Juliana Goodman’s debut YA novel The Black Girls Left Standing follows 16-year-old Beau investigating the death of her older sister Katia at the hands of the police. When Beau starts an investigation to find the only witness to the incident and get justice for her sister, she discovers that Katia may not have been who she thought she was, as her hunt becomes increasingly more dangerous. We spoke with Goodman about rejecting the idea of the “perfect victim,” addressing system violence that harms Black children, and the influence of her own sisterhood on her novel.
Within an era of Black Lives Matter and the visibility of police brutality, what made you want to write a book that addresses systems of violence that Black kids face?
At the time I wrote it, it was 2017. It was before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but I had just graduated from Purdue with my master’s in creative writing. And during that experience there I dealt with racism. It reminded me a lot of what it was like being a child, and having to deal with racism at school, outside of school, in the neighborhood. And I really noticed, especially as a Black girl, there was a lot to be said [about how racism affects us]. A lot of pieces [are] about Black men and how they dealt with it, but not necessarily a lot about Black girls and women. So I wanted to focus on that and put that at the forefront of the book, all of the different ways that Black girls have to kind of battle in their lives. In every sector, whether it's romance, school, hobbies, pretty much everywhere they go. I really wanted to draw more awareness to that.
Throughout Beau’s investigation, she discovers secrets about Katia that she had never anticipated, and yet those revelations don’t lessen her resolve to fight for her justice. How did you approach Katia’s “troubled” past with her right for justice?
I feel like as a younger sister, she really idolized Katia, not necessarily because of the things Katia was doing, but just because this is her older sister, and this is her only kind of idea of what she should look like as a Black woman when she gets to be an adult. When she passes away, she wants to know what happened. And even when she finds out all these different things that she didn’t know [about Katia] she still wants justice for her sister, because getting justice for Katia means Katia will matter, and people will care about her. And if people will care about her sister, then she has this hope that one day they’ll care about her too. She's invested because of Katia, but it’s also kind of her own identity as well. She really wants to fight, not just for Katia, but for herself. She’s like, “I want to matter. I want people to care.” And to know if something happens to me, is the world going to stand up and say something?
A recurring theme with many of the characters, but especially Beau, is responsibility. She’s responsible for her mother’s well-being while she grieves, the upkeep of her home, responsible for investigating what happened to her sister. How does the weight of responsibility affect her ability to just be a kid?
In a way I feel for Beau and for a lot of Black girls [because] they get a big part of their childhood snatched away from them, where they don’t get to explore the world and explore themselves in the same way that they would if they weren’t Black. It’s really unfortunate, because I feel like [this] even for myself. [What] if I didn’t have to deal with these issues of race and trying to figure out why are people treating me like this? Is it because of the way I look? What can I do to fix that? Maybe I would have been focused more on developing my own personality, finding out the things I really enjoyed doing instead of just constantly worrying all the time. I feel like for Black girls, they just don’t get to have the childhood that they deserve to have.
In your acknowledgements, you mentioned that you couldn't write a book about sisters, without your own sister. How has your own sisterhood shaped/ influenced the way you wrote about Beau and Katia’s relationship?
With siblings, you either, I think have [it where they’re] super close and best friends, or they just hate each other, or act like they hate each other. With me and my sister, it was very similar just like [when] Katia gets really annoyed with Beau and has to take her to the mall and do things with her. And sometimes she’s just like, “I just want to be with my friends.” My sister was just like that. She was like, “I do not want you to come. I want to hang out by myself with my friends, you’re in the way!” But I still idolized her, and I still wanted to be around her. I think I wanted to showcase that complicated relationship. Then when things do get difficult with Beau and Katia in their home life, Katia takes on that big sister role. She’s not always the best big sister, because there’s moments where she doesn’t treat Beau very kindly. She doesn’t treat her as kindly as Beau treats her. But when Beau needs her, she’s there. She’s always going to protect her, and I felt the same way with my sister. Like, there were times where we just bumped heads with each other, but I know that if I’m ever in trouble, I can always call her and she does take on the big sister role, when the situation really calls for it. I think for a lot of siblings, that’s how it can be growing up. You might not be able to stand each other, but there’s still this connection. Like, we are raised together, we have the same parents, we have very similar experiences that no one else in the world is going to share with us. So we do have to stay together, when push comes to shove, you know?
The Black Girls Left Standing by Juliana Goodman. Feiwel and Friends, $18.99 June 28 ISBN 978-1-250-79281-5