I’m slowly, slowly getting back to full on blogging and can think of no better way to jump back in than by sharing an interview with debut author NoNieqa Ramos. The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary (Carolrhoda Lab) releases on 1 Feb 2018. Since I haven’t been able to read it just yet, here’s the publisher provide synopsis.
“Macy’s school officially classifies her as “disturbed,” but Macy isn’t interested in how others define her. She’s got more pressing problems: her mom can’t move off the couch, her dad’s in prison, her brother’s been kidnapped by Child Protective Services, and now her best friend isn’t speaking to her. Writing in a dictionary format, Macy explains the world in her own terms—complete with gritty characters and outrageous endeavors. With an honesty that’s both hilarious and fearsome, slowly Macy reveals why she acts out, why she can’t tell her incarcerated father that her mom’s cheating on him, and why her best friend needs protection . . . the kind of protection that involves Macy’s machete.”
EC: You’re a 2018 debut author! Congratulations! I know you’ve begun the circuit,
attending conferences and such. What’s your message to the people you hope to read your book? What do they hear from you?
NR: Thank you so much! I am so grateful to my soulmate Michael Richards, my agent Emily Keyes, and my editor Amy Fitzgerald at Carolrhoda for helping to bring Macy to life.
My message to my adult readers is one of social activism. In my book, Miss Black gets Macy to read by throwing out books. Macy thinks she’s making a score stealing from her trash can. To all the Miss Blacks in education, let’s never stop fighting to get a book into every kid’s hands. That book that they hold close to their heart. Because we know books become shields–against strife, against sorrow, against circumstances out of our control.
And let’s give kids permission to write–space and time to tell their stories even if they’re messy and ungrammatical like Macy’s dictionary. One of Macy’s biggest accomplishments is the act of wanting to write in itself–a gift she received courtesy of Miss Black.
To the kids who are reading, my message is you deserve to have your voice heard. No matter what.
Macy Cashmere is jazz. Unconventional, asymmetrical, unexpected. Powerful. Can you hear the beat?
Macy’s song goes beyond a girl in poverty. Can you hear the bridge: I write my destiny.
EC:The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary. That title just grabs me. When did you know this would be the title?
NR:I knew Macy would be a challenging perspective to structure. I thought about how I’d make her voice accessible without refining it. I felt the dictionary structure would give the reader access to a volatile voice like Macy and amplify the themes of friendship and survival.
I also loved bringing up the question of whether Macy is disturbed in the first place. What do you think?
EC: She wouldn’t be ‘disturbed’ in and of herself so I’m forming many questions around the source of her disturbance and even wonder who might perceive her as disturbed, and why.
I didn’t consider ‘structure’ of dictionaries. You’re using structure to make her character more accessible?
NR: I feel the very fact that Macy tries to structure–or make sense of– her own life makes her empathetic. Her being empathetic makes her more accessible.
EC: I’m curious about Macy. How did you create this character? What sort of emotions did you feel toward her?
NR: The Macy’s of the world are the kids on BIPS (Behavioral Intervention Plans). The kids disproportionally suspended from schools. The ones we don’t know what to do with. As I said at NCTE, they are poetry. They are story. They are the exposition and the arc. But it’s hard to get past what these kids look like, talk like, act like to hear their voices. They are also a pain in the ass. They require all the tools in our adulting box–meditation, administrative support, and for me also, Haribo raspberries by the bag.
That being said, I find it interesting that Kirkus and Booklist, despite their good reviews, didn’t mention Langston Hughes or John Coltrane, two strong allusions in the book. In my opinion, they had the same problem we adults have with tough kids. We can’t get past their veneers. And it’s true–Macy makes it hard. To get near her, you have to walk over landmines. This book was my way of getting readers close.
EC: This reminds me so much of the work that’s being brought to light around our black and brown girls; the need for schools to stop defining them as statistics, as students who aren’t successful and realize it’s the schools that are not successful.
I don’t know how anyone could miss Coltrane. Or Hughes.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Is it what you always wanted to be?
NR: I was five when I was using marble composition notebooks to write poetry. Flashback: I often liked to write poetry with words I pulled from the dictionary.
In elementary school, I typed tragic plays involving heartbreak and thunderstorms out on my Smith & Corona I got on Christmas (Gracias, Papi!). When I wrote stories, even the “popular kids” like Keisha Jackson (shout out!) asked to read them.
In fifth grade, I ignored the boring-ass instructions on my final to write an essay “telling someone how to get to your house” and wrote directions to the different layers of consciousness. (I have never never been able to follow directions of any kind.) In seventh, my teacher read a play I wrote on the cycle of life and death told from the perspective of alley cats, I kid you not, and started giving me IQ tests.
If not for my writing, I would have been invisible. That undeveloped flaca with the big-hair and lack of social skills. Weird way before weird was a thing. Writing filled in the blank of me.
Yet, despite all that sort of thing, it took me forever to get to this place. I had personal struggles with mental health my whole life. I didn’t know how to get out of my head and write. I didn’t have literary role models to look to for guidance until I read “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. I didn’t know why I was writing.
EC: Who were your s/sheroes and mentors growing up? Who were the adults who embrace your potential and, how did they guide you on?
My dad, a single-parent, worked two jobs but said there was “always a budget for books.” He carried a Barnes and Noble bag wrapped around a fat sci-fi book everywhere he went. He got me my first and second Smith and Corona typewriter. Any time I visited my mom, I came away with books like Jane Eyre, Alice in Wonderland, Heroes, Gods and Monsters.
My Tia Jessica interviewed me-I was around 11–on her college radio station about my poetry. The nuns tried to correct my religious exploration with a red pen, but loved my spiritual writings. In fifth grade I won a poetry contest and the whole class got to go to Orchard Beach to see me receive my plaque. My padrinos let me while away summer afternoons devouring books at their kitchen table and told me my writing reminded me of Toni Morrison. I had these milestones.
I had problems too. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, the real thing that debilitates you, not the one everyone jokes about having. Bouts of severe depression. But the writing, the books, and ultimately the familia that nurtured them both got me through. They always took me seriously. They always believed me when I said I was a writer.
EC: Who or what inspires your creativity?
NR: I write because art is my resistance to misogyny, institutionalized racism, tyranny, complacency. I write to reclaim my Taino history, mythology, and poetry.
I tell my students when they are writing to avoid the Sisyphus syndrome. Pushing that rock of plot up the hill. What inspires me are the voices.
EC: What books are you in the middle or reading (or listening to) right now?
NR: My TBR list is ridic but here are a few authors I’m reading or waiting to read:
Ashley Hope Perez, The Knife and The Butterfly; David Bowles poetry; Meg Medina’s upcoming middle grade novel; Merci Suarez Changes Gears (September 2018) and Pablo Cartaya Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (August 2018).
EC: What are you looking forward to in 2018?
NR: I am looking forward to my book, The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary, getting into kids’ hands. I can’t wait to talk to them; write with them. I am also looking forward to selling my first middle grade and picture book. Fingers are crossed!
Mine are crossed, too! Thanks so much for the interview and I wish you many successes in 2018 and beyond.