Award-winning author Natasha Deen writes for kids, teens, and adults. She believes the world is changed one story at a time, and as a Guyanese-Canadian whose family immigrated to Canada, she’s seen first-hand how stories have the power to shape the world. When she’s not writing, Natasha enjoys visiting schools, libraries and other organizations to help people find and tell the stories that live inside of them. She also spends an inordinate amount of time trying to convince her pets that she’s the boss of the house. Natasha is the author of the Lark Ba series (CCBC Best Pick for Kids & Teens, Starred Selection) and the Guardian series (Moonbeam Award, Sunburst Award nominee, Alberta Readers’ Choice nominee). Her latest novel, In the Key of Nira Ghani, is a Junior Library Guild selection and a Barnes and Noble Top 25 Most Anticipated Own Voices novel.
Marina Raydun: Growing up in an immigrant family is something I sure can relate to. Between the bullying and not looking like everyone else, it sounds like we have a lot in common. Even though my English wasn’t good enough for any kind of reading comprehension above a very basic fairytale, I still tried reading Sweet Valley High just for the pretty covers. Eventually words started making sense so I will forever identify those twins with my seventh grade experience. What was your go to book in middle school?
Natasha Deen: It sounds like we definitely have a lot in common. I’m so sorry to hear about the bullying. I don’t know I’ll ever understand the mindset of choosing to be mean instead of kind.
I love that you mentioned picking up books because of the pretty covers and that sweet moment (no pun intended on the Sweet Valley High series) when those odd symbols suddenly became letters, and those letters grouped into words and stories.
Whenever I think about books and stories, I think of how readers come with different interests, filters, and backgrounds, and how wonderful it is that somewhere out there, is a book that will connect to their hearts, minds, and reading abilities.
To answer your question about my go-to book, if I had to choose, then I think my go to was probably Robin McKinley’s Beauty. It was the first time I had seen a re-telling of a fairy tale, and I loved how McKinley reinvented the story and the events that lead to Beauty’s entrance into the beast’s life (side note: I also love how she imagined Beauty getting her name). I haven’t read the story in a long time, but I remember snow-filled days, cups of hot chocolate, and me under the blankets re-reading that story for the umpteenth time! I loved how the beast was this self-aware guy who understood the mistakes he’d made. Mostly, I loved how both Beauty & the Beast were different, didn’t fit anywhere, yet somehow, got their happy ending.
MR: Did you keep a diary growing up? I tried to in high school, thinking it was just so “American.” Unfortunately, it was all terribly contrived and unnatural. I was not a good journal keeper. I think it’s because I always wanted to write fiction. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
ND: Oh, geez, those diaries!! I tried journaling, too, because it seemed so “regular teenager,” and my mom had done it, and...I hated. every. moment. (I even tried again when I was in my twenties, and hated it even more).
Like you, I found it difficult to be natural, and more than that, I found it hard to be interesting. When I would read my old entries, all I could think of was, “Oh, man, get a life! You keep writing the same thing over and over, again!”
If I could tell my younger writing self anything, it would be the same thing I tell emerging writers and my current self. You have a voice. You have a story. Both are beautiful and unique. Own your story, claim your voice, and let the universe unfold as it wants.
MR: What is the first experience you had when you learned that language had power?
ND: I feel like I grew up understanding that language had power. My parents were strict with us about words and vocabulary. “Hate” was a huge no-no word in our house. It had depth and meaning, and wasn’t meant to be bandied about for trivial things (“Oh, I hate pistachio ice-cream.”) and definitely never to be used on anyone or anything (“Oh, I hate him.”) .
If you’re asking about when I learned language & story held power, then it was when I was five. An older group of boys would follow my sister and I on the school grounds, throwing snowballs filled with pebbles and yelling racial slurs. Against my sister’s wishes, I told my mom…and my mom hunted down the ring leader.
Then she invited the kid & his grandfather to our house for tea.
And she made them cake.
Her choices allowed for us to have a conversation and trade stories.
Through the sharing and trading, he went from being my tormentor to being my protector. I still remember his hug and the sound of his heart against my ear, and how much we both cried over what had been done.
I understand the place for harsh truth, and I understand why—especially with reality shows—there seems to be a cheering on of the “blunt straight-shooter,” but whenever I’m in a confrontational situation, I always think of my mom, making cake and tea, and choosing kindness, stories, and humanity over anger. She taught me that kindness matters, stories matter, and between the two, they change the world.
MR: You write for both children and teenagers. That can’t be easy. Which group is more relatable for you?
ND: Writing is never easy for me, no matter the age group, but I LOVE stories and I love writing for all of the age groups. (I relate to all of them).
There are so many ways to exist in the world, and I love that through writing, I have an opportunity to remember what it was like to be seven-years-old, ten-years-old, or a teenager.
MR: What book do you wish you had written?
ND: All of them! No matter what story I read, I can always find something in it that makes me say, “Ah, wow, I wish I’d thought of that!”
MR: What YA character is most like you?
That’s a great question. I really don't know. When it comes to YA characters I read, I can see bits and pieces of myself in all of the stories.
When it comes to the characters I write…I suppose as writers, a bit of our personalities goes into every character, whether they’re the main character or a supporting one, somehow they’re influenced by our personalities or the people we know/encountered in our lives. So, I guess in a way, they’re all like me, but also not at all like me, either.
MR: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
ND: I’ve never done a pilgrimage, but in my everyday life, I try to "pilgrimage” with other authors. That is, whenever I have a chance to talk to a writer about their journey or process, I take the opportunity.
Writing is such a subjective endeavor and it’s encouraging and enlightening to hear the different ways people claim their creative space.
MR: Meeting readers is always such an exhilarating experience. Any funny experiences at book signings or readings?
ND: I love meeting readers! Writing can be such a solitary experience. When writers have a chance to meet a reader, it’s such a lovely moment to remind us that we’re not alone—and look!—someone else loved our story!
I think I have too many funny/wonderful meeting-reader-experiences to choose just one moment or experience, but I absolutely love and appreciate it when readers come and talk to me about their experience with their stories. I love hearing how they interpreted the story, who they liked/rooted for. It’s a great reminder that even when we read the same book, none of us reads the same story.
MR: Is there a book that people might be surprised to learn you love?
ND: Ha! I doubt it—I'm a pretty eclectic reader, so I think folks have gotten used to recommendations that don’t fit into a genre/theme. I think the most surprised anyone was when they found out one of my favorite books was Stephen Crane’s “War is Kind and Other Poems,” because they didn’t know I read poetry.
MR: Is there an illicit book you had to sneak growing up?
ND: Not really, my folks were big on reading and reading all kinds of books. They allowed us to read anything we wanted, within reason...we did a lot of book trading--”Natasha, you can read this book if you also read that book,”...I was allowed to read Freud during my grade 4 summer vacation but I had to read the entire works of Shakespeare in return (thanks, Mom).
When it came to reading “up,” or “illicit,” my parents would check-in, “where are you at?” “what do you think?” “can you see this point of view?” I have to give them credit, not just for making me an omnivorous reader, but a diverse thinker, too. Giving me the freedom to read books outside of my age group, checking in with me, but allowing me to have my own opinions about them, gave me a chance to see the world through many lenses.
Visit Natasha at www.natashadeen.com.