Actor and writer Asha Ashanti Bromfield’s second YA novel, Songs of Irie, following her debut Hurricane Summer, brings readers deep into the underbelly of 1970s Jamaica, highlighting two young women fighting for survival and agency during the period’s political violence. Best friends Irie and Jilly have vastly different experiences of their island. For Irie, the daughter of a record shop owner who lives in the ghetto, her dreams of becoming a reggae singer-songwriter feel out of place amid the warfare she witnesses in the buildup to an important election. Meanwhile Jilly, the daughter of a highly regarded political figure, finds her life spinning out of control when her parents begin making decisions about her future to solidify their family’s social status. As the pair looks towards the future, they grapple with how classism and colorism open fractures in their friendship that they may never be able to repair. Bromfield spoke with PW about the power of reggae music, friendship as a safe place, and why she loves writing about Jamaica.

Hurricane Summer and Songs of Irie share a through-line of exploring girlhood in Jamaica. Why has this theme been important for you to write about?

It’s because I spent so much time there. I remember coming of age in Jamaica, and Jamaica was a lot of things for me. Sometimes it was a safe space, away from my life here in Canada, because I would go to school here, but then for the summer I would go down there. It always felt like this magical place that I would go to and have these experiences. Then I would come home and no one really knew or could relate to what I had done that summer—these crazy adventures that I would get up to with my family. As I explored my career, especially as an actress, it was so hard for me because the lack of material for Black girls was completely crippling. I realized it’s going to be on me to do it myself, because clearly no one’s going to write my story. It just so happened that I had spent all those summers in Jamaica where I became a young woman, and I started to write about it. I never thought that I would, to be honest, but it’s been really magical. Writing is a really great escape for me because I’m spending a lot of time in my imagination in Jamaica.

Reggae holds different meanings to Irie and Jilly. How did you develop their contrasting relationships to music?

I feel like reggae for Irie is vital. It’s like a lifeline for Irie, and for Jilly it’s an escape. It’s something to listen to, to relax and feel peaceful. That intersection is where you really see how different these girls are. It’s almost the thing that pulls them together, but also tears them apart at the same time because Irie has so much more at stake. Irie’s experience as a Black girl really is a lot. Sometimes it can feel like you’re fighting for your life, and I wanted to show that for Irie, the music really was key for her. It was the only safe space that she had. Not to say that Jilly’s experience with the music is any less valid. I feel like they both found freedom in it.

How does Irie and Jilly’s friendship emphasize the ability for young people to have compassion? How does it also highlight how societal conditions can cause fractures?

I love them both. I definitely started this book just writing Irie’s POV. But as I was writing, it became clear that that couldn’t be the way if I was going to give Jilly a voice. I had to [include her perspective] because Jilly was interesting, and I wanted to understand her more. Their friendship was inspired a lot by the intensity of friendship as a young woman. I feel like a lot of girls can relate to that. Friendships can be so complicated. The intimacy within friendships can be very complicated. I wanted to be honest with these two girls coming of age and learning about themselves and who they are as women, their sexual preferences—but also the things that made them so different.

I was really inspired by colorism. I knew that Irie was a great vehicle for me to really explore those nuances and complexities and tragedies of colorism and how these two girls are treated completely differently living in the same world. I feel like as a young actress, I’ve experienced so much [in regards to colorism] and I knew that it is something that’s so close to my heart. It’s something that I want to bring more attention to, because I feel like we don’t talk about it enough. I’ve had my own frustrations and my own heartbreaks with that and sometimes I feel like as a Black woman it’s so hard to feel like the world even cares. I could convey that through Irie, what it felt like to be on that side of colorism and realize that there are privileges for other people or the world sees you a certain way because of what you look like. It’s a very hard thing to come to terms with.

Hurricane Summer and Songs of Irie both portray how the world can be a dangerous place, especially for girls. Can you share your thought process on depicting the intersections of violence and girlhood?

I want safer spaces for girls and women. I feel like that idea is sometimes a harsh lesson that a lot of girls have to learn. Because how do you prepare young women for the world? It’s a lot. With these stories, I hope to highlight what the experience feels like. I do feel like empathy is our superpower as a human race. To empathize, we must first share and shine a light on these types of stories and what Black girls really go through—because we go through stuff that transcends just race. I want to demystify that idea that we’re just one-dimensional, because we’re not, and we know that we’re not. It’s just time that we see our humanity and our pain, and the things that we have to go through. These stories are uncomfortable, but I think it’s important that humanity sits with us and witnesses what it means to be a Black girl in this world. I feel like that’s the only way for compassion to really be born. And we deserve it. We deserve to be seen. Our stories deserve to be heard.

Songs of Irie by Asha Ashanti Bromfield. Wednesday Books, $20 Oct. 10 ISBN 978-1-250-84680-8