Fresh Voices Q&A

Q&A with Louisa Onomé

Like Home

Like Home By Louisa Onomé

Fans of Netflix's On My Block and readers of Elizabeth Acevedo and Angie Thomas will love this debut novel about a girl whose life is turned upside down after one local act of vandalism throws both her relationships and neighborhood into turmoil.

Chinelo, or Nelo as her best friend Kate calls her, is all about her neighborhood Ginger East. She loves its chill vibe, ride-or-die sense of community, and the memories she has growing up there with her friends. Ginger East isn't what it used to be though. After a deadly incident at the local arcade, most of her friends' families moved away. Kate, whose family owns the local corner store, is still there and as long as that stays constant, Nelo's good.

When Kate's parent's store is vandalized and the vandal still at large, Nelo is shaken to her core. And then the police and the media get involved and more of the outside world descends upon Ginger East with promises to "fix the neighborhood." Suddenly, Nelo finds herself in the middle of a drama unfolding on a national scale.

Worse yet, Kate is acting strange. She's pushing Nelo away at the exact moment they need each other most. Now Nelo's entire world is morphing into something she hates and she must figure out how to get things back on track or risk losing everything--and everyone--she loves.

What inspired Chinelo’s character and her neighborhood, Ginger East?

I’m not sure if Chinelo’s character was inspired by any one thing in particular. I think she came into my head partially formed, and the rest of her was filled out with the idea of who I thought I was at sixteen. Ginger East is also a bit of a reimagining of the neighborhood I grew up in, although way more commercial. The way I describe the street, the park, the bus stop at the top of the hill–all of it is right from my memory of the place I grew up in. It was pretty cool to include those details and see how they fit in with my idea of Ginger East.

What was the most difficult part about writing LIKE HOME? What part was the easiest?

The most difficult part was writing the eventual deterioration of Nelo and Kate’s friendship. Maybe deterioration isn’t the best way to describe it, but the subtle way their interactions change was hard for me to tackle at first because writing a friendship breakup is never an easy thing. On the flip side, I really liked writing the scenes with Nelo and Rafa because I love writing banter. It’s easily my favorite thing!

What character do you identify with the most and why?

In a small way, I identify with all of them, but maybe Bo and Nelo the most. Parts of Nelo are a (bolder) version of myself, and Bo is that classic “I was kinda nerdy and now I dress better” story that I am embarrassed to say I relate to! Although, just like Bo, I never really grew out of being a nerd.

If you could put any character from another book into this story, who would it be and why?

My first thought would be a character like Penny from Mary HK Choi’s Emergency Contact. To me, she’s someone who would’ve wanted to escape Ginger East the second she could, and I feel that would’ve put her in direct opposition with someone like Nelo who absolutely loves Ginger East. It would’ve been an interesting dynamic.

What do you want teens today to take away from this story?

I’d love for teens who aren’t familiar with the world of Ginger East, and neighborhoods like it, to recognize the humanity in the people who live there. I think it’s important that we come to an understanding of what it’s like to grow up in neighborhoods like these, primarily immigrant neighborhoods, and see the good in them as well.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished reading Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age and Jason June’s Jay’s Gay Agenda, and I’m waiting impatiently for my copy of Courtney Summers’ The Project to arrive!

Louisa Onome

Louisa Onome

Louisa Onomé holds a BA in professional writing from York University and lives in Toronto. Her debut novel is Like Home. To learn more about Louisa and her books visit louisaonome.com or follow @louisaonome_ on Twitter and @louisaonome on Instagram.

Fresh Voices Series

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture the human experience.

Fresh Voices: Katie Heaney

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Katie Heaney, author of Girl Crushed!

June is Pride month, and we’re so happy to have Girl, Crushed as our monthly feature. What does Pride month mean to you?

Pride looks a lot different this year, and I think it’s more important than ever that, as much (or more) than we celebrate, we treat Pride month as a time to give our time and resources to the members of our community who need it most. Any money I have to spare this June is going to the Trevor Project and other nonprofits that work with trans and queer young people of color, who are already at-risk, and even more so now. The official Pride can be super corporate, and so for me it’s also a good time to gather with my actual queer community rather than the companies that want to sell rainbow merch for a few weeks.

What inspired you to write Girl, Crushed?

After coming out in my late twenties, I felt a certain amount of grief for the queer adolescence I didn’t get to have. This book was a good way to let myself have some of those vicarious experiences — and it was also a way to have fun imagining my own version of my wife’s youth. She came out at 14, in 2002, and I am so continually impressed by the bravery in that. I wanted to see a YA novel where the queer protagonists are already out and comfortable with their sexuality, so I wrote it!

What was the most difficult part about writing this story? What part was the easiest?

I think the hardest part for me was putting myself in the shoes of a main character unlike me. Quinn and I may both be anxious, but she’s confident and self-possessed in a way I just wasn’t at 17. The easiest part was the feelings. I’m 33 now, but I still have such ready access to those swoony teenage feelings about love. Maybe that never really goes away.

What character do you identify with the most and why?

I’m probably most like Jamie — kind of a control freak, type A, snarky.

If you could put any character from another book into this story, who would it be and why?

This question makes me laugh because I am, as I mentioned, a control freak, so the idea of inserting someone I didn’t put there already makes me kind of antsy. It’s already set the way I want it! But if I had to, my first thought is Jo March. I can see her definitely fitting in with these girls.

What do you want teens today to take away from this story?

I want them to know that it’s okay to figure themselves out on their own timeline, and also that they’ll never really be done figuring themselves out. I also think an important theme here is accepting that there are alternate futures for all of us, and that the one you’ve been counting on isn’t necessarily superior just because it’s the one you’ve always had in mind, or been told is right for you.

Katie Heaney

Katie Heaney is a freelance writer and was most recently a senior editor at BuzzFeed. Her writing has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Hairpin, The Awl, and Pacific Standard, among other places. She is the author of a memoir, Never Have I Ever, and the novel, Dear Emma. She lives in Brooklyn.

Fresh Voices: Kelly J. Baptist

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Kelly J. Baptist, author of Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero!

What’s it like being a debut novelist? 

It’s very exciting to be a debut novelist! It kind of feels like I’m bringing a new baby into the world, so there’s a lot of joy and anticipation in seeing the great things that baby will do out in the world.

What inspired you to write ISAIAH DUNN IS MY HERO?

Isaiah is a continuation story; he first appeared in The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn, a short story in the Flying Lessons  and Other Stories anthology. I was originally inspired to write the story because I wanted to explore the gradual steps that might occur on the path to homelessness, and how a kid would process and chronicle that journey.

What were the challenges of reshaping your short story “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” from FLYING LESSONS into the novel?

Isaiah has had quite a journey! He started in 2011 as a full novel-in-progress, to transforming to a short story, and stretched out to a full-length novel again. One challenge with that was that since the short story was out, there were certain things that I could not change: names of people/places, things that had already happened, etc. Also, I had to juggle moving the novel forward from where the short story left off as well as crafting a story that could stand on its own, in case there are readers who haven’t read the short story.

Isaiah has a strong connection to poetry. Do you have a connection to poetry as well? What made you decide to include that element in the book?

Yes! I love poetry, and that is probably the kind of writing I did first as a young girl. Lots and lots of poems to my parents and friends. I loved rhyming words, and would often make handmade cards featuring my poetry. I think I get all of that from my father, who also loves poetry! I wanted Isaiah to express himself through poetry in the book because it shows he is connected to his father by their mutual love for words, but that he has his own style and own voice in that he loves poetry and his dad loved the story format.

What was the most difficult part about writing this story? What part was the easiest?

The most difficult part about writing Isaiah was plotting out where I wanted the story to go. I was used to writing by the seat of my pants (pantser!), but with Isaiah, I found it helpful to give myself more direction. The easiest part was continuing with Isaiah’s voice. I had the advantage of being able to listen to the audio narration of Chronicles, masterfully done by Adam Lazarre White. Listening to the short story always helped me stay in tune with Isaiah.

What character do you identify with the most and why?

I think I identify with Isaiah’s mom the most. I haven’t been in her exact shoes, but I know what it’s like to have to grieve or be stressed and overwhelmed, but still have kids depending on you to be strong and hold it together.  I wrote her character the way I did not for her to be judged, but for readers to put themselves in her shoes and imagine how such a huge loss can really knock you down. I also identify with Sneaky, because like him, I did not play when it came to money when I was a kid. I had a little candy hustle at school, and I made two dollars a week gathering the trash at home!

There are many heroes in the novel.  Not just Isaiah.  How do you want your readers to think about the concept of “hero”?

I want readers to remember that heroes aren’t just the ones who do something big to “save the day”. Heroes save the small moments, like Ms. Marlee in the reflection room, Mr. Shephard at the library, and Rock at the barbershop. A kid is a hero when he or she goes from being someone’s foe to being a friend. Being resilient and persevering when giving up seems easier is definitely hero activity!

What do you want young readers today to take away from this story?

I want young readers to take away that everyone’s story is important; everyone deserves to exist and be treated with respect. You never know what someone else is dealing with, but if you take the time to learn their story, you will likely discover that you have much more in common than you think!

What are you currently reading?

I have a habit of reading multiple books at once. Right now, it’s Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams, House Arrest by K.A. Holt, and Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay. My kids and I are listening to the audiobook version of Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee.

What are you currently writing?

I’m currently writing a middle grade novel-in-verse and a middle grade contemporary, as well as working on a few picture books.

Kelly J. Baptist

Kelly J. Baptist is the inaugural winner of the We Need Diverse Books short-story contest. Her story is featured in the WNDB anthology Flying Lessons & Other Stories and inspired her first full-length novel, Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero. Kelly is also the author of the picture book The Electric Slide and Kai and The Swag Is in the Socks, which was inspired by her love of unique socks, as well as her older sister’s hero work as a speech-language pathologist. When she’s not writing, Kelly is usually thinking about writing . . . and dreaming of palm trees while living in southwest Michigan. She keeps beyond busy with her five amazing children, who always give her plenty of story ideas and background noise to write to. Find Kelly at kellyiswrite.com.

Fresh Voices: Lisa Allen-Agostini

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Lisa Allen-Agostini, author of Home Home!

What inspired you to write Home, Home?

I sat down to write one day and the girl just came out, cursing the wind. I had an experience similar to what I wrote about at the start of the book. In my case I was too anxious to catch the right bus, got off at the wrong stop and had to walk for an hour to get home. I had a coat like the one she wears. And in its pocket were a handful of bus schedules. The story mostly wrote itself after that scene; I think I finished it in two or three weeks.

The main character’s experience of being sent from the Caribbean to Canada after a depressive episode is based on the story of a girl I knew at school, though she never felt exiled like the protagonist does and her foster family wasn’t queer as far as I know.

What was the most difficult part about writing this story? What part was the easiest?

Writing about depression and anxiety can trigger depression and anxiety. Sometimes I would be affected by what I was writing.

Developing the mother’s character was hard; my editors had to force me into expanding what was originally a shadowy figure in the story. I had a tough relationship with my own mother and I suppose that’s why I was so reluctant.

What character do you identify with the most and why?

I love the protagonist. She is smart and funny and beautiful. She just doesn’t know it. I love how she speaks her truth.

What do you want teens today to take away from this story?

I hope they see that mental illness is not as unusual as they might think, that ordinary people in their villages might suffer with it, that it’s just an illness, not a curse, and that treatment helps. I would also like them to consider how racist beauty standards affect them. And, finally, I would like them to see that love is love.

What are you currently reading?

These are scary times. As someone who has an anxiety diagnosis, I’ve found the COVID-19 pandemic very difficult to navigate. I minimize my anxiety by reading the Bible and watching 20-year-old episodes of Law and Order, a blissfully formulaic TV show.

Lisa Allen-Agostini

Lisa Allen-Agostini is a widely published novelist, journalist, and poet from Trinidad and Tobago. She writes primarily about the Caribbean, its people, and its culture. Lisa lives in Trinidad with her family; her dog, Sassy; and her fabulous cat, Fennec. Home Home is her second novel for young adults and a CODE Burt Award finalist. To learn more about Lisa, visit lisaallen-agostini.com and follow @AllenAgostini on Twitter.

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