2012 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature
Interview by Sofia Quintero
Sofia Quintero: Why this book, now?
Eliot Schrefer: I came to write Endangered because of a pair of pants. When I bought some Bonobos khakis online, I thought I was looking at a nonsense word. Then I looked up the apes behind the name and fell in love. They’re incredibly close to us genetically (sharing 98.7% of the same DNA) but far different from our other closest relatives, the chimpanzees. Bonobos are matriarchal; they are non-violent; they show high rates of cooperation. But as I read more about them, I learned about their ongoing fight for survival in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the only place they live in the wild. That central irony―that a model for the better side of human nature lives only in the midst of the world’s greatest human conflict since WWII—is what cemented my decision to write about them.
As I read more and more about bonobos and Congo, a thought struck me: The bonobos in sanctuaries are kept in electrified enclosures. If war came to the sanctuary’s gates, the safest place for a person to hide would be in the enclosure with the bonobos. I started to imagine the character who might get herself in that situation, and Endangered began.
SQ: From the start of Endangered you subtly but clearly imply that Sophie’s gender matters. Being a girl in the war-torn Congo elevates the stakes. Thus far, all your novels for young adults feature female protagonists. To what do you attribute this? What, if anything, do you do to prepare yourself to write from this perspective?
ES: My first young adult novel came about because I sat down to lunch with my friend and editor David Levithan, and he told me an idea had been developed in-house for which they were looking for an author. The premise included an all-girls boarding school, so that decided what sex my first YA protagonist would be.
I do have a YA novel, written under a pseudonym, with a male protagonist. I think the question behind this question, though, is about the preponderance of female leads in young adult literature. A lot of it is about market, I think; publishers are drawn to female leads because most readers are female. But that’s a circular logic—maybe boys don’t read more because of the lack of male leads—that I hope doesn’t guide the industry overmuch.
I find that writing about protagonists who are different from me tends to make my task harder but the novel better. If a main character is too much like me, it’s hard for me to say what’s important and what’s just detail. But if I can look at the character from a distance, I know what qualities make her most clearly her. Qualities that separate a character from my own mindset are ultimately for the best.
SQ: In recent years, there has been extensive debate over the recent popularity of "dark narratives" and heavy themes in young adult literature, from dystopian fantasy to contemporary stories that deal with substance abuse, suicide, and even sexual assault. Endangered takes place during a civil war. Why do you think readers are so drawn to such topics and what do you hope they will gain from reading your novels and, in particular, Endangered?
ES: A book can’t have weight without darkness. The issues you’ve asked about go to the heights and depths of human passion, so it’s not surprising they’re included in many high-profile books. I suppose the real debate as it corresponds with young adult literature is whether some topics should be off-limits to younger readers. I started off writing for adults, and then came to young adult literature. The main task I had wasn’t about what to eliminate from my writing, but deciding what to expand; I think the most important adaptation when writing about teenagers is learning how again to fully access the feelings that were so intense earlier in life—those existential worries about justice and my place in the world—but that I’ve learned to dampen in adult life.
SQ: Which authors did you read as a teen, and whose work in the genre do you enjoy reading now? Why? What would you like to see more of in young adult literature?
ES: I spent my teenage years feeding on a steady diet of sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Then it was onto the Belgariad and Mallorean sequences by David Eddings, more books in the epic fantasy tradition, though with no chainmail bikinis. A definite improvement. In retrospect, I think I was turning to lengthy books about fully realized worlds for kinship. As someone who didn’t find many like-minded souls until after high school, during my teenage years I wanted to be around people I admired and I thought would appreciate me if only we knew one another—they just happened to be characters in novels. Though since then my interest in fantasy has waned, I think that goal, of giving younger readers a chance to feel an invigorating recognition of themselves and a sense of companionship, is something young adult literature can always use more of. Books where the goal isn’t to teach, or to shock, or to condemn, but to connect.
SQ: Many young people who are avid readers tend to be aspiring writers, and they often ask, "How did you write your book?" Describe your writing process. What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a young aspiring writer?
ES: I think the limiting reagent in the author pool isn’t talent; it’s dedication. The most important piece of advice I can give to a young writer is to be kind to yourself while drafting. If you stall after twenty pages, it’s probably not a referendum on the project—though, of course, it will need work—but because you’ve probably turned critical too early. First drafts are always crummy. When you sit down to continue one, you’re just adding more flawed prose to the pile. But you have all the time you want after the draft is done to go in and make it better. And that stage can be as fulfilling as drafting. Every time you sit down to edit your work, you’re making something better. It’s the most pleasurable part of the writing process if you look at it the right way.
SQ: Finish this sentence (that is, if you agree!): "Adults also should read young adult literature because..."
ES: …the primary trait of young adult literature is that the author’s emphasis is on plot and character and not on his own brilliance. And because few people talk about whether a young adult work is commercial or literary; the two are still in sync, and everyone’s benefitting.
SQ: It can be challenging to realize such an imaginative premise without also setting it in such a distinct socio-political context. Add to that such a context is one so far different from your day-to-day experience. You have before you the formidable balancing act of depicting the reality of Congo with both accuracy and nuance for an audience who may not know a lot about the history and culture of that nation. As you were writing Endangered, were you ever concerned about getting it wrong, so to speak? Besides whatever research you conducted, what other things were helpful to you in navigating this terrain? Did making Sophie part Congolese, for example, facilitate this for you?
ES: I was terrified at the prospect of writing a book set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As I was researching, queasy questions kept coming to me: Who are you to do this? What do you know about living in war in Central Africa? I was also concerned about writing a book that took animal welfare as a theme in a country that’s home to a horrific and ongoing human conflict. But two things helped get me through that:
Not enough books are being written about DRC, and virtually none are being written about bonobos. If those living through the conflict in Congo had the means and resources to publish their stories, then I have no doubt that they would. But those books aren’t appearing, and so I stepped in. With plenty of trepidation and fear about getting it right, sure, but that only added to the scale of research I did, which could only benefit the book.
I traveled there. Once I was actually on the ground in DRC, the artificial distinctions of man vs. animal and local vs. foreigner dropped away. I was an observer, writing the best I could about what I saw the bonobos doing, and what life was like for the Congolese I met. Like many writers, I’ve always felt half in my world and half outside it, watching. Once I was surrounded by the land I was trying to evoke, my job became much more familiar. And the animal/human rights question resolved itself fairly easily: The systems that devalue human life and the systems that devalue animal life are one and the same. Both issues, as far as DRC is concerned, boil down to access to resources.
SQ: The bonobos in the story are characters just like the protagonist Sophie. They have distinct personalities, relationships to each other, and even backstories. Were Otto, Pweto, and the Pink Ladies based on actual bonobos you met while conducting research? Were the stories of these characters inspired by real bonobos? In creating them, did you develop them as you might've any human character in the story?
ES: When I was staying at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary outside of Kinshasa, I’d spend my breakfasts with a young bonobo on my lap. Oshwe was the youngest orphan to arrive during my stay, and was so small that he couldn’t eat with the others—they’d get to all the food before he got any. So we ate together. He loved bananas (the cliché is true) and also peanuts. I’d already plotted Endangered before I arrived at the sanctuary, but the physical reality of Otto the fictional bonobo was rooted in my time with Oshwe. The move Otto does in Endangered of dropping dirt on his face and then licking it up—classic Oshwe.
The bonobo matriarch, Anastasia, is roughly based on Princess Mimi, a bonobo who came to the Lola sanctuary after spending years living with people. She had her own bed, would go into the fridge to get a drink, and then was suddenly thrust into living in the jungle with bonobos. She was horrified by the black-haired apes at first, crying by the fence, but then she came around to them and eventually became their leader. I found that story of found strength so inspiring—especially the message of recovered female empowerment, in a country where rape is a frontline weapon and women are often the first victims of conflict.
I loved writing about the bonobos’ internal lives because they have all the emotional nuance of humans, but very little of the artifice of trying to hide their feelings. When Otto looks at Sophie, it’s a stare more without embarrassment than any she will experience from a human. Writing about them allowed me to address more nakedly the feelings—jealousy, loyalty, anger, sorrow—that we all experience.
Sofía Quintero is the author of several novels and short stories that cross genres. Born into a working-class Puerto Rican-Dominican family in the Bronx, the self-proclaimed “Ivy League homegirl” earned a BA in history-sociology from Columbia University in 1990 and her MPA from the university's School of International and Public Affairs in 1992. After years of working on a range of policy issues from multicultural education to HIV/AIDS, she decided to pursue career that married arts and activism. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote the hip hop novels Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’, and Burn. Sofía is also the author of the novel Divas Don’t Yield and contributed novellas to the “chica lit” anthologies Friday Night Chicas and Names I Call My Sister. As an activist, she co-founded Chica Luna Productions (chicaluna.com), a nonprofit organization that seeks to identify, develop and support women of color who wish to create socially conscious entertainment. She is also a founding creative partner of Sister Outsider Entertainment, a multimedia production company that produces quality entertainment for urban audiences. Quintero’s first young adult novel, Efrain’s Secret, was published by Knopf in 2010. To learn more about Sofia and her work, visit blackartemis.com, sisteroutsider.biz or myspace.com/sofiaquintero.