Monday, March 22, 2021

Tanya Boteju

photo credit: Greg Ehlers
Tanya Boteju is an English teacher and writer living on unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, Canada). She completed her English and Education degrees at the University of British Columbia, then spent time in New York attaining her Master of Arts through Columbia University’s Teachers College. Most recently, Boteju received a Creative Writing Certificate through Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio. Her writing life has mostly consisted of teaching writing for the past eighteen years in Vancouver, where she has continually been inspired by the brilliant young people in her midst.

Her novel, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens (2019), was named an Indie Top 10 Pick of the Summer by the American Booksellers Association, a starred review on Shelf Awareness, a Barnes & Noble best YA book of May, a Best Teen Book of 2019 by Indigo, and a Rainbow List selection for 2020. Her short story “Floating” appears in the anthology Out Now (2020).

Boteju’s new YA novel is Bruised.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Bruised started out as a working title, and for a while, my publisher was keen to see it changed to something else because they were worried it would bring up connotations of child abuse. However, as the novel came to its conclusion and we began to develop the cover art for the book, we all decided that Bruised would work out after all because the cover art made it clear that bruising was connected to roller derby.

It’s a very literal title, I suppose. Daya uses actual bruising in so many ways—to protect and punish herself, and to prove how strong she is. Bruising is also a significant side-effect of playing roller derby! Bruising felt like a strong anchor for me as I wrote the book, though—to always bring me back to why Daya does it, and how that physical sensation and the following feelings she experiences reflect her inner conflict.

What's in a name?

I think of some names more than others. A lot of the time, a name just comes to me and I go with it. For instance, there’s not a lot of meaning behind Daya’s name. I liked the sound of it, chose it early on, and then just got attached to it. The fact that it’s not a very Sri Lankan name (Daya’s family is from Sri Lanka) ended up fitting well with her father’s desire for Daya to fit into ‘Canadian society’ (whatever that means), though.

But for Daya’s parents, I wanted specifically Sri Lankan names—Sunita and Nihal—because I wanted Sri Lanka to be centered in the scenes where they appear.

Mostly, though, I can’t say names play a big role for me in creating meaning!

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I think my teen self would be shocked I’ve written two novels, period. But in particular with this novel, I guess she’d be surprised by how important queerness and diverse representation is in my books. I was an insular kid and not out as queer to myself back then—the idea that I would be so out that I could actually write books where queerness is normal and awesome would have thrown me for a loop for sure.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find endings harder because satisfying the story and reader in a believable way is just plain challenging, but I would also say that both beginnings and endings are a trust exercise for me. When I begin writing a book, I spend a lot of time with my characters first, then start writing the story. As I write the book, I try to follow the characters wherever they’re leading me—I trust the story will evolve as it needs to.

With Daya’s ending, I don’t think I knew it would end with her and her parents. I thought it would end somehow with her and her roller derby team—maybe a big match or win or loss or something like that. The ending became a much quieter, softer moment, though, and as soon as I wrote it, I knew it was exactly what it needed to be.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

With my first novel, the protagonist, Nima, overlapped with my own life and personality in a few ways—I also felt awkward, out of place, and insecure as a teen, and we both prefer books and dogs to most people. She’s also queer and brown and becomes a drag performer as a way into community and self-expression.

With Daya, my protagonist in Bruised, we are much different in that she’s tough and a physical risk-taker in a way that I definitely am not. But some of her dynamics with her parents certainly hold echoes of my own—we both have immigrant parents from Sri Lanka who worked their butts off to provide for their families. Her mom is the glue and real strength in the family, like so many of the women in my own.

So far, my main characters have had connections to me and my life, but we’ll see if that continues. My secondary characters are mostly complete fictions with a few sprinkles of traits from people I know!

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Drag! Drag inspired much of Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens—both my experience as a drag performer as well as other drag performers I know and have seen. Similarly, roller derby inspired much of Bruised, so I guess to date, my writing has been largely inspired by really cool subcultures and communities.

My interest and commitment to equity and justice drives my writing, too. In both my teaching life and writing life, I try to keep aware and educated about how to represent various groups of people in responsible ways. I want readers to see themselves in the books I write, with all the complications and complexities of being fully human.

And teaching! Teaching writing and learning from my students’ writing, behaviors, and ideas influences my writing in a huge way. I’m not sure I could write the way I do about teenagers if I didn’t teach them.
Visit Tanya Boteju's website.

--Marshal Zeringue