Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Interview With Young Adult Novelist Sofia Quintero

cross-posted from my post at Love Isn't Enough

Ambitious high school senior Efrain Rodriguez dreams of escaping the South Bronx for an Ivy League college like Harvard or Yale. But how is his family going to afford to pay for a prestigious university when Moms has to work insane hours to put food on the table as it is? And Efrain wouldn’t dare ask that good-for-nothing father of his who has traded his family in for younger models. Left with few options, Efrain chooses to do something he never thought he would. He embarks on a double life—honor student by day, drug peddler at night—convinced that by temporarily capitulating to society’s negative expectations of a boy like him, he can eventually defy them.

Sofia Quintero makes a stunning debut writing for young adults with this gritty, complex, and real exploration of the life of an urban teen whose attempt to leave one world behind for a better one could cost him everything.

In all honesty, I am a friend and fan of Sofia Quintero. She gave me a review copy of her latest young adult (YA) novel Efrain’s Secret after we attended a morning taping of The People’s Court with her father. When she shared her next book was a YA novel focusing on young men of color, I knew LIE readers would want (and need) to know about this text. Many of us on LIE have shared numerous times how difficult it is to find good books for young men and boys of color that affirm their identity and encourage them to be excited about reading.

Sofia is very much aware of these issues. This is her first YA novel, but when I worked for a program to encourage literacy among youth in East Harlem, I purchased all three of the hip-hop fiction novels she wrote under the name Black Artemis. She also graciously joined a group of 7th and 8th-grade students who chose her text to read for the semester. They were able to ask her questions about her characters and writing. It was a highlight of my time working in East Harlem.

It took me about two weeks to finish Efrain’s Secret. The first six pages had me tearing up because I knew I had in my hands a very important piece of literature for young men of color. The character dialog alone–Sofia’s choices of sentences and words–is affirming.

Sofia agreed to answer some questions about the text, which is NOW IN STORES! If your bookstore does not have it, ask them to get it.

Sofia often offers readers a sample chapter to read online for FREE and has done the same with Efrain’s Secret. Read the sample chapter here.

What was your motivation for writing Efrain’s Secret?

The story for Efrain’s Secret has been incubating within me since 1985. That summer, a high school senior from Harlem named Edmund Perry was shot to death by a plain clothes police officer in Morningside Park. It caused a great deal of controversy because Eddie had just graduated from Philips Exeter and was going to start college at Stanford that fall. And yet the police officer and almost two dozen witnesses stated that Eddie and his brother had mugged and assaulted him. It was such a tragedy. No winners in that one. This was the summer before my senior year of high school. I was an honor student myself, hoping to attend an Ivy League college, but I wasn’t oblivious or immune to the forces that could derail me. I had classmates like Eddie who were leading double lives, and this fascinated me. What compels people to attempt to reconcile what society insists is irreconcilable? This and related questions are recurring themes in my work, and Efrain’s Secret is my first exploration of this theme from the perspective of a person who is young and male.

You have Efrain narrate the story and events to us. Why did you decide to have him tell us his story?

I have come to realize and embrace that my voice as a writer is strongest in the first person. It doesn’t mean that I have not or will not ever again write in any other voice, but with this story, I did want to play to my strengths since I knew there would be other things to challenge me. One that I welcomed was the challenge of writing in the voice and from the perspective of a teenage boy since obviously that has never been my experience. In a way, writing the story in Efrain’s voice helped me to maintain the compassion that’s necessary to keep judgments and didacticism at bay. Finally, Efrain’s Secret might be my first novel with a male protagonist, but I still think of it as every bit feminist as any of my previous work. In that regard, I wanted this novel, in part, to be one exploration of how patriarchal constructions of masculinity wound boys – especially boys who are already vulnerable because of racism and classicism – and it just intuitively felt right to let Efrain tell his own story. Something told me that even when he’s conflicted, unaware, misinformed or otherwise unable to articulate precisely what Efrain thinks or feels at a given moment, the first person would provide more space for the reader to understand him. More so than in third person which sounds counterintuitive even to me. I can’t explain fully why I made this call, but I think it was a good one.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that for a young person to have high expectations of themselves, others in their life must have the same expectations. Who do you think in the book was the most influential in encouraging Efrain to pursue higher education? To seek to attend Ivy League institutions?

In my mind, Efrain has always been surrounded by people who value a good education. The most influential of these is his mother Dolores who herself never finished college, and that is revealed early in the story. While not explicit in the book, Chingy’s parents are college graduates, and it was a given that their sons would go to college. In fact, Chingy’s older brother Baraka who is attending Morehouse is a model for Efrain as well as his own brother. Even Rubio who Efrain suspects discouraged Dolores from finishing her college education initially put his own children through private school for a period of time. I remember in the 90s when there was a major political battle in New York City over public education, and one member of the board of education made a very racist, classist, xenophobic comment to the effect that working-class children of color in immigrant families were failing because their parents did not care about their education. This was years before Herman Badillo lost his liberal mind and spewed that same nonsense in his book. My own parents never finished high school, but that is precisely why they pushed my siblings and I to go to college. So I hope it comes across that a parent’s own educational level or financial ability is no indicator of whether or not s/he wants values a good education. And I also wanted to show that even at an academically challenged high school, there exist teachers like Mr. Sweren and Señorita Polanco who have high expectations for their best students and give them their all as educators because I myself had teachers like that. As for the Ivy League aspirations, I have been asked how did the Ivy League land on my own radar as young student. I really cannot tell you definitively, but that still goes to show you that the power that these schools have to influence their graduates’ life outcomes is known to even those who are the least likely to attend them. I have talked to urban, working-class children of color and they know what Harvard is and how it can effect your life to attend it. Mind you, they may have never heard of Phillip Exeter or Andover. But they at least know Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

The book had me in tears at times, reading some of the statements, thoughts, dialogue of the characters (my first emotional reaction was on page 6 when Efrain and his mother are filling out financial aid forms and Efrain thinks: “See how she says we? My moms believes in me, all day, every day.” Were there emotional parts of the book for you to write? Moments in the story that were emotional to create?

I’m glad that the book moved you, and yes, there were parts that were emotional for me to write. If your own work doesn’t effect you, don’t expect anyone else to be moved by it. Funny parts should genuinely make you smile, sad parts should choke you up. Now that’s no guarantee that the parts that move you as you write them will move all readers the same way if at all. However, you can pretty much count on the fact that if you’re not impacted by your own words at some point, chances are you’re not going to impact any readers either. There were many emotional moments for me, and I can’t spell them all out. Not only are there too many to list, I don’t want to give spoilers. I, too, cried at critical turning points in Efrain and Dolores’ relationship, and let’s just say that the last third of the novel was as anxiety-producing for me to write as it was for you to read. I think in every story I have written there’s a male character who sneaks up on me and steals my heart, and with Efrain’s Secret that character was Nestor. Chingy made me laugh out loud more than once. But the deepest emotional impact for me did not only in “big” scenes but in small moments like when Efrain bonds with his little brother or Candace. One small moment that was really charged for me and unexpectedly so was the one between Chingy and Efrain in the principal’s office. Maybe it’s because you have these two young men who have been best friends since kindergarten and have come to love each other like brothers and are now in the fight of their lives. Each wants to say so much to the other than society allows boys and men to express, and their practice of talking around their conflict or speaking plainly about their feelings because that feeling is anger doesn’t suffice. It was very painful for me to write and still heartbreaking for me to read. I’m choking up now as I write this.

In the first 4 pages you have Efrain think: “Deserving a [class] ring and being able to afford it are two different things, and a man has to set priorities and make sacrifices.” I smiled so hard when I read this because Efrain is already identifying as a man, and a responsible one at that. Will you share a bit about how this idea/belief of “a man has to set priorities and make sacrifices” is a part of the story?

That’s interesting that you smiled at that. When you develop a character well, s/he will take over his or her role in the story, and you basically just become a transcriber. When Efrain says that, I myself had mixed feelings about it. My initial reaction was to smile, too, like a proud mother. But because I also know some of the reasons why Efrain feels this way and where this attitude is going to lead him, my heart also broke for him. This is because Efrain is at once a man and is still a boy. To some extent, he’s being pushed to be a man before he’s ready and before he has completely figured out what manhood means to him. He has some ideas, and some of those ideas are resistant to patriarchal tenants of masculinity, and that’s what made me initially smile. But by the same token, I’m was also thinking, “No, please be a boy. Just a little longer! It’s not right that you have to figure this out just yet and all on your own.” That’s because this particular belief – that a man sets priorities and makes sacrifices – is rooted in his own father’s failure to do just that! Rubio didn’t do it, and it hurt his family so now Efrain at the age of seventeen feels that he needs to do it when, like I said, he should not have to be thinking about that or navigating this by himself.

I wanted to punch Mrs. Colfax, the high school college advisor, in the face! Will you share why you created her character to be so “small fish in a big pond” with the students in the story?

This is an element of the story that was taken from my own experience. In high school, I had a college advisor that attempted to level my aspirations. She wasn’t as transparent as Mrs. Colfax, but she made it clear that she was overly concerned that I was setting my sights too high when I was applying to Ivy League colleges and even some smaller, private colleges like Hamilton, Swarthmore and Wesleyan. I once remember telling another teacher, “It’s like she’s surprised that I want to go to school that doesn’t advertise on the back of matchbook.” Her recommendations were not based on any knowledge of my interests and talents. Believe it or not, I can actually accept today that she genuinely believed she was protecting me. It doesn’t make her paternalism any less wrong, and maybe I have the ability to do consider this because I had enough gumption to ignore her and ultimately prove her wrong. Now the person who told me “small fish in a big pond” was the admission counselor at my high school. I didn’t want to go to my neighborhood high school, but all the alternatives that I was aware of at the time were unavailable to me. I was very upset, feeling condemned to go to a school where I thought I was going to do more fighting than learning. The African American woman who enrolled me said, “Sofia, if you had gotten into the Bronx High School of Science, you would’ve been a little fish in a big bowl. Here you’re going to be a big fish in a little bowl.” Unlike Mrs. Colfax, she was saying this not to level my aspirations, trivialize my feelings or make me resign myself to my circumstances. I felt this then and I feel this way now, she was trying to help me change the only thing I could in the moment and that was how I saw the situation. She was also trying to console me and let me know there would be more available to me at James Monroe High School if only I opened myself to it. And she was absolutely right. I still told myself I would make the most of my first year of high school at Monroe and transfer someplace else, but at the end of that year, I no longer cared about going to the Bronx High School of Science or any other specialized high school. None of my fears had come to pass, and now I can see how silly they were. I had many teachers who encouraged me to excel, and my friends were other students who cared about doing well, going on to college, being involved in extra-curricular activities and avoiding things that could jeopardize their futures. I never regretted going there. By the way, the girl in the story who held the record for the highest SAT score at Pedro Albizu Campos High School before Efrain breaks it is Sra. Polanco… and me. I mean, I gave her my SAT score – 1060. 1060. That’s far lower than the incoming student at Columbia where I went to college, but at Monroe the word spread about my score, and folks acted as if I were a genius because I broke a thousand. Teachers and students alike congratulated me like they were proud that I was a member of their school. Not a bad place to go to school, wasn’t it?

Many of the instructors that Efrain has are women, Sra. Polanco, his Spanish teacher, he identifies as having educated him on his own radical cultural history as a Caribbean and Latino man through using various forms of texts in her classroom (books, films, music, etc.). Did you plan to have the women in the novel be the primary people who transmit culture and communal history in the book?

I sure did, and then some. I see Baraka playing this role, too, but he is away at school acquiring his own knowledge. There’s much ado about young men of color going astray because they do not have male role models in their lives, it bothers me when this is driven by a sexist devaluation of what female adults can offer boys. Sure, we lose too many boys because their fathers and other male role models are not present in their lives or are present in a toxic way. But there also are many amazing men who were raised, taught and otherwise loved and nurture primarily by women. For the record, I think boys and girls alike need both masculine and feminine adult influence in their lives. Again, influence of a certain type. I know quite a few men who are healthy and happy because (1) a dysfunctional parent kept his or her distance and (2) other loving adults filled the void. I hope the adults who read Efrain’s Secret have dialogues, among other things, about whether Rubio’s fleeting presence in Efrain’s life – especially given the choices he made as a husband and father – is truly a “better than nothing” proposition. Was this a model of masculinity that served Efrain? What kind of difference might Rubio have made if he were a better financial provider yet still the same social model? What if he were a different social figure yet no better an economic influence? What kind of difference would that have made if any? I myself don’t have definitive answers on any of these questions, but that’s why I raise them. I’d love to hear what others think.

I loved how you created the friendship between Rashaan (Chingy) and Efrain. It was clearly built on love, respect, and trust. Often stories about young men of color don’t describe the love they have for other men in their life, which I think is a problem and huge disservice. Will you share how creating their relationship was important to this text?

Interestingly, many of the reviewers of Efrain’s Secret have discussed the racial and class dynamics of the story, and I deeply appreciate that because those issues are and always will be important to me. I’m particularly happy that those dynamics transmitted, however, because in writing Efrain’s Secret, I came with a specific desire to explore gender socialization. All my work is unapologetically feminist work, and I didn’t want Efrain’s Secret to be any different because it was a young adult novel or a story with a male protagonist. If anything, that made it even more important. The primary question, I wanted to explore with this novel was what are the mixed messages that boys get about masculinity and how does that impact them. Of course, there are complex intersections with race and class that I hoped would emerge, but since none of the reviewers to date have raised the gender aspects of the novel, I wonder if I had lost that intention along the way so your question is a relief! Anyway, I always envisioned Efrain as character who, because he suffered from certain expressions of patriarchal masculinity, was intent on defining his masculinity on his own terms which means negotiating those mixed messages. So naturally, he would gravitate towards friendships with boys who are also on a similar journey. Are Chingy and Efrain conscious on this journey and are they explicit in their communications about it? No. They still live in a patriarchal world that does not allow for that. But one way they resist, whether they know it or not, is to show each other that love, respect and trust as well as an abiding loyalty and understanding that goes unnamed even when their friendship is strained. In fact, the challenge for me was to show these boys engaged in a feminist resistance to the limiting, unwritten codes that govern male bonding while still rendering them realistically as boys. This is why, for example, when Chingy and Efrain are on the outs, they do not process their disagreements. They either talk around their conflict or pretend it never occurred. They only speak explicitly about their emotions when the prevailing feeling is anger because that’s the only emotion that patriarchy allows boys and men to express. Ultimately, I wanted to depict boys needing to give to and receive love from others, especially with other boys and men, and how it affects them when that love is denied, rejected or mocked and how nourishing it can be when that need is fulfilled even in small ways.

Efrain develops a relationship with Candace, a young black woman who is from New Orleans and relocated to NYC after Hurricane Katrina. I love you for this. Will you share why you chose to include this specific and devastating event in the story?

The variety and depth of social and political interaction between African Americans and Latinos in New York City is like no other. It’s one of the many things I love about being a New Yorker, and it gives me tremendous pleasure to represent these cross-cultural friendship and romances in my novels. I always saw Efrain’s best friend and first love being African American or Afro-Caribbean. While he is incredibly attracted sexually to GiGi, I knew that Efrain would connect emotionally with a young woman who like him was studious, edgy and independent and had a secret or two of her own. When I began writing the novel, Hurricane Katrina and the classism and racism it brought to the surface was still relatively fresh, and it just clicked that Efrain would fall for a girl who had her own ongoing battle with institutional and individual racism and classism. I had but cut a conversation between Candace and Efrain on Thanksgiving about the never-ending legal battle her family was having with the insurance company to compensate them for the loss of their home in New Orleans. It dragged down the scene which is ultimately about their growing closer as Efrain finally opens up to Candace about his father. My hope is that even without it, young readers will remain interested in the effects of Hurricane Katrina and be inspired to learn and do more about it.

The interactions the young men have with young women/potential partners are fabulous! Can you share what messages were important for you present for young readers to capture?

Even though the main characters in this novel are young men, I wanted to take care that the young female characters were fully formed with their own wants and needs. I hate when I read novels or watch movies where the men are layered and complex, but the women are little more than plot devices. Popular images of young men of color often depict them as hypersexual to the point of predatory with no desire for emotional intimacy with young women or even the capacity to interact with them as human beings and not objects. I personally know so many young men who are the antithesis of that image, and I wanted to give them some representation. I also hope that Efrain’s Secret gives young women hope that there are young men who will love, respect and appreciate them for all of who they are so that there’s no need to settle for less. I attempted to do this mostly through the character of GiGi, and her relationship both to Efrain and Nestor. As a young woman attempting to direct the impact of her sexual power on the males around her even though she herself does not fully understand it, I could have devoted an entire novel to GiGi. She’s as fascinating to me as Candace is which is why it made sense to me for their relationship to change as the story unfolded.

You make an amazing argument for the importance and crucial role the public library plays for working class and working poor communities. Was this intentional?

Of course! The public library was a big part of my life when I was Efrain’s age, and even though I write books, can afford to buy them and frequently have them given to me, I still put my library card to regular use. If not for public libraries so many poor and working-class people would be without literature, technology and information. My neighborhood branch is always teeming with people of all races and ages. It’s truly a community center. One of the employees recently began a scrapbooking club that meets twice per month, and I can’t tell you what a joy it is to meet such diverse women who walk the same streets I do, take the same bus and train, shop at the same stores. We crop and politick for hours.

I was not expecting the violence in the story by the characters who engaged in it (I’m being vague on purpose so not to spoil the story for readers.). Although I assumed some form of violence would occur, you made it clear violence was NOT a character or the norm. How did you come to choose to use violence in this story?

Although Efrain chooses to place himself in an environment where the likelihood of violence is high, it interested me more to address the role that violence has in the construction of masculinity. It’s hard to answer this question without giving away some critical events and diluting their impact. One scene I suspect readers will see coming, and whether they do or not, is fine by me. There are several scenes – one in particular – where I play with the potential for violence. In fact, I can honestly say that even in writing them, I had ideas of where they could go but really did not commit to any given direction until I was actually executing them. I usually went with what felt right in the moment, true to the story. Finally, there is one particular scene that I do hope knocks readers completely off their square. The point of all this variety is to pose this question: how can we socialize boys and men that it is their prerogative – that we even expect them – to engage in violence and believe we can govern their violence so that it is contained and predictable and otherwise to our liking?

Will you talk a bit about the concept of “delayed gratification” which I think is central to the story. How do you see this concept as tying into Efrain’s ability to set goals and expectations and meet them?

While he can be naïve about certain things despite his obvious intelligence, Efrain is relatively mature and that shows in his ability to delay gratification. There is a part of this ability that is a matter of nature. This is just the way Efrain is. There is another part, however, that is a result of nurture. Efrain never forgets how his family suffered as a result of Rubio’s unwillingness to forgo instant gratification to preserve the family he created. So the concept of delayed gratification becomes an intricate part of Efrain’s developing sense of masculinity. To him one of the things that makes a man is his ability to honor the commitments he makes to his loved ones even if that means forgoing instant gratification. Just the fact that he even desires to make those commitments, sets goals, surpasses expectations and otherwise thinks of the future – a future that includes other people – rather than being lead through life by his short-term needs and desires makes him a man. So in some ways Efrain is right that he is a man unlike his father. But Candace is right, too, when she suggests that Efrain is more like his father than he would care to believe.

Nestor has some valuable information to share with Efrain just as Chingy does. He says on page 87: “Man, just the fact that he has a job—no matter what it is—says something about the kind of man he is.” I interpreted this as Nestor, who made different decisions than Efrain and Chingy, is also intelligent and has knowledge to share and give. Was this intentional?

Absolutely! I always had a clear vision of the kind of young man Nestor was, and that was the scene where he went from being a collection of traits, opinions and experiences in my notes into a fully dimensional character. One of the biggest mistakes we make as a society is that we write off the corner boys and ‘hood chicks. Not all of them do what they do because they aren’t intelligent enough to do otherwise. Many of them are quite intelligent – they have to be in order to survive – and the real tragedy lies in the socioeconomic circumstances that diminish their life choices. There are also different types of intelligence. Nestor’s EQ – his emotional intelligence quotient – is off the charts, and he deserves respect and love for that. When it comes to being self-aware and managing relationships, no one else in the novel can touch him. Under different circumstances, Nestor had the natural abilities to become an excellent businessman, social worker, community organizer, and, yes, husband and father.

You’ve been asked in the past about the use of the n-word by the characters in your hip-hop fiction novels; especially its use by Latino and Caribbean characters. You mention it here when Efrain and Nestor have a double date with Candace and GiGi. How did you choose to have Candace come to the decision about the words use?

The use of the n-word is always tricky for me as are any slurs. There is such a fine line between keeping it real and keeping it right. I agree with artists like Aaron McGruder who once said that it’s difficult to write “around” the n-word. Speaking for myself, it does feel false to not use it in certain stories because, like it or not, people use it for whatever reasons that they do. That said, it also feels false to use it gratuitously. After all, not everyone uses it, and those folks aren’t more or less authentic than those who do use it. So it’s important to me when I have a character who uses it to provide a counterweight via a character that does not. Being an African-American girl who survived Hurricane Katrina and continues to endure the racist neglect of its aftermath, Candace seemed like a fitting character to be that counterweight. One of the regrets that I have with Efrain’s Secret now that it’s published is that I did not provide a similar counterweight with the homophobic remark. Even though they are rare – used far less than they actually are given the context in which they are used – I still wish I had some character take issue even in a small way. If I could rewrite it again, I’d do that. I’ve been toying with the idea for another YA novel where I can make that up to the queer community.

You shout out The Bronx Defenders in the book. Why did you choose to have them represented?

While researching the legal aspects of this story, an attorney for the Bronx Defenders named Leana Amaez was very generous with her time and knowledge. But I knew to call the Bronx Defenders to see if someone there could answer my questions because I have met people who work for them and know they are a great organization. I could have made up the name of an organization, but what if I have a reader for whom this group will be a critical resource? As an activist, I know many wonderful organizations across the country and wish I could give them all a shout out in one story or another so that folks become aware of their existence. I have a lot more writing to do!

A part of Efrain’s story is about his interaction with a father who is not present yet tries to be later in his life. In many ways I see this as Efrain coping multiple things about his family: what does family mean? How does he define family? Etc. Will you talk a little about what challenges you chose to portray for him as he interacted with a “blended” family formation?

Family structures like Efrain’s common. Sadly, too many result for the same reason as Efrain’s family: a father’s infidelity. I wanted to explore how it might impact a boy’s sense of family, masculinity, etc. when he has been sold the traditional family structure only (1) to have it and all its benefits taken away from him and (2) to have that disruption justified as a man’s prerogative i.e. for the fulfillment of temporary sexual needs to override any emotional and financial commitments he has made to a woman and the children he has had with her. Efrain’s “blended” family results from his father’s repeated betrayal of his marital vows, and what bothers Efrain as much as the choices his father made is the rationale he gives for womanizing. If Efrain had his initial way, the two families never would have been blended or at least not under those circumstances. He’s a young man who believes that family is important which is why he feels betrayed on multiple levels by his father’s actions. Yet he is also a very compassionate boy who prides himself on having more integrity and sensitivity than his father. So on the one hand, Efrain resents that Rubio began another family (and in the way that he did) as if he did not already have one. On the other hand, having been a child who has suffered from those actions, Efrain could not bring himself to hold his father’s behavior against the other children once he meets them. This is why he avoided them for so long. He had resolved to steel his heart against Rubio’s attempts to remain a father to him, and in order to maintain that posture, he had to see the other family as “them” instead of “us” which is the way his younger sister Amanda views them. His views are further complicated by his exposure to Nestor’s family who in some ways is similar to Efrain’s family and, in fundamental ways, is quite different. And so does Chingy’s family to a lesser, more subtle extent. Chingy comes from a two-parent, dual-income, middle-class household with the emotional and material advantages that offers. Now if Rubio had been a faithful husband and had started a new family some time after he divorced Dolores, would Efrain still have had the same resentments toward him? What if Rubio had been more affluent and had enough money to send Efrain to college? Would Efrain have been less resentful of his father then, regardless of whether his parents split over Rubio’s infidelity? As the writer, I have my thoughts about it, but I will let readers decide that for themselves.

The book is called Efrain’s Secret, yet I think Efrain has a lot of secrets. Will you talk a bit about how those secrets impact him from your perspective?

You’re absolutely right that Efrain has many secrets, some of which he is not aware at the beginning of the novel. The deliberate choice he makes to have one particular secret eventually forces him to come to terms with all those other secrets. All of Efrain’s secrets prevent him from being whole. They are not the kind of secrets that one can keep if one is to have an healthy, intimate relationship to one’s self. On the contrary, they are the kind of secrets that are maintained by lying to oneself which inevitably leads to lying to others and keeping those relationships from being as healthy as possible as well. In one of my adult novels Picture Me Rollin’, I quote bell hook’s All About Love where she writes that patriarchy teaches men that to be honest is to be soft. One of the things I hoped to explore with Efrain’s Secret is how that socialization is damaging to boys and why it is necessary for them and all who care about them to heal that.

The last 1/3 of the book produced so much anxiety for me I had to stop reading right before going to bed! The ending was unexpected and it kind of made me sad, although not a negative outcome for the main characters. Will you share why you chose this ending for Efrain?

How do I talk about this without giving it away? It is a bittersweet ending because even though Efrain rights his relationship to everyone he loves and as well as with himself, it is at multiple and tremendous costs. There had to be consequences for his choices. Realistic consequences. That is what the story demanded, and as a writer, I have to stay true to that. By the same token, I wanted there to be hope for Efrain. As an activist and educator, I needed to be able to give that to my readers who may see themselves or someone they love in Efrain. An ending that reconciles those two demands cannot help but be sad even if not negative.

How have young men of color who have read your book responded?

The book was just released so I’m still waiting for feedback from any young person. All the feedback that I have received so far has been very positive, but it has all come from adults. I did want Efrain’s Secret to be appreciated by adult readers so hopefully the primary intended audience will like it as well.

In your Acknowledgments you thank “the brothers of the Urban Assembly Academy of History and Citizenship for Young Men” will you share how they helped you with this text?

I met them and their teacher Chris Slaughter at a Black History Month event at Penguin Books which had published all my Black Artemis novels to date. I did a short workshop for the staff on hip-hop literature and the young men of Urban Assembly were reading their poetry. When I began working on Efrain’s Secret, I reached out to Chris – who is a fierce poet in his own right and goes by Pohetic – and asked if his students might be interested in helping me workshop the manuscript. After they had read the second or third draft, I went to their school and held a focus group to gather their feedback on just about everything – characters, plot, slang. Of course, there was one suggestion that I didn’t take and that was to change Efrain’s name to one of theirs. I wasn’t going to get myself into trouble by playing favorites.

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