Morgan Parker’s poetry books (Magical Negro and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé) have been lauded for their unique perspectives and thought-provoking material. So it makes sense that her new young adult novel is already getting serious praise. Take the Kirkus starred review that proclaims Who Put This Song On? (Delacorte Press, Sept. 24) “a heart-filled, laugh-out-loud hilarious YA fiction debut.”
While the novel has autobiographical elements, right down to the protagonist and author sharing a name—“I didn’t really do that as a move,” Parker insists—and lifts material from Parker’s teenage journal, it’s not a page-by-page reenactment of her high school years. Parker’s goal wasn’t to mine every aspect of who she was (and is) for a teen audience, but she was compelled by an awareness of the limited range of marginalized characters in fiction. “I really needed to see a Morgan Parker character when I was that age,” the author says.
The Morgan Parker we meet in Who Put This Song On? is a black teen who lives in a heavily white suburb in Southern California. She thoroughly enjoys emo music, actively acquires information about black history—due to the dearth of it taught at her Christian high school—and has started seeing a therapist named Susan. “It seems like everyone I meet, everyone telling me how to be, is a Susan,” teen Morgan laments. After she’s diagnosed with depression, Morgan starts meeting with Susan over the course of her junior year. This is a year rife with aggressions (both micro and macro) during the 2008 U.S. presidential election as Barack Obama is solidified as the first black presidential candidate; personal disappointments and revelations; and many uncomfortable, yet eye-opening, moments with her family, friends, and crushes.
Through it all, Morgan’s voice is critical, blunt, and hysterical, never glossing over the issues yet refusing to tie them up prettily. Morgan’s humorous observations about the people in her community—“White people love Bon Jovi”—along with honest accounts of the complexity of depression and emotions in general—“Whatever, sometimes you just need to cry for no reason”—allow readers access to a relatable reality. “Even though it’s a really personal story, I wanted it to be really open,” Parker notes. “I find we’re either so dramatic, like so sad, or so perfect. I wanted something that’s just…here’s what it is.”
Parker wasn’t being coy when she said there were struggles moving from poetry to narrative. “I mean, novels take forever,” she admits about writing Who Put This Song On? over the years and trying on different voices before discovering one that was truly hers. But the author found that not overthinking the process was also, in her words, “freeing.” At points Parker asked herself, “Am I just breaking all the rules? Is this a novel? I don’t even know. Can I even…oh well!”
Ultimately, what teen Morgan goes through showcases community, people, and experiences that aren’t monochrome. Many coming-of-age stories, the author found, are hopeful but not always helpful. “I’m trying to prepare my reader for what is next, not what could be next. Not what [happens] ‘if you have a good attitude and good support system,’ not that,” she says. Morgan and her ragtag group of friends lose and regain faith, get hurt, experience pain, rejoice in their successes, and learn how to express and embrace who they are in the process. Journeys like theirs don’t often have a clear path or a satisfactory conclusion.
Parker says, “For a teenager, how do you feel regret at the same time you feel optimism and hope? Those are really complicated emotions to navigate all at once.” Who Put This Song On? seeks to decipher those emotions as teen Morgan does, and she brings readers along for the ride with a very emo soundtrack.
Jennifer Baker is the editor of Everyday People: The Color of Life—A Short Story Anthology and the creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast.