Jesmeen Kaur Deo sets an incredible tone in her debut novel, TJ Powar Has Something to Prove.
TJ is a competitive debater in her senior year of high school. Classmates post an unflattering meme of her cousin, Simran, comparing her with TJ as a standard of beauty. TJ decides to stop getting waxed and ditches her razors. While she does this to make a point, she ends up learning something about herself. With a cast of trans and nonbinary characters, the novel speaks truth to power.
I interviewed Deo about her novel. You can find our conversation below, and also learn more about Deo at her website. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
What is your definition of feminism?
Feminism, to me, means a functional and practical equality for everyone in all aspects of life, regardless of gender. It’s also important to acknowledge that overlapping with gender are often several other identities. That makes everything a little more complicated, and we have to be cognizant of the fact that not everyone is fighting the same battles.
The school paper gets some attention in this story. If you could have one way for teens to communicate, what would it be?
I might lean towards talking in person, regardless of age — body language is 90% of communication, after all — but I acknowledge that cannot be a blanket statement. Not everyone communicates most effectively that way, and it’s not always convenient to talk face to face. So really, the best way to communicate is whatever way works best for you. I know that sounds like a cop-out answer, but it’s true! Technology has made it easier for everyone to interact in other ways, which I think is excellent. I just think it’s important to keep in mind the limitations of such avenues of communication and act accordingly.
TJ is an excellent debater. What did you want to say about TJ’s will to excel?
I wanted the main character of this book to be a competitive, strong-willed person because of everything I was planning to put her through. She had to be the kind of girl who doubles down and keeps arguing even when things seem tough — because she wants to win. However, as a debater, TJ is also used to being flexible in her point of view; she does, after all, have to argue both sides of a resolution in any given tournament. So even though she’s so stubborn, there’s a part of her that is willing to switch tack and reconsider her position when absolutely necessary. That was important to her journey.
TJ and Simran are Punjabi. How do they rebuke societal standards? How do they stay connected to their culture?
Societal standards of beauty are very white, very cis, very narrow in general, so simply by existing as they are, TJ and Simran rebuke them. They don’t actually have a choice. As for staying connected with their culture, I think it has a lot to do with language, people, and a certain mindset towards life. But they both have a different relationship to being Punjabi and Sikh. They do what’s comfortable for them and what feels right based on how they grew up. And that’s totally okay!
There are characters who are nonbinary and trans. What was important for these characters to be?
I realized in revisions for this book that there was more nuance to be explored with regard to gender and its relation to body hair. So I attempted to address that. However, it was important that the actual trans character in the book, Nate, just be chilling and living his life in peace. TJ’s struggles are not necessarily his. But he can certainly understand them. And so, just like how every other character in this story contributes in their own way to the complex discussion on how we present ourselves to the world, Nate adds his perspective, too. But mostly, he’s just being his usual snarky, lovable self.
Lulu is a wonderful and understanding character. How did you create her purpose as a character, to TJ, and to the story?
I think a lot of people have very interesting relationships with their esthetician because this is the person who sees the “ugliest” parts of them that no one else does — and gets rid of them for you. However, I didn’t want to paint Lulu as a bad guy. She’s just doing her job. And she’s seen a lot of stuff, you know? She has a unique perspective on beauty because her work is so wrapped up in how people want to present themselves to the world, versus how they actually look without it. I thought it would help TJ — and anyone else who wonders why everyone seems to have it together more than them — to catch a glimpse into her imperfect world.
How has your experience been bringing your debut novel to readers?
It’s been amazing! All I wanted was for my book to change someone’s perspective and make them hold their head a little higher. I’ve had lots of people tell me that this book did that for them, and I couldn’t ask for more.
What organization would you like to amplify to our audience?
Today, I’d like to amplify a donation drive for flood relief in Bangladesh. That region is experiencing one of the worst floods in its history.