Today Cynsations celebrates the debuts of YA authors Adiba Jaigirdar and Kim Johnson. They discuss their journey to publication—the inspiration, the challenges, and the accomplishments. Both authors drew from their own experiences and identities to create their compelling stories.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
I was really inspired to write The Henna Wars (Page Street, 2020) because henna is a big part of Bengali culture and it’s been a part of my life since I was very young. We usually apply fancy henna designs on our hands for special occasions like weddings and Eid, but it’s always played a much larger role in our lives.
From my mom applying henna to her hair to keep it healthy, to my uncle using henna to dye his beard red, or my grandmother growing her own henna plant in the garden in front of her apartment. Henna (which South Asians usually call mehndi) has always been a significant part of my culture.
Unfortunately, growing up in Ireland, it was difficult to connect with parts of my culture. I remember in school my friends and I would be told off for having henna on our hands, because it was considered to be the same as “makeup,” which we weren’t allowed to wear.
So, over the years, henna was not something that I learned to apply myself, and even on special occasions I would be hesitant to apply henna in case it didn’t fade in time and I would get in trouble for it.
As an adult, things changed. A few years ago, I travelled to Bangladesh for summer holidays, and stayed there for many months with my sister and my grandmother. We had spotty internet connection, and I was dealing with a lot of grief, along with my own deteriorating mental health. I decided to try and learn how to apply henna just as a way to fill the time.
I wasn’t very successful—I’ve never been gifted at visual arts, and I had never really tried to apply henna before then. But my lack of success at henna led me to this idea of two teen girls with rival henna businesses. The more I thought about it, the more enthralled I became with the idea—and eventually I thought, wouldn’t this be even better, if the two competitors were also battling romantic feelings for each other?
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
A lot of the challenges in writing this book came from unpacking my own experiences, and trying to make sense of them in a way that will be accessible to teens, and hopefully help them navigate challenges that they may face in their own life.
Many of the experiences of racism, Islamophobia, and homophobia that my main character, Nishat, face in her life, come from experiences that are familiar to me, and it was difficult to figure out what aspects of these things would affect Nishat, and how they would affect her.
At the same time, I also had to find a balance in how Nishat was affected. I definitely wanted to write something that addressed the difficulties that teen girls like Nishat—South Asian, Muslim, and queer—face in their daily lives, but I also didn’t want to play into negative stereotypes often associated with South Asian cultures and the Muslim faith.
I had to find a way to balance criticism with love and celebration of my culture and faith.
As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?
The Henna Wars is by no means biographical—but so much of the story is rooted in experiences that people like me have. Experiences that you can’t really understand or unpack until you’ve lived them. Those of us who exist at the intersection of being a person of color and being queer, have a unique experience and perspective.
Often in literature that experience is erased: there are too many books where people of color experience queerness as if they are white. I wanted to write a book where our experience of the world is centered.
I also wanted to write a book where queer people of color get to exist as fully human. As people who are allowed to be messy and make mistakes, but that doesn’t make them into villains or take away the happily ever after they deserve at the end of the book. People who can engage in learning about race, culture, sexuality—and who can explore how these things impact them specifically and how that vastly differs from how it impacts a white person.
Unfortunately, there are still too many books where queer people of color are side characters, who only exist to educate their white peers, or to further the plot of the white main characters. I’m tired of that—so I wrote this book for queer people of color.
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
The best moments of my publishing journey have definitely been connecting with people, and having people connect with my book. I’ve met so many amazing writer friends during this journey, and I’m really grateful to have them in my corner, and excited to celebrate their work and their successes.
There aren’t a lot of authors of color in Ireland, so I’ve been lucky to find a community online from across the globe—and some of us have had the chance to meet in person too.
There have also been so many Brazilian and Bangladeshi readers who have reached out to say that this book was important representation for them, and it has been heart-warming to receive those messages. It’s been amazing to see many readers create fan art for The Henna Wars—something that I never really thought I would get to see!
Of course, publishing is a roller coaster so there have been bad moments too. I think the time leading up to publication was an especially low moment for me. Of course, in May, everybody was still trying to figure out exactly what the coronavirus meant for our lives, and how it would affect books and publishing. It was a time of great uncertainty, and that led to a lot of anxiety at a time that is already quite anxiety filled.
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
When I was a young, the library was my palace even though finding characters that looked like me often felt impossible. So I found slices of myself in the margins until I hit high school and grew tired of books that didn’t represent me.
Almost a decade later the resurgence of diverse young adult books came after the We Need Diverse Books movement. I was then able to re-enter my enjoyment for young adult literature because there were so many new stories that I wanted so desperately as a young person.
When I began writing I wanted to tell a story for young people engaged in activism, so they could see themselves on the page. And This Is My America (Random House, 2020) was born. Black freedom around the world is something I continue to long for, and I use my activism through literature documenting our times for young people like my literary hero’s James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Aude Lorde, and countless others.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
The Black Lives Matter movement was born out of Ferguson protests that emerged from not only the murder of Mike Brown, but Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, and generations upon generations of Black people disproportionately targeted, profiled, and over-sentenced, and disproportionately impacted.
After reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau, 2014) , I wanted to expand a deeper understanding of the faults and foundation of our criminal justice system and dispel myths about crime as an “issue” in the Black community.
As a teen involved in activism for social justice and diversity, I didn’t have characters in fiction who looked like me or held similar interests. In This Is My America I wanted to tell a story for young people engaged in activism, so they could see themselves on the page.
Just Mercy was such a profound memoir that inspired me to use literature to tackle the systemic issues that matched my social justice background. Bryan Stevenson represented people once on the edges of our system that desperately need to have effective legal representation.
I found the use of a death penalty case a powerful way to showcase the faults in our system. I wanted to use the lengthy appeal process to demonstrate if our system can convict innocent people and sentence them to death, then what are other egregious errors in our system. I wanted young people to know and care about a family impacted and be moved enough that maybe one day they would find their own calling for justice.
In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?
I was a late starter to writing, at the age of 32, teaching myself writing craft through swapping with other writers and reading voraciously. The process to querying was about five years. Most of my time was spent polishing novels and learning how to query agents. My first novel I queried well over 100 agents.
With my second novel, I knew a lot more about the querying process and how to narrow to agents with a better fit for me. I also learned from online writing and pitch contests, and participating in the Writing in the Margins program developed by Justina Ireland.
In that program I was matched with Jen Ung from Simon Pulse. Through that revision process, I begin querying again and received an R&R [revise and resubmit].
My now agent and I clicked, but I wasn’t ready to tackle a revision again, because I was really focused on finishing This Is My America. She asked to see it, and a month later I had an agent.
We spent a year revising before going on submission. We did one small batch, and a few weeks later I was going into acquisitions. This resulted in a pre-empt two book deal.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
Being new to publishing, I am constantly learning. The most important lesson has been the value in building resilience and working through revisions. When I first began querying, I was frustrated with publishing and finding an agent. I am so glad I didn’t give up, because the time made me a better writer, as I not only wrote more novels, but as I practiced writing queries, pitches, loglines, and the dreaded synopsis.
Lastly, I believed in my story and focused on my own writing.
I didn’t try to fit traditional white publishing but set my own path to write Black stories I was passionate about. I learned I could hold true to that and still be published.
I also was a late bloomer to writing and take a long time to revise to get a polished novel with the effort and balancing a busy schedule as a mom, wife, full time career, and working in the community.
Everything you want to achieve in life requires taking that first step. Then the next one. If you are committed to setting goals, even big ones, you can make progress if you stay the course. That’s how I tackle writing in the limited window I have.
Finishing a novel will always take me longer than someone who does not have the same responsibilities as me. I have to keep my eyes on my own page, at my own pace.
Adiba Jaigirdar was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and has been living in Dublin, Ireland from the age of ten. She has a BA in English and History, and an MA in Postcolonial Studies. She is a contributor for Bookriot.
All of her writing is aided by tea, and a healthy dose of Janelle Monáe and Hayley Kiyoko. When not writing, she can be found ranting about the ills of colonialism, playing video games, and expanding her overflowing lipstick collection. She can be found at adibajaigirdar.com or @adiba_j on Twitter and @dibs_j on Instagram.
Kim Johnson held leadership positions in social justice organizations as a teen and in college. She’s now a college administrator who maintains civic engagement throughout the community while also mentoring Black student activists and leaders. She is also the graduate advisor and member of an historically Black sorority.
This Is My America is her debut novel and explores racial injustice against innocent Black men who are criminally sentenced and the families left behind to pick up the pieces. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland, College Park.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.