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Nigerian-American author debuts novel in verse

Candice Iloh ’17 draws from her own upbringing for "Every Body Looking," her debut YA novel, which has been longlisted for the 2020 National Book Awards.

Every Body Looking book cover - colorful background with a black teenager doing a dance move

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

Candice Iloh ’17 draws from her own upbringing for "Every Body Looking," her debut YA novel written in verse. The story, which has been longlisted for the 2020 National Book Awards, follows Ada, a Nigerian-American teen struggling with her sexuality, her father's faith, and finding her place in college.

Candice Iloh's website

Pick up "Every Body Looking"

The 2020 National Book Awards Longlist: Young People’s Literature

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  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling: This is Why We Write. A podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life.

    My name is Georgia Sparling and today we begin Season 3 of the show. If you’re new to the show, welcome! And if you’re a repeat listener, thank you for joining us for a new season of episodes.

    We’re beginning this year with debut author Candice Iloh, a graduate of our MFA in Creative Writing program. Candice’s new book, “Every Body Looking,” is out today. It’s a young adult novel written in verse that tells the story of a Nigerian-American teenager who is transitioning into college life and trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs.

    Hi, Candice. Welcome to the show. I just want to say, first, congratulations on your first novel. That's such an accomplishment.

    Candice: Oh my goodness. Thank you so much. I'm really excited. I get more and more excited each time someone says congratulations. I think I forget what's happening amidst all this stuff that's happening, so I really appreciate that.

    Georgia: Right. The publishing world's been weird and all the dates keep changing lately.

    Candice: Oh my God. Yes, that's a thing. The publishing industry, like the rest of the world, is trying to figure this stuff out. It's a lot of things that are shifting day to day.

    Georgia: Definitely. Just our world. Let's jump in. Every Body Looking, I think it's classified as YA, but I would also say it's New Adult. It's a novel told in verse from the perspective of Ada, a Nigerian American teenager and she's about to start her first year of college. It also talks about her backstory and alternating chapters with the present. Where did Ada and her story come from?

    Candice: This is a story that is loosely based off of my own life. The story originated from just me essentially wanting to tell a story loosely based off of that transition from being at home and then going somewhere else. What that experience is like, when you think that you're going to go somewhere new and you're going to be somebody new and the reality that anywhere that you go, you're going to be there. You're going to take yourself. You're going to take whoever you were before you left, with you, to where you're going.

    It originated from just me having that college transition, that experience of going somewhere far from home and having the plans that you set up for your life explode in front of your face, once you realize you're not the only person in the world and there's a much bigger world out there. Once you are exposed to that world, something different happens when it comes to who you are and who you want to be.

    Georgia: Your character, she goes through a lot of stuff in this book. College, you always are trying to figure out what's going on and who you are and all that stuff. She's also dealing with chafing against her father's religion and Christianity that she's been growing up with. Plus, she's got this mother who doesn't show up for her hardly at all. There's some issues of sexual abuse, her own sexuality. Why was it important to include all of these elements into the story?

    Candice: It was really important to include all of these elements because of just what I've learned about being a teenager, being a young person and having all these things going on simultaneously in your life and the adults around you making it seem like you're a kid, you're young, nothing that serious is going on in your life. Nothing is that big of a deal. I thought it was really important to illustrate all the things that could be happening in a young person's life at the same time and really trying to just show that this is true for a lot of people's lives. Whether you're a kid, a teenager, an adult, there's a lot of things that are usually going on in your life at the same time and it's really, really important to realize or to show that it doesn't stop. It doesn't stop just because you move to go somewhere else or it doesn't really stop because you're going off to college and you want to start this new life. These are things that happen simultaneously in a lot of our lives, no matter what's going on and no matter if we want it to stop or not.

    Georgia: She's trying to figure out a lot. It seems like as she goes to college, a lot of her assumptions about the way the world was going to be are not accurate, but also just trying to figure out, who is she going to be and is she going to stand up for herself? Which I thought that was really relatable.

    Ada is graduating from high school at the beginning of the book and then we follow her through parts of her first semester. Did you write this book with a particular audience in mind or were you thinking more teenagers, young adults, new adults?

    Candice: As you know, when you read the book, there are so many different phases in her life that are covered throughout the story. Honestly, I'm always thinking about young people when I'm writing. They're always at the forefront of what I'm trying to create and the story that I'm trying to tell. By default, I was thinking about young Black girls, young Black women, intentionally, when I was telling the story. I really feel like it's a story for everybody and at different parts of the book, it appeals to different age groups and different kinds of people. In particular, even though it's a YA novel, I think that there are a lot of parents who are going to have moments with the book where it feels like they're being talked to directly.

    Georgia: Yes, definitely. I'd love to talk about the structure of Every Body Looking. I am not the most fluent in the YA genre, but I have read several books in recent years that are in verse, like Jacqueline Woodson, Elizabeth Acevedo and even our own faculty, like Jason Reynolds and David Elliott have used this format. Why did you choose to write in verse for Ada's story?

    Candice: Short answer is that the story came to me that way. Given the fact that I touch on so many different phases and different time periods, I felt like the format that best serves this story would be verse, because of the fact that I jumped back and forth between different time periods and because of the fact that it's a really emotional story. The story is largely centered on making connections between the different versions of the main character, who she is at different phases in her life. I feel like verse novels or writing in verse is the easiest way to manipulate a text that works like a puzzle. It's much harder to illustrate what it is that I wanted to show on the page, writing in prose. Immediately, my brain was like, I want to write this story in a way that I could utilize brevity, in a way that I can utilize metaphor, in a way that I can just play with all these different poetic devices that would assist me in doing that.

    Georgia: I love what you were saying about the story's a puzzle. I hadn't really thought about it like that. Although, now that you say it, it totally makes sense, because the structure is not wholly chronological. It starts out in the present with high school graduation and then going to college and then it goes back to different time periods. That is mostly chronological, but not completely. How did you decide what the order was going to be of your story and how it would unfold?

    Candice: That truly was an exercise and a huge challenge for me and my editor.

    Georgia: I can imagine [laughs]

    Candice: [laughs]. First of all, my editor, Andrew, is the greatest of all time because he is so good at asking questions and pointing to the things that need unpacking and also pointing to connections that he was experiencing in the text. I didn't come into working with him on the story with the order that you're seeing. I came largely with a lot of the text. A lot of the book was centered on her young life, like her as a child. For the revision process, I was adding more and more into her present-day experience. It was just lots of back and forth through that process. There were several drafts and several times where either myself or my editor identified the fact that a certain piece of the text needed to go somewhere else. I became pretty clear on the fact that I wanted the present day timeline to go chronologically. Whereas all of the stuff that happened in the past was going to just happen more randomly, more so whenever there was a connection that I wanted the reader to make.

    Georgia: I feel like I need to backtrack a little bit, but I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't talk a little bit about Ada's interests and just passion for dance. How does that fit in with this story? Because she's a reluctant dancer. I don't know if you would say that's a fair way to describe her.

    Candice: I wouldn't describe her as reluctant, as much as I would describe her as repressed. I think where dance comes in is, it's this secret love that she starts to develop in high school. Something that she loves a whole lot, but cannot really begin to express to her family. She's not raised in a family that's super artistic, super creative, or super supportive of her just trying things out. It's something that starts out as a hobby in high school. Something that she starts to realize makes her feel different than anything else that she's doing. It eventually becomes this catalyst for who it is that she wants to be, what it is she has to say, what she's starting to feel in her body. You touched on it earlier, there's a number of experiences that she goes through, both emotional and physical, and dance is the one that helps her remember the physical.

    Georgia: This podcast is called Why We Write. I'm curious about your writing process. It sounds like you worked extensively with your editor to get the structure and format of the story. I know that a lot of times, writers are told the quote from William Faulkner to kill your darlings. Were there any darlings that you had to give up in the process of writing this book?

    Candice: One thing I want to say is, one thing that I'm really, really, really proud of about the book is that, the way that I wrote it, each of the pages can work as standalone poems. The way that a verse novel is written, essentially, the idea is that it's this ongoing poem through the duration of an entire story. Because I care about poetry so much and because that's my background, I was really adamant about each poem being strong by itself. I naturally was really attached to every poem that I wrote. I can't remember them specifically, but throughout the process, there were poems that Andrew, my editor, would just call out and be like, "I don't really think you need that," or "You've already said that thing," or articulating the fact that I don't even need to make an entire poem of certain details, I only need to add an additional line to a poem that exists. There wasn't really a huge plotline or a character or a big chunk of the book that I was told, had to go. It was more so these little moments where, I wrote a poem where that sounded really good to me, but it just wasn't necessary. I couldn't hold on to it. I had to just go ahead and let it go.

    Georgia: You're on this podcast because you graduated from Lesley. I'd love to hear about-

    [laughter]

    Georgia: Good. I'm glad you had a good experience.

    Candice: I got a lot out of it.

    Georgia: I'm glad to hear it. Tell me a little bit about your journey as a writer. How did you come to writing and why were you so invested in it that you wanted to get your MFA?

    Candice: According to my dad and some other people who have-- or elders who have been in my life for a long time, according to them, I've been writing since I was really young. I've always been good at writing. I've always really, really, really loved books, but it wasn't until my sophomore year in college, where I was just really going through a crisis and trying to figure out if I wanted to stay in the major that I was in, if I really cared about what I was studying. It was a friend of mine who introduced writing poems as catharsis. I remember just having a really rough night with the study group and she saw that I was about to have a moment. She made a suggestion to pause for a second and just write how I'm feeling.

    She told me how she utilized poems to let stuff out. I wrote my first poem that night. After that, it feels like it was history. I started going to open mics, I started to see how people were responding to my work and slowly, I started to take it seriously when I noticed that I really was affecting people. From there, open mics became shows, shows became more writing, more writing became residencies, and then residencies eventually led to me getting my MFA and utilizing my MFA as a way to get my first book written.

    Georgia: Did you do the Poetry track or the Writing for Young Adults track at Lesley?

    Candice: I did Writing for Young People, specifically because by the time I got to Lesley, I felt very versed in writing poems already. I didn't want to waste my MFA on learning something that I had spent a lot of time with already. I wanted to study something that I felt like a baby at and that definitely was YA.

    Georgia: You talked about this a little bit earlier, but why specifically are you writing for this age group? What draws you to young adults or teens?

    Candice: I absolutely love kids and young people more than anybody [laughs]. I have so much love for young people. I spent 10 years in the classroom, the majority of that time was in high schools and teenagers have my heart. I feel like teenagers are also the most interesting group of people, period. They go through a lot. They experience a lot of different emotions. It is at the height of when they're figuring out how they want to do life. I feel like teenager's stories are just-- they're really just at the center of a lot of people's development. It's when things really took a turn or a shift for them and so I find writing for young people to just be the most interesting. If I'm going to write about anything, I really want to write about what happens when you're a young person trying to figure it out.

    Georgia: How do you get into the heads of people that age? Is it because of your experience in schools? Do you just remember really well yourself? I feel like I'm so far removed from that age, that I don't think I could do a decent job.

    [laughter]

    Candice: It's probably a really healthy combination between me being immersed in those environments and me going to therapy. When you go to therapy, a lot of the time is spent with the therapists trying to get you to remember things that happen in your childhood as an explanation for your triggers and your traumas currently as an adult. I have spent a lot of time in my own head about my own childhood. On the other hand, the kind of educator that I was, I spent most of my time listening to my students. I was intentionally a creative writing teaching artist. That gave me a lot of freedom to do a lot of the things I wanted to do with my class and a lot of that time was freewrite, discussions, me giving prompts to the class and I heard a lot, a lot, a lot from my kids about what they were going through. I also spent a lot of time, after they got comfortable with me, just listening to them talk to each other. It very easily put me back into a head space. It allowed me to empathize with what they're going through.

    Georgia: Have you had any test readers in the age group of Ada?

    Candice: I did.

    Georgia: How was that? That seems scary.

    Candice: I get really excited when I think about how sneaky I was about it, because in the earlier stages of the drafting, I was still teaching in Harlem and The Bronx. What I would do is, I would print out random sections of the book and make sure that my name wasn't anywhere on it. I would hand it to students who were done with their work. In all my classes, if you're done with the assignment for the day, I'm going to either hand you a book or I'm going to hand you an article, or I'm going to give you a video to check out and respond to with your free time. I remember in particular, I had my students who were above and beyond, done with the assignment for the day and I would just slip them little sections and I wouldn't tell them that it was mine. I would tell them I have something for them to read, that I want them to read and that I think that they will like. I give it to them, let them read it and let them respond however they want. I wouldn't tell them that they had to freewrite. I wouldn't tell them that they even had to tell me their feelings, if they could just respond whatever way that they wanted. I did that probably three to five times. Sometimes my students would know it was me and then other times, they would ask if it was me and I wouldn't confirm or deny [laughter]. I got a lot of really useful feedback doing that, but I didn't do it too much because I didn't ever want to center my own work when I was in the classroom.

    Georgia: We are nearing the end of our interview. One question I have for you is that, you're now at the point where your book is published. What, as you look back, are some things that you learned about yourself and your own writing, in the process of all this?

    Candice: I know that I learned pretty quickly that I'm very impatient.

    Georgia: [laughs] It's a long process, right? Even from when you get signed.

    Candice: Oh my God, it's such a long process. I really learned that I can be quite impatient when it comes to the creative process. Once I write a thing, I want it to be ready and I want it to be out there. I quickly learned that there are just a lot of steps that are a part of the process and that I need to respect the process. I also learned that I'm really, really sensitive. As a writer, you really do have to get used to receiving feedback. You also have to get used to being firm about what you feel needs to stay in your story. Even though there's going to be a lot of people throughout the process who are "professionals" and experts and who have been in the business for a long time, there's this balance that you have to strike between taking feedback that you need to hear, as well as listening to your intuition and trusting that this is how you want your story to go.

    That's just it. I learned a lot about trusting my gut, but also who I need to listen to and who I need to trust. Who I need to, in general, trust throughout the process, because it's going to be a long one, period. I'm not going to have control over the entire thing. I need to relinquish control, really.

    Georgia: That can't be easy [chuckles].

    Candice: At all.

    Georgia: What are you working on next?

    Candice: I am currently working on my second YA novel. I'm not going to talk much about it because it's still in the earlier stages. I'm definitely working on a second YA novel that is going to be much different from Every Body Looking. The protagonist is a much different person, but readers can expect the same strong voice that comes through in Every Body Looking.

    Georgia: Excellent. We look forward to that, too. Thank you so much for speaking with me today. This has been really great.

    Candice: Yeah thank you for having me. I really enjoyed this conversation.

    Thank you for listening to my conversation with Candice Iloh and make sure to pick up her debut novel Every Body Looking, which is available today. For links to the book, Candice’s website, and a transcript of this episode, check out the show notes. We’ve also got a link to our podcast page where you can find an archive of all of our episodes, show notes and transcripts.

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