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Jas Hammonds brings Black and Queer joy to teen readers in debut novel

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Jas Hammonds — Photo courtesy of the author
Jas Hammonds — Photo courtesy of the author

Sometimes just existing in the world is hard. With news coming out every day about BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people being murdered by police, attacked by new legislation, and harassed on the streets, hope can be hard to find.

These were the thoughts going through debut author Jas Hammonds' head when they first started to write We Deserve Monuments.

Giving young people hope
"I just really want readers to give themselves grace. That's a theme that's going on in the novel," Hammonds said. "I think, especially for young people, the world can feel especially heavy these days. There's always some horrible thing that's happening on the news, [and] everything feels so pressing and so immediate. I wanted to write a story about a girl who's just really learning to take a step back and realizing, 'Okay, the weight of the world's problems, they don't have to be solved by me, alone.'"

Young readers, especially BIPOC and Queer readers, have connected with Monuments because of that message.

"I think that that's important for young people to take away," Hammonds said, "and I hope if they take away anything, it's that you have time to be a teenager, to have fun, to uplift yourself. Surround yourself with the people who uplift your whole self."

Hammonds wrote the book with Black readers in mind, and hopes to connect with those who might be feeling disheartened by the state of the world.

"For Black readers, in particular, the theme of We Deserve Monuments is bigger than just literal monuments. It's not like saying, 'Oh, I think Queer Black people deserve statues up all over the place.' They do, but it's just, like, on a deeper level than that. You deserve flowers, you deserve these places that are sacred, and you deserve community. I hope that that comes across in the book and it just feels like a warm hug if somebody needs it."

Image courtesy of Roaring Brook Press  

The six-year journey
Before We Deserve Monuments was ready to be a love letter to the Black Queer community, it was just an idea Hammonds' head.

"It's been six years from the first draft to the last. I started writing it in 2016, and it took about 18 months to get a full first draft down," they explained. "After I finished that, I started applying to different workshops and residencies, just trying to join the writing community in any way that I could.

"I got accepted into Lambda Literary's writing retreat for emerging LGBTQ voices. That turned out to be a major turning point in my writing career. I met some fantastic critique partners that inspired me to see it through to the end.

"The spring of 2019 is when I started quarrying agents. It wasn't until the fall of 2020 that we got [a] deal [for] We Deserve Monuments [from] Roaring Brook Press MacMillan. So, the past two years have essentially been editing and promo and preparing to bring the book into the world. It's been a long time on just this one story, but I'm happy it's out."

For Hammonds, writing is a journey that spans continents. "I'm a flight attendant, so my schedule is never really the same," they said. "Day to day, I kind of just write in big chunks all at once. I'll get in a great groove, and I can hammer out a lot of words in a week, and then I might not touch it again for a month. I'm not a 'write everyday' writer; it's more whenever I have the energy for it."

Hammonds describes themself as a "wanderer." They've spent their whole life moving around. It was this lack of roots that made Hammonds so enthralled by the idea of settings in novels.

"I grew up as a military kid, so I spent a lot of my childhood moving around from place to place," they said. "I've always really been fascinated with the idea of home. When I'm writing and reading I love the setting. I love [homing] in on a setting. I like it when a setting feels like a character itself."

Setting the scene
Hammonds' attention to setting is evident in We Deserve Monuments. "In Monuments, the town of Bardell, Georgia, felt like its own character at one point. Because I'm a flight attendant, and I've spent so much time moving around, traveling, and going from place to place, I can focus on the small details of a setting, on what makes it special, what makes it quirkier.

"The setting is by far one of my favorite things to write, so I don't think it would be the same if I had grown up in one place my entire life."

Hammonds spend a lot of time focused not only on the setting but also how to bring to life the different identities their characters held.

"From the very first draft, I knew that Avery, my main character, was going to be Queer and incredibly proud of it," they said. "She falls [into] a romance with the girl next door, and that's been the same throughout every draft that I've written.

"As a Queer person of color, as a Queer Black writer, it's always something that's going to be woven into everything I write. It's really important to me, and I think that I'm just really excited to join the canon of Queer writers of color in the young adult space, because I do think some fantastic novels are being published today."

Unlike other depictions of LGBTQ and BIPOC characters, Hammonds' books are written entirely for Queer and BIPOC audiences.

"For me, when I'm thinking about my audience, it's always going to be for Queer young folks. When it comes to my young adult novels, I don't concern myself with what a straight reader would think. Of course, straight people have read the book, they've liked it, and they've resonated with it, but ultimately this is a love letter for Queer Black girls."

Still Queer, still swoony
Although Hammonds focuses on Queer storylines in particular, they don't think it takes anything away from the romance in the plot.

"As a Queer writer, I don't think I'd do anything different than a straight writer might. I just really focus on the honesty of a Queer relationship. The swoony, first-time, first-crush feelings that, to me, whether you're straight or Queer, ...can be universal. That feeling of first love, especially for Queer folks, there's something about that first love. It's the first time someone is seeing you for your full self. It can be vulnerable to come out; it can be very vulnerable to be in a relationship when you're still closeted. I think those dynamics are maybe what I would focus on or be thoughtful of, maybe more so than a straight writer."

Hammonds' debut novel has been described by some readers as a Black and Queer version of the classic television series Gilmore Girls, due to its focus on family dynamics.

"Family is one of my favorite things to write about," Hammonds said. "When I was growing up, I thought that my family was the only family in the world that had problems. I thought that everybody else just had this perfect Brady Bunch—ideal type of life. I thought I was the only kid who saw my parents fight, or saw addiction, and that was lonely, sometimes.

"I knew I wanted to write a story that focused on family and all the messy complexity that comes with it. I jokingly call this book Gilmore Girls but make it Black and Gay, just because of the central dynamics of a daughter and a mother and a grandmother, and the fights that occur between generations and the love that is ultimately there, bonding them at the end of the day."

Exploring intergenerational experiences
For Hammonds, writing a multigenerational story is an exciting challenge.

"It's fun to write about people that you think you know better than anybody, and then there are still ways for them to surprise you," they said. "Ultimately, I just wanted it to be kind of an exploration of family and that specific coming-of-age moment when you realize there's a lot more to your parents and your grandparents than you [thought]. It's kind of a heartbreaking feeling when you realize your parents don't have everything figured out, that they're humans at the end of the day, with their traumas and ghosts."

By adding a Queer plot to the intergenerational trauma, Hammonds was also able to explore the ways social progress can hinder those who may feel left behind.

"I think it's really interesting, in particular, with three generations, to see how attitudes can change over time. An older generation, what they might have been uncomfortable with, or really against, like when they were younger. Maybe they're more relaxed now: 'So, back in the '80s, I gave you so much grief because you were Gay, but now 30 years have gone by, and I'm a lot more relaxed, and that's fine if my granddaughter is, but it wasn't okay for you.'

"I think there can be a lot of resentment, especially for that middle generation that was like, 'Oh, you weren't cool with me doing that, but now all of a sudden it's okay?'"

Hammonds also explores the concept of chosen family, something Queer people often rely on.

"I love the concept of chosen family, because it is so important for us as Queer folks to not only lean on blood family. A lot of times we can't relate to that, and I've experienced that in my way, and that's why community is another theme that's important in the book. Just finding your people, whether they're blood or not, because sometimes the most important people in your life are going to be your chosen family, and I'm just so grateful for that."

Next project
Hammonds said everything they write will be Queer in one way or another. Their next project is another YA novel, set to be released in the summer of 2024.

"It is also a contemporary novel that is stand-alone," they said. "It is more focused on friendship themes rather than family. It's a story about a girl trying to get into a very exclusive sorority, and there are themes of toxic friendships and relationships and addictions and that feeling of completely losing yourself in search of the attention and affection of others. I think there is so much material that is ripe when you just throw a group of girls together."

Hammonds' debut novel, We Deserve Monuments, will be featured in this week's SGN Book Club on Instagram.