DiversifYA: Susie Day
|November 23, 2015||Posted by Lucinda under DiversifYA, QUILTBAG||
I’m super excited to introduce you to this week’s interviewee.
She’s as utterly badass as she is lovely, has written a bazillion books, bringing us funny and real and diverse, all tangled up together in a way that feels utterly normal. She brought us Mum Gen & Mum K in the Pea books and Sam & Sam, *and* adorable geeky swoony YA stories like TUMBLING. She appreciates Doctor Who, and as if all that weren’t enough, she plays roller derby. (Fangirl? Moi? :D) Find her on twitter @mssusieday, or through her website.
Please put your hands together and welcome Susie Day to DiversifYA!
1. How do you identify yourself?
I’m gay. I don’t know if I don’t really connect to ‘lesbian’ as a label due to feminism (why take two words into the shower when we could just use one?), or if it’s some hideous internalised homophobia. I’d probably place myself into the demi/grey area too, but I’m still figuring that out. Right now ‘gay’ feels like it fits me best.
2. What did it feel like growing up gay?
I didn’t come out (to myself, or anyone else) until I was in my 30s, so that one’s tricky. Did I grow up gay? I indentified as straight as a teen; I had straight relationships as a teen; I certainly never suffered from the kind of bullying an out kid will. But on some level I did know, always, and so did other people. There’s a scene in ‘Tumbling’ where Shirin relates the One Gay Kid in school coming out to her, expecting her to do the same and her mistaking it as a come-on, which is lifted almost from life (the reality did not include free chicken). But in my school, in the 80s… Have you seen the film Pride? I grew up miles from the Welsh valleys, though it’s where my Dad’s from, but that film resonated in so many ways. Apart from there being all those visible gay people in it.
I recall being acutely anxious about Section 28; worrying about a teacher that we all quietly assumed was gay. I remember the absolute terror that AIDS gravestone warning advert in the UK instilled in me (quality sex education there, thanks Thatch). Remember there was no internet community to talk me through this. (Yes, people are actually this old. Sorry.) The resounding message about being gay was BE AFRAID. So when I got my first boyfriend, there was that airpunch feeling: yes, I’m not weird, thank fuck!
A big part of that compartmentalisation for me was tied to anxiety about being ‘good at being a girl’. When I was younger I was a tomboy and that was fine, cute, acceptable, but age 11 hormones hit me like a train and suddenly I was this mass of boobs and hips and also nerdiness and social incompetence, and my femaleness seemed like some horrible bomb that broke everything. In my twenties I spent a lot of time trying to claw back that Acceptable Girl status: losing weight, dressing ‘better’. What I was doing was basic self-care, but it was hard to climb past the rom-com makeover narrative of ‘this will allure the menfolk!’ and realise the goal was me, functional and happier, and – eventually – ready to be out.
3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?
The personal challenges, I suppose, are not being sad about what was lost by years of quietly knowing and ignoring it. I have a lovely life, but I think it would look very different if I’d come out at 16, into a world that embraced that.
But age brings perks too (I promise!). I’m not oblivious to the statistics about homelessness, unemployment and suicide for LGBTQ young people, especially BAME young people; to how many nations still criminalise homosexuality, nor the British Empire’s historical role in that. But I can see how far we’ve come since I was a kid: the legislative shift towards equal marriage around the world; the reflection of that in the young people I know and work with, who are equipped with language and knowledge and resources my generation of teens couldn’t envisage.
Since coming out I’ve been actively encouraged and supported to keep that present in my writing. Ruth Knowles at Penguin Random House is my editor for the Pea’s Book series, in which the Paget-Skidelskys are the same-sex-parented family next door to Pea’s own atypical family; she was the one who suggested they should have their own book. My 2016 middle-grade ends with a gay wedding (spoiler!). I know of other authors who don’t feel so well-supported, but I want everyone to know that’s possible. We can have high expectations of our industry. We should.
4. What do you wish people knew about LGBTQ people who come out later in life?
We’re not liars, deceivers, dishonest. We’re not brave, heroic, tragic. We will have a variety of reasons for that delay – some crappy, some we don’t fully understand ourselves – and, unless we’re besties, you probably don’t need to ask.
Some of us will have married straight partners, perhaps have children, and indentify as bi; some won’t. (If I felt bisexual was the right identifier for me I would use it; I’m alive to the history of Bi erasure in our community and I don’t want to contribute to it – but nor do I want to rewrite the status of past relationships or misindentify myself.) Some may change the identification they connect to over time. Some will remember the word ‘queer’ being yelled at them as a slur and still find it a jolt to hear used positively.
Even if we’re not kids any more, we still need you to have our backs.
5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?
You know, I’m going to call myself out here! When I started the Pea’s Book series my inspiration was Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes from 1936. I felt that if the two nice retired lady doctors who shared a flat above were written now, they might be a couple – so I created the Paget-Skidelskys: Dr Genevieve Paget and Dr Kara Skidelsky, family therapists and child psychologists, who have twins of their own, Sam and Sam. They fitted that fictional universe. In the way that the Dursleys fit in Philosopher’s Stone, but feel a bit funky by Order of the Phoenix.
I loved giving that family its own space in The Secrets of Sam & Sam. I think it’s a fun, funny, smart book and I love that it isn’t packaged as Issue Central: it’s about two kids who are scared to go on a residential school trip for good reasons, and the fact they have two mums is not the story. But those mums are two nice middle-class educated women who worry about gender-stereotyping and hummus. They are basically encrusted with granola, and if I had my time again, I would change that.
In YA, I’d really love to see more happy out girls. More books post-coming-out where the story is driven by something else; more jokes.
But I’d also love to ditch the stereotype that the need for LGBTQ rep in fiction only starts with YA. Bring me the girl fostered by a lovely queer couple who won’t let her have a kitten! Bring me my gay working-class 11-year-old wizard worrying about starting their new school! Middle-grade readers need stories too.
BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?
Please do. Please. Absence speaks. If you are a white straight cis able middle-class person, it is still not neutral to write only about white straight cis able middle-class people: it’s a choice. If it feels ‘natural’ or ‘automatic’ that’s because you come from a literary tradition that ignores vast swathes of our culture. That won’t change unless you participate in changing it.
Don’t be afraid of ‘getting it wrong’. (You will get it wrong.) Don’t be afraid of ‘getting called out’. (You may get called out.) Try to get it right, as hard as you can: listen, read, learn, ask. Don’t be scared to look stupid in front of your crit partner or consultant. Ask for help. Pay people for their time. Do the work. You are part of a body of work, called All Children’s Books; make sure All Children have Books.
We’re the good guys, right? So let’s be the good guys.