Encore: Author Jas Hammond on their book, 'We Deserve Monuments'
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
"We Deserve Monuments" is the debut novel by writer Jas Hammonds. And it just won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe book award for new talent. In the book, Hammonds touches on the familiar through their own lens.
JAS HAMMONDS: I wanted to tell a story about a daughter and a mother and a grandmother. Like, I jokingly (laughter) call my book, like, "Gilmore Girls," but make it Black and gay, just, like, in relationships to the women in the story.
SUMMERS: Their main character is 17-year-old Avery Anderson.
HAMMONDS: She is on the cusp of her senior year when her mom decides to uproot the whole family from D.C. to go down to the small town in Georgia where she grew up because the family matriarch is dying and in her final days.
SUMMERS: And as Avery tries to unravel a painful family secret, she also finds herself crushing hard on Simone, the girl next door. There's a lot in this book that will keep readers guessing, especially the character who sets everything in motion. So I had to ask Jas Hammonds about her.
So we've just got to dig in here and talk about Mama Letty, Avery's grandmother. You make her feel really familiar. She is grumpy and wisecracking but has this heart of gold. I don't want to give any spoilers here, but there comes to be this incredibly shocking complexity to her story. Tell us about her and why you give her this vibe of depth and mystery.
HAMMONDS: So Mama Letty was actually the first character that came to me when I started writing the book. And that first draft, I started writing it in November 2016. As we all know, it was a very volatile time in U.S. politics, and I was just so angry, and I had nowhere to put this anger. And so I think I gave it a lot to Mama Letty, this Black woman who has felt so ignored throughout her entire life. But her wit and her humor - I don't know. It just - it came incredibly natural to me. I wanted her to feel like a lot of our own family members because, you know, like, I personally didn't have a grandmother that was necessarily, like, a fountain of love and sweaters and warm hugs. Like, no, there were fights around the dinner tables, and there were wisecracks and jokes and stuff. So I definitely modeled her a lot after people in my own family.
SUMMERS: I wonder, what do you think this book says to us about grief? Because we, of course, see it through Avery, who knows that her time with her grandmother is short and that anticipatory grief. But we also see it through others who lost loved ones many, many years before but who are still really hurting.
HAMMONDS: Yeah, I think grief is just messy. It's not a perfect circle. And I think that in "We Deserve Monuments," in particular, the anticipatory grief is really front and center because it's the feeling of, I know that this person is about to die; I know that our time is limited. And Avery has a conversation with two of her new friends that she meets in Bardell, and they have a discussion over, oh, well, you know, her new friend Jade, her mother was murdered. And it happened, like, in an instant. And somebody mentions, like, well, at least Avery gets the chance to say goodbye. And grief doesn't work like that, and death doesn't follow anybody's timeline (laughter), like, your perfect timeline. And so I think that, especially as a teenager, that's that specific coming-of-age moment that is so heartbreaking when you realize, oh, like, there are people that I will never get to meet, as in Avery never got to meet her grandfather. And there's a - that's a different kind of grief. So I definitely wanted to talk about, like, all of the incredibly hard things that are happening to our young folks and the different ways that grief shows up unexpected and sudden.
SUMMERS: You know, this book is so many things at once. It's this unfolding mystery. It's a deep exploration of intergenerational trauma and racism. But it's also this really beautiful, queer love story. So I hope that you can talk to us some about that part of this book.
HAMMONDS: I was told when I was writing this first draft by a mentor of mine that debut authors, they often - we try to just fit everything in because you don't know if you're going to get a chance. Like, you know, it just feels like you got that one shot. So I definitely feel like I was trying to fit the weight of the world in this book, and that was so important to me to balance that dark with the light and the glow of being seen and falling in love for the first time. And, you know, it - for me, like, I was, you know, just a complete wreck with the recent news about the mass shooting in an LGBTQ nightclub out in Colorado. And that just really hit me because, you know, queer cultural spaces are threatened. They're being threatened. To me, it's really important to talk about the joy and the love in these places. And Avery and Simone, like, one of their dates is at this kind of underground club that you only know about if, you know, you're queer and Black. Like, it is specifically, like, for them. And I think that their love story is very sweet and very tender, but I also just think they make a really beautiful pair of friends.
SUMMERS: One of the things that strikes me about their story is the fact that Avery finds this love and this really beautiful acceptance of her authentic, biracial, queer self in a small town in Georgia in the Deep South after coming from feeling rejected and alienated from her own peers, her friends in a big city like D.C. I wonder, was that intentional on your part?
HAMMONDS: Absolutely. It was intentional because I think it's important for me to showcase that queer people exist everywhere. We exist, and we not only exist, we thrive everywhere. And that includes small rural towns, especially down in the Deep South. And I wanted to show, you know, that you don't necessarily have to escape to the big city to find a community that is going to love you and uplift you.
SUMMERS: So this is a young adult novel, though I have to say I'm a little older than that, and I could not put it down.
SUMMERS: So I wonder, what do you specifically hope that your young readers might take away when they put this book down?
HAMMONDS: There's an ongoing theme about giving yourself grace. If teens read this book and if they take anything away, I hope it's that. I hope that it's - you know, there's a power in community and asking for help and, you know, asking to be seen and being witnessed and just really knowing that you don't have to go through this world alone. And that people - there are people out there who will love you and uplift your whole self. That was just really important to me for - especially for young people.
SUMMERS: Jas Hammonds, thank you so much for spending some time with us.
HAMMONDS: Thank you so much for having me.
SUMMERS: Jas Hammond's debut novel, "We Deserve Monuments," is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.