As readers of this blog know, I like to introduce new Latinx writers, especially those whom I’m lucky to meet in person on the road. Today, I’m talking with debut novelist Noni Ramos about The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary (Carol Rhoda Lab Books/Lerner 2018; 292 pages; Young adult.) She’s a new voice, but it’s a startling and strong one, and I predict a long career of great work.
Macy is the girl you’ve probably seen in school at some point. She’s the one who spends a lot of time in the office being “supervised” by long-suffering deans when things get too hot in the classroom, the one who has a million labels pinned on her. LD, ADD, disturbed, at-risk – the list goes on.
Told in a dictionary format of the words that define her life, Macy’s story is about the girls who are at the heart of those labels and how they get there. It’s a heartbreakingly honest work and, at times, a darkly hilarious one, too. As an author, what Noni brings to the table is a master class on voice and edge. Here she talks a bit on finding the character and how her own experiences as teacher and foster mom led her to the story.
Congratulations on this as your debut novel. What kind of writing had you been doing leading up to this? How did you find Macy’s story?
Poetry and plays are my first loves. It wasn’t until well after my MFA that I delved into writing YA. Macy embodies the voice of all the kids who sit in the back of the room. The student who keeps you up at night. The student who shows up late, and you think, despite yourself (and with too much excitement), is she absent? But she is NEVER absent. She’s embodies all those students.
I’m curious about the challenges of drawing these characters since we’re in a world that’s chaotic and out of control. Macy is so difficult and violent, and yet we root for her. What were some of the decisions you made in how you developed her so that she felt sympathetic?
Macy is concrete poetry. She’s rough and jagged. She doesn’t fall into that “wise-child” trope. The dictionary structure makes her world accessible. Gets the reader past the barbed wire. On the outside we see the child who sets a trash can fire. Inside, we get to know why.
What makes kids like Macy sympathetic to me is their fierce protectiveness of family–for Macy, her brother Zane and George and Alma. Another—the humor. The hijinks. Macy may be 25 in in inner city-kid years, but in reality she’s only 15. And sometimes, because of the childhood she’s missed, she’s more like seven, five …
The love and friendship between Alma and Macy is heartbreaking. Each girl is used and abused by her parents and is working her best to get by. I don’t want to offer spoilers, but what is it about Macy that makes her a better survivor than Alma?
I think Macy has learned not to expect anything from anybody. For all her skewed thinking, she believes in her raw intelligence. She’s never trusted externals. And for all the failures of adults in her life, she believes in justice. As a teenager, she has survived more than most adults.
So Alma—it’s complicated. When a kid of color makes it out of poverty, we celebrate. We say, they stuck with it. They studied hard. School is the answer. When I was growing up, I was told I better be good at school or I’d be cleaning up other people’s garbage.
I’m a teacher. I believe in public education. But school isn’t the only answer. At least not in isolation. For every kid we celebrate, there are hundreds more who aren’t making it. Or who aren’t living their dream. Because of segregation. Because of inequity. Because of the lack of representation (in books). Because of mental health issues. Because of rape culture. The teachers are qualified. Inspired. What tools can we give them so we have more Almas and the Almas of the world make it? We shouldn’t be expecting just that rose in the concrete. We should be expecting a whole bush. A garden. And what do we do with those Macys? What’s our dream for her?
For all the hard life circumstances in this story, it’s also very funny. I’m thinking of the exchanges Macy has with the people at her school as well as the chapters focused on Macy’s insistence that vaginas should come armed or spit fire, and the day she tapes her breasts. Tell me about your choice to use gallows humor at the most intense moments of the novel. What did humor offer you as a writer that other strategies didn’t?
I think funny-but-true is what I wanted for Macy. How does a kid navigate through Macy’s world? I feel like was easier for Odysseus to get home than Macy to get to school and back again. How does a kid’s brain process all this “adult” stuff. Humor is survival for Macy. It’s sanity. It’s Macy’s feminism.
With the “gallows humor” maybe I’m pushing the reader to see Macy. Not the hair, not the piercings, not the desk-throwing. Just that little girl hiding in a sweat shirt.
What were the considerations you had in how you drew emotionally disabled kids and their families?
One big issue I thought about was how to write an emotionally disturbed person of color. I specifically left any mention of race or culture out unless it referred to power and triumph. I wanted Macy’s circumstances to be distinctly separate from her being Puerto Rican.
That being said, I wrote Macy’s story.
One of my biggest sources of pride is Kirkus and Booklist saying I wrote with empathy and authenticity. Those are the keys to representing anyone with dignity. Even Macy’s mother is entitled to back story and a measure of forgiveness.
I read in your bio that you are a foster parent yourself. What has drawn you to that role, and how did that experience impact your work on The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary?
I always wanted to be a foster parent. For awhile I taught third-fifth grade and fostered! What drew me to it was my desire to avoid kidnapping charges. I had students that I was terrified were going to get taken by CPS.
These two kids in particular—their dad lived down the block, but disowned them. Their mother was MIA. Then their grandmother got breast cancer. So so many abuelas were taking care of their grandkids in our barrio. I heard the one girl talking about this casually while piecing puzzles together. I went home and said, Miguel, can we take them?
He said no, of course, but got the computer and showed me a website about foster parenting. The journey began. (Luckily my students’ aunt stepped up.)
I am not fostering now. The training required is rigorous and all-encompassing. There are months of interviews, self-defense training, CPR, character witnesses, classes …. GODDESS BLESS all those foster parents out there. My activism continues through my teaching and writing.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m editing my second YA book, The Book of Love, about my overachiever, Verdad, who’s struggling with her best friend’s brutal death while meeting her mother’s expectations. She falls for a classmate—who happens to be trans—and their romance forces her to confront her demons and figure out who she really is. It’s about the ordinary reality of a real POC kid: burgeoning sexuality, family expectations, dealing with institutionalized racism, planning for a future. And then there is that magical middle grade novel and picture book. Stay tuned!
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