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Nicola Yoon on her novel 'One of Our Kind' and trauma in Black American life

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Jasmyn Williams knows she should feel good about moving into a new community. But it's making her pretty uneasy. She, her husband and their young son have left a small Los Angeles apartment behind for the recently developed suburb called Liberty. It's an all-Black community with big, beautiful houses, and good schools, no police profiling, no stereotyping - a safe place, promoting Black excellence and well-being. The residents of Liberty are so happy - maybe too happy. That's the plot of Nicola Yoon's new novel, "One Of Our Kind," and she's here now to talk about it. Welcome to the program.

NICOLA YOON: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: Tell us a bit more about Jasmyn and what led her and her family to settle in Liberty.

YOON: Yeah, so, she wanted to move to Liberty for safety, for community. She has a young Black son. She's pregnant. Her husband is Black, and moving to a community where everyone is Black and there's a sense of physical safety and psychic safety that she wants for her children. It's a very, very wealthy place. She thinks that that wealth could be protective and certainly her husband does. And so that's why she goes.

RASCOE: And Liberty, you know, has a lot of this self-care services. And that's kind of, you know, loaded in the book, but they have the Wellness Center. But Jasmyn seems to view self-care as selling out...

YOON: She does.

RASCOE: ...Which I thought was very interesting. Talk to me about that.

YOON: I mean, I think there's a way in which we can all feel conflicted about, like, the modern world we live in, right? Because so many things are wrong, and there's a way in which you can feel guilty about not doing enough all the time, right? I mean, there's global warming, but we still all fly on planes. And we all have phones, and the labor practices around making them certainly aren't great, right? And so there's a hypocrisy that we all have to live with all the time. And, you know, Jasmyn is a public defender, so she certainly is doing the work, as it were, and she wants to make sure that she's always trying to make the world a better place. She does that sometimes maybe to her own detriment, but she is - her heart is in a good place anyway.

RASCOE: You know, we get into a lot of hair stuff (laughter). I want to ask you because she's kind of judgy - kind of judgy.

YOON: Oh, very judgy. She's so judgy.

RASCOE: She's so judgy, and she really is of this mindset that if you have a Afro, it's a go - no Afro, no go.

YOON: Yeah, I wanted to explore all the ways in which we put ourselves into a box and the ways in which society puts us into a box, right? Because the fact is Jasmyn moves to Liberty and assumes that all the Black people are going to be the same as her - right? - which is - of course not. Like, we're not a monolith. There's a way in which the overall system forces you to put yourself into different boxes too, and we are victims of it and sometimes perpetrators of it. I think that is where you see Jasmyn being sort of judgmental, and sometimes she pulls back from that and can see that she's doing this thing that everyone else has done to her too.

RASCOE: No spoilers, but I mean, there are these places in the novel where you do think, Jasmyn, you know, get your son, get your pregnant self, get out of there. Is part of this an exploration of how - comfort, right? Like, being in the gated community, being in this place, can dull your senses to the dangers that exist in the world.

YOON: Yeah, I mean, it's sort of classic thriller form. I really wanted to write a thriller. Like, I wanted to keep you up all night, and then you get to the end and you go, holy crap. And then I want you to call your friends and talk about, like, why the book ended that way. And I did want to say, like, look at this world that we have created and what it does. Like, the way it can pretzel us and, like, you know, contort us into missing things that are right in front of us. But sort of in classic thriller fashion, too, you know? There's a lot of love in her life, and I think love can make you accept a lot of things, forgive a lot of things, right? I have certainly made mistakes for love before.

RASCOE: No. It will make you make some huge mistakes (laughter). It will blind you. So what led you to write this book in the first place? What were you feeling when you were writing this book?

YOON: There are a few things that led to the book. The first is that this conversation I had with a friend of mine, and we had done this panel on race and racism, and then afterwards, we'd gone to dinner, and we were drinking wine. He's Black as well, and he said to me, do I ever wonder who I'd be or who we'd be as people if it weren't for the specter of race and racism? It's a big question that's a great question. But it's also an impossible question, right? Like, there isn't really an answer to that. Like, it's hard to tease apart who you would be if suddenly everything were different, right? And then there's this Toni Morrison quote that's been in my head since I was a kid. When she says, the very real function of racism is distraction. It causes us to have to prove over and over again our reason for being, right? And I'm paraphrasing there.

YOON: And then there's this podcast that I was listening to once and it was talking about "The Stepford Wives" and how everyone misremembers that book because we use that term, she's such a Stepford wife to beat women over the head, like to say they're robotic or whatever. But actually, the book is really super feminist, and it's such an indictment of the men who would want this thing for their wives, right? And so it was all of those things and just all of these questions that came together in my mind.

RASCOE: You know, in the end, when you're thinking about all these questions and thinking about this book, which is really about how we define ourselves. Obviously, I don't - we're not going to give nothing away.

YOON: (Laughter).

RASCOE: Did you come to any conclusions about identity and what does define us as individuals?

YOON: Yeah, I mean, I think what defines us is the constant interrogating of that and just trying to love, which sounds Pollyannaish, but actually isn't, right? I mean, to, like, really be in the world is an act of, like, resistance and to just pay attention. Like, I'm married to the love of my life. I have this great kid. And I try to hold onto them and be who they see me as, and I try to hold on to that. I cannot cede my joy to someone else's perception of me that's based on nothing, right? I know who I am. I'm a good mom. I know I'm a good wife. I'm an OK writer (laughter).

RASCOE: You're a great writer, you know? You're a great writer. You make a living at it. Very few people can do that.

YOON: I get to have this job, right? Like, we get to define ourselves, I think. But what I really want is for people to talk to each other after and to listen to each other with a sense of grace. Because I think one of the things that is missing from our discourse is grace, and I think that we need more of that in the sort of national discourse.

RASCOE: That's Nicola Yoon. Her new novel is "One Of Our Kind." Thank you so much for talking with us.

YOON: Oh, thank you so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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