Newspaper journalist-turned-novelist Jumata Emill makes his YA debut with The Black Queen, a murder mystery brimming with suspense and set in the Deep South. The day after bright and popular Nova Albright is crowned Lovett High School’s first Black homecoming queen, she’s found murdered in a historic slave cemetery. It falls to Duchess, her best friend and the daughter of the investigating detective, and Tinsley, her rival and the prime suspect in her murder, to uncover the truth of Nova’s final hours as well as the secrets she’s been safeguarding her whole life. Emill spoke with PW about the importance of women in his life and work, the complexity of Black identity, and the power of the Deep South as a setting for storytelling.

The Black Queen centers on polarized white and Black communities forced to share a town and a high school in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. What compelled you to set the story in such a location?

I have a love-hate relationship with the Deep South. I love it for its aesthetic and the culture; I also hate it for the racism, both blatant and undercurrents of it. Having said that, the South is the perfect backdrop for stories because you have all this ready-made tension—not only with race but with classism, with culture sometimes. I just love the whole Southern gothic aesthetic. I’ve lived in Louisiana and parts of Mississippi, and what was so interesting to me when I first, right out of college, started working at a newspaper in Hattiesburg, Miss., was how they talked about Hurricane Katrina. I live in the Baton Rouge area; it’s a part of our life now. It changed the landscape of how New Orleans looks. But what people don’t really talk about is what it did on the other side of the storm, which is what happened in parts of Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast like Biloxi and Gulfport, so I decided I wanted to set [the book] there.

I knew Hurricane Katrina served as a great way to show how it impacted the population in terms of mixing up students like you had at Lovett High. What happened at a lot of schools here and along the Gulf Coast was that after Hurricane Katrina when certain schools got torn down, if they were the Black schools a lot of the time they didn’t get rebuilt. They’d rebuild the white schools and divide the Black kids up. So I knew it would be the perfect place to set it and it would feel realistic.

How has your own experience shaped The Black Queen?

My experience as a journalist pretty much influenced this entire book. I’m still a journalist but I worked as a newspaper journalist for six years. During that time, I had a lot of conversations that would later impact this novel. The whole idea of “the Black Queen” came about from a conversation I had with a coworker who happened to be a white girl. She brought up the fact that a girl she went to high school with got mad because she wanted to be homecoming queen but she couldn’t because it was the year they were supposed to elect a Black girl. She said, “At my school, we elect a Black girl, then a white girl, then a Black girl.” I said, “Wait. What?” She said they’d go back and forth because they wanted to have diversity. I thought this sounded so ridiculous and it also sounded so southern. I thought this would be a great premise for a story if I added a murder to it.

The Black Queen is told from two POVs: Duchess and Tinsley. Why did you want to tell the story from their distinct perspectives?

Right after the George Floyd murder when the police reform protests were really starting to ramp up, I was hanging out with a lot of my friends who are white. They were talking about the protests. I didn’t really want to talk about it because I was already exhausted; it was the middle of the pandemic. They talked about the kinds of conversations they were having with their family members who weren’t progressive in thought. They talked about how they were going back and forth with them, arguing with them and some of them were talking about disowning their parents. I thought this would be a great thread to pull on with this story, if I had this girl who started out as the absolute worst at the start of the story and had to confront her privilege. As many books as there are by white authors, I had never read one about a white character who confronts their privilege and what that looks like. I felt like that was an important conversation to have.

I want to have people thinking in a different way, and that's for Black and white readers.

At the same time, I started to ask myself what other characters would inhabit this world. I thought about Duchess and who she would be. I knew that I wanted her to be queer. I knew I wanted her to be Black. But then I thought about conversations I had had as a journalist with a lot of Black police officers. A lot of the towns I covered were either majority-white towns or they were very, very small southern towns with small police departments that were all white. During that time I was covering crime scenes, there was a lot of downtime when you’re waiting for cops to come talk to you. I was one of the only Black reporters at a lot of my publications and there was a kinship when Black officers would see me in the field. As I got to know them, they would start talking to me about what it was like to be either the only Black police officer or one of the only Black officers on a police force. There were two things that were interesting in those conversations: how Black officers told me they were treated by the Black community because they wore a badge, and how their children were treated. When their kids would go to school, their classmates would be mad at them and the kids would always have to defend their dads. During the police reform protests, the Black police officers’ bosses would stalk their kids’ social media to make sure they weren’t saying anything against police officers. As I was developing Duchess, I decided I wanted to use some of those stories.

The Black Queen features a sizeable array of distinctive female characters. What drew you to write these characters, and how did they shape the story?

I love me a strong woman. I am in love with a strong Black woman, which sounds funny because I’m gay but it’s not in a sexual way. So much of our society is shaped around men and women needing to please men. I love a woman who’s like “Screw that, I’m doing my own thing.” I look at that in my own mother. My mother divorced when I was about seven or eight and most of my life, she was a single mom. She worked, she held down a job, gave us this great middle-class life, and every play or game me and my sister had, she was there. I asked her, “How did you do this? How were you able to show up this way?” It was like magic. That goes for my aunts as well. I was raised around very strong women, so I’m familiar with seeing women who have complicated lives persevere. I wanted to explore what happens to them when their morality is tested.

The Black Queen broaches the subjects of white privilege, class differences, and policing while Black from multiple vantage points. What do you hope readers from differing social and political backgrounds will take from the story?

What I want especially white readers to understand is that race in this country is a very nuanced discussion. It is not one-size-fits all. Everyone’s experience with race will not be the same, and that’s okay. But they need to understand where the frustration comes from. The scene I wrote between Duchess and her girlfriend’s friends was me trying to touch on that. It’s hard to be Black sometimes because in order to get acceptance from the Black community, we have to think one way we don’t agree with because we don’t want to be seen as betraying our community. Why can’t things ever be easy for us? It’s because all these discussions around racism, race, and classism always have this additional layer for us.

When I really began to put pen to paper to write The Black Queen at the height of the protests when, as Duchess says in the book, “white people realized racism was still a problem in this country,” you had all of these diversity initiatives come out. “We need to drive diversity. Diversity, diversity.” That’s all you heard, and it started to feel hollow and very performative. That’s when I started to consider how I set up the situation at Lovett High School. If a diversity initiative doesn’t really address the real issue of why you need a diversity initiative, are we really fixing the problem? Is representation the only key to liberation? I don’t really have the answer to that, but I wanted to have a story where I could explore that discussion as I believe it’s one we need to be having. Those discussions spark change. While everyone may not agree exactly, I walk away thinking, “Wow, I never looked at things like that.” That shapes how I think and act moving forward. I want to have people thinking in a different way, and that’s for Black and white readers.

The Black Queen by Jumata Emill. Delacorte, $18.99 Jan. 31 ISBN 978-0-593-56854-5