Young adult author Rafi Mittlefehldt’s sophomore novel, What Makes Us, is a thoughtful portrayal of a teen grappling with a terrible family secret: His father might have been a terrorist. Exploring themes of identity, justice and forgiveness, the book isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions without easy answers. BookPage asked Mittlefehldt to reveal his real-life inspirations, explore some of the choices he made while writing such a weighty story and share the hopes he has for his new book.
Did any recent events affect What Makes Us as you wrote it?
I started plotting and writing What Makes Us in 2015. The election of Donald Trump affected everything, this book included. Some of that is pretty unambiguous—the people in the book wearing MAGA hats who want Eran and his mother to leave town—but some of the effect was more indirect.
Early in the book, Eran, a social justice advocate, leads a small protest in his community over a local policy that would allow police to hand out more speeding tickets. I wrote it to be a minor issue because the protest itself isn’t central to the plot, and I didn’t want it to overshadow what happens next. But the context around protests and social justice has changed dramatically in the last few years, along with people’s appetites for reading about them, and in a very specific light. A protest about something that small feels quaint now, and it won’t surprise me if that affects how people read this book.
"Seeing yourself in stories confirms your own reality—that there are other people like you, and that people like you matter."
More personal to me are the changes I made to subsequent drafts to make What Makes Us more Jewish. I’m both gay and Jewish, but for me at least, my Jewish identity has always been clearly secondary to my gay identity. Post-Trump, that’s shifted a bit. There’s been an enormous increase in anti-Semitism—primarily violence from the far-right but also casual anti-Semitism among progressives—which has made me more focused on and vocal about Jewish issues. That found its way into the story.
The aftermaths of violent attacks have many aspects to think about and examine. Why did you choose to focus on the family of the perpetrator?
There was an article shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 that mentioned in passing the toddler daughter of one of the perpetrators. It was a little disquieting to consider that she was too young to understand what had happened, which then begged the question: When would she find out? And how would she process being connected to a tragedy she had nothing to do with and wouldn’t even know about for years? People rarely think about violent criminals’ family members, who have no involvement in such attacks, whose names are a constant link to and reminder of horrible acts someone else permanently connected to them.
You often describe Eran’s relationships with his friends and peers throughout the novel. How are those relationships important as Eran struggles to understand himself and his family legacy?
As the story goes on, Eran becomes more and more isolated. Most of that comes from external forces, but some is self-inflicted. The people close to him, especially Jade and Declan but also his mother, are really his only means to interface with the world and still feel a part of it. They’re a way for him to be connected when he feels most cut off.
More importantly, they ground him during his increasingly frantic worries about who he actually is. They’re a link to the identity he always thought he had—something tangible to grasp onto when he questions his own sense of self.
What Makes Us features a highly diverse cast of characters of different races, religions and sexual orientations. Is representation a priority for you in writing?
Halfway through drafting my first book, It Looks Like This, I realized I was writing all my characters as white and all my main characters as white men. Even though I’ve always cared about representation and believed in its importance, I was still unthinkingly defaulting to white men. It was pretty humbling but also instructional—a moment that made me understand that writing representation is not a passive activity, but something I have to actively think about each time. Even when you know this, it’s embarrassingly easy to mess it up.
I didn’t see a lot of Jews in books when I was a teen. The two gay characters I can remember encountering were written to be punchlines. As I grew older and more gay characters started popping up, I got my first glimpse at what I’d been missing out on. Seeing yourself in stories confirms your own reality—that there are other people like you, and that people like you matter. Why wouldn’t that also be important to people who don’t share your identity?
Eran and Jade are teenagers passionately fighting for social justice and equality, while simultaneously wrestling with their own identities. Did you borrow any inspiration for their characters from your own teenage years?
I wish I could say a lot. Eran and Jade both embody qualities that I wish I had more of. I wish I had Eran’s self-confidence and drive and daring and maybe even a little of his manic energy. I wish I had more of Jade’s remarkable self-control and problem-solving nature and durability and intelligence.
Maybe I do now, but I especially wish I had, in high school, their awareness of the world around them and what really matters. That didn’t really start to hit me until college, and it was a fairly slow burn from there.
A large part of What Makes Us is told from the point of view of Jade, a friend of Eran’s, as she grapples with her own family’s history. Why did you decide to focus on Jade as a character? What does her story bring to the novel?
Part of that is logistical: Since Eran is sequestered in his house for a good chunk of the story, Jade is a way to see what’s happening on the outside—but through a voice that provides a calming break from Eran’s frenzied internal dialogue.
But Jade also has her own story that in many ways parallels Eran’s. The similarities between them help her better process her struggles with identity and cope with a long-withheld family secret coming to light, and they give her a frame of reference to help Eran.
Another significant character in the novel is Mr. Riskin, one of Eran’s teachers, who comes under fire after the protest for his willingness to facilitate controversial conversations. What is the importance of education in the novel, specifically as it pertains to social justice and equality?
I love Mr. Riskin because he’s able to play devil’s advocate to Eran so well. The points he brings up in class discussions aren’t necessarily his own views; he just believes strongly in exploring every corner of an issue thoughtfully but dispassionately. Eran is all about jumping headfirst into action, but Mr. Riskin always wants to stop and talk about nuance. It’s an annoying but important lesson to learn, particularly in the context of social justice, and especially as social media becomes a more dominant form of expression and protest.
Eran begins to understand this—even if he doesn’t articulate it or connect it to Mr. Riskin’s discussions—when he confides in Jade about the performative side of Twitter. On some level, he’s starting to understand that lots of people use activism as a way to increase their social status. Even though what they say sounds right and ticks all the boxes, it’s not social justice, it’s self-serving.
You include frequent interludes from Eran’s mother’s perspective. What do you hope readers take away from her side of the story?
I’m very interested to see what readers make of her. I see her as someone who makes a major sacrifice, but in a frankly stupid way. I find stories about parents’ hidden sacrifices fascinating—things that, to the child, look selfish or thoughtless but in reality were done in the child’s best interest. Sometimes the sacrifice parents make is that their actions, even if they do what’s best for their children, destroy the relationship between them.
Then again, sometimes parents think what they’re doing is right, but they’re way off. Maybe their intent was good, but all they ended up doing was harming their children, and they sacrificed that relationship for nothing. And in that case, how much does intent matter? Does it make a terrible impact forgivable?
Eema’s interludes are meant to show what happened through her eyes, so the reader can, at the very least, fully understand her intent. Then the reader can decide what her impact was, and how wrong or right she was.
Though often not as drastic as Eran’s situation, many young people struggle to accept their parents’ actions and beliefs when they differ from their own. What message do you hope What Makes Us sends to readers in these situations?
This ties in to the question above. Parents often do things that seem wrong to their kids but are actually right. Since parents are also human, they’re also constantly making their own mistakes. It can be extremely difficult for a teen to differentiate between the two, especially when they’re emotionally invested, and especially because of the deferential relationships most kids have with their parents.
A good rule of thumb is to think about harm versus good. When a parent’s actions hurt, it’s easy to be preoccupied with that harm. But at least give them the courtesy of considering their reasons and why they think it’s good for you. Does the good outweigh the bad?
If it doesn’t, consider their intent, too. If their reasoning is flawed or even totally wrong, is it at least coming from a good place? Are they genuinely trying to do the right thing but messing up? How would you want someone else judging your actions, especially when you make a mistake—by your intent or by your impact?
That doesn’t mean what they’ve done is forgivable, necessarily. For some people and in some circumstances, the distinction between impact and intent is meaningless. But it might make a parent’s actions more understandable, as long as they are actually putting their child first.
This interview was conducted by BookPage and sponsored by Candlewick. All editorial views are those of BookPage alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.