Ben Philippe's YA novel Charming as a Verb explores the complexities of being a Black teenager
This interview originally aired on Jan. 16, 2021.
Ben Philippe is a writer who was raised in Montreal and currently lives in New York. He published his debut novel, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, in 2019 and an essay collection, Sure, I'll Be Your Black Friend, in 2021. He has contributed to publications like Vanity Fair, the Guardian and Playboy. CBC Books named Philippe a writer to watch in 2019.
Charming as a Verb is a YA novel about Henri "Halti" Haltiwanger, a teen with swagger who is convinced he can charm just about anyone. As one of the most popular kids in his prestigious high school — and as the operator of a highly successful dog walking business — Henri has it made and his dream of attending his dream college awaits. But when Henri meets Corinne Troy, a girl who sees right through his charms and exposes his less-than-ethical business practices, it becomes a battle of wits — with potential love looming on the horizon.
Philippe spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing Charming as a Verb.
Charming to a fault
"I wrote Henri in response to my first book, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager. That book features Norris Kaplan, who is sarcastic, sort of asocial, very proud to be a misanthrope and very snarky. Everyone in my life just assumed I was writing about me!
"For the next one, I was like, OK, I'm going to write a tall, handsome, charismatic, charming protagonist — then I'm going to throw such a fit when none of my friends assume that it's based on me.
"But so far, they just think he is a great character. No one sees me in Henri, which is very vexing."
The dreams our parents have
"I was born in Haiti. We stayed there until I was about five or six, at which point we moved to Canada. I have very specific and vivid memories of Haiti, but none of them amount to the impression of a country. I remember our garden. I remember a festival my parents took me to. I have flashes of the country. I don't have an identity that's tied to it, as I left at a very young age.
Henri doesn't know Haiti, but he very much knows that he's a Haitian immigrant.
"In the case of Henri, he was born in the United States. But he really, truly carries all of his parents' dreams of Haiti, all their dreams of America. Henri doesn't know Haiti, but he very much knows that he's a Haitian immigrant."
The world smiles with you
"I've personally found that if my face is fully at rest, people assume I'm angry or upset about something. From an early age, I realized that walking around with a smile made the world easier, especially if you're a young Black man. I lived in the very white suburban neighbourhoods in the south shore of Montreal.
"I think that's a coping mechanism and tool that I took from my own life that I try to heighten and imagine from the perspective of Henri. He is someone who is very aware of the power of his smile. It's not that people think he's in a good mood, but people are drawn to him. We've seen these people around, people who walk into a room and they smile and everyone can feel like the room is cheerier.
From an early age, I realized that just walking around with a smile made the world easier, especially if you're a young Black man.
"I always wonder if those people are aware of that superpower. And in the case of Henry, he's very much aware of it."
The toll of being Black
"I think diversity and inclusion are very good things, obviously, but having the power to bring them forward, to enact them in the world, especially at a wide scale — that requires a certain level of privilege. I myself benefited from those incentives and programs all my life. But it can take a toll when you don't come from that privilege.
"There are very few people of colour who don't occasionally feel the cloud of affirmative action on their head — meaning that their achievements, their accomplishments always come with that asterisk that people might assume they got where they are because of the colour of their skin or their socioeconomic status.
There are very few people of colour who don't occasionally feel the cloud of affirmative action on their head.
"I think teenagers internalize that as well. Henri is very charming, very popular, but he keeps that entire world at bay from his own life. He's very good at compartmentalizing, which, now that this interview is turning into therapy, might be something I took from my life!
"There's a sense of safety in keeping those worlds apart."
Ben Philippe's comments have been edited for length and clarity.