This week, Rachel Kramer Bussel--senior editor at
Penthouse Variations, SexisMagazine.com columnist, and editor of over 30 erotic anthologies, most recently,
Please, Sir and
Please, Ma'am--asks Sofia Quintero--author of many novels for "women who love hip hop even when hip hop fails them" under the pen name Black Artemis, and most recently Efrain's Secret, a new YA novel--five questions about writing for young adults, finding inspiration where we are, and writing for social change.
1. What prompted you to write Efrain’s Secret, a young adult novel with a male protagonist, and how was the process different than writing your adult female friendship novel Divas Don’t Yield?
I think writing for young people has actually made me a better craftsperson. The limitations, length, language, etc. forced me to be more imaginative. This novel, I believe, is both my leanest yet deepest. I always feel a sense of responsibility for the way my stories might impact readers, and this sense became particularly heightened when I remembered that my readers might be as young as ten or eleven years old. I became more deliberate in my choices about everything such as when to use certain kinds of language, rely on subtext, and the like. For example, Efrain is a young man who rarely curses so when he does, it’s a consequence of what he is experiencing, both as a result of his own choices and the choices of others that effect him, and how these choices are influencing his character. There’s a way I leave more room for my reader to enter, so to speak, and make his or her own interpretations. It made me appreciate how when I write for adults, I take certain things for granted, for better or worse. That said, I think that Efrain’s Secret is a novel that will appeal to adults as well even if they are not readers of YA fiction.
As for why I decided to write a young adult novel with a male protagonist, I’m a cultural activist whose personal mission is to bring progressive ideas to commercial work. As such my work is unapologetically feminist, and I didn’t want Efrain’s Secret to be any different because it was a young adult novel or a story with a male protagonist. If anything, that made it even more important. I have come to believe that part of the feminist movement must include reenvisioning masculinity for boys and men, and my particular concern is with boys of color and working-class boys. Our society tells boys of a certain socioeconomic background, “These are the things that make a man,” only to use racism and classism to block those paths to manhood. Furthermore, these traditional articulations of masculinity encourage exploiting or otherwise controlling women, engaging in violence and things of that nature, it’s no wonder that boys who have been hurt by or frustrated in their efforts to live up to those standards eventually resort to anti-social extremes to flex their masculinity. The primary question I wanted to explore with Efrain’s Secret was what are the mixed messages that boys get about masculinity and how does that impact them. I always envisioned Efrain as character who, because he suffered from certain expressions of patriarchal masculinity, was intent on defining his masculinity on his own terms, which means negotiating those mixed messages.
2. The ethical dilemma Efrain faces isn’t just about choosing to be a part-time drug dealer to make money, but one of culture, from his intellectual ambition and trying to be a good son and boyfriend, to reconnecting with his old friend Nestor, who dropped out of school. He doesn’t have many role models for the kind of life he aspires to. I appreciated that you didn’t make it totally heavy handed (drugs=bad, stay in school, or some other cliché), but showed why the choice was so challenging for Efrain. To me, it meant that the reader had to assess the pros and cons and wasn’t just handed an answer, which I think teenagers especially will appreciate. Was it a challenge to incorporate various viewpoints and ethical issues while telling, mainly, one protagonist’s story?
I was asked in another interview why I chose to tell the story in the first person, and the answer to that question also answers your question. It was an intuitive decision, and when I tried to articulate it, I initially told myself that I wanted the challenge of writing from a perspective that I haven’t lived and that I was also playing to my strengths because my voice is stronger in the first person. But as I started rewriting the novel and interlacing the various issues, I realized that writing the story in Efrain’s voice helped me to maintain the compassion that’s necessary to keep judgments and didacticism at bay.
I should also share that the inspiration for this story came from a tragic event that occurred in New York City and made national headlines. In the summer of 1985, a high school senior from Harlem named Edmund Perry was shot to death by a plainclothes police officer in Morningside Park. It caused a great deal of controversy because Eddie had just graduated from Philip Exeter and was going to start college at Stanford that fall, and yet the police officer and almost two dozen witnesses stated that Eddie and his brother had mugged and assaulted him. Like Efrain, I was a senior in the honors program at my neighborhood high school who hoped to attend an Ivy League college, and I wasn’t oblivious or immune to the forces that could derail me. I had classmates like Eddie who were leading double lives, and this fascinated me. What compels people to attempt to reconcile what society insists is irreconcilable? This and related questions are recurring themes in much of my work so I’ve written other stories with characters who do the wrong thing for the right reason, so to speak. Efrain’s Secret is my first exploration of this theme from the perspective of a person who is young and male, and I came to it with some practice in looking at characters’ choices with compassion and complexity. .
3. One of the plotlines is that Efrain wants to get into Harvard, and is dealing drugs to help pay for his SAT prep course. At one point he discovers that some Ivy League schools are offering full scholarships to low income students, and his girlfriend, Candace, is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and helps educate her peers about that experience. Why were these stories specifically important to you to include and can you share any research you did into these topics?
Even though he is incredibly attracted sexually to GiGi, with whom he has quite a bit in common, I knew that Efrain would connect emotionally with a young woman like him who was studious, edgy and independent and had a few secrets of her own. When I conceived of the novel, Hurricane Katrina, the event and the classism and racism it brought to the surface, was still relatively fresh, and it just clicked that Efrain would fall for a girl who had her own ongoing battle with institutional and individual racism and classism. I had but cut a conversation between Candace and Efrain on Thanksgiving about the never-ending legal battle her family was having with the insurance company to compensate them for the loss of their home in New Orleans. It dragged down the scene which is ultimately about their growing closer as Efrain finally opens up to Candace about his father. My hope is that even without it, young readers will remain interested in the effects of Hurricane Katrina and be inspired to learn and do more about it.
4. There’s a lot of fluffy YA out there, for lack of a better word. I’m a fan of much of it, so I’m not knocking it, but your book also contains social commentary and deals with issues of race and class. Is it easier to bring up some of these topics under the guise of fiction rather than in nonfiction form? Is there a message you’re hoping teenagers will walk away with after reading the book?
I do find it easier to bring up these issues through fiction. It simply may be just because it’s a lot more fun. It actually takes more work but doesn’t feel like work. Storytelling is so powerful. Even when raising social and political issues in nonfiction form, I like to use anecdotes. There are a multitude of messages in Efrain’s Secret
that I hope young readers will take with them. Too many to list really. I’m in the midst of creating an ebook for educators who want to use the novel to explore certain questions or themes, and every time I go back to it, I find something else that could be the basis of an activity or discussion. Not just for kids but for adults as well. I’ll just trust that each reader will receive the message that is the most salient for him or her at the time she is reading it. Maybe if they reread it after some time has passed, a completely different message will resonate. That is something I wish for young and adult readers alike no matter what I write. And I like when people write me and say, “This is what really struck me.” Sometimes it’s not something that I even saw in my own work. It’s a great feeling because, like I said, writers want to know that their work moved readers. Artists of all kinds, I’m sure.
5. Along the same lines, you’ve worked in film, multimedia and fiction, and are part of Chica Luna Productions. Within all these media, I’m curious to know how they tie together for you (writing and other art forms) as forms of social change, and what you’re working on next.
The common thread among all the different things I do is the creation of socially conscious entertainment. This is my mission regardless of what medium I use. I have several things that I’m working on in the near future. One, I’m writing my second young adult novel Show and Prove
, which is set in New York City during the summer of 1983. I’m also producing two web series. Elisha Miranda and I co-created a Latina Sex and the City-type web series called Sangria Street for our company Sister Outsider Entertainment. I’m also independently producing Homegirl.TV, which I plan to launch in the fall as a birthday present to myself.
And as for the more explicit media activism, I’m finishing co-writing and editing a media justice toolkit for Chica Luna Productions. It consists of a collection of resources, workshops, discussion guides, etc. focused on popular movie and books depicting women of color as a way to promote media literacy. We worked with some of the amazing educators who co-wrote Conscious Women Rock the Page, a multidisciplinary curriculum that uses feminist hip-hop fiction to incite social change. Then come September I’m headed back to school to get my MFA in writing and producing television at Long Island University at its spanking new TV Writers Studio. I’ve got an amazing summer ahead of me, and I have no doubt that’s only the beginning.