Welcome back to 30 Days of Pride on Ace Of Bens! Today, I bring you an interview with the incredible Kacen Callender. They’re here to talk about celebrating pride month, diversity in publishing and their upcoming releases, so keep reading!
Hi, Kacen! Welcome to 30 Days of Pride, and thank you so much for participating! To start off this Q&A, why don’t you talk a bit about some of your favorite media (TV, movie, books, music, etc.) with queer representation?
Thanks for having me! Most of my favorite queer media are books and TV shows. I have a lot of favorite books, but some of my tops are Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Sàenz, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver, and Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann, just to name a few! TV shows are Skins and Degrassi. These two shows offer more queer representation than most adult shows I know (though I’d happily take any and all recommendations!). Degrassi is also what helped me realize I’m trans, so that show will always have a special place in my heart.
Part of the reason I started this series is because I know June feels like a month-long holiday for many people in the queer community. How do you celebrate Pride Month?
The month of June is different for me because I do get to participate in a lot of great queer pride events (panels, readings, and more) as an author, and because I get to go to fun parties and marches celebrating pride—but I think, besides the huge number of events, June isn’t so different from the other months of the year for me. I’m fortunate enough to surround myself with an awesome queer community in my everyday life and attend a steady, constant stream of queer events such as book readings, dance parties, and more. June mostly feels like an official celebration, but luckily my personal queer celebration is yearlong. ☺
There’s going to be plenty of time this month to talk about queer pride, so let’s talk about a different kind of pride for a moment. What are you most proud of in your own writing? This can be in general or about a certain project.
This is a hard question for me to answer because I think I struggle with celebrating my own achievements. It can be easy to be distracted by achievements and become complacent, when there’s still so much more I want—and need—to do. There’s still such a huge gap in literature for queer children and teens of color, and I want to do what I can to help fill that gap so that those children and teens can feel seen, and know that they aren’t alone. For example, I had a school visit today where a young student told me This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story was the first time they saw a queer, black male protagonist in any book. While a part of me felt honored, I was mostly heartbroken. Queer protagonists of color should be everywhere for that student to find and see themselves in—not just in a single novel that I wrote. I also want to raise the voices of other awesome authors who’re doing the work to create visibility. Nic Stone and Mark Oshiro are two other authors doing great work, and I hope readers can keep an eye out for Camryn Garrett, Ryan Douglass, Aiden Thomas, Kosoko Jackson, and Jay Coles’ upcoming novels. To answer the original question, I think I would be most proud of my motivation to focus on my writing.
Based on your release schedule, it sounds like the next year and a half is going to be awfully busy! What can you say about the queer rep in your three upcoming novels?
It’s definitely a blessing! Queen of the Conquered will be my first novel for adults, and also my first novel that isn’t explicitly queer. It feels odd to me that QOC isn’t queer, because when I’d started out, I told myself I would only ever write about queer people of color—but as I wrote the novel, I purposely made the main character a very Cersei (and, as it turns out, Daenerys)-type character—a powerful woman who isn’t the heroine. I decided to choose to focus on discussing race and colonization to avoid the implication that she might be a morally-gray black woman because she’s queer, and not because of her backstory and her motivations. I think that there are enough stories and narratives about black women that most readers wouldn’t feel the main character is awful because she’s black, but because she’s human, and humans can be evil; but there aren’t enough narratives about queer black women yet, for me to have felt comfortable writing a story about an evil black queer woman.
My next two novels are exceedingly queer, though! My next YA Felix Ever After, recently announced, features a queer, black trans protagonist who is also questioning his gender identity, which is a topic I wish we could see more of—coming out as any label under the queer umbrella, but still having questions about your identity. The book is also set during the month of Pride for a lead up to the Pride March. My next MG hasn’t been announced just yet, but it also features queer main protagonists, with themes that take a look at the intersection of race and queer identity.
On top of a new book announcement, you announced a name change and a coming out. First of all, congratulations on all of that, Kacen! Writing books is hard and figuring yourself out can be even harder. Secondly, how has your writing affected your journey of self-discovery and vice versa?
Thank you so much! ☺ As I mentioned earlier, Degrassi was what really helped me figure out my identity. There’re so many signs that I look back on now and think, well, duh (literally telling my mom that I think I might be a boy when I was 10 might be the most glaringly obvious)—but it never really clicked into place until the show focused on Adam and his identity, and gave me a language to express my own identity. The show ultimately did Adam dirty (no spoilers, but there’s a trigger for anyone who might be thinking of watching the show now)… but Degrassi and Adam also really saved my life, and I don’t say that lightly.
I was working in publishing when I watched Degrassi and was right at the beginning of writing This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, so after watching the episode that helped me realize I’m trans, writing Epic Love Story also helped my questioning and thought process by allowing me to become my main character Nate, and imagine myself as him, a cis guy, and realize that his identity was closer to how I feel than a cis woman’s identity. Meanwhile, though, there were simultaneously a few years of being unsure of whether I wanted to transition so publicly in front of colleagues in a corporate environment, while also feeling pressure to stay in publishing, to help create more diversity. I ended up beginning my transition in publishing, and everyone was incredibly supportive and respectful of my pronouns.
Now, writing Felix Ever After with a queer, black, trans protagonist has been one of the most therapeutic and freeing and emotional experiences, and I’m really excited for Felix to be out in the world, and to write more trans protagonists in the future.
As someone who also comes from several underrepresented backgrounds, I’m very grateful for people like you who are so loud and open about trying to diversify publishing. So I want to ask, how has your advocacy and action to improve the diversity in this industry changed as you’ve shifted from editor to author?
Thank you! I’m grateful to you for helping to put a spotlight on intersectionality and diversity. I do think leaving publishing has allowed me to feel a little more vocal on issues, because there can be a pressure to keep your head down. Now, I don’t hesitate to say that there’s still a huge gap in literature for queer children and teens of color, and that, while it’s thrilling to see queer books featuring white protagonists and books featuring straight people of color begin to receive so much more love and attention, I don’t want queer readers of color to be left behind. It sounds self-serving, because I’m an author who primarily writes stories featuring queer people of color, but I’d like to take myself out of the equation and question why we haven’t yet seen a popular, mainstream novel featuring a queer, brown and black character.
Is it possible that a book featuring a queer person of color could reach the level of love and attention that white queer stories, and straight POC stories, have received? Is it possible to see a QPOC bestseller or a QPOC book be made into a film? There’s unfortunately racism within the mainstream, mostly white queer communities, and anti-queerness within circles of people of color, which makes it even harder for queer people of color to break out, even when their books are just as important, well-written, and entertaining. Again, taking myself out of this equation, I would really love to see any one of the novels and authors I mentioned above breakthrough in this way, for the teens who really need to see that representation… and, a bit selfishly, because once someone is able to breakthrough, it truly does open the floodgates for more authors like me, in a way that Angie Thomas helped burst down the doors for stories featuring black characters, and Becky Albertalli for novels featuring queer protagonists. It allows us all to support ourselves and continue to write these necessary novels.
Another shift in becoming a full-time author has been an ability to broaden my advocacy. In publishing, I only had time to read submissions and advocate for the authors I worked with, which I loved—but now that I’m not working in publishing, I’m able to read much more broadly and support many more authors!
Lastly, do you have any advice or positive words to the people out there who aren’t able to be so openly proud of their queer identity?
I think that there’s a pressure to be loud and proud about your queer identity. There’s almost an implication that if you aren’t “loud and proud”, then you’re somehow ashamed of being queer. I disagree. I come from a place where it isn’t always safe to be openly queer, and sometimes I decide to keep that information to myself. I don’t owe anyone that sacred, beautiful piece of me, and you don’t, either. My advice is ultimately to be safe—if you don’t think your identity will be accepted, then don’t feel a pressure to come out. If you do want to come out, wait until it’s with someone that you can trust, and who you know won’t react negatively—or, wait until you have a community and support system around you. If you can’t be openly proud of your queer identity, then privately celebrate your pride. Private celebration isn’t any less important than celebrating your pride loudly. In fact, if anything, private pride is even more powerful.
Born and raised in St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands, Kacen Callender is the award-winning author of the middle-grade novel Hurricane Child, the young-adult novels This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story and Felix Ever After, and the adult novel Queen of the Conquered.
Kacen was previously an Associate Editor of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, where they acquired and edited novels including Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles, the New York Times bestseller Internment by Samira Ahmed, and the Stonewall Honor award-winning novel Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake.
They enjoy playing RPG video games in their free time, and they really wish they had a dog.
Kacen currently resides in Philadelphia, PA.