Mahogany L. Browne on her YA debut Chlorine Sky, the story she couldn’t find, and writing narrative voices beyond what’s considered “respectable.”
A new voice has entered the pantheon of young adult literature. A voice that is unconcerned with whether her characters are considered “respectable,” but rather interested in whether they feel real and true to where they come from. Poet Mahogany L. Browne stepped into the YA world with an offering, Chlorine Sky, a novel-in-verse that tracks the arc of a young Black girl who decides to stop making herself small for the people in her life after a fallout with her best friend.
The novel is a welcome and necessary addition to literature written for adolescents as they come into their own.
Sky’s story is universal. At some point, everyone has to reckon with how they are perceived and how they want to be seen. It is not an easy task to define oneself, especially when others have tried to define who you are in their own terms and are reluctant to move away from their definitions.
Culturess had the opportunity to speak with Browne about her debut YA novel and how the story came to be.
Culturess: Was Chlorine Sky a novel-in-verse from its initial conception? Or did you conceptualize it as a book in prose at first?
Browne: This story began as a poem, more than six years ago now. And the poem had the same effect on folks listening to it that I had experiencing it.
My Macmillan editor for my children’s books, Katherine Jacobs, expressed interest in Chlorine Sky as a novel, and I began working on a manuscript. Nic Stone asked to see what I was working on after a panel in Miami. I sent her a rusty draft, and she loved it and introduced it to Phoebe Yeh at Crown Books for Young Readers. Phoebe saw a light, and that was that.
Honestly, I didn’t know if I could fit into the world of YA because I always thought the things I wanted to talk about (mass incarceration, colorism, drug addiction, split families, and body issues) would be considered too dense or radical, and brushed aside.
Culturess: What inspired you to write this book, which digs at the root of what it means to be young, coming into your own, and experiencing the confusing tangles of friendship and attraction for the first time?
Browne: I wanted to write the story I couldn’t find. I love the idea of writing a story for the young Black girl who finds solace in library stacks when no one will listen to her cries.
I wanted to write a story about becoming and belonging, even though there is a constant fight within the self to be enough and to be worthy.
I wanted to write a house where there are entrances everywhere. If you are a Black girl, here’s a door. Or a queer ballplayer, here’s a window. Or a tomboy with a crush on everyone here’s the cellar door. I wanted to write a story for all the intersections that make you you.
There is a pulse to longing, and we all have a Lay Li. Sometimes we are Lay Li.
Culturess: The voice and language throughout Chlorine Sky create a reading experience that feels very much like we’re inside the main character’s head as well as if she’s talking directly to the reader. Did you find it difficult balancing her interiority with her conversational tone?
Browne: I had to read the text aloud a lot. The way I write and the way I hear Sky’s voice don’t always correlate, and I had to be mindful of that. I do remember reading it to my cousin, who is still in California, where most of my family lives, and she corrected my use of slang. It was so good to be reminded this region has a language too.
So the voice you hear, the vernacular that reaches into the marrow of how we speak when we are with family and how we speak when we’re chopping it up with our friends, is rich and beautiful too. I wanted to honor the linguistics.
Culturess: Did you always intend to leave the reveal of the main character’s name until the end? What was your intent behind that choice?
Browne: I actually had to go back on draft six or seven and write in her name, because I was thinking from the space of “This is everyone’s story”. Sure, it’s in the body of a young Black tomboy, but the longing is universal. The desire to be remembered and seen is borderless.
I added her name at the end because naming her, after all the growth and work, felt necessary. And in a time when we are marching and reminding the masses to “Say her name,” it is my duty to do the same. Say all of her names.
Culturess: What do you want teens who read Chlorine Sky to take away from the book?
Browne: You are more than just who will be your friend. You are more than worthy of being remembered and seen.
There is no joy in playing small; you get to take up space. You get to be.
Culturess: Do you plan on writing more books for young adults?
Browne: I just finished my second YA novel and turned it in! Now I’ve started sketching my third. I’m just so happy I get to write stories and center girls who come from where I come [from]. I am so excited to be able to share stories that highlight voices beyond what is considered “respectable.”
At the age of fifteen, I almost died in a car accident. So I reckon I am here to tell the stories that no one thought I would be here to tell. It is not just a privilege but a duty. I’m so lucky to be called to the front line.