Following the success of her first novel, Everything Everything—a heartwarming story about an isolated 18-year-old Black girl, Madeleine, who yearns for a normal teenage life while suffering from SCID (Severe combined immunodeficiency) and falls in love with the boy next door—Nicola Yoon, the Jamaican-American author, continues her run with The Sun Is Also a Star. The screenplay adaptation, written by Tracy Oliver, stars Yara Shahidi and traces the modern-day love story of Natasha, a teenage Jamaican immigrant who spends her final hours in America falling for a Korean American stranger before her family’s scheduled deportation.
Over the last 20 years, Black teen stories have been increasingly magnified in film and literature. Brilliant young adult fiction centering on Blackness, such as Moonlight, The Hate U Give, Children of Blood and Bone, Push and The Secret Life of Bees, has shown the humanity and nuance of the Black experience. What is it about this particular genre that delivers such extraordinary messages and representation?
For New York Times bestselling and award-winning scribe, one of the resounding voices in the young adult fiction genre, telling Black teen stories is of paramount importance because the youth “ask really big questions.”
“They’re naturally philosophical and asking about the meaning of life,” Yoon says. “Is there a God? What’s my place in the world? And I think everyone should be asking the big questions all the time, not just the kids but grown-ups, too.”
Shadow And Act spoke with Yoon about the importance of centering Black girls in her work, the film’s casting and what she hopes viewers will take away from the film.
S&A: Was it always your dream to see your words onscreen?
Nicola Yoon: It was never my dream. I had this terrible job for like 20 years. I worked in finance, and my dream was just to be able to write a book and get it published. That’s my big dream. And the movie stuff is like the whipped cream and cherry on top. But my big dream is just to be a working writer. That’s the thing I’ve always wanted.
S&A: How important is it to have Black girls and multiracial dynamics at the center of your works?
NY: It’s a reflection of what my life is, and it’s also a reflection of the world. When I was a kid growing up, Black girls were not the leads of love stories. I didn’t see myself in books or in the media very often. I get emails on almost a weekly basis from Brown girls and Black girls who say that my books are the first time they saw themselves in leads, the girl that gets the boy. And while it makes me very happy that they say that, I am very aware that it’s 2019 and we shouldn’t be saying that still. So it’s really important to me. Everyone should be able to see themselves as the hero of a story, and we should be able to enjoy the full range of our humanity. It’s super important to me. The characters look the way they do on purpose.
S&A: Around the time of her casting, there was a conversation going on about colorism in Hollywood, and there were questions about her on-screen family being dark-skinned and her, Natasha, being of a lighter complexion. What are your thoughts on that?
NY: I have a lot of thoughts on that. So the first is that Yara’s fantastic. She’s a brilliant actress. She’s such an activist, and I think she’s perfect for playing this role. And my second thought is that colorism is a real problem. And I think it’s possible to hold both of these things in your mind at the same time. The third thing is that Black people are just as diverse looking as anyone else so it would be good for everyone to keep that in mind.
S&A: Fans were really attached to the way Natasha looks in the book.
NY: Yeah, Yara is great and I have a whole side of my family that looks like Yara, so I don’t know. It’s complicated.
S&A: With the constant topic of immigration being at the forefront right now because of The Trump administration, do you feel the story of Natasha’s family at the center of this story will resonate?
NY: When I was writing the book, I just wanted to bring a more human face to immigration. The way we talk about it all the time is like politics and policy and big headlines, instead of the human beings behind this. People who have the same hopes and dreams as anyone else. Immigrating to a new country is a brave thing to do. You’ve left a country and a language and family to go someplace else in the hopes of making a better life for yourself. I wanted to express that on a human level and hope that people could have empathy and see this really personal thing. When I was writing it, I didn’t know it would be so timely. But I hope that the book and the movie and the screenplay help spread some empathy.
S&A: What do you hope viewers walk away with after watching the film?
NY: The immigration thing that we just talked about and humanizing that. But I also hope that people will be more open to each other, be open to people from different backgrounds. I think that we have a tendency to think that people who don’t look like us or share our same sexuality or religion or language are so different than we are, but I really don’t believe that’s true. I think that we share a common humanity that’s bigger than all of that. And also that we treat each other with a little more kindness and grace, because everyone has a history. The moment you’re in, people bring all their baggage, even what happened to them that morning, and so if we can stop before we say an unkind thing and say, ‘ Hey, that person might’ve had a bad day,’ then I think the world would be a better place.
The Sun Is Also A Star hits theaters this Friday.
Photo: US/Jamaican author Nicola Yoon arrives for the premiere of "The Sun Is Also a Star" at the Pacific Theaters at The Grove on May 13, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by LISA O'CONNOR / AFP) (Photo credit should read LISA O'CONNOR/AFP/Getty Images)