In the latest young adult novel from Justine Larbalestier, 17-year-old Australian Che has just moved with his family to New York City, where he struggles to keep both eyes on his 10-year-old sister, Rosa. He knows what she’s capable of, and her concerning behavior is beginning to increase beyond manipulation and stealing. Through conversations with Rosa, his parents and an incredibly diverse cast of new friends, Che confronts questions of morality, goodness, gender, sexual orientation, religion, his preconceptions as a young white male and so much more. My Sister Rosa is as provocative as it is creepy and entertaining.
BookPage contacted Larbalestier to learn more about this standout YA novel.
What inspired this story?
Tayari Jones did. She’s one of my favorite novelists so I follow her on Twitter. One day she was tweeting about William March’s The Bad Seed, a wonderful novel about a mother who slowly realizes her child is a psychopath. It occurred to me that it would be cool to tell that story from the point of view of an older sibling.
Talk to me about Rosa. Why do you think Che is able to love her unconditionally, while knowing what she’s capable of?
There’s something magical about holding a newborn baby in your arms. Che bonded with Rosa as soon as he held her, and became almost a third parent to her. I’m not sure there’s anything Rosa could do that will truly undo that. I’m pretty sure Che will always love Rosa. I don’t think he likes her though.
However, he is fascinated by her. He wants to be a doctor, and here he is living with a 10-year-old psychopath. She teaches him a lot about how complicated human nature is. He learns how to deal with a psychopath. After all, she does keep her promises to him. It’s just that she tends to find loopholes. . . . Basically, he’s living with a malevolent child lawyer who loves making tricksy interpretations of the rules. I suspect he also can’t help be captivated by how honest she is with him about her own lack of empathy. There’s something intoxicating about being trusted like that. Even if the truths you’re being told are disturbing.
Rosa and Che’s penetrating conversations explore a number of topics, most of which pivot around the definition of morality. How do you explain to someone what it means to be “good”?
It’s tricky to answer that question because it’s one of the central questions of the book. If someone doesn’t believe anyone but them matters, it’s very hard to explain to them why other people are as important as they are. Whether psychopaths can be treated, i.e. taught to be empathetic, is debated by those who study them. Some believe there’s nothing you can do but lock them up, which is hugely problematic for many reasons.
Che (and his parents) grows more and more concerned about violence in his life, and whether that violence is something he can control—or is even aware of. Regarding Che’s violence and Rosa’s cruelty, what do you think is the line between nature and nurture?
There is no line between nature and nurture. When I was researching this book I read a great deal about the current thinking on what causes psychopathy. It seems to be a very complex interaction between environment, brain morphology and genetics. But those aren’t as distinct as you would think. Your environment can affect the structure of your brain. And it turns out your environment can affect your genes, too. The new field of epigenetics is showing us our genes are not as fixed as we thought, in that your environment can affect the expression of genes. The old nature/nuture binary is dead.
Tell us about the writing process for this book. What was the easiest part? The hardest?
Disturbingly writing Rosa’s dialogue was by far the easiest part. If I had written the whole book from her point of view, it would have been a piece of cake. But instead I wrote it from Che’s. I found it very hard to write from the point of view of someone who is that nice, that good, that compassionate. (Not because I’m a terrible person—at least I hope not—but because we readers have been trained to find good people boring and anti-heroes fascinating.)
Che says Rosa has made him cynical, but every time he meets a new person he does, in fact, assume the best of them. It was so hard to write his voice without him being so cloyingly nice he became annoying. It took many, many drafts to get there. He’s the point-of-view character—the whole book is filtered through Che’s gaze—so nothing was working until I got his voice right.
On top of that, there’s a lot Che is oblivious to. Trying to communicate important things Che is unaware of while not having him seem so clueless that readers turn on him was another challenge. I came very close to giving up.
There was no light-bulb moment where I finally figured Che out. I just kept writing and rewriting until I found his voice. I deleted close to 100,000 words in the process. Some books are much harder than others.
Do you ever get creeped out by your own books/characters?
I have some attempts at ghost stories I never finished because I got too scared. I suspect the technical challenges of writing My Sister Rosa, i.e. the fact that finding Che’s voice was so hard, contributed greatly to it not creeping me out.
This book manages to be extremely diverse while starring a white male lead. You explore racism, gender equality and other necessary issues from this point of view of a white male—and it works. Why do you think it works?
I’m not sure that’s a question I can answer. But I’m pleased you think it worked. Thank you! One of the things I’ve been trying to do while writing novels full of the many different kinds of people that are in my worlds is to explore whiteness itself.
In NYC I live in a neighborhood that has folks from all over the world: black, white and brown. You can walk a block and hear 10 different languages. The way people dress is super diverse. No matter what I wear when I go out no one is going to stare at me. Be it a fluorescent ballgown or a bathrobe.
I wanted to show that wide range of being human in My Sister Rosa. I wanted to show why I love my NYC so much. While My Sister Rosa is a creepy thriller about a 10-year-old psychopath, it’s also a love letter to the East Village, the Lower East Side and everyone who lives there.
You’ve written on your blog that you “only write white protagonists” as a way to help with the lack of diversity in YA. It’s a complicated endeavor to write a book about a community not your own, but is the solution to stick to your race? (For you, specifically, as well as more generally.)
Eek! That’s not actually what I’ve been saying. It’s kind of a complicated point, which I’m obviously not making clearly, as you are definitely not the first person to think that.
Let me try again: What I’m saying is that white authors writing PoC and Indigenous characters does not help change the overwhelming whiteness of young adult literature. For many years now white authors have written from the points of view of folks from different cultures and it has changed very little. The problem of lack of diversity extends far beyond the race of the characters in the books. It’s a systemic problem.
For the genre to more accurately reflect the world we live in there has to be more Indigenous authors and more authors of color; more editors, publishers, sales and marketing people, publicists, booksellers, librarians, reviewers etc. Publishing right now is more than 90 percent white, which is why not nearly enough books are published by PoC and Indigenous authors.
We white authors need to buy more books by PoC and Indigenous authors. We need to talk up those books that we love wherever possible. (Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson! Allegedly by Tiffany Jackson! The Tribe series by Ambelin Kwaymullina!) We can also help by blurbing these books and by mentoring and recommending PoC and Indigenous authors to our agents, etc.
In short, the best thing we white authors can do to make YA publishing more inclusive is to give PoC and Indigenous authors the same leg up many of us were given at the beginning of our careers.
As for my personal decision about my own writing, I’ve never said I will only write white protagonists. That would be a lie as my first six novels all have PoC or Indigenous narrators. What I said is that I will write white protagonists when I’m writing a novel from a single point of view, such as My Sister Rosa. (The events of Rosa are told from the point of view of white boy, but many of the other characters are PoC. It’s not a white book set in an all-white world.)
I have other novels I’m working on that have multiple points of view. They all have PoC narrators as well as whites. I don’t live in an all-white world, so I won’t write all-white worlds.
However, writing from points of view outside your own culture is a huge undertaking that can hurt the people of those culture. I’ve written in detail about that process here.
My personal decision to write more white protagonists is not about making YA more inclusive; it’s about dealing with my own blind spots. One of the reasons I wrote from PoC and Indigenous points of view was because I thought that was the only way to write about race. I was operating under the delusion (unfortunately it’s a common one among us white folk) that white people don’t have a race and are unaffected by race. In Razorhurst and now My Sister Rosa I’ve started writing about race from a white point of view.
Hmmm, that makes it sound like I’m writing essays, not novels. If I’m doing it right, my readers get caught up in the story. From reading my reviews, it’s clear not all readers notice the technical and theoretical aspects of what I’m trying to do. That’s fine. Novels should work on multiple levels.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I hope they’re freaked out! Every reader who’s let me know how disturbed they were by My Sister Rosa has absolutely made my day. I aim to have readers looking at their family and friends suspiciously and asking themselves, is Uncle Steve actually a psychopath?!
What are you working on next?
I’m always working on multiple books, but the one that’s getting the lion’s share of my attention is a book from the point of view of a psychopath. OMG. It’s so much easier than it was writing from nice guy Che’s point of view. I’ve decided that’s not because I’m evil (I hope!) but because psychopaths have a limited range of emotions and think they’re right about everything.
Most of us have doubts. We get confused. We worry. Not psychopaths. When you write from their point of view everything is clear. They never say to themselves, “Argh! Why did I just say that? What is wrong with me?”
A psychopath’s thoughts are straight lines, not endless branching trees. It’s refreshing to write from such a straightforward point of view. Also scary. Very scary.
Author illustration by Patrick Thicklin.