Pho­to by Chris­tine Cham­bers, cour­tesy of the author

In Col­or Me In, a debut young adult nov­el by Natasha Díaz, fif­teen-year-old Nevaeh strug­gles to claim her own iden­ti­ty when her Black, Bap­tist moth­er and white, Jew­ish father divorce. Each side of the fam­i­ly exerts claims on her, but Nevaeh slow­ly learns to make mature deci­sions and chart the course of her life inde­pen­dent­ly. In the fol­low­ing con­ver­sa­tion, Díaz dis­cuss­es the con­nec­tions between her­self and her pro­tag­o­nist, the impor­tance of por­tray­ing dif­fer­ent approach­es to Judaism, and what she hopes young read­ers will learn from her nov­el as they, too, face a world in which under­stand­ing one­self is not always simple.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen: Could you tell me how your per­son­al expe­ri­ence is reflect­ed in Nevaeh’s story?

Natasha Díaz: Nevaeh and I share com­mon back­grounds; we are both white-pre­sent­ing, Black, mul­tira­cial, Jew­ish women. We are both only chil­dren of divorced par­ents; we both had bat mitz­vahs; we both turn to writ­ing to fig­ure out our emo­tions. And we’re both from New York (though I am a born-and-raised city kid, and Nevaeh has spent most of her life in the suburbs).

But we’re dis­sim­i­lar as well. Where­as she has hard­ly been taught any­thing about her cul­tur­al her­itage, I was immersed in my cul­tures, liv­ing in Harlem and attend­ing both church and tem­ple every week­end. I wasn’t raised with mon­ey the way she has been. Nevaeh goes to pri­vate school, where she’s bul­lied for being bira­cial, and I went to pub­lic schools that were diverse and progressive.

What we share most is our expe­ri­ences, both spe­cif­ic ones — like being present while Black fam­i­ly mem­bers are harassed by the cops — and gen­er­al ones, like the mul­ti­tude of priv­i­leges that shape our lives and affect the way we are per­ceived and move through the world. We both endure microag­gres­sions dai­ly, some­times even from fam­i­ly mem­bers. We’re bom­bard­ed with intru­sive ques­tions about our back­grounds and are expect­ed to pick a side.”

MHM: Your female char­ac­ters in par­tic­u­lar are pre­sent­ed as strong, resource­ful, and cre­ative. Rab­bi Sarah has an inter­est­ing back­ground and is a pro­found influ­ence on Nevaeh as she emerges into adult­hood. Is she based on some­one you know, a com­pos­ite, or sim­ply a prod­uct of your imagination?

ND: Rab­bi Sarah was one of my favorite char­ac­ters to write. She is wise, but also still very much a mys­tery. When I had my bat mitz­vah, I worked with a rab­bi who was a woman, but her per­son­al­i­ty was pret­ty dif­fer­ent from Rab­bi Sarah’s. As I began to draft the book, I was also for­tu­nate enough to be put in touch with a rab­bi-in-train­ing who, like Rab­bi Sarah, had con­vert­ed to Judaism. She helped me to under­stand the ways in which con­verts are some­times made to feel like they don’t have a right to their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. I want­ed the rab­bi char­ac­ter and Nevaeh to have a shared under­stand­ing of being oth­ered by their com­mu­ni­ties, but Rab­bi Sarah also shows Nevaeh how she moved past that inse­cu­ri­ty. Rab­bi Sarah found Judaism and a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and for the first time in her life, she felt seen and cared for. She learned what love is through Judaism. Her abil­i­ty to stake a claim on her Jew­ish­ness is an inspi­ra­tion for Nevaeh to do the same.

Sarah is the char­ac­ter from the book I wish I’d known in real life — some­one from with­in the faith who saw me and gave me space to fig­ure out how I want­ed to engage. So she is most­ly the prod­uct of my imag­i­na­tion, with some facets of real people.

She helped me to under­stand the ways in which con­verts are some­times made to feel like they don’t have a right to their Jew­ish identity.

MHM: Nevae­h’s father and grand­moth­er feel very dif­fer­ent­ly about being Jew­ish from Rab­bi Sarah (and each oth­er). Could you talk about their per­spec­tives on Judaism? At one point, Navae­h’s father reveals that he was called a dirty Jew” by his class­mates when he was her age, which I thought was espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing in light of Navae­h’s expe­ri­ences at school.

ND: It was impor­tant to me to show that there are a mul­ti­tude of Jew­ish expe­ri­ences (and, for the record, my char­ac­ters rep­re­sent only a tiny frac­tion of them). Jews are mem­bers of a mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ty and yet, Jew­ish peo­ple who are white and white-pre­sent­ing are also priv­i­leged. In my book, I want­ed to touch on the ways that white suprema­cy and anti-Black­ness can some­times exist with­in white Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties. For Nevaeh and myself, that sort of prej­u­dice and oth­er­ing can make Black Jews and oth­er Jews of col­or feel unwel­come. Nevaeh is being told she needs to be more Jew­ish by fam­i­ly mem­bers who feel she must erase her Black­ness to do so. Is that the case all the time? Of course not — Rab­bi Sarah is proof of that and to be hon­est, so is Bubby.

Bub­by is a proud, strong-willed Jew­ish woman and I love that about her. But she is also some­one who was raised in a bub­ble and is large­ly unaware of the wide­spread diver­si­ty that exists with­in the Jew­ish peo­ple. When Bub­by ignores Nevaeh’s Black iden­ti­ty, or com­ments that she is dis­pleased with the fact that her father was in a rela­tion­ship with a non-Jew­ish woman, she belit­tles Nevaeh’s exis­tence. The truth is, I don’t think Bub­by means harm; I don’t even think she real­izes the way she has made Nevaeh feel at first. When she does begin to under­stand it, we see an olive branch extend­ed; we see her open­ing up to change.

Nevaeh’s father, Samuel, was a vic­tim of anti­semitism as a child, and that scarred him. It’s what led to his deci­sion not to raise Nevaeh as a prac­tic­ing Jew, which he lat­er regrets. I want­ed the prej­u­dice Nevaeh expe­ri­ences in school mir­ror her father’s expe­ri­ence as a young per­son. I want­ed to show the way in which prej­u­dice can have long-last­ing effects, and the pow­er that comes from con­fronting that pain as opposed to bot­tling it up. It doesn’t erase the dam­age or solve the issue of prej­u­dice, but it does give one the oppor­tu­ni­ty to begin to heal.

Nevaeh, while not nec­es­sar­i­ly drawn to the reli­gion itself, pulls from tra­di­tions and prayers and sto­ries from Jew­ish his­to­ry as she fig­ures out how to take con­trol of her future and her iden­ti­ty. This is anoth­er way she’s very much like me. I found it mean­ing­ful to show a sec­u­lar Jew­ish char­ac­ter declar­ing proud­ly that she is a mem­ber of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, because we are.

I found it mean­ing­ful to show a sec­u­lar Jew­ish char­ac­ter declar­ing proud­ly that she is a mem­ber of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, because we are.

MHM: Grow­ing up in a mul­tira­cial fam­i­ly and with more than one reli­gious affil­i­a­tion seems to have giv­en you and your char­ac­ters inter­est­ing voic­es. How do you feel about the Own Voic­es movement?

ND: In gen­er­al, I think the Own Voic­es move­ment is impor­tant and nec­es­sary. It allows peo­ple from mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties to share sto­ries and expe­ri­ences that have pre­vi­ous­ly been co-opt­ed by oth­ers and mis­rep­re­sent­ed in books for decades. I hope that the indus­try is tru­ly shift­ing in a more inclu­sive direc­tion that pri­or­i­tizes authen­ti­cal­ly writ­ten, diverse books. But until that hap­pens, it is essen­tial to high­light these sto­ries and authors.

MHM: In her review of Col­or Me In for PB Dai­ly, Brandy Col­bert notes how rich­ly drawn” your por­trait of Harlem is, and I was also struck by how beau­ti­ful­ly you evoke New York as a whole. Do you see your book as belong­ing to a cer­tain New York lit­er­ary tra­di­tion? Which authors inspired you as you wrote Col­or Me In?

ND: Thank you! Aside from my iden­ti­ty as a mul­tira­cial Jew­ish woman, being a New York­er is the most defin­ing part of who I am. This city is in my blood and my heart, and I could not tell a sto­ry about com­ing of age with­out show­ing the impact that this city has on those of us who are for­tu­nate enough to be raised here. I don’t know if I see myself belong­ing to a spe­cif­ic New York lit­er­ary tra­di­tion as much as I hope my nov­el just offers a peek into a native city expe­ri­ence and per­spec­tive. What I hope comes across on the page is how this city thrives on mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. I feel so for­tu­nate to have grown up in a place that reflect­ed my fam­i­ly back to me when I walked down the street.

Read­ing James McBride’s mem­oir, The Col­or of Water, was the first time I ever felt like I saw a hint of myself rep­re­sent­ed on the page. He is a mas­ter­ful sto­ry­teller and I feel incred­i­bly inspired by his word­smithing and his genius.

What I hope comes across on the page is how this city thrives on mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. I feel so for­tu­nate to have grown up in a place that reflect­ed my fam­i­ly back to me when I walked down the street.

MHM: Your nov­el is pos­i­tive­ly teem­ing with art. Poet­ry plays an essen­tial role, and music, dance, and jour­nal writ­ing are fea­tured as well. Can you elab­o­rate on the role of cre­ativ­i­ty in your life and in your story?

ND: Absolute­ly. Both of my par­ents are writ­ers — my dad is a poet and my moth­er is a play­wright as well as an actor. My step­fa­ther was an actor and a direc­tor. One of my aunts is a painter, anoth­er is an amaz­ing sto­ry­teller, and my uncle is a rap­per and DJ. One of my cousins works in fash­ion, and the oth­er is an incred­i­ble artist. I’ve been sur­round­ed by art and artis­tic peo­ple my whole life.

I want­ed Nevaeh to express her­self through art — poet­ry in her case. She is strug­gling to find her place between her two cul­tures, and she doesn’t have the tools yet to do that in the real world. So she fig­ures it out through poet­ry first. Art is often referred to as the great equal­iz­er,” but I think that idea is reduc­tive and puts an unfair bur­den on mar­gin­al­ized artists to turn their art into labor. The road to equal­i­ty is paved first with an individual’s inter­nal work to dis­man­tle what has already been ingrained. Art gives us the chance for our truths to be heard on our terms, in our way, for our com­mu­ni­ty. I wrote Col­or Me In because I had nev­er seen myself in a book grow­ing up. I could have used that, and I hope my nov­el offers com­fort or inspi­ra­tion to peo­ple who need it.

MHM: That’s won­der­ful. What else do you hope young read­ers will learn from Col­or Me In?

ND: So many things. I hope it will encour­age uncom­fort­able con­ver­sa­tions from which every­one walks away stronger — and per­haps deter­mined to do bet­ter. I hope it rein­forces the pow­er of love, and the impor­tance of self-love. I hope it puts a micro­phone into the hand of some­one who feels silenced and clamps a hand over the mouths of those who take up too much air­time. I hope it encour­ages peo­ple not to give up on mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships, but also lets them know that some­times it’s nec­es­sary to walk away. And I hope it shows that it’s impor­tant to hold on to the lit­tle moments, the recipes, the jokes told around the din­ner table.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.