too similar to what I’m writing about? Should I watch it?” There are certainly many overlapping themes, but it’s different enough, so I wasn’t too worried. And now I’m a huge fan of the show.

The book’s surrealist quality was inspired by David Lynch films and Twin Peaks. His work influences pretty much all of my books. And We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson was a definite reference and inspiration. The movie The Others with Nicole Kidman was also an influence.

This novel and your previous works often toe the line between reality and fantasy. Would you consider your books as part of the “magical realism” genre?

When I wrote my first YA, Imaginary Girls (Dutton, 2011), I absolutely thought of it as magical realism. The book was marketed as paranormal. The magical realism aspect wasn’t brought up until later. I noticed that recently magical realism in YA has been really starting to take off. And I’ve been really happy that my work has been included in this conversation. I have read, of course, Gabriel García Márquez, but also [Juan Rulfo’s] Pedro Páramo, a beautiful magical realism story set in a town in Mexico. These are works that I carry with me.

SLJ1503-Fic9up-The-Walls-around-Us-Nova-Ren-SumaDo you believe in karma? Many of the protagonists in this novel ultimately get their “just desserts.”

I was raised by hippies, and I grew up believing all sorts of things, including karma and that if you do good, good will come back to you. There will be justice. But as I grew older, I didn’t really see that happen. Maybe in writing this story about teenage girls and thinking about my own naïve teenage myself, I wanted there to be justice—even if it is a fantasy.

Your books often get at the heart of relationships between young women and how hurtful and uplifting they can be. Why do you think you come back to that theme again and again?

For me it’s so important to tell stories about young women and to write books told from their perspectives—all kinds of girls. I think again to my own experiences as a teenager. It wasn’t about finding true love. When I was in high school, my focus was on my really close relationships with friends. There was terrible drama, breakups, and the loss of friendships and how devastating that was. It was intense. In my writing about young women, so much of it is about our disconnection and connection to one another. Because if I’m writing about authentic lives and teenage girls, so much of their lives is about relationships between sisters, friendships, and frenemies. In that time [teen years], those were the closest relationships I had with other women. It’s hard to have that kind of friendship when you’re older. It’s such a beautiful intensity.

Kelly Jensen on Book Riot named The Walls Around Us one of the feminist YA reads of 2015. Why is it so important that readers understand how issues of power, identity, and girlhood are relevant to YA Lit and society today?

I absolutely identify as a feminist and I have for years. I remember when I was 12 years old and my mom got me a copy of Our Bodies Our Selves. It also taught me about feminism, that I was [a feminist]. The idea of feminism has gotten muddied, and a lot of people and young woman were afraid of the word and don’t understand what it means. I think it’s important to be talking and writing about it. And to be putting ourselves out there in our books and in our stories with powerful girls and strong characters who have agency in their lives and make choices for themselves. Obviously, the characters in Walls are incarcerated and their choices are taken away, but so much of this book is about what is still in their control and what they do with that agency. We’re speaking to the next generation with these books. I don’t want to give lessons; I just want to tell authentic stories that girls can connect to and that deal with girls having power in their lives. This is a very exciting time in YA lit and girls’ stories.

In Libba Bray’s keynote at the NYC Teen Author Festival, she asked, “Does sexism exist in YA?” and responded, “Abso-fucking-lutely.” Do you agree?

I was in audience when she gave that keynote. Libba is someone who inspires me on a personal and a literary level. She showed such bravery in going up there and saying those words, especially with what’s been happening lately: there’s been so much discussion and drama going on. She’s right: sexism in YA lit exists.

I think the reason that it’s such a difficult thing to hear is that this is an industry made up of women. Librarians, authors, bloggers, editors, we’re all women. How could it exist if we’re all women? We have to take a hard look at ourselves and ask difficult questions. Why do we elevate male authors in YA publishing? Why can a male author write from a female perspective and it can be taken more seriously and not the other way around? Why are there more men winning more awards in such a female-dominated format? Why are there more men on panels?

This is a conversation that has been going on behind closed doors for a long time, and it’s finally coming out. I think it’s so important that we’re having it right now. There are so many smart people being brave and putting themselves out there, but there are people who just don’t want to hear it. Our core audience is teens. What are we saying to young girls about their importance and significance? What are we leaving behind for the next generation?

The title is so evocative and brings to mind the physical walls of the prison and also points to the walls that keep women apart. What do you hope teens will take away from this theme?

Walls is so much about the idea of who do we see as innocent and who do we see as guilty. What are our limits on what we’re seeing outside of ourselves and what are we seeing honestly in other people? What are the assumptions that we make? So much is true in the real world outside the walls of this book. It felt so personal, too. It’s about how those walls are broken down and how they are able to come to justice or the truth about themselves and what’s real and what they’ve done.

Last week, #WomeninFiction began trending on Twitter and participants mentioned female characters they wanted to celebrate. What are some of yours?

I connected with Jane Eyre when I was really young. I even did a monologue from the scene of the red room in that book in Acting Club when I was 13. I also fell in love with Antoinette Cosway aka Bertha Mason from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale. When I think about YA, I think about Romy in All the Rage. And one of my favorites, Deanna from Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown, 2007). These are real, complicated, authentic characters.

Which authors would make you run to the bookstore in your pajamas to pick up their latest work?

Laura Kasischke’s Boy Heaven (2006) and Feathered (2008, HarperCollins) were the two novels that first made me want to be a YA writer. I admire Kasichke’s writing because it opened up that world for me. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (Doubleday, 1989) made me a reader; it changed my life. I didn’t understand much of what I was reading, but it was the first time I realized that girls’ stories were worthy of being told and important enough to be on an adult’s bookshelf.

Sara Zarr and Courtney Summers. Laura Ruby, Ellen Oh, and Rita Williams Garcia. Libba Bray and Gayle Forman. Jacqueline Woodson. Megan Abbot. Women writers who I admire not only for their writing, but also because of how they carry themselves in the industry.

Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on next?

I’m deep in a draft of my next novel for Algonquin. It’s very murky at this point. It’s been such an exciting time for Walls. I put so much of myself into that book. And it’s hard to switch into another book. I’m still in the discovery period of this new novel. I’m going to see what comes.



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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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