I always say that I learned to be a writer by teaching. I didn’t take a creative writing course in high school. I didn’t take any creative writing courses in university. I really credit teaching writing with my knowledge of writing, which seems kind of backward, but having to understand writing enough to teach it, I felt like I knew enough about the writing process when I started writing Kings, Queens and In-Betweens enough to get something down on paper.
You’re listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
I am Tanya Boteju. I’m a teacher and writer in Vancouver, BC, also the unceded territories of Musqueam, Squamish, or Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. I teach at a local Vancouver high school called York House School. It’s an independent school for girls and I’ve been teaching there almost my entire career of 20 years.
I am a huge proponent of free writing. I have been for almost the entire time I have been a teacher and definitely since I’ve been a writer. It is difficult to get both myself, as well as students, to appreciate and really own the process of free writing. It’s such a difficult thing to get them past that sense that they need to write perfectly the very first time they write anything down. So it’s really nice cause I can share with them my experience too, from a writing standpoint that, you know, 80% of my writing is trash <laugh>, you know, and so I have really tried to develop over the course of the year or if I’m lucky, I’ve taught them more than one year where I give them a lot of time and practice with freewriting. Most of the writing that I do in my classroom involves a longer process. Very little of it is sort of one stop shop of “write this essay in an hour” because I don’t think that’s how good writing happens.
And so we spend a lot of time at the beginning of the process, really just trying to get messy ideas down, brainstorming. I really try and encourage them to do that and, and try and encourage them to understand that that’s where a lot of really great ideas comes from. And so what I focus on in, in my classroom is how to tap into more personal writing. So we do a lot of creative nonfiction because that sort of inspires them because it’s about them and they can do some personal reflection as well, which is so important. And so they’re allowed to explore a bit more and see where writing might actually help them as individuals, as human beings, to understand themselves and the world around them. And I’m hoping with that particular practice, with creative non-fiction in particular, that they will take that practice of reflection forward.
And then also the practice of writing as a process. So that’s one of the examples where they’re writing a, a full, you know, personal essay over the course of six to eight weeks really. So they’re revisiting it, they’re brainstorming, they’re talking to people, they’re getting peer editing and peer response. And my hope is that by the end of the year, after practicing that process, at least a couple of times, that they will take the process into the world.
Excerpt from Kings, Queens and In-Betweens
Amid the blur of images emerging before me, Winnow’s performance definitely brought my vision into sharper focus. She performed George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” and held the audience spellbound with a slickly choreographed lip sync to the song and an energy that somehow toyed moment to moment with our sense of her. The sideburns screamed masculine, but her soft, shifting limbs and elegant eyelashes spoke all girl. She emanated stillness and exertion, modesty and brashness. And then none of those things, but something in between.
Toward the end of the number, I watched in a haze and she slowly shed the upper half of her clothing until she wore only shoes, pants, and a thin band of hot pink flagging tape wound several times around her chest. Every part of my body burned with heat and anticipation as she undressed and prowled the stage on her hands and knees, lyrics on spooling from her mouth like silk ribbons.
My throat clamped shut as she crawled toward me. Leaning over the edge of the stage, her face hovered so close to my own as she lip synced a few lines and fixed her eyes on mine.
“I just hope you understand. Sometimes the clothes do not make the man.”
This time there was no mistake. The Jell-O in my legs steadily overcame the rest of my body, and I thought I was going to wobble out of my chair. I wanted to hold her gaze, I really did. But I feared she’d see right through me to the quivering mess inside and realize she was wasting her lyrics, so I dropped my eyes to her hands and watched them slip away from the edge of the stage.
When I looked up again, she’d focused her attention on an older woman whose mouth opened into an enormous smile. Winnow stepped down off the stage and sat just at the edge of the woman’s knees. She sang the next few lyrics from there, placing the woman’s hands over her own shifting hips. After a few moments, Winnow stood, swiveled smoothly toward her chosen audience member, and placed a kiss on the back of the woman’s hand.
That could have been my hand.
Kings, Queens and In-Betweens is a young adult book about a teenage girl named Nima, who is growing up in a very small town. And when the book begins, her mother has abandoned her and her father for reasons they don’t know about a year prior. And she also has her first real heartbreak at the beginning of the book when she reveals to her longtime crush that she likes her and her crush is not interested.
And so she’s starting from a place of feeling pretty down and pretty discouraged and like there’s something wrong with her, like that she is there’s something boring or uninteresting or very easy to not like, or to leave, at the beginning of the book. And so she makes it a goal to push herself outside of her comfort zone and try to be this more interesting, exciting person so people will be drawn to her. And she forces herself to go to her first drag show. And so she discovers this whole other dimension to herself through the drag world.
When I set out to write Kings, Queens and In-Betweens, I wanted to write a joyful book. I wanted the ending to be joyful. I wanted it to leave kids with like the sense of possibility. The seed in a lot of ways for Kings, Queens and In-Betweens, it came out of my experience, as a drag king in Vancouver, in my twenties. It is the backdrop to the story, it is not the story, right? But it is an important element because it is the community of drag that brings Nima into her further knowing of herself and her ability to express herself more.
And that’s what I know of drag, you know, both through my own experience and, and from what I see of these amazing performers that we have around us, that there is this like a totally different way to express yourself, your gender, your artistry, your politics, you know, through drag. And then of course, and just the community of it, which I felt so strongly when I was a part of it, you know, that it’s this amazing community—not without its conflicts and problems, of course—but there is just so much joy in it and I really wanted that to come through on the page and for my characters.
For both of my books, actually, I had several beta readers, and at least about a third of them were previous students who I reached out to, and all of them identify as queer as well.
They gave me incredible feedback and they were also very, very, very <laugh> honest, um, with me, which was awesome. So some of the harsher feedback was more in emoji form, you know, eye rolling and, you know, maybe like a little mad face or something like that. It was not so much harsh as just really honest. They were able to give me obviously that younger perspective and share with me what kind of like grated against them as younger people too, that sometimes adults just don’t realize they’re saying or doing, and that’s annoying to young people. So certain language, for instance, or like don’t use the word angsty ever <laugh>, you know, to describe teenagers or, you know, whether dialogue felt natural, like what they’d hear amongst their friends. But then beyond that, too, just the thoughtfulness around, you know, why a character might do what they’re doing.
Also just giving some really lovely encouragement. That was, that was really nice too. You know, that something resonated with them or they shared a few things that had happened in their lives that, you know, related to what had happened in the book. And so that was just like a nice moment, too, as a teacher too, to connect in that way.
Excerpt from Bruised
“Your arms are spaghetti, Daya!” Dad’s lips made that smacking sound they always made when he was irritated with something. “Is spaghetti strong?” he asked as he grabbed my boxing gloves and jiggled my arms around.
“Are we talking cooked or raw?”
He didn’t smile. Sometimes he did. Not today. Today I’d made too many mistakes. “Don’t be a joker, okay? It won’t be funny when your opponent thumps you.”
He held up his punch mitts in front of me. “Tummy tight, gloves up. Firm, quick jabs. Intensity, Daya!”
We worked like that for hours—Thatha coaching me, building me up so no one could take me down. Boxing had been his “thing” in Sri Lanka when he was younger. An interest passed on by his father. He’d been competitive, too—winning small titles here and there. But when he came here, boxing just became another thing he’d had to give up. When I’d asked him why he’d quit, he’d made that lip-smacking sound and responded, “What? You think we had all the time in the world when we moved here? When would I box? Before work? After night classes? Don’t talk nonsense.”
Now that he did have time for a few side interests, he spent that time coaching me. I think it was his way of protecting me. Of making sure I knew how to protect myself.
“Mental toughness,” he would tell me, “is vital for physical toughness. You can’t play sports without both, and you can’t succeed here without both either. If you show them weakness, Daya, they win. You must be better. Stronger.”
I kept his words in mind each boxing session, each match, every obstacle I faced, trying to show him I could be tough enough for whatever life brought me. And he kept pushing me to be stronger. So a layer of toughness had begun to grow along my skin even before my parents died, although I hadn’t been sure if I’d ever been strong enough for my dad. And now I knew I hadn’t been. I’d failed them both, eventually.
But I was tough enough now. That layer along my skin had thickened, a full suit of scarred armor that could withstand anything. And I’d keep testing it to make sure it always would.
Bruised is my second book. It came out last year, 2021, and it’s about a 17-year-old girl named Daya who is really grieving over her parents’ death. They died in a car accident, um, that she survived. And since then she’s taken to bruising herself as a way of coping with her grief, obviously not very well. And it’s a way to sort of keep her pain on the surface versus dealing with what’s inside of her. And so when a friend introduces her to roller Derby, she sees it as a really great opportunity to continue this practice, this habit that she started. And she tries out and makes the team and realizes that there’s obviously a lot more to the sport and the people in the sport than she thought. And it offers her a different way of looking at strength and pain and, and ways to deal with grief and pain. And she comes along in her journey to, to figuring out how to manage that grief over the course of the book.
When I had finished Kings, Queens and In-Betweens my agent said, okay, time to think of another book <laugh> and I, you know, had a hard time because Kings was a book that kind of felt I had in me for a long time. And so I was really starting from scratch and I had an idea for another book that didn’t really work out, my editor didn’t like it. And so I had to go back to the drawing board. And so I started with thinking about subcultures that I really admired or thought highly of or was interested in because that’s such a big part of Kings, Queens and In-Betweens, the drag subculture, and the first subculture that came to mind was roller derby. Not because I play it, but because I’ve had friends who play it, I’ve seen it. I’ve been to roller derby bouts.
And it just seemed like such a, like drag, such a really colorful, vibrant kind of culture. And so it really just came out of like a brainstorming session of what kind of cool culture would I want to immerse myself in if I’m gonna write another book.
Both of my books do have queer protagonists, but their coming out stories are not the main point or even a point in either book, it’s just part of who they are. It was important to me to normalize just that part of them as, as just another part of them, their journeys were about some other aspect of them, maybe about self-expression or maybe about dealing with grief. So it just felt natural too because the stories weren’t about sexuality in these particular instances.
With Bruised, a few of the characters are from older generations and that was a surprise and a delight to me as well. I mean, elders have been really important to me <laugh>, you know, as well, in my own life as a queer person, but they enter the novel to some extent as a, a lightness, I guess, as a source of lightness, but also a source of wisdom because four out of the six older characters are all people who have been part of the roller derby scene or roller disco scene. And they offer Daya that sort of mentorship in some ways but they also offer that like history and that sense of, you know, older folks have stories, amazing stories, and they have this like vibrant life that we don’t think of when we look at them in their older stages of life, perhaps. And so they kind of came organically out of the need for Daya to have this sort of source of, of mentorship or source of modeling, role modeling of healthy relationships, of strength that looks different than what she thinks it looks like. And so, um, it just helped it create a space for that for Daya to, to sort of live into in, in that book.
One exercise that I do a lot in my own writing and then encourage, in some ways, with my students grows out of free writing. It is what I started with when I started writing Kings, which is to start writing a monologue in first person point of view from a character’s perspective, and then just free write. So allow that character to basically tell me about them with no expectations, you know. When I first started writing Kings, Queens and In-Betweens, all I knew was that this was going to be a book about a teenage girl who lives in a small town who somehow happens upon the drag scene. And so with those three pieces of information, I started writing in the first words that I wrote were just first person monologuing in Nima’s perspective. And she just told me all kinds of stuff about herself that I had no idea it was gonna come out onto the page.
And so a lot of that actually ended up in the book or informed her character and other characters too. And again, that freewriting aspect of that exercise just opened up so many things that I don’t think I would’ve come to had I been trying to construct this perfect character. Really, really interesting tidbits that just, I don’t know where they came from the recesses of my brain, but I’m glad they came out. And I think they came out because I was free writing. So that’s something I consistently used in my writing. I used it for Bruise as well, to get to know a few of the characters. In the middle of the writing process, if I’m stuck and I don’t know what a character should be doing or why they’re doing what they’re doing, I’ll just pause, set the timer and allow myself to free write in their perspective for 10 minutes, just to see like, can they, are they gonna tell me, like, can you let me know why you’re doing what you’re doing right now?
Like, you know, because characters do take up a mind of their own to some extent when you’re writing. And so it’s kind of fun, it’s like a conversation with your own characters.
Trying to balance writing and teaching was really difficult at the beginning because I was working full time. I had to actually enroll at SFU to keep myself on track. And now I actually work part-time as a teacher. And so that’s built in time. So both of those things really come from having certain amount of privilege. You know, you can only do with that what you will, like everybody doesn’t have the resources to take a year- long program or to take, you know, to go part-time. But, um, beyond those two pieces, I try and treat writing like a bit of a treat for myself. So again, this comes with a bit of privilege too, because I take myself out to like lunch or a cafe and treat it like a little date, which keeps me motivated and gives me something to look forward to after marking for four hours or whatever.
And so that’s one thing that’s just sort of kept me feeling good and you know, like it’s not always a job. But I don’t know whether I’ve really come to a place where I have found balance. Even part-time, I spend tons of my day off, or my off days doing schoolwork. But I know lots of writers who do fit in their writing when they can, you know, like they have to kind of let go, I think, of having the perfect setup for writing. It might be that they’re writing besides their kids’ bed, as the kid’s, you know, sick and asleep. Or it might be that they’re squeaking in 20 minutes, right before classes start. And I think that comes with a mind shift of how does, how does the writing process look on a practical level? I always feel like I need like a good two or three hours to get into writing and, and write. And that’s awesome. Like it’s lovely when that happens, but really good writing can also happen in 10 minutes or you can get a lot done in 10 minutes or 20 minutes. And so I think that’s partly a mind shift and then just being really intentional about what you’re doing in those 10 minutes. I’ve, I’ve definitely gotten better over the last couple of years.
Claire Tacon: You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Tanya’s work, including her most recent book Bruised. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Tanya Boteju shares her thoughts on writing for Young Adult audiences and how teaching writing equipped her with the skills to become a writer herself. She discusses:
1:09 | The importance of free-writing—how it’s informed her own practice and how she scaffolds the writing process for her students
3:34 | Writing a book about joy and possibility set in the drag community in Kings, Queens and In-Betweens
7:57 | Inviting previous students to be beta readers for both of her books (and getting feedback in emoji form)
9:31 | Challenging ideas about strength in her second book, Bruised, and writing queer stories that move beyond coming-out narratives
15:54 | How writing in first-person to help you discover more about your characters and the unexpected details that can emerge from that
17:57 | Balancing writing and teaching and being intentional with writing, even when you only have small chunks of time
In the Key of Dale by Benjamin Lefebvre
Boys and Girls Screaming by Kern Carter
A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo
The Misewa Series by David A Robertson