YA author Amber J. Keyser writes about feminist books for teens and her “Feminism and the Female Body” book tour with Elana K. Arnold, author of National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Longlist title What Girls Are Made Of.
A shorter version of this post appeared in this week’s Book Riot’s “What’s Up in YA” September 18 newsletter.
As soon as I heard about Elana K. Arnold’s most recent novel, What Girls Are Made Of, I knew we had to tour together. Her book is a visceral dissection of the enormous pressures on teenage girls. It demands to know why girls are considered consumable objects—sugar and spice—to be devoured by the nearest hungry mouth. She felt similarly about my novel, Pointe, Claw, also a ferocious exploration of the territory of the female body and what sacrifices must be made to claim it as one’s own.
On April 1, Carolrhoda Lab will publish Pointe, Claw, a brilliant new novel by Amber Keyser, author of The Way Back from Broken. The story is a tale of magical realism in which two best friends—Jessie, who wants to be a professional ballerina no matter what pain she has to endure, and Dawn, who is having blackouts and fugues, and is experiencing changes in her body and language that she doesn’t understand. The girls’ intense relationship becomes a way for them to confront society’s narrow definition of what a female body should look like, and allows them the strength to embrace their own wildness, discovering there’s nothing unfeminine about embracing a new definition of femininity. The book has already received two starred reviews, which praise it for its raw and unsparing look at what it means to be a young woman.
|Amber as a young ballerina|
From seventh grade through high school, ballet was everything to me. I danced six days a week, often riding the bus for an hour and a half to get to the studio. I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer with a ravenous, all-consuming, bone-aching desire. My entire identity revolved around dance. When my ballet career ground to a soul-crushing end (long story), I thought it might kill me. In fact, it almost did. The year that followed was a dark cocktail of depression, drug use,
isolation, and abuse.
|Amber and her dog|
My kids leave for school at 7:00 am. I pour a cup of coffee, open Scrivener, and get right to work. My goal when drafting is to get 1000 words on the page each day. That is a very modest goal. I would say typically I draft about 1500 words a day. That can take a couple hours or a lot more depending on the day. At the draft stage, I tweak sentences but don’t fuss too much with big picture revision. I want the raw material to work with. When I’m revising, I go for butt-in-chair hours. Sometimes it will take all day to revise a single page. Whether I’m drafting or revising, my super cute dog comes to the computer about 9:30 and whines until we go for a walk. I’m usually ready for a break! Post-walk, I draft or revise for a few more hours and then turn to the biz stuff—social media, events, and the like.
The Way Back from Broken begins with a quote from “The Epigrams of Lusin,” translated by Lin Yutang.
Hope is like a road in the country: There was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.
A novel is much the same. It begins with an idea, a seed, a feeling, but the author must walk many miles with the story before a book comes into existence.
Five years ago, I knew I was going to write about being shattered by loss and finding the strength to put the pieces together again. I knew I would be writing from experience, from the deep well of grief I knew after the death of my first daughter, but I also knew that I didn’t want the story to be about me.
But whose story was I going to write?
Five years ago, on my birthday of all days, I was walking up my long dirt driveway to get the mail, feeling sad about turning forty and full of heartache about the daughter that I never got to know. Unbidden and unexpected, a boy’s voice filled me.
Look—I’m telling you. Everybody’s life is just a let-down, dumb-ass mess of compromises. Try to prove me wrong. I’m not gonna be holding my breath or anything.
This boy told me his name—Rakmen. And I could see him. I knew his dad was black and his mom was Latina. And the shards of his heart sliced into my own. I would be writing Rakmen’s story. I would be writing about how we learn to live when we have been broken. I would be peeling the story from my own guts and giving it to Rakmen to carry.
This boy was different from me in many ways. His grief brought silence. My grief brought loquacity. His family sundered. Mine drew together. He was comfortable on city streets. I require wilderness. His grief was fresh, the blood barely dry. Mine was well-worn and familiar.
I took this boy—this deeply wounded boy—and I threw him to the wolves. I put Rakmen in a place that terrified him with people he disliked. I pushed him beyond every limit, and I gave him an impossibly heavy burden. I forced him to find his way through the dumb-ass mess.
Together Rakmen and I made a story. It took most of the last five years. And as we walked together, a strange and remarkable thing happened. When Rakmen shouldered his loss and grief, my own weight was lifted. As he found his way, I found clarity. Under our very feet, a path did indeed come into existence and it was the way back from broken.
And as you can see from the pictures of my family this summer, it was worth it.
|The author and her husband|
|The author’s son and second daughter|
The Way Back from Broken is a recent ALAN Pick and also has a starred review from Booklist. Look for it on October 1 in bookstores near you.
To read more from Amber J. Keyser, you can visit her website, follow her on Twitter, and check out a Q&A with her we did last April on the blog.