Q&A with Jennifer Baker, author of Forgive Me Not

Jennifer Baker is the author of Forgive Me Not (Nancy Paulsen Books). Her story “Where Dads Go: A Soundtrack for My Unborn Child” was published in The Offing’s Enumerate department on February 21, 2017. Q&A conducted by Mimi Wong, Editor in Chief. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mimi Wong: One thing I really love about doing this Q&A series and why I was excited to chat with you is that it’s a great opportunity to circle back with contributors who have published with The Offing previously. I’m curious to know where you were at that time with your writing and what your journey was to eventually publishing your debut novel.

Jennifer Baker: I had started Forgive Me Not in 2014. But I’d been writing some other long-form things, like a linked story collection, and then I think I was getting more into essays at that point as well. I would go on to be with Electric Literature [as a contributing editor] for about three or so years under Jess Zimmerman. I just love short stories because they’re compact, and novels are a bigger beast, as you know.

I write in scenes, so I don’t write chronologically. Maybe with short stories I do, but not with a novel. It just comes kind of helter skelter, all over the place. So I was solidified in what I knew about Forgive Me Not, but I don’t know that I had the full breadth of the story and understanding of how much I was doing, what I wanted to do, how I could do it responsibly and respectfully at the time, because we’re ever evolving. There’s so much ignorance I had — and still do. What I don’t know can fit in the Grand Canyon.

I was burgeoning on a lot more self-awareness and awareness of privilege and awareness of the harshness of systems and how intricate it was. You have a theoretical awareness, and some people just come to that when they come to it, like people come to feminism, womanism very late in life. Maybe you’re raised with it. But I wasn’t raised with that kind of social consciousness, to an extent, not that real social political consciousness. So that’s what it really took for me to get deeper into a book like Forgive Me Not.

MW: This book tackles some very challenging, difficult questions. On the inspiration level, what was that spark? What was that initial idea you had where you’re like, “Okay, I think this is a story that I want to tell”?

JB: It was literally me on my couch watching this show called Forgive or Forget. It was a syndicated show. This woman Mother Law hosted it, and then Robin Givens went on to host it. (I’m kind of aging myself by saying that.) The premise of the show was you did something bad — like I made you bankrupt, I cheated on you, I lost your house, really Jerry Springer-level stuff — and they bring you on a television show to apologize in front of a live studio audience. You said the story in front of the audience. Then at the end, Mother Love would say, “Okay, so go open that door.” The person [you wronged] is either behind the door ready to talk it out and maybe accept your apology, or they would appear on a screen and say, “I didn’t want to come out there because x, y, and z. And I don’t forgive you.”

I was watching this show, and I said, “What if this is how criminal justice works and someone forgave you or didn’t for committing a crime?” It wasn’t us going on jury duty and being a jury and judge. It was literally, say, God forbid something like that happened to you, and you could face the person who did that thing, and you could say, “Yes, I forgive you,” and then go free, or “No, I don’t,” and then work with the Department of Corrections or whomever to figure out what “justice” would look like.

So that’s how the idea literally came, and then the characters were very immediate. The things that never changed were the beginning and the ending. Everything that came in the middle needed to be revised heavily. But the characters, the place — that was always solidified. Vincent and Violetta [Chen-Samuels] were always their identities, and they were always who they were, and they were always brother and sister, and it always began with Violetta making that decision. Then, it always ended where it ends.

I just had to figure out what the rehabilitation looked like, and explain that, and really solidify an arc, which was very hard for me with Violetta. I knew where it ended, as I said, but there was this chunk of story [in between].I didn’t know how to get her to that ending. Whereas for Vince, because it’s dual perspective, I knew how to get him from A to B, then B to C. But Violetta was just harder. I knew how to get her from A to B, but then I just was blanking on B to C. That’s what took so long. Along with becoming more conscious and aware and getting good feedback and thinking about how much you’re doing — too much, not enough, too explanatory, not explanatory, all that stuff — [I was asking,] How do I get them there? That’s a big writer question, right? How do you get to that place? You’re like, “Okay, I know what I want to write about.” But what do you do now?

MW: I’m so glad you brought up the dichotomy between Violetta and Vince’s story. I was so interested in this back and forth narrative, showing the inside — Violetta, who’s incarcerated — and who’s on the outside through her brother Vince, and the tension that was creating. You said you always imagined their story together, as this pair — was that your intention for it?

JB: Oh, for sure! It was always going to be dual perspective because I like writing in different voices. It’s a struggle for me to write in one voice or one perspective for a whole long book. It’s like, “Oh God, I have to stick with you this whole time.” I think I really needed to be outside of juvenile detention. I don’t think I could have written a whole book where we’re just with Violetta. There was more I wanted to tackle in terms of the conversation and how the family contributes to the issues, which is reflective of how we all do. There’s a lot we don’t know. There’s stuff we know we’re willing to ignore because it doesn’t affect us, or we think it doesn’t. And not until this family is affected do they realize, “Oh, the system is actually pretty jacked up.” They just rely so much on the system. I wanted the reader to see that, to understand why these decisions were being made, not just from Violetta’s perspective, and that her family is treating her badly. I wanted to just understand what’s going on, and that they’re wrestling with it, too.

MW: Thinking about the kind of diverse array of characters that you’re writing about, I’m curious. What does it mean to you to be able to write these characters authentically, and even writing characters that are also outside of what you are familiar with?

JB: If I look at, or anyone looks at the very initial drafts, you’ll see that I have Vince wrestling with his identity in a way that does not feel real to Vince when I read it now. I think — especially me being a cishet, able-bodied Black woman — I was bringing onto these things that I had just been so used to in books and movies and stuff like that. Usually queerness is at the forefront. At certain times, our identities are at the forefront, and they drive the story rather than us, [rather than] having our identities and things happening and our identity is contributing, but not driving it. That was never the purpose of Forgive Me Not, but it was happening initially. So I had to back up because the fact of the matter is I knew who these characters were, I knew who Vince was, I knew who Violetta was.

I definitely got readers, sensitivity readers, people of the identities that I depicted—those who have been incarcerated, worked in incarceration, who are Chinese American or queer. I spent quite a bit of money on that because it’s worth getting that insight. And obviously that doesn’t do it all. But I came at everybody from a place of humanity. I’m born and raised in Queens, so I’m used to being around people of color, people who mix with people, all the time since I was a little, little kid. So it’s not out of my realm of consciousness to write a book that takes place in Queens, New York, and write identities that I’ve always been around. I have a responsibility to understand I don’t know everything about the culture and  ask for that help in trying to make it authentic and realistic. And people caught stuff. People caught things that I was struggling with or didn’t know. That’s why you get that feedback, because I don’t know everything. I may be able to say I know Vince, but I don’t know everything about what encompasses who he is, if I am making them part Black and part Asian, if I’m making him queer.

A big thing, particularly for Vince, was that I wanted to surround him with other queer friends. So his friend group is very queer. When I started watching shows, especially like Sex in the City and stuff that we grew up with, it’s usually one queer person surrounded by straight people. It’s usually one Black person surrounded by white people. It’s gotten better. But still, it might be the people of color always dating white people. That’s not very typical of what I grew up with and saw. So I’ve just tried to be aware of my privilege. If this is a kid who’s 14 [years old] in 2020, they’re probably not going to be the only [queer person or person of color] in their group. That’s just not realistic. [Vince] has a lot going on. His queerness is not at the center of that in a way that it’s a problem, where it’s something he’s worried about. And I’m glad that for the most part that’s come through for readers. But that’s due to work and effort and learning and getting feedback and getting more feedback.

MW: That leads me into wanting to ask a bit more about the mixed race, mixed cultural identity of the family and of the two protagonists. As you mentioned, being set in Queens, it felt so natural that you should have all this mixing of cultures with Violetta and all her different friends because that is just a reflection of the place. Beyond that aspect of mirroring what you were familiar with and what you grew up with, why do you feel like their mixed race identity is important to the story?

JB: There’s a lot of discussion about the model minority, especially for Asian and East Asian cultures. Black people, we’re the highest rate incarcerated in America for young people and for adults. Other POCs are in there too, like Indigenous, Native, Latinx, Asian. But Black is at the top. I know that I was always pushed to value education and excel, and  I connected with a lot of friends in that way. It was looking at the way two cultures are talked about and looked at in this very, very broad way that is not nuanced or contextualized. Considering there’s not one way to be Asian or Pacific Islander, and there’s not one way to be Black, and also how the expectations can be different for those communities. 

I wanted to be mindful of the fact that this is who [Vince and Violetta] are. They are not only Black, and they are not only Asian. Their mom is very good about wanting them to recognize their culture and aspects of who they are. Violetta’s hair, she has to wrap it. Her aunt sent her scarves or bonnets. So I think that was part of it, of recognizing that in mixed cultures that I’ve always been around, that there’s always that understanding, that there’s still those expectations for all of us due to what we see, what we hear. Even in my family, there’s a lot of stereotypes that go on, and those conversations are not fun.

MW: At the same time, I feel like what the novel is touching on is that no matter your identity, if you’re not white, you exist in this white criminal justice system, and even if you are playing into the model minority, or you believe in respectability politics, and you’re buying into that, whatever privilege you might have can be snatched away very quickly within the system.

JB: The misogyny, too. One of the reasons I love my editor Stacey Barney as much as I do is because she prioritized Violetta whenever we would talk about the book because she’s the one who is incarcerated. There’s a reason I have her around other brown girls, and there’s a moment when two of them look at each other like, “Yeah, we notice how many of the people, the enforcers, are white, and the rest of us are brown.” But also how much the boys get leniency. You’re following Vincent on the outside, for the most part. There’s an inherent level of grace given to him and the boys in general that Violetta does not get. And that’s what I appreciated when I talked to my editor and she would be like, “This is Violetta’s story.”

The goal is for you to understand that these Black and Brown children, these BIPOC children, especially the femmes, they’re being put in a really, really bad situation. That’s our system.

The one thing I didn’t want to question was if Viola did something bad or not. Once she admits it and she’s remorseful, where do you go from there as a reader? And where does this story go from there? Because I feel like that’s what change and healing is. But when you look at our justice system, it’s really not that at all. And it’s not that for people of color. And it’s not that for women. And it’s not that for trans people. And it’s not that for non-binary people or disabled people. And the list goes on and on, unfortunately.

MW: What did you feel like could be said through this sort of speculative story versus if you were just to reflect what our current justice system is? How were you trying to use fiction and this speculative premise to tell the story?

JB: I really wanted to think about how we contribute to that. That was the biggest thing. And that’s why it is the way it is. There’s that twist of what if you get to decide. But it’s still the system deciding. But you’re part of the system in a way. And [Violetta’s] parents are part of it.

I live near the criminal courthouse in Queens, and I see people at all hours of the day. I just think a lot about how the system is and how, to an extent, we’re not pushing as hard for what people deserve because they’re not here, because they’re off the streets, because they’re away, because they’re “criminals.” We allow that vocabulary to take hold and to take center stage. We’re not thinking as much about what’s happening on the inside, how labor is done, how we’re benefiting from that labor. How companies are profiting from what I’m depicting here is not that out of bounds. Having juveniles in detention or having adults in detention, they are literally making things. Back in the height of Covid, the governor [of New York] and the mayor were totally cool with people who were incarcerated making hand sanitizer for us because there was a shortage. We were benefiting from their labor due to their incarceration.

I think about that a lot. I want you to think about that in reading this book. But you need to empathize with the people in order to do that, instead of me doing a report or a study. If I had Violetta’s “guilt” be questionable, that’s a different story. Then we’re like, “Well, the system is messed up, because innocent ‘til proven guilty.” We’re not questioning what Violetta did, we know for fact this happened. It’s awful. She regrets it, everyone regrets it, and there were really bad consequences of that. Does she deserve to be in here when she is sorry? Because that happens, too, right? And sometimes it’s awful, and folks do awful, awful things and have no remorse for it whatsoever. Then there are people who do want to change. 

And what is the system? Every person is different, and it’s tied to bigger reasoning. So I think it’s a lot of complicated questions.

MW: Because you use this idea — what if we had this rehabilitation system that’s different from our current system — it’s made to seem as if we are really concerned about forgiveness, and we are looking for an alternative to just punishing people. And yet the world depicted in this novel is still very messed up. So it really forces the reader to think about or reflect on why we put so much trust or faith in the system to begin with. That is the trap that Violetta’s parents fall into. At times, I got so frustrated with them. But I think you show that they really don’t know what to do. They’re supposed to be adults, and they’re putting their faith in the hands of the system, and they’ve been misled in many ways.

JB: We’ve all been at that place of deep vulnerability where we will take anything that is given to us because we need something. We need some guidance. We need some clarity. We need someone to be in that room to be like, “I know exactly what we need to do.” We can be so vulnerable that the appearance of authority is enough, even if it’s kind of sketchy. [Violetta’s parents] are feeling very vulnerable, and the system feels like one they should be able to trust to help them heal and move forward.

MW: What was your approach to research? How did that factor into writing the story?

JB: I looked a lot into Rikers [Island]. Then, when the manuscript was done, I went to readers who work with young people in spaces like Rikers. And that’s a tense place. Lockdown can happen at any moment, where you could be in there for hours. What people are given is not a lot. There’s a lot you don’t have access to.

The case of LeVaughn Harrison is based on a real case that actually happened in Florida to a young Black boy. He was convicted at a very young age of killing somebody because he wrestled his cousin, and they unfortunately died. A lot of this stuff is real.

Every state has a department of corrections. And then there’s the federal level. So it was a lot of research of the technical stuff that is already in place, and how that works for this world, and how I can modify it a little bit. But that’s what’s scary. I didn’t modify a lot of what’s happening. The name “adjudicator” is a real word. I did not make that up. 

There was a lot of technical research of New York, but also globally. Also, looking at some places that I talk about in the educator’s guide, like Propublica, has a lot of great stuff. There are just a lot of good spaces that you can get a very concentrated search on the research and stories about incarceration and the issues with the criminal justice system.

Then, branching that out to when I actually was able to talk to readers. They read the book and getting both that hands on of people saying, “Yeah, that’s how that is,” or “No, that wouldn’t be allowed.” Like you can’t have a knife and fork. You can’t have shoes that you tie. Certain things just aren’t allowed. You can’t have those kind of things, which isn’t depicted in shows on TV. Everything is monitored all the time, all the time.

MW: How did you get in touch with being able to write a younger character? Do you have to remember how you felt as a teenager to be able to tap into that mindset?

JB: What’s funny is that I feel like teens aren’t that far removed from us as adults. Also, I feel as though some of us have to grow up way earlier than others, so I see it as an individual thing rather than [generational]. I can tap into those same insecurities and those same feelings of helplessness as someone who is in their forties. You can meet people who are older than you who are so scared of being judged, of appearing stupid, of not being loved, being alone, of not being good enough, of all this stuff. And you’re like, “Wow, this never goes away, does it?” So I feel if we write from that place, then that’s how I was able to tap more into who [the characters are], what they would be worried about. For Violetta, the biggest thing is she doesn’t know who she is.

MW: Also as a teenager, you’re still figuring out what your agency is. You’re still learning about how the world works and how much power you have within that. That’s why it’s such a tricky but also very compelling age to write about, because I think we’ve lived through that.

JB: And we continue to live through it. You go to work, and someone’s telling you what to do. Just like you go to school, and someone’s telling you what to do. So I can relate to that. I can absolutely relate. And I want to respect the teenager, to not talk down. When I come at characters, I come at them with a place of humanity first, and understanding and empathy to not judge, which I think is very key. For me, the biggest thing was, “Do you understand what this is like? This feels awful.” And if you can understand that it feels awful, then that’s where we can start.

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Cartographies of Heartache

I have been visiting prisons as long as I can remember and have lost count of the number of times my picture may have been taped to the wall of a cell.