Candice Iloh, author of the 2020 National Book Award finalist and 2021 Printz Honor book Every Body Looking, considers what life could look like beyond our capitalist culture in their new YA novel in verse, Salt the Water. Black nonbinary teen Cerulean and their close-knit group of queer friends have a secret: after graduation, they’re escaping the confines of society by disappearing and living off the grid. However, when tragedy strikes Cerulean’s family, they’re forced to consider if they have what it takes to leave everyone they love behind. Iloh spoke with PW about how their time as an educator has helped shape their perspective of schools, finding their way back to loving the writing process, and why hope is vital for this generation of young people.
How has your time performing at open mics doing spoken word helped shape your poetry?
Back when I got involved in open mics in Washington, D.C., it was all a means of catharsis. My introduction to verse and poetry was in community and in spaces where I wasn’t boxed in by structure, and certain kinds of ways of writing. I really got acquainted with poetry by listening to it, and seeing people perform it. I feel like before I learned all the rules around how to write a poem, or how to write a story, I learned about how to connect with the emotion that incites that thing. Now that I think about it, I feel like it’s really influenced everything that I do, because I’m very guided by emotion. I’m very guided by how I feel in my body about an experience, and that drives what I center in my work. I can give credit to the open mic poetry scene for teaching me to be free about it. Then later on came other experiences that taught me how to use words in a whole lot of other ways.
When did you know you wanted to write for a young audience? Did it have anything to do with your time as an educator?
The easiest way to answer that is it’s a merging of my two worlds. My career has been split between being a writer and being an educator. I mainly worked with high schoolers, and I still love high schoolers. It’s who I still like to do [author] visits with. Naturally, the kind of teacher that I was, I got to hear a lot of my kids’ stories and over time, when they started to trust me and feel safer in my classrooms, they started to get honest about things that they normally wouldn’t say in front of adults. [With] my foray into YA, I learned later that I could incorporate that knowledge into my work and merge it with being a poet through becoming acquainted with [books] like Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. That’s when I was like, Oh, I know about young people. And I know about reflecting on young life. And I also know poems, and this is a way that I can do the two at the same time.
Salt the Water marks a return to verse from your last prose novel, Break This House. Why the shift and how did it help you tell the story better?
Break This House, my second novel, definitely is the kind of novel that I used to tell myself that I could never write. But after writing Every Body Looking, I felt like I wanted to take a break from verse and I wanted more space and room to kind of be messy. That story is so much about grief and loss that I just didn’t want to do the whole format thing. When you’re writing poems, you consider things like line breaks and the shape of the poem and how it looks on the page. So I departed from that for that story.
After writing Break This House, I wanted to write something that felt fun for me to write. And writing verse is fun for me. Like what are all the ways that I can convey this story, utilizing all the poetic devices that I know? What are all the ways that I can make this into like a rollercoaster ride for the reader? It’s fun figuring that out, and I was craving that fun. Also, Salt the Water is such a complex story that if I had written it in prose, I don’t know if the ending would have landed the same way. I feel like verse allows me to do all these kinds of magical evocative things that you can do [in prose], but it takes more words. And I am a writer who loves brevity. I also am considering my audience and the young people who are reading it. For anybody who reads Salt the Water, it’s going to make sense. I couldn’t see this story any other way, honestly.
You mentioned that you wrote Salt the Water for fun, and the dedication of the book notes that you wrote this book not wanting to worry about how it would affect you financially or in terms of success. Can you speak about when that concern crept in for you? How did you learn to love writing again?
I became a full-time author back in early 2020. It was sort of a premature decision; it was sort of by force. That shift from somewhat depending on writing to pay my bills, to everything is dependent on my writing to pay my bills… something happened there. A lot of debut and new authors learn that if you decide to quit your job, you are going to have to produce quicker. You’re going to have to consider the market more. You find yourself paying attention to trends and what book covers are getting a lot of attention. You start to pay attention to those business things that you didn’t when you were just an artist. A lot of us, when we become full-time artists, we drop all of our boundaries around self-care, and now we’re working 24/7. I just made a lot of necessary shifts for myself that helped me have space for fun again and for play. Because I just wasn’t playing anymore. When it became about paying my bills and surviving, I just didn’t even have the time or the room to see, did I like the final product? And luckily, I did. But it was really stressful and hard and under terrible conditions. And I don’t want to hate my art. I’m trying to be in this for the long term. And I want to enjoy the process.
Cerulean struggles with the idea of being stuck on “the conveyor belt of life,” something adults struggle with too. Why did you want to emphasize the effects of capitalism on young people?
I’m not a teenager, so I can’t say what they might have thought about the economy when the pandemic hit. I do know that I was hearing a lot about what the experience was for, say, a high school junior or senior. There’s so much pressure to get clear about what you want, and what you’re going to do with this next phase of your life. When you graduate, are you going to get a job? Are you going to take a gap year? Are you going to follow in your parents’ footsteps? Are you going to go to college? What are you going to major in? Who do you want to be? And yet, the world is falling apart as you’re in high school, and you’re seeing all these things that adults told you were a surefire thing crumble.
If I were in high school right now, I think I would feel a lot of conflict with adults telling me that I need to figure out what to do. And I need to be clear, and I need to take these certain paths that seem like they’re failing. Like they’re not working for y’all! So now what? And I’m thinking about teenagers who are online, on social media, they’re hearing more language that they might not normally be acquainted with at that age. And to be a teenager and to see all of these great ideas come up and then just go away suddenly, like, wow, everybody was so radical and now everything is about going back to normal? Like, wow, y’all are just full of it, aren’t you? Is anything real? I don’t know how much trust I would have in adults. Or this school-to-job pipeline dream that’s been sold. What’s going to be in the future for them? Are they going to have the same ideals around working as us? It’s already changing. I wanted to open up that thought process and give young people some space to consider something else.
How does the school setting play a role in the lack of agency Cerulean feels in their life? Did your time as an educator influence the way you shaped Cerulean’s experience?
I had the privilege of being a teaching artist for most of my career as an educator. And, unfortunately, that meant that a lot of schools [thought] I was an afterthought to them, which also meant that I could do whatever I wanted in my classroom. I created projects where my students were practicing storytelling in a lot of different ways, and over time, they started to share things with me. On one hand, I’m hearing these things that normally don’t come up in a classroom setting. And on the other end, I’m reflecting on what it was like for me to be in high school. And the teacher who you’re probably [referencing in the book], he was inspired by one of my English teachers in high school. As an educator, I’ve always just wanted to be a trusted adult who wasn’t like the teachers I had to deal with—the teachers who clearly don’t like kids and don’t care about the literature that kids actually want to read. I got here by being on both sides of the coin, and also just remembering myself, as a teenager who really never got to express themselves in the ways that I wanted to, because of these kinds of conditions. I felt very drawn to telling these kinds of stories. And I also feel like I’m still healing those young teenage parts of me that remember these kinds of educational spaces that didn’t feel free and felt very repressive.
Some might call Cerulean’s dream to live off the grid as radical. How would you describe it?
I feel like [Cerulean’s] dream is the only thing left. I feel like the time that we live in, there is just nothing that would surprise us at this point. I don’t think for Cerulean it feels radical. It feels like, why wouldn’t I do this? Why wouldn’t I try to do something else? It’s a matter of this person potentially feeling like there’s no other way for me to be free. And freedom is my highest value. A teenager might say I just want to be free or I just want people to leave me alone. I’m very connected to that feeling. [For Cerulean] it’s like I don’t think that I can just keep going the way that I’ve been going. I don’t know what the next thing is. And I might be being stupid and making this leap. But this stupid leap feels a lot better than doing what everybody else has been doing.
Are you working on a new project?
It’s going to be announced next month. It’s another genre. It’s a style of book I haven’t dipped my toe into until now. And I’m really excited about it. It was inspired by my little brother. So I’m really excited to talk about the book when I am able.
Salt the Water by Candice Iloh. Dutton, $18.99 Oct. 3 ISBN 978-0-593-529317