By Chinelo Ikem
Today we’re pleased to welcome Amber McBride to the WNDB blog to discuss Me (Moth).
Me (Moth) is a YA novel written in verse. Having read it, I can say this book has a very poetic quality to it. In fact, it’s almost like reading a collection of poems. You received your master’s from Emerson College in Fine Arts with a concentration in poetry and worked as a media assistant for Furious Flower Poetry Center, the first academic center for Black poets. What attracts you to poetry? Is there something you prefer about this format of storytelling?
Hearing that Me (Moth) reads like a poetry collection is extremely humbling, thank you! Poetry has always been my first love—I started writing poetry in sixth grade. It was the format that made sense to me. I like the brevity and immediacy of poetry. I am mesmerized by the timelessness of poetry. The epigraph of Me (Moth) is a line of poetry from the Jericho Brown poem “The Crossing,” it says— I’m different. I’ve figured and counted. I’m not crossing/ To cross back. I’m set/ On something vast. That line is applicable to life, to grief, to love and it is timely forever. I enjoy writing in all formats, but verse is where I feel at home. Furthermore, verse seemed to just fit for this novel, prose would not have worked.
As the narrator of the novel, Moth is a teenaged Black girl experiencing grief that can be felt through the pages. And as the sole survivor of a car crash that took the rest of her family, Moth punishes herself for living by taking up less space and refusing to dance. What are your thoughts on why humans experience survivor’s guilt and what made you want to write about grief for your first YA novel?
Me (Moth) focuses on grief because I was grieving when I wrote it. My own grandfather passed away in February of 2019 and his absence created a tidal wave of grief in my immediate and extended family. I wanted to mold that pain into something tangible. Something I could look at and say, yup that’s what the stages of grief look like, but SURPRISE, you can’t do that. Some days it feels like my grandfather just passed, some days it feels like his spirit is hovering close, and other days I just want to call him.
Turning to the second part of the question, as a person who suffers from clinical depression and who has seen people leave this world because of it, I often have survivor’s guilt. I often feel guilty for the moments when I didn’t want to live. I felt guilty when vivacious people would get sick and I’d think it should be me, I am the one not living fully. It’s not true, but that’s what we as humans think. The truth is we feel guilty because we love, we feel empathy for all aspects of the human experience, but living is never your fault—sometimes life just is not fair.
Why did you choose the name Moth for the main character?
The name came to me while I was meditating/talking to the ancestors. It was so clear—Moth. I told three people and no one was on board with the name, but it fit, her name was Moth and she had green locs. Some things are serendipitous. I also ended up starting locs on my own hair during the editing process of Me (Moth), so I really felt like I was journeying and changing with Moth during the publishing process.
One of my favorite things in the book is the incorporation of Hoodoo, a spirituality traditionally practiced by Black-Americans that fuses both West African and Native American religious traditions. In the book, Moth has a spiritual relationship to the ancestors that was fostered by her grandfather who was a Hoodoo rootworker. Moth often can be seen offering food to the ancestors and carrying roots with her. You wrote with such familiarity. Is Hoodoo personal to you? Do you practice it?
Yes! When enslaved Africans arrived in the United States, they could not practice their own spiritual traditions—Christianity was forced on them. Hoodoo is a folk magic system that grew out of that injustice. The Native American influence comes from learning the roots and herbs that were completely different from those in West Africa, which is why Hoodoo is often referred to as Rootwork as well.
I do practice Hoodoo now. I’ve always known of Hoodoo and I’ve seen people practicing it, but I was not familiar with the ins and outs of it until five years ago when I read an article about Hoodoo. It wasn’t until someone left coins on my grandfather’s headstone that I started to consciously study and learn more about Hoodoo through teachers, countless books, and practice. Before that, my mother would call me her little witch. I was into the spiritual aspect, crystals, offerings and I talked to my ancestors, but many Black people I know do that. It was remarkable as I learned more about Hoodoo how much I implemented in my life without knowing it. Like it was second nature. So, I guess I’ve been practicing Hoodoo most of my life, in the last few years I have studied it closely and implement it better.
Following the accident, Moth moves from New York to go live with her Aunt Jack in the Virginia suburbs, but it seems that grief has also affected her Aunt Jack who yells, “I can’t do this” when she thinks Moth isn’t watching. By the middle of the book, Moth’s aunt has abandoned Moth alone in the house without warning. What are we to make of Aunt Jack’s departure? Is she a bad person or just another person dealing with grief in the story?
Grief is hard, it changes you, it can hollow you out. Readers can be both critical and empathetic to Aunt Jack’s situation. I think there is meant to be a duality and dissonance in that instant, but it also turns into an empowering moment for Moth and is one of the catalysts for going on the road trip.
Moth doesn’t really connect with any of the other students at her new school except for a Native American boy named Sani, who is dealing with abuse from his white stepfather and alienation from his Native father. Sani can relate to Moth in more ways than one. Both are experiencing grief and turn to music, storytelling, and a shared summer road trip across the country to heal from their past. They also share a connection in spirituality—many of the Hoodoo practices Moth mentions are familiar to Sani, a member of the Navajo/Dine tribe. What inspired Sani’s character?
I knew I wanted this story to be about feeling unseen and I knew I wanted Sani to be a character from another marginalized demographic. My aunt is Navajo, and my uncle (her husband) is Black, so very quickly I saw Sani as a member of the Navajo Nation. I called my aunt, and we had a three-hour conversation about how to write an authentic, modern Navajo boy. We also talked about stories and the stages of the medical process in Navajo culture. She told me where the best resources for Navajo creation stories would be and most importantly, we talked about her culture and its depth and complexity. My cousins and aunt were my inspiration for the character of Sani. Moth and Sani both feel unseen, they don’t feel like they fit in anywhere in America, so they go cocoon in the Navajo Nation to heal.
This book has a lot of references to dance, writing, music, and spirituality. What are some of your inspirations? Books, movies, music? What inspires you?
I am the cliché writer who says, everything—everything inspires me. Hopefully, it’s not a cliché if it’s true. I was a dancer for 18 years, which I think automatically makes you a lover of music. I can’t write without music and music is used within many cultures to transcend into a different mindset. Song is spiritual. It’s all connected. A more concrete answer: poetry, music, gothic films, and joy inspire me. I’ll hear a line of music and think, can I craft an entire book that feels like that line. Lately, the plotting of K-dramas has inspired me and helped me learn a lot about plot formation over an entire series.
Also, I am a professor, and the compassion, hilariousness, and bravery of so many of my students inspire me to keep working at my craft.
You have a two-book deal with Macmillan. Do you know what your next book will be about yet? And can you give us some details, if so!
Yes, book two is ready!
We Are All So Good At Smiling is a novel in verse and comes out in August of 2022! It is about a teen girl named Whimsy and a teen boy named Faerry who meet while undergoing treatment for clinical depression and discover they both have magic in the marrow of their bones. They must travel through a haunted Garden and are challenged with monsters, fairy tales, and truths they have been running from for 11 years. We Are All So Good At Smiling is about depression, friendship, fairy tales, and how our memories can sometimes lie—the truth is, we are never as alone as we think.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I hope Black readers feel seen and understand that their history and traditions are vast. I hope Native American readers feel seen. I hope marginalized readers feel seen. I hope all readers see how important it is for marginalized groups to see themselves and their complex stories in books.