By Leah Wingenroth.
We are very happy to welcome Jas Hammonds to The Reading Corner to discuss their upcoming release We Deserve Monuments, out November 29th!
Seventeen-year-old Avery Anderson is convinced her senior year is ruined when she’s uprooted from her life in DC and forced into the hostile home of her terminally ill grandmother, Mama Letty. The tension between Avery’s mom and Mama Letty makes for a frosty arrival and unearths past drama they refuse to talk about. Every time Avery tries to look deeper, she’s turned away, leaving her desperate to learn the secrets that split her family in two.
While tempers flare in her avoidant family, Avery finds friendship in unexpected places: in Simone Cole, her captivating next-door neighbor, and Jade Oliver, daughter of the town’s most prominent family—whose mother’s murder remains unsolved.
As the three girls grow closer—Avery and Simone’s friendship blossoming into romance—the sharp-edged opinions of their small southern town begin to hint at something insidious underneath. The racist history of Bardell, Georgia is rooted in Avery’s family in ways she can’t even imagine. With Mama Letty’s health dwindling every day, Avery must decide if digging for the truth is worth toppling the delicate relationships she’s built in Bardell—or if some things are better left buried.
In writing, we leave pieces of ourselves in our characters, and our own truths certainly shape our fiction. Where do you see yourself most in this story? Avery, Simone, Zora, or even Letty?
I see myself in all of them, honestly. I have Simone’s silliness and Letty’s stubbornness. I can be conflict-avoidant like Zora and too hard on myself like Avery. But I think I’m most like Avery, my protagonist. Even though I’m over a decade older than her, I’m still figuring out where I fit in the world and trying to be better about stating my needs.
In so many ways, We Deserve Monuments encapsulates the sociopolitical zeitgeist around identity and equity in the South. Coming from the southeastern United States myself, I’m familiar with the discourse around taking down certain monuments and memorials that do not represent, include or honor our diverse population. How do you see your work in conversation with or responding to this movement to remove these outdated or insensitive statues – to not just take them down but to construct new monuments for those who fought for justice and equality?
In our current era of book banning, particularly young adult novels with BIPOC and queer main characters, I know We Deserve Monuments could potentially end up on some of these banned lists. I’m not concerned with making adults angry with the book’s message, but I am concerned about young people not being able to get access to the book should they want to read it. I think my characters—Mama Letty in particular—are used to a world in which justice is not always delivered and therefore, they’re used to the people they love not receiving the recognition they deserve. My hope is that this novel will spark conversations about not only who is worthy of monuments and who gets to decide that, but what a monument could even look like. I deliberately focused on settings acting as a tribute (The Renaissance as a monument to queer Black resilience) because those places don’t have to wait to be recognized—they already exist, and they’re already here and thriving.
This novel contains many concentric circles and Venn diagrams of identity and intimacy: the three girls united by their youth and their complicated relationship with Bardell, Avery and Mama Letty connected through their affinity for past stories, Zora and Carole, who discovered their queerness and womanhood together. However, tension is interwoven between these groups, too. The same gripes between Zora and Mama Letty exist between Zora and Avery, Simone and Carol both feel scared of their own desire, and the racist and violent history of Jade’s family oppresses and harms all the other women of this story. I find these complications are so genuine, and that kind of messiness is true for so many families. How do you see your own identities mixing, meshing, and dissenting in this way, and how did that inform the relationships between these women?
Like Avery, I’m mixed with Black & white. I’m also queer, so those identities will always be tangled up in whatever I write. But unlike Avery, my Black grandmother died when I was only five, so I have very few memories of her. My mom is the last living immediate relative on the Black side of my family, so many of those feelings are echoed in Zora being “the only one left” on her side of the family—no more dad, no more siblings or close cousins. I also grew up hearing stories about rifts between my Black & white relatives so some of that informed the racial tension that’s interwoven in story too. As far as queerness, I think it’s beautiful when folks come out well into adulthood, so having Zora come out to Avery in that way has always been such a special scene to me.
Bardell is so brilliantly fleshed out as the setting for this story, and I can absolutely picture it in my head, from The Draper to Sweetness Lane. Are these real places from your own childhood? If not, where did the inspiration for these places come from?
Thank you so much! The only setting that’s inspired by a real place from my childhood is Mama Letty’s porch. My grandparents in Tennessee had a large porch with a hanging swing and several rocking chairs. I spent many summer nights out there, so that was always in my mind when writing those scenes between Avery and Mama Letty. The Draper is fictional, but I did a lot of researching of ornate historic Southern hotels for inspiration. The Renaissance club was inspired by juke joints and underground gay and lesbian bars throughout history.
One of the main threads of this novel is that our identities can be fluid and relative and are perceived differently depending on where we are and who we’re with. As someone who moved around from city to city, how did your own environment growing up impact the way your own identity and self-discovery formed?
It was tough moving every few years when I was a kid. Now that I’m a flight attendant, I can say that type of upbringing was helpful for having a sense of flexibility that is necessary for my job, but it can also get lonely and exhausting. I’m also an introvert so making friends can be a challenge—which is why I spent a lot of time reading as a kid. I think moving around a lot fueled my thirst for stories because whenever I was having a tough time adjusting to a new city or school, I’d always imagine myself elsewhere. That led to a “grass is greener” mentality—that feeling that the next town, the next school, etc. will be better. I still have to grapple with those feelings sometimes. Now that I’m older, I’m trying to spend time and energy making my current surroundings as comfortable and homey as possible.
Why was it important for you to tell this story? How did you come to identify the gap that needed to be filled by We Deserve Monuments?
We Deserve Monuments was the story that wouldn’t let me go. To be honest, I’m still not sure why. I set it aside and convinced myself I was DONE with it several times, especially when the submission process wasn’t going well. But there was something about these three characters—Avery, Zora, and Letty—that I had to see through til the end. I don’t think of my book as filling a gap. Rather, I see it adding to the already rich cannon of contemporary queer Black young adult novels that already exist. Of course, I’d love to see more of these types of generational family dramas because they’re my favorite genre to read.
Where do you see the future of young adult literature going? Can we expect even more raw and poignant stories about race and queerness to come from the genre?
I certainly hope so! I especially would love to see more novels featuring queer and trans Black leads, specifically Black trans femmes.
If there is one sentiment you want your readers to come away with after reading this story, what would it be?
You deserve to be surrounded by people who honor and uplift your entire beautiful self.
And finally, where and when can readers get their hands on your new release?
We Deserve Monuments will be available in hardback, e-book, and audio formats on November 29, 2022 wherever you buy your books!
Jas Hammonds (they/she) was raised in many cities and in-between the pages of many books. They have received support for their writing from Lambda Literary, Baldwin for the Arts, the Highlights Foundation and more. They are also a grateful recipient of a MacDowell James Baldwin Fellowship. Her debut novel, We Deserve Monuments, is forthcoming November 29, 2022 from Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan.
Jas’ Instagram: @jashammonds
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