Novels have long been an essential part of the American conversation about race, immigration and politics—from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Now, a new generation of gifted narrators are detailing the experiences many minorities face. The world of young adult fiction has exploded with bestsellers like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Jason Reynolds’s All American Boys—and Nicola Yoon has joined their ranks.
Yoon’s poignant and timely The Sun Is Also a Star hit the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for forty weeks. Her first book, the best-selling Everything, Everything, debuted at number one on that list. Yoon’s writing on love humanizes the struggles that immigrants face; she pens stories and characters as varied and as diverse as the nation. Her success shows the world how much we need diverse books.
Yoon talked to Ms. about her new work, seeing herself reflected on the pages of a novel and the need for diversity in books.
You have said The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison was your mirror book. What about that book made you feel as if you saw your reflection on the page?
It was literally just the fact that the main character was a black girl that had an internality. You saw the things that were happening to her, and you saw the things that she thought about what was happening in her neighborhood and her life. She was a real person. She was given the full measure of her humanity. That was what impressed me.
Your books are incredibly diverse. Is that intentional? Why are diversity and inclusivity so important in writing?
The world is diverse. Our job as writers is to tell the truth and reflect that.
Looking back, what do you think you did right that helped you break in and become the novelist that you are now?
I have been very lucky. Good timing helped. I don’t know what it was or why I was the first black person to debut at number one in YA on the New York Time Best Seller List in 2015. I’m proud of being the first, but the fact that I was the first in 2015 highlights the need for diverse books.
How has your Jamaican heritage affected your writing?
I think the rhythm of my writing is because of my heritage. Being an immigrant, I think I approach America from a bit of an outsider’s perspective.
Tell us about your current novel, The Sun Is Also a Star.
A poetic boy name Daniel tries to convince a scientific girl name Natasha to fall in love with him in twelve hours. They only have twelve hours, in New York City, because her family is being deported to Jamaica. I think it’s about all the connections we make [in life], about how we are all connected. All the people they encounter during the day are pushing them together or pulling them apart, even the strangers. It shows how they are affected by people we think are strangers. I think we are all affected by the history of the people around us.
Tell me the story behind the story. How did The Sun Is Also a Star come to be?
I went to Cornell [University] and Carl Sagan lectured there. I was a big fan of his. His thoughts influenced me. Bill Gates said that we shouldn’t teach subjects in isolation because all subjects influence each other. So the book was influenced by that.
You once said that in Jamaica everyone is black, so you got to be who you are. But being African American, a lot of times you get put into a box, and you have to fight against that. Are you still fighting against being put in the box that society would like you to live in?
Growing up in Jamaica, we didn’t have to fight to be seen, and we could be who we were. In America people, of color often feel that society is telling them who to be. Having said that, I don’t want to move back to Jamaica. I just want to raise my child to have a good self-image.
Deportation and immigration have been in the news constantly. The Sun Is Also a Star humanizes the struggle of the immigrant. Why was it important for you to do this?
It’s important to humanize immigration and race because we are talking about people. These are human beings, friends and neighbors. They are not just policies. I think it’s important to have stories like this. You can’t read 300 or 400 pages about someone and not feel empathy for them. Books are important because they help bring empathy.
People constantly say that publishing lacks diversity. They say it is hard for blacks and other minorities to become published. With the success of people like yourself, Angie Thomas and Nic Stone, do you think publishing is becoming more inclusive?
Publishing is still not diverse, but I think we are on the path to that. I think the financial success of me, Angie, Nic and other people will help, too.
Tell me about your work with We Need Diverse Books.
I did their social media for a long time. I do presentations at schools talking about the need for diverse books, and I donate money, as well. I get letters from black and brown girls all the time who tell me they don’t get to see themselves in books. When I wrote The Son Is Also a Star, this 40- to 50-year-old Asian man I saw at an event was crying because he said he never saw books with the Asian male being the lead and getting the girl. We need diverse books. People need to see themselves on the pages. I don’t want my daughter to be sixteen before she sees herself on the page of a book.
I talk to schools and librarians about how [social] issue books and non-issue books save lives. People need to know they can slay dragons, and they can be funny, smart; they can overcome a struggle and are worthy of falling in love. Issue books are important, too. However, we [minorities] are full people. We are more than just oppressed. I don’t wake up every day feeling miserable and thinking, “Oh my God, the struggle.” Most days I wake up happy thinking, “My kid really wants blueberry waffles,” or, “Here comes my husband, David, with coffee for me.” That’s how I start my day. I am joyful. Most people are like that, but we don’t see it represented enough. Non-issue books are important too. We need diverse books.
We live in a harsh and divisive political climate. You have said that people are fighting for the soul of this country. How would you suggest that readers and artists, like yourself, get into the ring for that fight?
Right after Trump was elected, I had an issue with this. We live in a world where there are some people who would deny me my right to even exist, so, for a moment, I wondered if my books mattered—because I write romance. It took a lot of soul searching. I came out thinking it does matter. Books breed understanding and empathy. You can’t spend 300 pages in someone’s head and hate them. It is hard to hate what you understand. As artists, I think we have to keep writing respectful, truthful literature. Dictators and strong men burn books because books have ideas and the power to change the world. I want to be a part of that change.