Meg Medina will visit Saint Paul from February 19-21, 2019 as part of Read Brave Saint Paul. Medina's book, Burn Baby Burn is the 2019 Read Brave Saint Paul fiction pick.
Saint Paul Public Library: What inspired you to write Burn Baby Burn?
Meg Medina: Sometimes we experience things when we’re young that we never forget. As writers, those memories make their way into our work, one way or another. That’s the case for Burn Baby Burn. I was 14 in 1977, a year that is larger-than-life in the collective memory of New Yorkers. It was Bonnie Bell lip gloss, disco music thumping, and women marching in the streets for equal rights. But for me, it was also watching my mother figure out how to pay the rent on a minimum wage salary. It was buildings in some neighborhoods being torched for insurance money. It was crime that was out of control everywhere you looked. And, of course, it was the daily horror of a serial killer who dubbed himself Son of Sam, prowling the streets to murder young girls and their dates.
I wanted to capture the dizzying mix of all of that violence and upheaval and to place a Latinx family in the middle of it all. It seemed to me a way to tell a slice of American history through a particular lens – the bicultural one, the immigrant one – and to shed some light on what that looked like.
SPPL: What do you hope readers of all ages take away from Burn Baby Burn?
MM: Burn Baby Burn is about a family really coming undone economically and emotionally, and about a city doing the same. But ultimately, it’s a story of finding the strength and skills to survive that kind of violence. I want readers to see Nora’s difficulties and to connect with what it really takes for her to advocate for herself and change her circumstances.
I also want young readers in particular to see that what they’re living today had roots much earlier. There are through-lines of our history: the mistrust between communities of color and the police force; the struggle for housing and good paying jobs; the impact of poverty on people’s health, including mental health; and the rage women and girls feel in the face of disparities and disrespect. I think the book creates a space to consider where have we improved and what’s still left to be done.
SPPL: What makes you a “brave” writer?
MM: I suppose I dare to name things that some people find unpalatable for kids. For example, I don’t mind drawing a violent family the way it is. And I don’t mind drawing the many ways that adults fail kids.
There are some adult critics who disagree, of course. They feel that we ought to draw more positive and uplifting stories for kids. They point out that books like mine in some ways depress kids or draw a very dour view of the world that’s unhealthy.
To that I say, sure, there are plenty of things to love about being alive on this crazy globe. But there are plenty of soul-crushing situations that young people carry around every day in secret. We can’t abandon them. We have to let those experiences get shared or they kill us. In daring to name the hard things, I try to take away the shame and make things less lonely. If my books can do that for a reader, I’ve done my work.
So, to them [Saint Paul's youth], I say that your lives and your stories matter – and that you absolutely have power over changing the things in your lives that you don’t like.
SPPL: If you could say one thing to the youth of Saint Paul, what would it be?
MM: Saint Paul’s youth has the largest poverty rate in your state…somewhere around a third of kids under 18 live in poverty. It’s easy for kids in that situation to be so consumed with just getting by that they feel invisible and unimportant. They stop being able to imagine other circumstances for themselves. It becomes a dangerous state of mind.
So, to them, I say that your lives and your stories matter – and that you absolutely have power over changing the things in your lives that you don’t like.
SPPL: In Burn Baby Burn, Nora and her family faces the threat of eviction. How do you think this book can help people today talk about housing?
MM: Housing is a huge issue that’s threaded throughout Burn Baby Burn. There is the constant struggle of Nora’s family to make the rent on time – and all the ways Nora has to dodge the landlord when that’s not possible.
And then there is my favorite character in the novel, Stiller. She’s the head of the tenant group and is utterly fearless. She’s basically in a constant war with the building superintendent — everything from getting heat on time to making sure nobody messes with their belongings in the storage room. And you better believe she knows the precise rules on who you can evict and when.
It’s also Stiller who predicts what’s going to happen to their Queens neighborhood over time. “One day only fat cats will live here,” she tells Nora, who can’t even imagine such a thing in her dumpy neighborhood. But, sure enough, here we are in Saint Paul and elsewhere. In New York, you’ll pay a couple thousand dollars a month for a studio, if you’re lucky. And who bears the brunt? The poor and working people people.