By Isabel Taswell
Today we’re pleased to welcome Akwaeke Emezi to the WNDB blog to discuss YA novel Bitter, out now!
After a childhood in foster care, Bitter is thrilled to have been chosen to attend Eucalyptus, a special school where she can focus on her painting surrounded by other creative teens. But outside this haven, the streets are filled with protests against the deep injustices that grip the city of Lucille.
Bitter’s instinct is to stay safe within the walls of Eucalyptus . . . but her friends aren’t willing to settle for a world that’s so far away from what they deserve. Pulled between old friendships, her artistic passion, and a new romance, Bitter isn’t sure where she belongs—in the studio or in the streets. And if she does find a way to help the revolution while being true to who she is, she must also ask: at what cost?
This timely and riveting novel—a companion to the National Book Award finalist Pet—explores the power of youth, protest, and art.
You wrote Bitter as a prequel to your book, Pet. How did you know that Bitter had a larger story waiting to be told?
I don’t think you ever really know what a story is until you actually write it, but I knew from the beginning that I was going to go back and follow Bitter’s story. Although the book centers around Pet and Jam, Bitter’s the one who calls Pet through by creating the painting in the first place. The scene where Jam’s worried about her parents discovering what happened—she’s expecting them to be angry and they are angry, but not for the reason she thinks they’re going to be—signals that this has happened before. I wanted to tell how this happened before, and Bitter would be at the center of that because she’s the one who makes the painting.
The power of art plays a significant role in the plot and message of Bitter. What is your own connection to art?
I do make visual art. I started with video art at first and I created a couple of paintings about a decade ago but I paused my art career to write books because I couldn’t do both at the same time. I’ve been writing since I was five, so it made more sense to pick that. But a lot of my really close friends are visual artists, and my sister is a visual artist, so it’s always been part of my life.
What would you like your young audience to come away with in their thinking about art, particularly as it relates to social justice?
One of the things I had to decide when I started writing young adult was why I was writing it. I’m not really in community with young people—I don’t really know a lot of young people—and I was worried about that when I first started writing Pet. But if you’re writing books for young people, you just need to write a good story. Every young person’s capable of appreciating that. I actually don’t think there’s a lot of difference for me in writing YA versus writing for adults. In some ways I think adults have less space for possibility than YA readers, so when I’m writing YA I get to write worlds that have more possibilities. I get to write something I believe in. In the case of Bitter, it’s generally about this idea that you don’t have to be on the front lines to matter in a revolution. That’s applicable to everyone, regardless of age, especially when you live in a time where people think, “Oh, if you’re doing online activism, it’s not real.” I wanted to address that tension directly in Bitter and offer a solution: it’s important to find your own pocket and fight from it. What we really need for liberation is true community.
The characters of Bitter, and of Pet before it, have striking names like Bitter, Aloe, Blessing, and Hibiscus. What do you think about the power in a name? How did you come to gift your characters with their names?
The naming practice of the Lucille books was an homage to Toni Morrison. Her books have this lushness that extends to the characters’ names. One of my favorites is a character in her book Love who’s named Celestial, and there’s the name Beloved, which I used for a character in Pet. There’s something in her naming practice that’s very Black. At the end of the day, Lucille is a Black community. I wanted that to show in the different cultures and the different characters, in part, through the richness of their names.
It’s remarkable the ways in which your books create community with other writers, the writers with whom your work is nestling, and to see that come through in the practice of naming. Can you tell us more about the characters themselves? Do you base your characters on certain aspects of yourself or people who you know in your own life who shape who you are? Is there any character with whom you feel a particularly deep closeness or affinity?
I think for all writers, we’re always pulling from our own experiences, our own worlds, whenever we write. I don’t think I’m any different. I think all of the characters are important to me and are crafted very carefully, so they’re all very real people to me, even the minor characters. In Bitter, you only see glimpses of Malachite, who’s dating Bitter’s friend Eddie. She’s actually really important because Malachite is one of Redemption’s parents in Pet—but you only see her in these side glances in Bitter. But I see all the characters, even ones that are secondary or minor characters, as significant to me from book to book.
In its most primal form, Bitter is a book about a revolution. In a pandemic-laden era, where people are grappling more deeply with social justice issues such as racism, gender equality, and socioeconomic injustice, what role do you hope your book will play in shaping young minds?
I’m not sure it will. For Black people, it’s not a new thing to be grappling with any of this; it’s not recent; it’s not been sparked by the pandemic. It’s just a facet of our lives. I think of Bitter not as an authority, not to shape young peoples’ minds, but as a contribution to a conversation to engage with their thinking.
What do you hope readers might feel or take away from this conversation?
I don’t. I don’t have expectations for readers. I’m not a writer who’s like, “Well I’m writing this and I hope people are going to react in this way.” I wrote this for myself and I got what I needed to get out of it. When I release my books to a public of readers, I have no desired outcome. When people engage with my work, they are in conversation with the work, not the creator. I want people to find out what they think, what they believe.
I once took a seminar on the works of Toni Morrison, and a student in the seminar asked, “What does Morrison want us to think?” The professor laughed and said, “No, Morrison just told the story—what do you think about this?” Instead of looking to the author to be told what to think, what would it look like for the work to be a place where you figure out what you think? That’s how I approach my work. I write about things I care about. Some of that is obvious (I think Bitter is very clear: there’s no such thing as a good billionaire) but a lot of the other aspects of it are open questions: What is an adequate contribution to a revolution? What does justice look like? Those are questions I don’t have the answers to, so I’m not hoping that someone is going to agree with my answers. What do you think? The work is a question.
You mentioned that you wrote this for yourself and you got from it what you needed to get from it. Can you say a little bit more about that?
I honestly did not want to write Bitter. It was a very painful book to write, both emotionally and physically. I was writing it in the summer of 2020, and it was hard writing a book about young Black people trying to survive protests when it was also happening in real life. Also, in the past couple of years, I became disabled and my health deteriorated to a point where I could no longer type. I still had to work on the book, though, so I had a friend who would type for me over Zoom. I felt like I had a contract and a duty to the characters: I had started the story; I had to see it through, and I had to do it at the same standard as all my work. I was very relieved when it was done and I was even more relieved when I read it back and realized it was good, because it was such hell to write. I think what I got from it was space in my own craft to say, “I have learned through several books, but especially this one, that I can write at a certain level even under horrific conditions.” Once I learned that, I decided to never do it again.
Early in my career, I really didn’t have a choice. I had to write under these conditions; otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a career. Six months before Freshwater came out, I didn’t have a place to live, so I went from housing instability to getting a large book deal through Freshwater. Everything changed really quickly, but I had been in survival mode for so long that I kept making myself write under horrific conditions even though I no longer had to. By the time I finished writing Bitter, I realized I’m writing for young people who are trying to learn how to be gentle with themselves. I look back at the work—I look back at myself—and I realize I can learn how to be gentle with myself, just like the young people in this book.
I can’t help but think about how powerful it is that your friend typed your words for this particular book, which is about coming together as a community and supporting one another and honoring and uplifting different strengths. In the spirit of supporting others and building community, what recommendations do you have for published or forthcoming kidlit?
I actually don’t know which of the books I read are YA and which are for adults. The writer and perfumer Tanaïs just released a book called In Sensoriam: Notes to my People. They’re a Bangladeshi author and their book is actually structured like a perfume, which I think is genius. Another friend of mine, Chinelo Okparanta, is releasing a book this summer called Harry Sylvester Bird, which is going to be a satire of white liberalism. There are all these conversations about banned books, and what books are suitable for young people to read, but I think these recommendations are applicable to young readers and adults alike. I was lucky enough to have parents who didn’t set any rules about the books I read as a child. When I was young, I would read everything, from romance novels to Dostoevsky to all the African novels I grew up on. I didn’t have that separation of literature for an adult or a teenager. Young people who are interested in perfume and history will probably love Tanaïs’s book, and young people who want to read Harry Sylvester Bird will probably love that, too.
I remember once as a child when I started reading a book that was very inappropriate, I just closed it, handed it over to my best friend’s mom and said, “I don’t like it, I’m not comfortable with it.” She said, “Okay,” and she took it away, and that was it. The sky did not fall. I think young people are very capable of assessing what they can or can’t handle in a book. A lot of the restrictions around it are from adults not being able to handle the conversations that come up, and then choosing to restrict younger readers to things they can control with more ease.
Akwaeke Emezi (they/them) is the author of Pet, a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, a Walter Honor Book and a Stonewall Honor Book; the New York Times bestseller The Death of Vivek Oji, which was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the PEN/Jean Stein Award; Freshwater, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize; and most recently, Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir. Their debut poetry collection, Content Warning: Everything, is forthcoming in 2022. Selected as a 5 Under 35 honoree by the National Book Foundation, they are based in liminal spaces.
Isabel Taswell (they/them) is an avid reader, writer, teacher, and learner based in New York City. They are committed to decolonizing education and believe in the power of literature to affirm a young person’s sense of self and commitment to community. Isabel received their B.A. in English-Psychology from Barnard College and their M.S. in Education from Bank Street College of Education. In their free time, Isabel enjoys climbing mountains, cooking meals, and jumping in puddles.