I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview the lovely Tabitha Suzuma, author of the brilliant and profound Forbidden and you guys are lucky to read her answers. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you so if you haven’t checked it out yet, do so! It’ll shake your world, I promise. Anyway, here’s the interview:
Consensual incest was a subject I had wanted to write about for a number of years. I kept rejecting the idea because I thought there was a good chance the subject matter would never get past the gatekeepers. I was only able to take the plunge once I had built up confidence in my writing ability through my previous four books. But even then I was terrified – not just that it would be deemed a subject unsuitable for teenagers but that I wouldn’t be able to make it convincing. I was also really afraid of being unable to make the reader care enough about the main characters so that they didn’t reject them and their actions out of hand.
I was inspired by the desire to write a tragic love story. It came down to incest by a process of elimination. I wanted the book to be set in contemporary London and I needed the two teens in question to be old enough for their love for each other to be taken seriously. But I quickly realised that (fortunately) in modern-day Britain there are very few – if any – obstacles that could keep a couple in love apart. Cultural and religious difference maybe, but if the couple were determined enough to go against their families’ wishes, they could always run away together. I needed something that would be condemned by everyone wherever they went – a relationship that could never be and moreover, was against the law.
2. Do you think that it takes a certain amount of courage to tell a story such as Forbidden?
I’m not sure if it’s ‘courage’ exactly. I think a great deal of passion in the story itself as well as a healthy dose of confidence in one’s own writing ability is needed. Also, you need to be willing to run the risk of having people reject your book out of hand and have a thick enough skin to be able to take those rejections. I think, above all, you have to be stubborn and single-minded and very determined to write a story that you know that many people are going to criticize before having even read the first page. But passion, above all. Passion for a story that you have to write even if you know there’s a risk that it’s never even going to make it onto the shelves.
3. You might have read the recent Wall Street Journal article that talked about “depravity” in recent YA novels. Why do you think it is important that issues and themes such as the ones in Forbidden be given a platform so that there can be discourse and dialogue about it?
I don’t think teens should be shielded from any topic because encountering taboo or controversial subjects is part of their development, of learning about the world. I think teens should be informed about the books they choose so stickers like ‘contains explicit material’ or ‘unsuitable for younger readers’ are certainly useful for certain books. But if a teenager is determined to read a book containing explicit sex scenes or excessive violence, they will do so, even if they have to resort to the adult section.
It’s part of natural human curiosity and part of growing up. I don’t like books that contain gratuitous shocking material though, just in order to create a stir and attract publicity and curious readers. At the end of the day, a truly great book is not one that leaves you shocked but one that leaves you moved.
4. What was the most difficult part about writing Forbidden?
Oh there were so many! Keeping my sanity, for a start! Slowly transforming the sibling relationship into a romantic one was particularly tough. I had to try to make the reader believe that this really could happen. Writing the sexual scenes was also a challenge – I had to make sure that I made them realistic and not just glossed over whilst still somehow keeping them romantic. But the hardest part by far was writing the end. By then, I was so caught up in the characters and the story that it began to feel like I was writing a book about something that had really happened. In order to portray the characters’ emotions convincingly, I had to experience them myself, which was really painful and frequently had me in tears.
5. I know that reading is subjective and interpretation of the book depends on the reader but what is the one thing you would like readers to take away from Forbidden?
I hope that the book lingers in the reader’s mind, makes them think and experience some strong emotions. I hope they take away with them the realisation that things are not always as black and white as they might first seem, that everyone is different and it is often too easy and narrow-minded to dismiss something as disgusting or wrong. I hope they will come to realise that in some cases, in some situations, something universally perceived as ‘wrong’ can actually be harmless. And that you don’t choose your emotions, you don’t choose who you fall in love with. I also hope the book makes people more open-minded and less judgemental in general and encourages readers to have empathy for others, particularly for those who are different, isolated or troubled and lead difficult lives.