One of the characters in My Sister Rosa, Sojourner Ida Davis, is a deeply religious progressive Christian. This has elicited a range of responses from readers: from horror from the non-religious: Ewwww! Why is there religion in this book? To horror from conservative Christians, some of whom have expressed grave doubts that Christians like Sojourner exist. To thanks from progressive Christians who tell me they rarely see themselves represented in YA.
Why did I write Sojourner?
I’m an Australian atheist. In the US context it’s probably more accurate to call myself non-religious since my atheism has never been a big part of my identity. I grew up in secular communities where religion was rarely discussed. It just wasn’t a thing. Pretty much everyone I knew was also an atheist. I was curious about religion but knew little about it. My father’s an atheist Jew. So I learned a bit about Judaism from his family. Particularly my grandmother. I picked up bits and pieces about Christianity. But not much. For the first year of my BA I did Religious Studies because I felt so ignorant.
When I moved to NYC one of the biggest differences was how much more religious my NYC friends are compared to my Sydney friends. I hadn’t really met progressive Christians and religious Jews before. (My Jewish family are very conservative. I knew progressive secular Jews.) I thought being religious meant being conservative. I was wrong.
I wrote Sojourner because I have met many New Yorkers like her and because I don’t think it’s accurate to write books set in the US with no religion. Not only are there few religious people in YA, there are even fewer progressive religious characters. They’re mostly extremely conservative. But the political and social beliefs of religious people in the real world are as varied as those of non-religious people. I wanted to reflect that.
The church in the novel is based on a real church in my neighbourhood of NYC. The only thing that’s changed since I wrote Rosa is there’s now security checking everyone before they’re allowed in. Yes, because of Charleston.
Several of my religious US friends do not swear. I come from a very sweary people and I find the few non-swearers I’ve met fascinating. It became clear to me early in writing Sojourner that she too would not swear and she most definitely would not blaspheme. It was one of the hardest linguistic decisions I’ve made in a book. Swear words kept slipping into her dialogue. Apparently, swears words are invisible to me. Eeek! I did searches on every new draft to weed out my slips. I thought, with the help of my editors, copyeditors and proofreaders, that I had succeeded!
Recently a reviewer on GoodReads pointed out that Sojourner does blaspheme.1 On one page she uses both hell and damn.2 I missed it; my editors in Australia and the US missed it; copyeditors missed it; proofreaders missed it. My response was to, of course, swear. LOUDLY. That little slip of mine undermines Sojourner’s character.
This really bad error is now being changed in all editions for the next reprint. That includes the audio book—they’re bringing the actor back in to re-record those two lines–thank you, Blackstone audio!—as well as the foreign editions.