We are thrilled to welcome Christa Desir, author of Fault Line (Simon Pulse, 2013) to story and chai. I first came to know Christa through twitter, where she speaks with passion and honesty about rape survivor issues, and with knowledge and humor about editing and writing. I read her debut novel in one afternoon, which is maybe a post in and of itself. But for now, I wanted to talk to Christa about writing from the point of view of characters from an ethnic or cultural background other than your own, how writers of faith tell raw, honest, authentic stories that might ruffle feathers in their religious communities, and how she manages to be so damn brave, even while rejecting that characterization. It’s an honor to have her here. ~ Jennifer
Jennifer: Congratulations on your debut novel, Fault Line! Can you tell us how the idea for this book came to you and about your path to publication?
Christa: Well, I have always been a rape victim activist and for a decade spent time volunteering as a rape crisis counselor in hospital ERs. I have a lot of survivor stories I carry with me. And I have my own. So I participated in a testimonial writing workshop for rape survivors and this book started from one of the class exercises we did. I always knew that if it ever became agented and sold, I would donate half my proceeds back to the Voices and Faces testimonial writing workshop so that more survivors could participate. The workshop changed my life as a writer and a survivor. As a book, it was agented and sold incredibly quickly. I’m not even sure how or why but it was the right time and the right publisher. I’m incredibly grateful for Simon Pulse’s fearlessness and willingness to take the book on.
Jennifer: In Fault Line, you write from the point of view of a half-Haitian teenage boy named Ben. Can you talk a little bit about writing from a POV character who differs in important ways from your own identity, and especially about writing from the point of view of a high school boy of color? How did you decide on his background for your POV character? Have you received any criticism for that choice?
Christa: Well, the boy voice was a no-brainer for me because I so totally believe we need to get boys involved in the conversation around sexual violence in a way that doesn’t point fingers or vilify them, but rather makes their compassion, their concern, their voices important to the discussion as well. This isn’t just a woman or girl problem, and I wanted to add something to the YA cannon that included a sexual violence book that boys could read and say, “yeah, Ben makes some bad choices but he’s an overall good guy. I can see myself doing some of the things he did.” As for the Haitian part, this came very much with the package that is me and my life. I’m married to a Haitian man and deeply involved with his family. Julio and I have been together for seventeen years and I’ve learned so much about this culture since then. And to me, making Ben part-Haitian was crucial to his character because the first question readers ask is “why would he stay with Ani?” and there was a really big cultural component to that answer. Loyalty, privacy, honor, these are the things that are so prominent in the Haitian culture to me. And this is the foundation that Ben is standing on. And the privacy part is a really big deal too, because there’s this implication that Ben could have gone for help, and in my experience with the Haitian community, that’s not how things are dealt with. And this is one experience with Haitian culture, but I’ve seen it over and over again in what I’ve read and researched. I hope that I got it right. I think that I did. My Haitian family has said I got it right (though they’re arguably biased). It was a calculated risk to write a half-Haitian boy but it wasn’t pulled out of the ether.
Jennifer: As you know, I also wrote from the point of view of characters who share my Muslim faith but my husband’s heritage (Pakistani American) and even though my book has white male and female POV characters as well, a few times I’ve been asked why I thought I could speak for South Asian women. Of course, I don’t think I am speaking “for” any group of people, including Muslim women. At the same time, I don’t think it’s enough just to say “I married into this culture.” Or is it? Do you think we owe readers some proof that we’ve done the hard work it takes to write authentically and with integrity about people from a different background than our own? Do you think we need to address it, or do you think our books have to speak for themselves?
Christa: I think marrying into the culture gives you a bit more insight than not having access to it at all. Just like I think being a survivor gives me an insight into sexual violence that I might not otherwise have. However, it hardly makes me an authority and I wouldn’t want to assert myself thusly. I think research and an open-mind is still essential. I’m baffled when people accuse authors of “speaking for” a group, because we’re writing fiction stories. One story about one character. And I’m not sure that entails “speaking for” a group. Are all kidlit writers speaking on behalf of children? Are male authors who write women speaking on their behalf? Or vice versa. To me, when it comes to fiction, too many people think we’re writing prescriptions for how to live your life. It’s fiction. This isn’t an endorsement or a “how to” book. And arguably you can and should be careful with how you depict groups in those books, but again research, sensitivity, and open-mindedness go a long way. And while I would love to explain to every reader what I was trying to do with Fault Line, the reality is that the book needs to speak for itself. Readers get out of it what they will and hopefully they take that and start good conversations about it. We’re not writing these books in vacuums. We have editors and publishers and beta readers and a lot of people who are weighing in to make these stories authentic.
Jennifer: What advice to you have for someone who wants to write from the POV of someone from a different ethnic or racial group than their own?
Christa: Research. Ask people who live in it every day. Spend time with them. Ask them about their own stories, their parents, their first loves, anything and everything that will get to the heart of what makes their experience different than yours and what makes it the same. I have a writer friend who said that writers shouldn’t write what they know, but rather write what they’re interested in figuring out. Yes. A million times yes to this. And for me, if I want to figure something out, I do it. I’ve done this as an editor and a writer. I’m an experiential learner and I find that people love to tell stories. So I collect stories and I read everything I can get my hands on and go out and do things like visit roller rinks and skate parks. Then after I write, I ask beta readers from that group to read it and let me know where my blind spots are. I think writers need to be aware of our blind spots and be okay with criticism or suggestions about them. I had a teen reader tell me once that my love scene was cheesy and no guy would say that. So okay, this is where I asked “well, what would they say? what do you say to your GF?” Even though it’s fiction, authenticity is important. To me, it needs to feel real, even if it isn’t.
Jennifer: What do you think the state of diversity in YA lit is? It seems like I still see a lot of articles citing underrepresentation. How can we address that as writers and readers?
Christa: Yes. We address it by talking about it, reading about it, listening to others when they’re putting forth their perspective. Change happens when the conversations get put forward. Diversity is a very big issue in YA right now and I think everyone is looking for solutions. The most basic solution is to buy diverse books (teachers, librarians, readers). Sales drive the market place and so that’s where it needs to start. Simultaneously, writers of influence can promote these books (I’ve seen this happening more and more and I’m so glad of it. Big writers who promote less well-known “diverse” writers). I’m very lucky because I live in a community where people voted to give more money to our library and our library has become amazing. Voters need to support libraries because they can open the doors to so much in terms of diversity. My library has sections for “African American YA” and in a liberal community where there are a lot of people pushing for diversity, this is incredibly helpful. It wouldn’t work everywhere, because there are probably some places where kids would walk by great books because they “aren’t for them”, but the racial diversity in my area is high (67% white, 33% POC) and the village, schools and libraries spend a lot of time promoting that diversity. I’ve worked really hard in providing my kids with incredibly diverse books. I go out of my way to find fairy tales with POCs, I buy the “urban” Mother Goose, I buy non-fiction books about different cultural pioneers. We also need to have a better understanding of systematic institutional racism and how that blocks writers of color from getting their voices heard. It’s a very nuanced conversation but I’m glad it’s happening because loud voices can get through. It takes for-fucking-ever sometimes, but they matter.
Jennifer: Your tweets about teaching Sunday school and your “hipster pastor” are so refreshing. Fault Line is a very bold, blunt, so-not-sugarcoated novel that includes teenage sex and drinking, and of course a sexual assault and its brutal aftermath. Did you have any trepidation about how your faith community might respond? Was there any sense of “holding your breath” when the book came out? What has the reaction from your faith community been?
Christa: I had flashes of panic with my pastor reading it, particularly when she announced it to the entire church. But then I held my head up and owned it because frankly, I’m proud of that book and how it doesn’t sugarcoat sexual violence. When I first told my pastor about it, she said, “oh, sounds like a Good Samaritan story” and then I was like, “Um, not really”. The thing is that my church is very social justice oriented and while there are both liberal and conservative people in the church, they are also people who promote compassion and truth. I have had a great deal of support from my church in this book and I feel lucky to have them on my side. When a lot of people stepped back because of the beginning blow job scene, my pastor stepped forward and whispered, “you are just the kind of person that Jesus would invite to his table”. I have a complicated relationship with faith, wavering between existential feminist and sort-of Christian, and I’m lucky enough to be in a church that is really fine with that. That understands that I still have questions and uncertainty and they want me to come back anyway. The other thing that my church has done is provide me with a place to put down the difficult emotional stuff of hearing survivors’ stories. I am so grateful for every story I hear, but it can weigh on me and my church with all its quirky people has taken that weight off of me in a way that nothing else really has.
Jennifer: What advice do you have for people who come from fairly religious communities—especially those who don’t have “hipster” clergy—who want to tell authentic stories but fear community backlash?
Christa: This is a hard question. I honestly don’t know the answer. I don’t know that I could be part of a faith community that didn’t accept all the parts of me. But I suppose people can compartmentalize and I think we all do this to a certain extent because no one loves everything about their faith. I know many, many Catholics who disagree with a lot about the Catholic church but they stay in it anyway, because it means something to them. I guess everyone has to weigh what they’ll let go of and what is a deal breaker. For me, if I had to lie about pieces of myself, I don’t know how invested I could ever be in a faith community. But that’s just me. For others, they are fine with keeping those things private. I think if you aren’t willing to be authentic AND fearless, then you’re probably not writing the right book. With Fault Line, backlash wasn’t as important to me as getting this story out and giving it to the people who really need it. I imagine that every writer would suffer through backlash for a story they loved that changed someone’s life.
Jennifer: You know that I think you’re one of the bravest people on the planet. (Okay, seriously? The song “Brave” by Sara Bareilles just came on right after I wrote that, and I am sort of freaking out. But in a good way.) Anyway, where does that bravery come from?
Christa: I’m not brave, but I love you for saying it. It took me a long time to get to the place where I’m more honest. Part of it was that it became a life or death thing. There was only so long I could be muzzled before I realized I wouldn’t make it unless I spoke up. That’s what my friend Roxane Gay calls “the place where you have nothing left to lose”. When it comes down to it, I can either own my truth or I can live with that choking feeling that I’m hiding everything about who I am and what I believe in. And how is that really living? What also helped was I realized that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. I stopped trying to get so many people to like me and started cultivating closer friendships with people who liked me even with all my fuck-ups. I got this totally shitty Kirkus review of Fault Line that called it “well-meaning but deeply flawed” and I was sort of tickled by that description because it is me in a nutshell. Well-meaning but deeply flawed. I get things wrong all the time. I screw up and have to try again. I fail gorgeously. I get mad about stupid shit. I love in a greedy and selfish way. But every day I try harder. I try to be honest and self-actualized and do something that doesn’t totally suck. That’s all I’ve got.
Jennifer: Do you think it’s ever possible for writing that is not brave to be good?
Christa: Depends how you define brave. I think putting words on a page takes a tremendous amount of courage so anyone who has done so in any form is brave. Even if it’s just in journal form. Because writing to me is working things out, learning and dissecting and asking more from yourself and others. This is relentlessly brave. So all writing is brave and not all writing is good. That’s the way of it.
Jennifer: Finally, what’s next for Christa Desir?
Christa: BLEED LIKE ME comes out October 7, 2014. My collaboration with Jolene Perry LOVE BLIND is slated for fall 2015. I have other books I want to write. I am joining a roller derby team. I am running a testimonial writing workshop for survivors in New York City in June. I am training for a half-marathon (very slowly). I am considering buying doctor scrubs so that I don’t keep picking up my kids from school in my Wii PJ pants. I am going to Gay Romantic Lit Con and RT and RWA Spring Fling for my day job. You know…the usual.
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Christa Desir writes contemporary fiction for young adults. Her first book, FAULT LINE, came out this fall. Her second book, BLEED LIKE ME, is due out in October 2014. Her third book, LOVE BLIND, is slated for fall 2015 release. She lives with her husband, three small children, and overly enthusiastic dog outside of Chicago. She has volunteered as a rape victim activist for more than ten years, including providing direct service as an advocate in hospital ERs. She also works as an editor at Samhain Publishing. Visit her at ChristaDesir.com.