The author Kristina Forest is an absolute force as a young adult novelist. She centers young Black love with discovery and assurance. Her recent book, Zyla & Kai, is about the titular characters’ dreams and ambitions, and their growing understanding of their desires. At the beginning of the book, Kai is dating and Zyla is a “love cynic.” They meet each other and become friends, eventually blossoming with all the elements that make love real. The novel has an incredible timeline with loving and evolving supporting characters.
Below is an interview with Forest about some of the novel’s main ideas. It has been edited for space and clarity.
Who chooses the ending: you, the characters, or potential reader response?
It’s a mixture between myself and the characters. I know that the ending will be a HEA (happily ever after), but the characters ultimately inform how the ending feels.
Zyla & Kai have dreams, manifestations, and plans. What did you want them to learn about themselves, especially as young people?
I wanted Zyla and Kai to learn that it’s okay to create space for their goals to expand and change and that it’s okay to take risks and believe in themselves and each other.
Kai has plans of attending Morehouse College. Why is attending an HBCU important to him?
Attending Morehouse is mainly important to Kai because that’s where his father went to college, and because his father is dead, Kai is seeking any kind of connection to him that he can find.
The adults in the novel are loving and have the best intentions for the kids. How did you craft these characters? What did you have in mind for their story trajectory?
The adults are crafted around Zyla and Kai. Given Kai’s tragic backstory, I knew he’d need really supportive guardians, and that is why his aunt and uncle are so loving.
Because I knew Zyla was going to be a love cynic, I needed her to have a legitimate reason as to why she would feel so cynical and I thought a great reason would be that by watching her mother, who is a hopeless romantic, Zyla learned that falling in love can lead to intense heartbreak.
In terms of the parents’ trajectories, I mostly just wanted them each to come to the realization that maybe they don’t know Zyla and Kai as well as they thought they did, and it’s important to give Zyla and Kai the space to grow and become their own people.
Why were mental well-being and grieving important points?
I’m always going to be a person who advocates for mental health awareness and taking care of ourselves. I wanted specifically to tell a story about a Black boy who struggles with mental health and grief but has a very strong support system around him.
Being perfect is a rebuke in the novel. How did you write realized characters?
I do a lot of character work before I draft a novel. I always need to know the main characters’ internal goals and external goals and what specifically is keeping them from those goals or what will happen if they don’t achieve said goals. Because that’s what makes a character tick. Once I know that, I build the plot around them.
There are a number of musical artists mentioned. What are five songs on the playlist for this novel?
- “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By” – Method Man feat. Mary J. Blige
- “Love On The Brain” – Rihanna
- “OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive)” – Jhene Aiko
- “Prototype” – Outkast
- “XO” – Beyonce
Friendship is as important as romantic love. What did you want to say about friendship?
Friendship is very important! I have been best friends with the same women since I was 5 years old, and my life is so much better because of the various friendships I’ve formed in my life along the way. It was important for me to write Beatrice and Jamal as supportive and loving best friends to Zyla and Kai, respectively.
What organization would you like to amplify to our audience?
Well-Read Black Girl, a nonprofit that is dedicated to empowering Black femme writers!