Growth Comes From Discomfort

Photos courtesy Sourcebooks
Photos courtesy Sourcebooks

Gilly Segal (left) and Kimberly Jones (right) are coauthors of I'm Not Dying With You Tonight

For the past year, we've traveled together almost every month, talking about our coauthored young adult novel, which tells the story of two teens, one Black and one white, who survive the night together when a riot breaks out in their city. In fact, we've spent five years in each other's company, working on this book and talking about civil unrest. And by working together, we mean sitting side by side, in each other's kitchens and in coffee shops around Atlanta, putting words on the page that now look like this week's daily news feed.

March kicked off the longest stretch of time in years that we've been apart. The COVID crisis has kept us from each other for months, interrupting not only our workflow, but our friendship. That left us feeling disconnected and isolated. The first time we managed to meet up since then was this weekend at a protest. And that made us want to reflect on what's been successful about our partnership all these years.

Although being together is a comfort, it's not a platitude to smooth the rough edges of tough conversations.

Our friendship has always been our North Star. In writing. In parenting. In life. We've held each other's hands through writing ups and down, through romantic breakups, through the emotional slings and arrows our children suffer, through publishing woes. And yes, through conversations about race relations in America.

Prior to this week, the question we were most commonly asked is "How did you collaborate on this project?"

Honestly, that is both the easiest and the hardest thing to answer. We collaborated by sitting side by side and having real, painful, honest conversations. We carved out space in our friendship to talk about race and privilege. Before we ever got to the substance of it, we talked about talking about race. During our discussion, a code word soon emerged and became shorthand for this: I have a difficult question or comment to make; I am coming from a place of love but ignorance; I need help understanding. The code word turned the rest of those conversations into brave spaces that we worked through together. We were painfully honest with ourselves and each other, and then we figured out how to transfer those conversations on the page.

Since we're all about the painful honesty, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. We had days when we needed a break from each other, times when we texted don't call me until next week, I need space. But through all of our most uncomfortable moments, togetherness pulled us through.

But please don't misunderstand. Togetherness is not a marketing slogan. Although being together is a comfort, it's not a platitude to smooth the rough edges of tough conversations. It's a form of action that we take seriously and fight to preserve, to evolve and to model in the schools we visit. Some days we do well; other days we don't get it right at all. We're still working on it.

These days, the question we most commonly get asked is "What's it like to see your book come to life?"

Photos courtesy Sourcebooks

This week, it feels a little like a prophecy. But of course, even as we were writing it, we didn't expect it was going to instantly become historical fiction. It's been jarring and devastating but not at all surprising. At many of the schools we visited during our travels, students asked if we'd based the book off an incident that took place at their school, in their town. If you've been paying attention, the events described in our book have been happening for decades. What feels different now is the scale and the passion of the worldwide response. People are coming together in a way that feels energized.

It seems that perhaps, finally, we're experiencing a moment this country could capitalize on not only to further painful conversations, but also to move forward with a more unified front into a phase of real change. The white community has a lot of reckoning to do and even more atoning toward the Black community. We don't want to go back to normal; we want to move forward with intention. Frankly, we don't know what exactly comes next. But we do know our friendship still comes first and we have to keep going.