2017 was a difficult year for so many people. For me personally? It was beautiful and exhausting and stressful and wonderful all mixed together. On some days, I watched my dreams come true. On other days, it felt like my nightmares were taking over. Everything felt amplified and loud, for better or worse.
But 2017 also held the greatest career moments of my life so far. I have so much to be thankful for, and so many people to thank. Starfish is a real hold-in-your-hands book, and I am forever grateful to all the people behind the scenes who helped make my childhood dream a reality. Throughout 2017, I’ve watched this story morph and shape into the book it is today, and I’ve been so unbelievably lucky to have the support of the incredible team at Simon Pulse, my superhero agent, and the wonderful readers who’ve been cheering Kiko along from the start. Between the cover reveal, the arrival of ARCs, the two starred reviews, the Junior Library Guild Selection, and the announcement that Starfish is a 2018 YALSA’s Morris Award Finalist, it has been a year of high points in my writing career. Seeing the love and enthusiasm for this story has made it a high point in my personal life, too.
In September, I traveled back to the United States for the first time in years to attend the Boston Teen Author Festival. I was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. I was on a panel with three incredible authors, and public speaking is definitely not my forte. And there were so many powerhouse authors wandering around (Leigh Bardugo! Jason Reynolds! Victoria Aveyard!) that I kept feeling like the thing that didn’t belong. For most of the day, I felt like an imposter.
And then the signing began, and there were actual readers standing in line with copies of my book that hadn’t even been released yet. Surreal is an understatement. And okay, I still felt like a total fraud (I was sitting next to Ashley Herring Blake and Traci Chee—I mean come on, what was I even doing there), but the entire experience was just pure bliss. I felt like a real author for the first time in my life, and I can’t thank everyone enough for being so kind and generous with their time. And to every single person who stopped by to say “hi” or ask me to sign something for them—you made the day unforgettable, and I’m so grateful!
After Boston, my family and I drove down to New York City because the following Tuesday was September 26th. Aka Starfish’s book birthday. Aka the day I became a published author. Aka asdfghjkl!!!
We found a Barnes & Noble right after breakfast, and I saw Starfish on sale for the very first time. A few hours later, I was on my way to the Simon & Schuster building to meet my agent, Penny Moore, and editor, Jennifer Ung.
Imagine someone casually leading you into the Bat Cave and you’re supposed to be calm and collected and professional but inside you are literally dying of extreme joy. That’s what it was like.
Jen and Penny are both amazing, and getting to share the excitement of our little book venturing out into the world was the most perfect way to spend a book birthday. I got to see the Simon Pulse office and meet a bunch of the loveliest people in publishing, and afterwards we walked to Kinokuniya to sign copies of Starfish (and yes, we totally played Pokémon Go along the way. New York has all the Pokémon, just FYI). And then we had snacks and boba tea and talked for ages and it was honestly the best. I will treasure that afternoon until the end of time!
The weeks that followed felt like a roller coaster of emotions. On the surface, I was trying to appear strong and unfazed. Behind the scenes, I felt like I was crumbling to pieces. As a debut author, most of 2017 was a learning experience. Some of it I felt prepared for, and some of it felt like I was falling into an ocean of complete and utter darkness. New authors are often told not to read reviews, and for good reason. At the end of the day, it’s noise that will only get in the way of your writing. And I was prepared for that part. I was prepared to ignore everything, and to not look at Goodreads, and to remember that everyone has a different opinion and what one person loves, another person will inevitably hate.
I was not prepared for the unpleasant reality that some people think it’s okay to make assumptions about an author’s race, mental health, and sexuality. We’re often told “DO NOT ENGAGE” when it comes to trolls. But ignoring a troll is so much different than watching someone spread untrue things about you as a way to put you in a category or erase your own experiences. It feels personal, because it is. And I hadn’t been prepped for what that would feel like.
In the early months, I began to share minor things about how Starfish was #ownvoices. First I shared about the biracial rep. And then I shared about the anxiety rep. And then it felt like I was having to share more and more and more until suddenly it felt like such a violation. There are parts of me I’m not and probably never will be comfortable sharing. Some of it is too personal. All of it is, quite frankly, nobody else’s business. And that’s a difficult lesson I learned in 2017, particularly as an #ownvoices writer—where to draw the line.
You don’t have to give a single piece of your heart to anyone else if you don’t want to. How you ID—what your health looks like—that’s for you to share or not share. You don’t owe that information to anybody.
Writing from your own experiences will always feel like leaving pieces of your heart on the page. I think there’s a raw honesty that comes with that, and maybe in some ways those are the stories that need to be told the most. Representation is important. Having a mirror for your own experiences—especially the painful, confusing ones—is important. But I think a downside to writing #ownvoices stories is that it’s difficult to separate writer from author.
When I’m writing, I feel vulnerable. Exposed. The emotions I put into my work come from a place that’s sometimes too difficult to talk about in real life. And for other writers, especially those from marginalized backgrounds who go through so much just to survive, it might be similar.
But that vulnerability? That exposure? It works for writer me. It does not work for author me.
Because writer me exists in a quiet room, on my own, with a keyboard or a pencil in front of me. The only noise is the noise in my head.
Author me exists in a field. It’s public, and open, and it feels like everything is on display. And in most of 2017, I’ve felt like a scarecrow tied to a post, watching helplessly as bits of me are plucked away by the birds in the field. And piece by piece, I felt like I was losing myself. That I was losing my heart.
And then, after months of being in a downward mental health spiral, I realized I needed to make a very big change. Because while writer me can be a vulnerable scarecrow with every part of them on display, author me needs protection. Separation. Boundaries.
I need to take my heart out and put it somewhere for safe keeping. I need to put my armor on.
I need to be a Tin Man, not a scarecrow.
And so for 2018, that’s my plan. I will continue to write #ownvoices stories, but I will no longer use the label publicly. What began as a way to lift up marginalized voices now feels like a competition of whose pain is worse. I’m uncomfortable with the way it’s used to erase others’ experiences, and I am very uncomfortable with the way assumptions are made about mental illness and sexuality based off of what a writer chooses to share publicly.
Your mileage may vary, of course, and maybe the label still feels right for you. And that’s okay. But for me? I’m no longer comfortable sharing pieces of my heart outside of what I put in the stories I write.
If I could give any advice to debut authors in 2018, it would be this: You don’t owe anyone personal information about yourself. Trust that your book will find the readers it was intended for. Be proud of your accomplishments. Enjoy every single beautiful moment of this next year. You deserve this. Trolls are always louder when you have good news—mute generously. Separate writer you from author you. And get to work on your next book.
Thank you, 2017. You’ve been an incredible year. Here’s to 2018!