Overcoming grief and emotional pain by virtue of community
Alexis Zygan // Contributor
Tanya Boteju’s latest young adult novel, Bruised, focuses on how the roller derby community aids each other in dealing with grief. Her first published novel, Kings, Queens and In-Betweens, immerses the reader into the colourful drag scene and touches on themes of acceptance and loss. In Bruised, the teenage protagonist, Daya Wijesinghe, discovers that there is strength in vulnerability as she grieves her parents’ sudden deaths.
Boteju has a degree in English and Education from the University of British Columbia, in addition to a Masters of Arts from Columbia University’s Teaching College. For the past 18 years, Boteju has been an English teacher at a Vancouver-based high school. Working as a teacher for over two decades has shaped Boteju’s ability to write about the everyday struggles impacting LGBTQ+ teenagers, as well as her own experience in the drag community.
Alexis Zygan: In Bruised, Daya’s practice of roller derby catapults her to uncover the truth about love and healing. Were you ever on a roller derby team? If so, how did this experience impact you?
Tanya Boteju: I have admired [roller derby] for many years and had plenty of people in my life on teams. I don’t participate in [roller derby] because I am a huge wuss.
AZ: What was your inspiration for Bruised?
TB: Whereas Kings, Queens and In-Betweens came out of the direct experience. I brainstormed the idea for Bruised, thinking about communities I want to dive into and explore and young people’s experiences I had seen. Roller derby is similar to drag in terms of the power of community and sheer female-driven energy.
AZ: How do your students inspire your writing?
TB: I don’t think I could write a young adult book without engaging with [my students] and seeing how they manage what they go through. I am in awe of all [my students] take on. Some of them don’t always manage—most of us don’t. Even moments where they struggle are an inspiration because that is just real.
AZ: How has your work in teaching encouraged you to pursue a writing career?
TB: I started professional writing because I wanted to challenge myself. I also felt like a hypocrite teaching creative writing for ten years. I wanted to say to them I use these techniques, skills, and strategies in my writing. There is nothing I ask them to do that I don’t also do in my writing.
AZ: How do both Daya in Bruised and Nima in Kings, Queens and In-Betweens venture outside of their comfort zone?
TB: Both Daya and Nima experience the loss of parents. For Daya, she feels responsibility and guilt around her parents’ deaths for reasons we find more about later. She is very closed off and not vulnerable at the beginning of the book, seeing strength as the ability to withstand physical hurt and pain. The irony is that [roller derby] is a physical sport— you will get bruises playing [roller derby]. That is what attracts Daya initially. Then she sees the other side of [roller derby], the support and community, which contributes to her getting past hurting herself to feel anything worthwhile.
AZ: What do you want queer readers to gain from reading this book?
TB: I hope [readers] see the value of being vulnerable. Especially for young queer folks, it can be hard to share a piece of themselves when what’s happening around them isn’t welcoming. There is someone out there who is willing to listen and celebrate who they are.
AZ: How do you stay motivated to be creative during COVID-19?
TB: I haven’t been able to stay creative the entire time while dealing with this pandemic. But one thing, I have been lucky enough to enroll in a novel-writing course. I find the structure guiding me along helps to create. But, I went through many months where I wasn’t creative in my writing life. I am a total introvert with no problem staying at home. Being in a pandemic suits me in some ways, fitting for writing.
AZ: What are your future creative plans?
TB: I am working on a third book, [I’ve written] around 20,000 words, that dives down into the world of drag [that’s] not connected to Kings, Queens and In-Betweens. I adore drag culture and exploring that world in the here and now.
AZ: Anything else you would like to add?
TB: [Roller derby] had a resurgence in the early 2000s, [and] we have a great scene here in Vancouver. There are lots of opportunities to get involved, even amid COVID. I also hope the book resonates with young people who struggle to see strength as anything but not breaking down.
Bruised will be released on March 23, 2021, through Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.