A Depressed Black Teen Takes Center Stage in Morgan Parker’s YA Debut

Author Morgan Parker (Photo credit: Renell Medrano)

I’ve been reading Morgan Parker’s work for years. (I’ve had the line “you are the jesus of this room” from her poem “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the back of my head for years.) And like Parker, I’ve also been thinking about mental health, what it means to be Black, and what it means to be a Black woman who is struggling with mental health, for a long time. Now, Parker has put all of her understanding of these very topics into her first young-adult novel, Who Put This Song On? It’s a book that introduces longtime readers to Morgan, a protagonist based on her as a teenager, her previous work a constant echo as we relearn Parker via this new, younger lens.

Who Put This Song On? is a mixture of Parker’s writings from when she was a Black teen growing up in a white Southern California suburb and a new fictional character. The protagonist both is and isn’t the author, something that has been consistent through much of Parker’s work. We follow protagonist Morgan as she jumps from mix CD to mix CD, builds friendships with people who see her—mess and all—and finds herself. This isn’t a book about a struggling teen who’s fixed by the end of the book.

Parker and I discussed how she writes about heavy topics without draining readers, the weirdness of writing novels for teens, and the importance of challenging a genre that at times can be formulaic.

I’ve been reading your work for such a long time. When I went back through some of your older poems, I couldn’t stop thinking about young-adult novelist Morgan and poet Morgan. In your poem, “Everything is Bothering Me,” you wrote: “I’ve thought heavily / about the apocalypse / since I was eight years old but / I’ve never considered strategy except / to smoke cigarettes and wait.” What is YA Morgan’s exit strategy? Does she have one?

At the beginning of the book, she wants to die, and at the end she’s alive. I’ve been hearing a lot of [criticism that] there’s no story arc, but that’s the arc and I stand by that. I think to not be obsessed with that anything, to wait. [It’s] a big deal for her to think, “I’m going to stay alive, and whatever happens happens. But I’m not going to be the one to interrupt life.”

In some ways, Who Put this Song On? is different for you. You’ve gone from There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé (2017) and Magical Negro (2019), which are both poetry collections, to this story about a depressed teen who is obsessed with music. Often readers expect one thing from writers. You have bulldozed that entire idea by being so many things at once.

Yeah, what the fuck? I’m a writer and I also get bored easily. Every idea deserves its own packaging. It was terrible and terrifying for me to write this novel, but I’m really happy to have this other skill. It’s exciting for me to have an idea and not think, Now I [need to] make this idea into a poem. If it’s not working out as a poem, maybe it deserves to be a paragraph. Being able to do that is really important for me. I don’t feel any kind of preciousness around only being a poet. I’m a writer; I will write a lot of different things in my lifetime. [Understanding that is] a way of being true to myself and also staying a little bit outside of [other people’s] expectations.

How did you know it was time for young Morgan to come to light?

I was trying to honor my past self but also teens today that are feeling exactly as I felt. That was 100 percent motivation for this book. When I was young, I didn’t know that they were out there, and that’s such a shame. It was about connecting and reaching out, and I think about my writing in that way a lot: I write because it’s like the best way that I can communicate. It’s always been like, Maybe I didn’t say this right, so let me write it down. Writing, for me, is the most precise way to get my feelings across and also the most authentic way that I can reach another person. It’s about creating that connection between writer and reader.

Music is huge throughout the book. There’s a line early in the book where the protagonist says she likes Eve the rapper more than Eve from the Bible, which made me laugh. When did you decide that you wanted music to have such a significant role in the book?

I was an emo teen, and music was so important. It was such a big deal: What you’re listening to and when and who your friends are listening to. It was a way to mark identity at that time. And [when you’re] depressed as a teen, there’s this way that you [think], “This has saved me.” There’s even a book called This Band Saved My Life. It’s that feeling of having something to turn to that recognizes you back. I think [music is] especially important when you’re a teen, and you’re discovering new music that describes whatever you’re feeling. I knew that I wanted [music] to be really important to the character, and there’s no other way to say I’m listening to a lot of Radiohead. That’s almost a shorthand if you’re emo.

I made a lot of mix CDs, and that was a big deal. I even say in the book [that] making a mix CD is more romantic than making out! It was really fun to do character development through what they’re listening to and when. It also has to do with how you’re connecting with other people. Something as simple as having the same taste in music is such a big deal when you’re a teenager [because] . it means that there’s’ something else that’s connecting you.

Morgan Parker's Who Put This Song On? (Photo credit: Delacorte Press)

Recently there’s been a lot of discourse about if YA is actually for adults or teens. Who Put This Song On? felt distinctly like the books I read as a teenager, which weren’t out to win awards, gain Twitter followers, or showcase perfect feminist humans. Who do you see as the audience for this book?

The book is very crossover. I wrote it for my contemporaries who had that experience; I wrote it for parents; and I wrote it for teens primarily. But hopefully, [the book] is enjoyable for a lot of different ages and life experiences.

I think it’s a lot of responsibility to place on a young person to be aware of the whole world. And it’s awkward to [say] the world is small when you’re that age, but it is. You would have to grow up in a very feminist household or city to even know that. It’s not like we’re reading Simone de Beauvoir when we’re in high school. In my school, we barely read killer books. Morgan wants to know what else is out there and suspects that there’s more, but is [also] in this small community. There’s frustration around that. Once I went to college, I was embarrassed at how behind [I was] at fucking social justice or feminism. But it’s because I just didn’t know. I didn’t have language for it. It’s a lot of responsibility to place on a teen to understand the breadth of the world politically and socially, especially if you’re coming from the suburbs.

Books that acknowledge the role that identity play in our lives are often heavy. I still find it hard to read about depression, police brutality, racism, and other themes because it can feel so draining and triggering, but I didn’t get that feeling while reading Who Put This Song On? Morgan talks to white friends about their whiteness while her thoughts are mostly on the $9 velvet jacket she found at a thrift store. How did you balance the heaviness of the book?

I care deeply about blazers! I also care deeply about Black people and [deeply about them not] being murdered. All those things exist, [though they’re] not on the same level. I’ve always been really interested blending what people call the high and the low in my writing. I don’t like [the idea] that “this is an important topic” and “this is not.” That just isn’t it how life is. It’s unfair to make a book that’s only the dark because we know that’s not how life happens.

I wanted to make it realistic. I didn’t want [the book] to be like, “here’s this really dramatic thing.” I love those stories, but I find them hard to read often and I’m always left wondering about the day-to-day regularness of characters. We understand the broad strokes of American racism. If you say this book is about police brutality, we get that. But there’s this way that folks kind of divorce that from the regular day to day, especially [when you’re] growing up in a white town. That’s something that I’ve been really obsessed with in my writing. What are the small ways that me and my body as a Black woman play a role in the type of life I have, in everything from walking down the street to getting pulled over? There are a lot of small ways. I really wanted the book to be an inside look at that, pointing both at the large things but also at these small, little nicks and just the everydayness of Black American psychology.

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This book and some of your prior work seem to be both about you and not about you. How do you decide what you need to write and what others need to read? How do you know when it’s time to publish?

I lead with what I feel that I need to write. I feel that if I need to say this, someone else needs it said as well. That’s the trajectory. Then, I think about what’s already in the world. I don’t need to write a book that’s like another book that’s out there. I can fill in holes that only I can. That’s also how my own life experiences and identities can make something realistic and make something unique that no one else could write. I really do think about it in that way. I really try to stick to the things that I care most about. I feel really passionately about talking about depression, Black womanhood, everyday Blackness, and the day to day of American society. I just have to recommit myself to those things every time I go back to the page.

How do you choose who to trust with this work?

Novels are weird. It’s a very different process than writing poetry, and obviously, there are a lot of thoughts about who would respect what I had made and not try to make it into something else. My editors were really great about going along with my vision and being patient with me through a bunch of [editing] rounds. Sometimes, especially in the YA space, there’s an industry behind it. Often [the genre] wants to perpetuate things that are already out there, [but I didn’t want to do that], so I needed to work with somebody that was willing to go in a different place with me, and who understood why that was so important to me [as a writer]. My editor is a Black woman, and I also had a white woman that was an editor. The Black woman editor would come in and [say], “No, this makes sense. That’s a Black girl thing.” All of that was helpful and necessary to me.

Your book comes with action steps, which you also posted on Instagram, about pursuing therapy. Why was that so important to you?

I added that at the end. I feel weird about this book because I didn’t want to just put all my shit out there. I wanted to honor my past self, but it’s awkward to put in these journal entries. That feels really raw and uncomfortable for me because I’m a grown up and I would like to date. But at the end, I was like, fuck it. I’m already engaging with this with friends of mine, and there’s no reason that this should be a secret. What am I doing if I have this platform? This book is going to be printed, and I think it’s important to have that in print. And also I’m going to talk about these things at readings, and I’d get stuck in my signing line trying to help people find a therapist. There’s no reason that someone should have to approach me.

Not everyone is comfortable [saying] “I need help.” I know my life would’ve been so much different had I known [about] those resources from the beginning. This [book] is for those of us that are struggling, and I want to encourage everyone to know about that stuff because the onus shouldn’t always be on the person [who’s] depressed. Sometimes you can’t even say that. I am excited for people to have that information, and I’m hopeful that it’ll make a difference.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.