About the Author: “Bethany is a recovering expat splitting her time between Montreal, Quebec, and upstate New York – yet another foreign place. A California native, Bethany graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a BA in Sociology (but took notable detours in the Film and Theatre departments). Following undergrad, she studied Clinical Psychological Research at the University of Wales, Bangor, in Great Britain before returning to North America to focus on her literary work. Though sociology and forensic psychology will always be among her passions, writing has been a lifelong endeavor. Whether in novels for the YA or adult market, novellas, short stories, stage plays, television pilots or short film scripts, Bethany’s speculative literary fiction uses a focus on character and language to engage with, comment on and investigate worlds not unlike our own.” (Bio and headshot taken from the author’s website.)
A very special thank you to Bethany C. Morrow for the following interview on her most recent novel from Tor Teen, A Song Below Water (out now!). She is also the editor and a contributor to the young adult anthology, Take the Mic: Fictional Stories on Everyday Resistance (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2019), and author of the speculative fiction adult novel, Mem (Unnamed Press, 2018).
In this interview Bethany and I discuss her first young adult release, A Song Below Water; how this story came to be; racial injustice in and out of books; pop culture; representation and accountability; the power and multiplicity of Black women and Black identities; interrogating our biases; her book recommendations; and all her upcoming projects to look out for!
Check out our review of A Song Below Water here!
Jackie Balbastro: The novel was set to originally release later this year and couldn’t have been released at more of a poignant time considering the Black Lives Matter protests and frankly it is always relevant. What has been the most rewarding part of publishing A Song Below Water and how is it different from your first novel Mem?
Bethany C. Morrow: Well, I would say firstly that June 2nd was the original publishing date and then it temporarily got moved to August 4th, I believe because when COVID first started, everybody was scrambling to be like — How does this work? Like are people still going to be buying books? Should we? — and in my mind and actually what my team ended up talking about was since we don’t know what this is and since we don’t know how long this is going to last what is the benefit to pushing it till August? When it might still, as we’re seeing, it might still be happening in August. So what, you know, so what is the benefit? Um, so thankfully we moved it back to June 2nd which obviously um, was just a really, really huge launch for the book.
The difference has to do with a lot of stuff. I mean the difference between this and Mem can’t be overstated because Mem was a literary press release — first of all, it was an adult release. It has ended up finding its way to young adult readers and a lot of that is because it has been introduced in classrooms in high school and in university classrooms so, um it’s still of course a person at a very transitory moment in their development and their personal development and that’s why I think Mem has worked with young people despite the fact that of course the concept again is it’s an adult market book and it’s written for adults but it’s very much dealing with identity, which I think will always resonate with young people. But, like I said, it was a literary press release and that means that it, the audience and the marketing and all of that kind of stuff is quite different. Young adult is much more sort of blockbuster opening. You know, that’s the expectation people are always looking for. They’re looking for the next young adult blockbuster. And so it’s a much bigger much more commercial release. The other thing is that I write obviously differently when my target audience are young people.
So with Mem, which is, I would say, sort of my most normal voice And I think people will see it in A Song Below Water too, but I don’t spoon feed adults anything. Whether it’s implications of something, whether it’s a moment of characterization, whether it’s the concept itself. I don’t. It’s very much written as though you understand. I don’t know how to write any other way if you don’t understand. It’s perfectly fine, and it might not be the book for you, but I’m not going to do a bunch of like expository dialogue or you know break in my story and the melody and pentameter of my story to be like, okay, here’s what’s happening and here’s what you need to know to understand this. So that’s the huge difference because even though for YA A Song Below Water might still be a bit lyrical and mysterious in terms of, of course the world building and just the way that I do things which is like I said that I’m not going to write you a map. Um, I still, because my target audience are young people and specifically Black girls there are things I’m very clear about. There are conversations that actually happen where they’re talking about society and the role of society in this oppression and all that kind of stuff; because I am speaking to people who I’m trying to give you, by equal measure, I’m trying to give you the language to defend yourself, and I’m also trying to illuminate for you, what is happening to you that you might not understand why it makes you feel this way. So there’s an explicitness to my why that you won’t find in my adult work but so the releases couldn’t have been more different. Um, just you know for those reasons and also because Mem wasn’t released to a genre audience. It was released to a literary audience. So I had to write an author’s note at the end of Mem to explain to people that I had intentionally left racism out of the book and it was not historical. It was not historically accurate and then I wrote an essay for the Chicago Review of Books specifically about omitting whiteness the power and I had to write those because of course I wouldn’t reference that in the book because it’s an adult market book and, I’m, like I said I’m not going to spoon feed people. But it was definitely a discussion topic. I wanted to have around the book but it’s not something that I was willing to belabor the actual story with including, so I yeah, I would say that the biggest difference between my adult and my young adult work is how explicit I am.
JB: You wonderfully call out so many issues within this novel such as victim blaming, anti-Blackness by non-Black POC and even the statement about how Black lives can’t matter until siren lives do speak volumes. How did you find a balance confronting all these issues while writing in the scope of fantasy or magical realism?
BCM: To me, the reason it’s so important to have Black women and marginalized people — again my passion is really like when I speak it shouldn’t be seen as the exclusion of others but literally I think the reason it’s so important to have Indigenous women and Black women telling our own stories is we don’t have to find a balance. This is literally my reality. You know people are like, how do you juggle… and I’m like because I live it? Um, it’s seriously, it’s the double and triple consciousness, right? So sirens are, the story of sirens in this book are Black women. It’s the story of Black women and in a lot of ways it’s very much speaking also to the experience of Black Trans women and the way that the world and the community and even other Black women will treat Black Trans women so I don’t have to… Fantasy for me is allowing me to elevate something that should be obvious but that people pretend they don’t see and also alleviates from me the necessity to, I guess carry that emotional burden of knowing that I’m only writing about contemporary things. There’s a certain burden that that carries that I don’t think is fair both to the Black girl reader or to the Black girl writer. Now obviously there are plenty of Black women who write contemporary and they are doing it beautifully, that is not my ministry. I am always going to use speculative aspects because I think that it is easier for people to use, for people to have fantasy in their imagination than Black women in their imagination. It is actually easier to get and that’s why you see this sort of like allegorical bigotry all the time where people say that they’re talking about race, but they’re dealing with it in terms of orcs and fairies and stuff and the reason that’s offensive is A you’re ignoring that this is real. But B because you’re literally saying these things have a higher priority and place in your imagination than I do because this is happening to me in the real world and you’re refusing to believe it. So I don’t — I use fantasy and I use it completely in line with reality in terms of I’m not making just everybody sirens. I’m, not, you know what I mean? I’m not making just anybody the gorgon. I’m literally using it to elevate the message that I’m saying specifically about this real-life oppressed identity and therefore, like I said, I’m not having to learn how to juggle or balance something. I’m literally telling you what my lived experience is. I’m literally telling you what I go through on a constant basis. There’s a level of craft and a level of awareness and knowledge. That is quote-unquote “privileged”. It’s not an actual privilege, but it’s literally someone else doesn’t know this. If I don’t tell you, you’re not going to know this. So that is why it is so important to me to have representation versus diversity. I don’t just want a bunch of white authors Including Black kids in their stories because those are not ever going to be that Black child’s story. It’s extremely important to me that we are telling it because I know something you don’t know. If I might use fantasy to elevate it to bring it to the surface for you but this is real. What I’m talking about is reality, so I don’t know that answer that well, but yeah, I just…I think that people don’t understand how paramount it is to give marginalized women the space to tell our own stories.
JB: You not only make a stand on injustice but you celebrate Black women just as much as you discuss their struggles. I especially love how Tavia and Effie indulge in hair tutorials especially from the character Camila Fox. Because she is a YouTuber, how valuable do you think social media is to teens when it comes to self-worth and social change?
BCM: I think it’s as important for them as it is for everyone else and the reason we don’t have to discuss it is because everyone else has always had access to it. So it’s why it’s so interesting that as soon as you change a character’s race or gender the person who’s the loudest about being upset about that is the person who has always been represented. So think about Captain Marvel and um, you know, think about Valkyrie and think about any of the characters that were race or gender bent and the people who have the most on their plate were always the first and are always the first to be upset about it. You are used to a 100 percent saturation of representation and then you’re claiming that you don’t understand why it would be important for us to have any. Well, if you get this upset over losing a single — and this is the thing about the greed of whiteness as a power construct — You expect 100 percent Representation, why would you expect that if it wasn’t powerful? Why would you be so angry at losing even a fraction of it if you didn’t understand its power? So we are constantly asked to define and describe why we need representation and that’s a completely backwards question. I completely understand why we do it, but it’s completely backward. Why would you ask the people who don’t have these mirrors why mirrors are important? Why don’t you ask the person who has hoarded all the mirrors? You tell me why this is so important because you know it is. You must know it is because you keep erecting them because you know it is, you must know it is because you keep erecting them and you’ve intentionally kept the rest of us without them. So you tell me why this is so necessary? Why do your kids need to see themselves everywhere? Why do your kids need to be every superhero? You know, you know the answer or you wouldn’t be doing it, right? So I feel like we have to start confronting and indicting the power dominant classes and races and you know social tiers because if not, we’re constantly asked to give a justification for our existence. Why do you need to exist? Why do you need to be present? Why do you have to be here? Like what kind of question is that? Why would… why should we even have to answer? You’re asking us to give an answer for our dignity, to give an answer for our right to exist. Ask why these people have taken up so much space.
PRR Writer, Jackie Balbastro
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