Tanya Boteju

Tanya Boteju is an English teacher and writer living on unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, Canada). Her novel, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens (Simon & Schuster, 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 (Inkyard Press, 2020). Boteju’s next YA novelBruised, is due out with Simon & Schuster in March 2021 and has been selected as a Gold Standard Book by the Junior Library Guild.
What inspires you to write? Where do you get your ideas?

For Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, the main inspiration was my experiences as a drag king—the wonder of that world, the community of performers, the radical push against gender norms. Performing drag was so instrumental for me in becoming a more self-expressed person. I wanted to share that story through the book. The other major inspiration for both Kings and my second book, Bruised (Spring 2021, Simon & Schuster), and really most of my writing at this stage, is the kids I teach. Watching young people navigate their lives is always eye-opening and inspiring. It’s also cringy and painful at times. I want to write stories that might help kids through those overwhelming and chaotic years, especially those kids who might exist on the fringes of what society deems ‘normal.’ It goes back to that idea of seeing ourselves in books. I want my writing to create space for that.

Tell us about your book.

Bruised is about a teen named Daya who has lost her parents to a car accident that she survived. When we meet her, it’s been a year and a half since her parents died, and she’s struggling to manage her grief in healthy ways. She tries to suppress her feelings of guilt and loss by intentionally bruising herself. She’s come to think of bruising as a form of strength and protection against hurt, though of course this isn’t really helping her come to terms with her feelings. When a friend introduces her to roller derby, she’s immediately taken with the brutal aspects of the sport, and sees an opportunity to bruise herself even more. But as she becomes a part of the roller derby world, she realizes there’s so much more to the sport, and so many other ways to show strength and to heal. Along the way, she becomes involved in complicated ways with two teammates, who are also sisters, as well as with some inspiring and comforting folks who guide her in different ways. It’s a book about softness as strength and the ways we manage grief and loss.

Can you pitch your current project?

The manuscript I have on the go at the moment is a book about twenty-year-old Kin whose father left when Kin was fourteen because he couldn’t come to terms with his son’s queerness. When Kin’s uncle, a drag queen and drag mother, introduces Kin to drag, Kin falls in love with it, but also comes to believe drag is the thing that makes people love him because it fills the emptiness left by his father. The book takes the reader along both with Kin as he discovers who he is as a drag performer and a person, as well as through the many, many dimensions and layers of the drag world. We meet a vast array of drag artists, dive into some of the controversies of drag culture, and celebrate so much of what drag has to offer—all through Kin’s growing sense of self.

Tell us about your writing journey and how you got where you are today.

I had inklings in my 20s that I wanted to write, as I was becoming an English teacher and teaching writing. Reading my students’ writing and writing along with them inspired me towards doing more writing myself. During some of that time I was also performing drag, and had a sense that there was a story hiding somewhere amongst the fun and colourful atmosphere and community of drag. It took me many years to get my butt in the chair to write that story, though. Once I finally did, about five years ago, I just tried to write the story I felt I had in me, and the one I wish I’d had as a teenager. Kings is that book and I was lucky enough to find an agent, Jim MaCarthy, quite quickly after I began querying agents. Then he found me a wonderful editor at Simon & Schuster, Jennifer Ung, who has guided me beautifully through two books now! I definitely have ‘the bug’ at this point, and can see myself writing for a long time.

What advice do you have for aspiring BIPOC creators?

Stay true to the story you want to write. You have to really believe in your story and characters—to love them and want to share them. I think it’s visible in the writing when the author feels this way. It’s tricky, because you have to think about audience to some extent too, but in the beginning, when it’s just you and your words, you can’t care too much about what others will think or want. This is also more enjoyable, I find! 

Also, don’t feel you have to write about being BIPOC, or about your culture. If you feel it’s important to the story, then go for it! But just because you’re BIPOC doesn’t mean you’re required to speak to that experience specifically. As BIPOC folks, we have more to us than our racial or cultural identities—these can be amazing aspects to include and explore in our writing, too—but they’re not the only ones.

How do you weave your culture(s) into your book(s)? How do(es) your culture(s) influence your writing? 

Haha—well, after my previous answer, it feels funny to answer this, but I think the main thing I’ll start with is, sometimes my culture is a major influence, and sometimes it isn’t. I get to choose, though. With Kings, my protagonist was biracial, with a mother who was from Sri Lanka, which is where my family is from. It was important for me to include a BIPOC protagonist, but her racial and cultural background wasn’t a focal point of the story, so I only included a few details. But with Bruised, my protagonist Daya’s relationship with her Sri Lankan parents is really important, and so I included more of their lives together and certain cultural aspects were key to their dynamics as a family. These aspects I drew from my own experiences growing up as first generation Canadian with immigrant parents, as well as from the experiences of other BIPOC folks I know. I guess, in a nutshell, culture only influences my writing to the extent that it influences my characters’ journeys (though, of course, our cultures are constantly influencing us in ways we might not be aware of!).

What is your writing process like?

It’s a little all over the place, to be honest, so I’ll just share three key aspects:

  1. I am a firm believer in the magic of freewriting. I use it to develop my characters, or when I’m stuck, or simply when I want to engage in the process of writing as practice. I find if I trust it, it works to create so much depth and get me past those insecurities and hesitations that tend to stop us from writing.
  2. I find it challenging to write consistently while teaching. Teaching takes a lot of my time and energy, so I tend to write when I can. But I’m starting to develop a bit more of a schedule. I’m finding it works for me to set out a few writing times at the start of the month and treat them like events or appointments, just like a dentist appointment or meeting (except more fun—I loathe the dentist). Keeping track of my word counts and writing time has helped to give me a sense of productivity, too.
  3. I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters at the beginning of my process, before I begin to write the story. I freewrite in my characters’ own point of view and let them tell me all about themselves. I’ve felt this is one of the most important and helpful things I do towards creating depth in my characters. I highly recommend it!
What are you currently reading?

Gutter Child by Rael Richardson, Circe by Madeline Miller, and Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard. (I like to have more than one book on the go so I can read depending on my mood and energy!)

What superpower would you like to have? 

As I get older, honestly, all I want is to be able to exercise without hurting myself. 

Add Bruised to your GoodRead shelves today.

Pre-order Bruised today on BookShop or Amazon.