Today’s author, Michele Berger, is an EXTRA special guest: the second author in The Novella Initiative, which launched with my own Keeper of the Dawn. Her novella, Reenu-You, came out May second and is available for purchase in most places where books are sold (all buy links below the interview). She’s been kind enough to share some of the inspiration and process behind this amazing book. I hope you’ll enjoy our interview as much as I did!
New York City, August 1998. On a muggy summer day, five women wake up to discover purple scab-like lesions on their faces—a rash that pulses, oozes, and spreads in spiral patterns. City clinic doctors dismiss the women’s fears as common dermatitis, a regular skin rash. But as more women show up with the symptoms, one clear correlation emerges–an all-natural, first-of-its-kind hair relaxer called Reenu-You.
As the outbreak spreads, and cases of new rashes pop up in black and Latino communities throughout New York, panic and anger also grow. When the malady begins to kill, medical providers and the corporation behind the so-called hair tonic face charges of conspiracy and coercion from outraged minority communities and leaders across the country.
At the heart of the epidemic are these five original women; each from different walks of life. As the world crumbles around them, they will discover more about each other, about themselves, and draw strength to face the future together.
Can you tell us a bit about Reenu-You?
The novella follows five women as they grapple with a mysterious virus. The two main characters are Kat and Constancia. Kat, an out of work ski instructor, just wants to pack up her dead mother’s things, leave New York City and return to Aspen. Constancia, a talented but troubled young woman, just wants to start her first semester of college.
After they use the Reenu-You hair product and strange things begin to happen, they find themselves interacting with several other women: Pearlie, Sandra and Doris. In many ways, Kat and Constancia are isolated and lonely, though they are not conscious of their feelings at the beginning of the story. They are both loners. Over time, Kat and Constancia come out of their cocoons and learn lessons about friendship while dealing with the scary reality of a runaway virus.
Reenu-You grew from several sources of inspiration. One was watching the drama unfold of a real hair product called ‘Rio’, marketed to Black women in the 1990’s. Rio was billed as a natural relaxer, but soon women around the country complained of itchy and burned scalps. It ended in a lawsuit. The second source of inspiration came from my interest in viruses and their ability to mutate and transform. And, the third is my obsession trying to understand the political and social meanings of hair, especially for women of color.
What part of the story came to you first?
I always begin with a character. So even though inspiration for Reenu-You was drawn in part from a real corporate scandal, Kat and Constancia appeared clearly as characters first. They fascinated me and I wanted to know more about them.
What was your biggest challenge in getting Reenu-You published?
Letting editors and publishers know my work existed!
I credit a conversation I had with writer Mur Lafftery, for encouraging me to submit my work more frequently. Although I revised Reenu-You off and on for many years, I didn’t have it in my submission cycle. I’m so grateful that it landed at Book Smugglers and they accepted it!
Also, most pieces I write tend to be novellas or close to it. Until recently, it has been difficult to place novellas in professional speculative fiction markets. Thankfully, there is now a renaissance with a gamut of authors writing and selling novellas.
If you had to start over from scratch, what’s one thing you’d do differently writing Reenu-You?
I began this novella when I was a graduate student in the 1990’s. Over time, a whole novel developed around Kat and Constancia. The novel was very ambitious with multiple viewpoints, different timelines, and various subplots. It was a typical sprawling first novel. Three years ago, I did a major revision and decided to extract the novella from the novel. The women in Reenu-You were always at the heart of the story.
I think about the reader’s pleasure so much more now than when I began Reenu-You. When you are focused on the reader, it makes you more disciplined about the choices you make regarding plot, pacing and character. I’m always focused on how to maximize the emotion I wish to invoke in the reader. I would start there first.
How would you like to see representation change in the next 5 years?
There have been several reports about the ways in which writers of color and women writers (and other intersectionally situated and marginalized communities) face barriers that others don’t.
We have to share this message (and the empirical evidence) over and over and amplify the work of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts and FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction to the publishing establishment. It can’t be business as usual anymore.
It’s our collective obligation to make editors and publishers aware of the talent that the literary world misses out on due to the lack of diverse voices. And we have to find ways to hold them accountable to structural change.
It’s going to take a lot of work, but doing so will make an important difference in our lives as well as nurturing the imaginations of the children and young adults coming behind us.
Who are your favourite #ownvoices authors right now?
I’m looking forward to reading Ruth Behar’s Lucky Broken Girl and Pintip Dunn’s Girl on the Verge. I’m passionate about the work of Cynthia Leith Smith (author of Feral Nights) and all the work she does to promote diversity, especially indigenous voices. I’m working through everything that Joy Castro has written, including her new short story collection How Winter Began, a retelling of the Demeter and Persephone myth updated for modern times and featuring mostly Latina protagonists. In 2015, I had the good fortune of meeting both of these amazing writers at A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) women’s writing residency.
What are you working on next?
I’m shopping my short story collection to publishers and also working on a mystery novel involving eco-fashion. And, of course, more stories set in the Reenu-You universe!
Michele Tracy Berger is a professor, a creative writer, and a pug-lover. Her main love is science fiction. Her work appears in some notable publications including The Feminist Wire, Ms., and 100wordstory. You can find out more about her at her award-winning blog The Practice of Creativity.