Welcome back to OpEdNews, Jessica. You've been pretty busy over the last few years. This fall, we talked about Aftermath, your documentary play about Iraqi refugees, which had just closed after a successful run. And earlier this year, you published your second novel, Karma for Beginners . It's about fourteen year old Tessa, who is finding her way, without much guidance, parental or otherwise. Where did this character come from?
Karma for Beginners
Unlike a lot of my other writing, Karma for Beginners wasn't heavily researched. The book isn't autobiographical, but it's closer to home than much of my other work. Most of my other projects have to do with stories very different from my own (Aftermath and The Exonerated, both documentary plays that I wrote with my husband Erik Jensen, are based on interviews with Iraqi refugees and exonerated death row inmates, respectively; Liberty City is a play I co-wrote with April Thompson about the demise of Miami's black power movement in the 1970s; Almost Home is a YA [Young Adult] novel I wrote about street kids in L.A., which Erik and I are currently adapting into a movie; and then I work as an actor in film and TV, playing all sorts of characters who are very different from myself). After all that heavily researched (and serious!) stuff, I wanted to write something where I could draw mostly on my imagination and my own experiences.
Karma for Beginners is about a teenage
girl, Tessa, whose hippie single mom takes her to live on an ashram in upstate
New York in 1987. Unlike Tessa, my parents are happily married, my mom
isn't a frustrated hippie, and I never lived on an ashram when I was a teenager
(I was also still in elementary school in 1987).
However - my parents are both former bohemians and we visited an ashram a bunch of times when I was younger; I dated an older guy (though not as old as the one in the book) when I was in high school, and a lot of the late-80s pop-cultural/music references and references to New Age culture are drawn from my own memories. Tessa starts out as shyer than I was, but I was definitely a bookworm like her, and (maybe like all teenagers) I felt like an outsider sometimes. So some of the events and psychology in the book have their seeds in my own experience, but then are exaggerated, embellished, and otherwise made into fiction - and lots of the characters are completely invented.
The issue of vulnerability seems to be a thread throughout your body of work - whether it's refugees, those ill served by our judicial system, or teens, be they homeless, abused, or just poorly supervised. In this story, Tessa's parents' split up remains huge for her. She's a child yet still, with a lot to learn. And absolutely no one seems to be watching out for her, ready to catch her when she inevitably falls.
Almost everyone connected to Tessa exhibits hypocritical or irresponsible behavior - her father, her mother, the guru, her boyfriend. It's almost a miracle that she doesn't fall through the cracks. Is that how you think teens see the world?
That observation about vulnerability is an interesting one! I'd never thought about it in exactly those terms before, but I do think that "high stakes" are always a really, really important part of good storytelling - the protagonist has to have something major at stake, whether that's material or psychological, in order for the story to be compelling. If things are comfortable and easy for the character, there's not much of a story, and she doesn't have nearly as far to go! I'm interested in how people deal with obstacles, how they face and overcome them and grow in the process, and so I think that's a part of all the stories I tell.
In general, I don't think that teenagers necessarily see the world as a scary place or view all adults as unreliable; I think it depends hugely on the individual circumstances of the individual teenager's life (my parents, for example, are fabulous and very stable, and I felt very safe at home growing up). I do think, though, that encountering obstacles in the world can feel very frightening to a lot of teenagers - even if their home life is stable - because everything is so brand-new. The adult things that you're handling, you're handling for the first time, and there's no instruction manual for a lot of it. By giving Tessa little to no "safety net" in terms of her family life, etc, I raised the stakes for her as a character - there's a lot she has to figure out on her own. But I think even for teenagers who have more of a safety net, those new obstacles can sometimes feel just as scary.
And I also
think that for all teenagers - but maybe especially for girls - learning about
relationships and sex for the first time can sometimes be as frightening as it
is exhilarating, partly because we live in a culture that is, unfortunately,
not always entirely healthy about girls and women and sex. I think that
culturally, we still swing back and forth, quite often, between a sort of
puritanical fear around teenage girls and sexuality, one the one hand, and an
overcommodification of it on the other hand.
As a teenage girl, it can be hard to figure out how your lived experience fits into things when the cultural norms - and the messages that adult culture is sending - are swinging so wildly between those two poles. That's a big part of what Tessa is dealing with in Karma for Beginners (and what some of the female characters have to deal with in Almost Home), and I do think that that's a larger cultural issue. And in some small way, I'm interested in trying to address that in the YA fiction writing that I do. I think that if more writing, film making, etc. can address some of that stuff from teenage girls' perspectives - and get into the complexities of it in ways that are neither puritanical nor prurient - that maybe that will help open up the dialogue and make learning about this stuff a little less scary for some teenage girls and young women out there.
A worthy goal, Jessica. Let's pause
here. When we return, Jessica will talk about about the movie that's being made
of her first YA novel, Almost Home , what it's like collaborating with her husband, Erik Jensen,
and what she does for fun. I hope you'll join us.
Part One of my interview with Jessica and Erik about Aftermath
Part Two of my interview with Jessica and Erik about Aftermath