Interviewed by Rosalyn Spencer
Rosalyn Spencer: First off, congratulations on your resounding success with the release of Dread Nation. I have been following you since Vengeance Road to Promise of Shadows and was very excited to see your newest release. As I waited in a very long line for a chance to meet you and get a signed copy at the American Library Association Conference, the sense of pride and excitement coming from the librarians was palatable. How has your experience in promoting Dread Nation been during your conferences and book festivals?
Justina Ireland: It’s been great, but I think a lot of that has to do with the cover. It’s super eye catching and unique, mostly because you don’t get to see a lot of powerful Black girls on book covers, especially YA covers. So I think that has helped the book find it’s audience a little better than expected.
RS: One of the things that stood out to me about your characterization of Jane was how pragmatic, stubborn and unapologetic she was about who she was and her willingness to accept the consequences of the choices she made. I find myself a little bewildered by the rash of heroines especially in hybrid or fantasy novels who in the midst of battle are overcome with hormones and lack of common sense or self-awareness. However, Jane acknowledges all of those feelings of attraction, bewilderment and anger without letting it completely overwhelm her. She felt so familiar to me and young women I grew up with. How did you approach creating such a realistic, honest young woman in what is a fantastical setting?
JI: I think we’ve all been Jane or met Jane. She’s the product of living in a world that limits who she can be and feeling the pain of those limitations. If she’s angry it’s because I’ve felt that anger, and if she despairs it’s because I’ve felt that despair. In writing this book I tried to distill a lifetime of angst and oppression, of microaggressions and racism into a character that dealt with it the same way so many Black women I know deal with it: by living her life the best way possible.
RS: The issues of colorism, gender, racial and assimilation is strong throughout the novel, something that is dealt with a deft hand and very insightful especially when witnessing the burgeoning friendship between Jane and Katherine. How did you approach these issues that are still so prevalent today in your novel in such a naturalistic way?
JI: One of the things I didn’t want to do is shoehorn in a romance, so in that space where a romance typically blooms in most YA novels I inserted a friendship. In building that friendship I tried to replicate conversations I’ve had with other Black women as much as possible, including them in the story in a way that felt real.
RS: What made you choose the aftermath of Civil War as your setting for Dread Nation and how did it allow you to give life to your characters?
JI: The failure of Reconstruction is one of the most embarrassing moments in American History, and this felt like a natural space for a conversation about structural racism in America. It gave me a space to have that conversation without making modern reader feel attacked about the systems of oppression in place, and the addition of zombies assisted that even more.
RS: The cover of Dread Nation is phenomenal to me because it is one of the few book covers I have witnessed in young adult literature in which a young black woman takes center stage. The fact that I was able to see yours, Renee Watson, Dhonielle Clayton and Tiffany Jackson in one year made me so happy. How important was it to have that for your novel? What do you believe is the importance of recognizing a young woman of color as the heroine with her own agency? What are some of the novels and or authors that helped cultivate you as an author?
JI: I’m greatly moved by NK Jemisin’s writing. I think she might be the single best fantasy writer writing today. And I think it is hugely important to see Black girls in positions of power and leadership, just as important as it is to see anyone else. The difference is that while white girls have gotten their moment in the sun that has yet to come for Black girls. I really hope the current crop of YA authors, especially Black women, writing about kids of color can push the conversation forward and make Black girls saving the world the norm rather than the exception.
Justina Ireland enjoys dark chocolate, dark humor, and is not too proud to admit that she’s still afraid of the dark. She lives with her husband, kid, cats, and dog in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Vengeance Bound, Promise of Shadows, and the New York Times bestselling novel Dread Nation, which received six starred reviews.