Brittney Morris’ Slay is a bold, timely and hard-hitting young adult novel about 17-year-old Kiera Johnson, the creator and developer of SLAY, an online video game for black individuals. Slay follows Kiera’s journey toward self-discovery and acceptance as she struggles to keep the SLAY universe alive amid violence, criticism and hatred from the outside world. We reached out to Morris to discuss her inspiration for Slay, the importance of representation and the role Black Panther played in the creation of her debut novel.
What inspired you to create the world of SLAY, an online video game wherein black players are able to duel, communicate and connect?
I was inspired to write Slay after seeing Black Panther on opening night. The minute I left the theater, I was wishing someone would create a Wakanda Simulator video game. Since I’ve never programmed a video game before, I thought writing a book about one would be the next best thing!
Can you tell us more about why Black Panther was so inspiring?
Sure! Walking into that theater was my first experience walking into a room full of Black people and feeling total unconditional acceptance, regardless of the music I’d heard, how I was dressed, how I spoke or whatever other impossible criteria I’d inflicted on myself before allowing myself to feel “Black enough.” I knew the minute I left Wakanda that I had to go back. So I came up with the idea of a girl who gets to go to “Wakanda” whenever she wants, and thus, Slay was born!
What advice would you give to readers who, like Kiera, are struggling to balance their identity and societal expectations?
Question anyone who tries to tell you what your identity should mean, whatever it is. Black, gay, transgender, disabled, whatever. You are in the driver’s seat. You decide what to include in your identity and what not to. If you’re Black but you’ve never seen Coming to America, don’t feel like you have to (but consider it, because it’s objectively hilarious). Societal expectations often stem from stereotypes. Don’t be afraid to not fit them. And surround yourself (online or in real life) with people who support your existence, however you present it.
How is representation important in YA lit, and how do you tackle the issue of representation as a writer?
Representation is important for all ages, but it’s especially important for kids and teens as they absorb the world’s expectations. The majority of my childhood heroes were cishet, white, neurotypical, able-bodied men, so that’s what I thought a “hero” looked like. I knew I wanted Slay to be about Black experiences worldwide, and how we’re all heroes of our own stories, and I couldn’t do that without intersectionality. Slay includes people of several genders, skin tones, languages, family structures and socioeconomic circumstances, because all of those things impact one’s own definition of Blackness.
Kiera also has problems connecting with her parents and her younger sister, Steph. Why did you choose to focus so heavily on the development of Kiera’s relationship with her family?
As a Black woman, I come from a lineage of wisdom and resilience. The political climate in which American Black people operate has changed each and every decade, so every generation has a vastly different frame of reference for what it means to be Black. I wanted to capture those intergenerational differences between Kiera and her parents. Charles and Lorette come from a generation in which code-switching was not only the norm in professional spaces but also expected of them, lest they miss out on employment opportunities, etc. They want Kiera to have the best chance at success, so logically that means encouraging her to bury any trace of slang, wear new and clean clothes and not be too loud. But Kiera defines success differently, and she believes there’s room in her honors-student way of life for a little AAVE [African American Vernacular English]. Kiera’s sister, Steph, on the other hand, sees their parents’ conservative outlook and high-tails it in the opposite direction, asserting that it’s high time Black people demanded equality and respect and operated unafraid to take up space. It’s possible for Kiera, Steph and her parents to exist in the same loving household, even with such fundamental differences between them, and I wanted to show how such a balance could be functional and healthy.
In the world of SLAY, players are able to connect with other Black individuals from all around the world. What do you think Kiera and other SLAY players are able to gain from this global connection?
As an American kid, I used to think all Black people lived in either Africa or America, depending on whether our ancestors had been kidnapped by slavers or not. (How fascinating an echo chamber the American education system is.) I think if SLAY existed when I was a kid, someplace where I could’ve been in chat rooms or MMOs with Black people worldwide, I would’ve realized how prolific we are, how varied our experiences and how there’s a place for me among them.
"Societal expectations often stem from stereotypes. Don’t be afraid to not fit them."
How do current events affect or inspire your writing, if at all?
Every time #SayTheirName trends and every time there’s another “Barbecue Becky,” I get inspired to write about our experiences all over again. If people can’t understand when we say that police presence is terrifying, or that shows like “When They See Us” need to come with trigger warnings or that white people who call the police unnecessarily are as dangerous to us as murderers, maybe they’ll understand if they see a story like that playing out in a virtual landscape, or in a speculative contemporary world with superpowers and access to the ancestral plane. Maybe they’ll believe fiction. And maybe Black people will enjoy the relief of having our stories and history told through a different lens than pain and unrequited patience every Black History Month.
In SLAY, players are able to create and customize their own video game characters with names, unique clothing and physical characteristics. If you were a SLAY player, what would your character look like?
First, I’d be 5’8”, because my real-life self is 5’2” and I’m still not over it. Second, I’d have a twist-out down to my waist, because who doesn’t want waist-length natural hair that NEVER requires detangling? A mermaid tail would be tempting, but I’d also want to wear a huge ball gown, and those aren’t really compatible. But then I’d also want to be a Black samurai with white body paint. I don’t know, I’d be that person with an inventory that’s 90% clothing, 5% weapons and 5% crafting materials. I’d be someone different every day.
In many ways, this book is the story of Kiera’s personal growth and journey toward self-discovery. In what ways did your personal story and teenage years affect your writing?
I’ve always loved video games, and I’ve always felt overwhelmed by the weight of what the world expects me to be as a Black woman. Kiera’s journey to figuring out what Blackness means for her closely resembles my own. I think as teens, it’s already tough figuring out what the world expects from you, and if you’re Black, there’s a whole new world of expectations, with centuries of arguments behind every one. So I thought, why not explore what it means to be Black, what it means to weigh the expectations of family, friends, “woke” people that you trust and your own beliefs about it, via something fun? Like video games!
What are you working on next?
Being a Black teen in America today means living with the threat of future violence in police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline, and living in the shadow of a past full of oppression and pain, while somehow navigating the present. My next project explores the life of just one teen living under these circumstances and how he handles the societal pressures placed on Black men, especially teenage Black men. I’m very excited about it!
This interview was conducted by BookPage and sponsored by Simon Pulse. All editorial views are those of BookPage alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.