Books·How I Wrote It

Why Ben Philippe wrote a YA novel about being a black French Canadian kid in Texas

The author on how his own personal experience shaped The Field Guide to the North American Teenager.
The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is a YA book by Ben Philippe. (benphilippe.com, HarperCollins)

Ben Philippe was born in Haiti, raised in Montreal and is now based in New York. Philippe, named a black Canadian writer to watch by CBC Books, has an MFA in fiction and screenwriting and in 2019 released his debut YA novel, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, about a wisecracking black French Canadian teenager named Norris Kaplan who learns more about love, friendship and growing up when his family moves from Quebec to Texas.

Philippe talked to CBC Books about how he wrote his debut YA novel.

So you're writing a YA novel

"I was writing screenplays and short stories at the time and I didn't think I had the chutzpah to actually write a novel. But I wanted to write something I could focus on while working the 40-hour-week day job in digital marketing I had at the time. I wanted to write something that felt funny and featured young characters.

 

"I didn't really go in thinking that I was writing a YA novel; I didn't know what YA audiences were looking for. But the high school setting, teenage characters and the coming-of-age setup set the tone. The quippy dialogue of the characters comes from my background as a screenwriter. I tend to write dialogue first to get a feel for a character— I will almost drop them into a the middle of a scene to get a feel of what they look like, how they talk and react."

 

Being black in Canada

"My own family moved to Quebec when I was five from Haiti. I grew up in Sherbrooke, Que., and later in Montreal. I left Canada when was 18 when I applied for school and moved to the United States.

 

"But I was very much the black kid in my elementary school. I didn't experience a malicious racism, it was more a 'Can I touch your hair?' type of experience. There was just a curiosity about something that they hadn't been exposed to before. I then went to a Montreal middle school that was pretty diverse and about 50 per cent white. There, me being black, you would meet terrible people who were racist.

Especially in the American narrative, there's almost a fictionalized version of what it means to be black. But not all black people live in the inner city or are from the ghetto.

 

"But high school is also the point when everyone hangs out with people who looks like them. I remember there were black Canadian kids in my school who were influenced by what American hip-hop culture told them blackness was. They didn't like me and I didn't like them because I was the supergeek kid who hung out with Middle Eastern and Korean kids who shared my interests and just wanted to talk about Pokémon or Final Fantasy video games."

Real life inspiring fiction

 

"A lot of the details from the book are lifted from my life. Norris Kaplan is a black French Canadian; I'm a black French Canadian. He moves to Texas and hates it; I moved to Texas and hated it. Although Norris moved to Texas for high school and I lived there for graduate school, the broad strokes of Norris are very much lifted from my life. I wrote him as a superpowered version of me: Norris says and does whatever he thinks. I never did, as I was too worried about everyone was thinking about me at school. But he loves poking the bear.

 "It was an interesting teenage anxiety — do you hang out with your own 'kind' or do you follow your own interests? That was my black Canadian identity and what I write about in the book."

Subverting expectations

"I think there's a certain expectation that if you're writing a YA book about a black character, particularly a black male character, that it has to explicitly be about race, about Black Lives Matter and about interactions with the police. I understand why, but I actively wanted to write something different. Norris is black, there's no getting around the fact, but he's also a teenager. He's more concerned with being a hormonal kid than necessarily the sociopolitical ramifications of being black. 

"Especially in the American narrative, there's almost a fictionalized version of what it means to be black. But not all black people live in the inner city or come from the ghetto. Like Norris, I was raised not rich, but middle class. I wanted to avoid concerns or situations that I wasn't familiar with or experienced myself but people might expect from me because I'm black.

"But there are instances in the story were race comes into play, including an encounter with a racist where the normally mouthy Norris shuts down — he doesn't know how to react, which is often what happens when black people are faced with that situation. I really wanted to capture that feeling in the book."

 

Ben Philippe's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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