Jasmin Kaur: On Weaving Multiple Mediums

Author, illustrator, and poet Jasmin Kaur explains how her newest project, a mixed-medium novel, went from idea to publication.
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Jasmin Kaur (www.jasminkaur.com) is a writer, illustrator, and poet living on unceded Sto:lo First Nations territory. Her writing, which explores themes of feminism, womanhood, social justice, and love, acts as a means of healing and reclaiming identity. Named a "rising star" by Vogue Magazine and a "Writer to Watch" by CBC Books, she has toured across North America, the UK, and Australia to connect with youth through the power of artistic expression. Her debut poetry and prose collection, When You Ask Me Where I'm Going (2019), was shortlisted for the Goodreads Choice Awards. Her sophomore novel, If I Tell You The Truth (2021), is releasing on January 19, 2021. Currently an MFA student in the University of British Columbia's Creative Writing program, Jasmin can usually be found daydreaming about the next story she's itching to tell.

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In this post, Kaur explains how her newest project, a mixed-medium novel, went from idea to publication and more!

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Name: Jasmin Kaur
Literary agent: Katherine Latshaw
Title: If I Tell You the Truth
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: January 19, 2021
Genre: Contemporary Teen Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: A story in verse and prose about a Punjabi mother and daughter searching for justice, truth, and themselves.
Previous titles: When You Ask Me Where I’m Going (HarperTeen 2019)

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What prompted you to write this book?

Women, especially women of color, so often experience silencing when they attempt to speak their truths. In writing If I Tell You the Truth, I wanted to explore a complicated story about Punjabi women that spoke to my own experiences of being silenced when my truths were inconvenient. As a teen and young adult, I painfully learned that far too many of my loved ones have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. I also saw, firsthand, how speaking out about these acts of violence seldom resulted in justice or even community acceptance of what had happened. This book came from a deep-rooted desire to imagine a world where the barriers to truth-telling could be radically challenged. In fiction, in story, I had an open landscape where my imagination could travel to all the places that so many of us are unable to in real life. It’s a space we collectively need and deserve.

(How to Write & Sell a Cross-Genre Novel)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

I began writing the initial chapters of If I Tell You the Truth in 2015, during my creative writing undergrad. Back then, I spent a lot of time formulating Kiran and Sahaara’s characters and backstories. I ruminated on their personalities and motivations before I envisioned the overall trajectory of the novel.

The manuscript for my debut poetry collection, When You Ask Me Where I’m Going, included a short story featuring characters from If I Tell You the Truth. In discussing my plans after completing book one, I told my future editor at HarperTeen about how I would love to flesh out this short story as a full-length novel. She was on board and I ended up with a two-book deal at HarperTeen, which included If I Tell You the Truth. When I first began writing this novel in 2015, I envisioned it primarily driven by prose. When I returned to it, I knew that I wanted to incorporate poetry and visual art, as well. I have been so intrigued by the momentum around poetry and novels-in-verse that we’ve witnessed over the past few years. YA poetry collections and novels-in-verse have subverted the notion that young people are not engaged with these mediums. They have also challenged ideas about what a novel is allowed to be. In melding poetry and prose, I felt that I could capture the best of both mediums. I would be able to “stretch the legs” of my imagery in prose while cutting straight to the emotional heart of a moment through poetry.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

The biggest surprise was that it sold at the same time as When You Ask Me Where I’m Going. At the time, I primarily had my sights set on selling my first book and had no idea what would come next. To find out that I would also have the opportunity to bring this book to life with HarperTeen was beyond my wildest dreams. I was surprised and very excited that HarperTeen was interested in this book as a mixed-media novel, told in poetry, prose, and visual art. It offered me the creative space to explore this narrative in an original way.

(How to Write a Mashup Novel)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? 

I don’t think there were many surprises but there were significant learning moments. If I Tell You the Truth is the first novel that I’ve written in both poetry and prose. In general, the poems are evenly interspersed between prose chapters, but there are some sections that are driven more by one medium than the other. There was some trial and error when it came to smoothly weaving the two mediums together. My intention was to create a seamless reading experience so that readers wouldn’t be jarred when they moved from shorter poems to more extensive chunks of prose. I think that this was effectively achieved by keeping chapters spare and almost always leaving space for a poem between chapters. There’s a rhythm to this interwoven style that follows the natural emotional shifts in the plot and I’m excited for readers to experience it.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

One of my loved ones was reading If I Tell You The Truth the other day and opened the book to a random page, landing on a poem. In reading this poem, which is part of the larger narrative, they found personal connections that never even occurred to me. I think this speaks to the nature of this story: it often feels like a mirror that offers readers space for their own self-reflection. If readers need a place of rest and comfort, I hope they find that here. If they need to shed some tears, I hope they find that here. And if they need a reminder of their own strength and power, it would be my deepest hope that they find that here.

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If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

I think that writers of color are taught to doubt themselves hard in ways that white writers, especially white, cis-male writers, are not. I refuse to diminish the value of my work because of this socialization. So, I would tell other authors to trust in the worthiness of their voices. Every time I doubt myself as a writer, I ask myself whether the world would truly be a better place without my words. The answer is no. This is what keeps me going on those rough days when Imposter Syndrome digs its claws into my throat. This tiny reflection loosens its grips and allows me to move forward—to continue learning, growing, and writing.

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