Nicola Yoon says ‘One of Our Kind’ inspired by ‘The Stepford Wives’ and Toni Morrison

Nicola Yoon says ‘One of Our Kind’ inspired by ‘The Stepford Wives’ and Toni Morrison

Bestselling young adult fiction author Nicola Yoon says she didn’t set out to write a book for adult audiences.

But then the pandemic lockdowns happened, and so did the murder of George Floyd and so did the protests across the country. That summer, the discussions about what it meant to be Black in America were everywhere. 

In the fall of 2020, Yoon began to write her latest novel. It took her only six weeks to finish the first draft.

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“That’s not a thing that I’ve ever done before, and it’s not a thing I’ll ever do again. I am, in general, a very slow writer,” she said, laughing. 

Three years later, the draft was a fully formed book. It was also very different from the YA romances Yoon is most known for: “Everything, Everything,” and “The Sun is Also a Star,” both of which reached New York Times No. 1 Bestseller status and were adapted for the big screen.

Her latest book, “One of Our Kind,” available from Knopf on Tuesday, June 11, is an adult thriller inspired by “The Stepford Wives,” about a Black family from Los Angeles in search of a place to truly call home.   

“One of Our Kind” is set in a fictional LA-area town of wealthy Black residents called Liberty. Public defender Jasmyn Williams has been convinced to move there by her husband King, a former teacher now working in finance. He argues that the couple’s newfound wealth will allow their son Kamau and their unborn child to grow up in true safety in Liberty – not just physical safety, but mental and emotional safety, as well.

Upon meeting her fellow residents, however, Jasmyn soon realizes that most of them seem to have abandoned the fight for racial equality. They’ve also fully embraced the trappings of wealth  – mansions, maids, multi-course dinner parties. And of course, there are the strange-sounding spa treatments at the Liberty Wellness Center, where most residents – including King – now seem to spend hours of their time. 

Jasmyn finds the whole thing strange and uncomfortable, but admits that she could stand to relax a little and enjoy the safety and comforts of Liberty. After all, she’s made a couple of friends who find it strange too, so she doesn’t feel like so much of an outsider anymore. But when those friends begin to change in drastic and incomprehensible ways, Jasmyn becomes determined to find out what’s really going on.

“One of Our Kind” is about race, but Yoon also examines class, the culture of social justice and the lengths people might go to in order to truly feel “free” in America. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Q. What was different for you in writing for adults versus younger audiences?

I think young adults, in general, are into questioning things. It’s just that time of your life – you’re coming of age, you’re 16 or 17, you’re pushing against your parents’ boundaries, you’re trying to figure out who you are and what the meaning of life is – you’re just asking all these big questions. I also tend to be a philosophical person who likes to think about big questions, so with my previous books, it was a natural fit for me to, you know, be in conversation with the kids.

In the case of “One of Our Kind,” I didn’t know I was going to write a book for adults until I was writing the book. I just had Jasmyn, the main character, in my brain. She was definitely going to be married with a child, and pregnant, and she was a public defender. She had adult concerns and adult challenges. It just fit that way.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?

The idea for this book actually came from different places. The first was a conversation I’d had with a friend of mine, who is an activist; we were both on a panel on race and racism. Afterwards, we went out to dinner, and we were talking while having a couple of glasses of wine. And he said, “Do you ever wonder who we would be if it weren’t for racism?”

When the protests around George Floyd’s murder were happening, I just had that question in my head, along with a Toni Morrison quote: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”

Another idea came when I was listening to the “You’re Wrong About” podcast and there was an episode about “The Stepford Wives.” Everyone uses “Stepford Wife” as a pejorative, but actually the book – I’d read “The Stepford Wives” book, but I’d never watched the movies – is very feminist. 

When the lightbulb went off, I screamed out to my husband and he came running because he thought I’d seen a spider or something. I told him, “Oh, I have a really good idea! I want to do The Stepford Wives, but Black.” And he said, “Hey, that’s not bad!” 

So those ideas just smashed together in my head, and I wrote “One of Our Kind.”

Q. The setting for this book is Liberty, a fictional town in Los Angeles meant to be a Black utopia. Can you talk about that, and how money factors into the story? 

I live in L.A. myself, and there’s just an obscene amount of wealth here. It was actually really fun to write about wealth, and about the town spa and weird wellness services – there’s so much about wealthy wellness culture that can be ridiculous, you know?

I think that we talk about race a lot as a society, but we don’t talk about class – including the ways in which it can protect you and the ways in which it doesn’t protect you at all. If you are a young Black boy walking down the street, you could be super wealthy, but it does not matter, right? Because if a cop driving by has an agenda, you are still Black, and you are still walking down the street. Your money may not protect you. 

I also wanted to talk about the ways that money can remove you from your cause. It’s so easy to sink into the comforts of wealth, and let the world go by. I think that this is a thing that we are all subject to – I think this happens to everyone. 

Liberty is meant to be a utopia for Black people. But do utopias exist for Black people, given the system we all live in? 

Q. Going back to Jasmyn – where did she come from? What inspired you to write her the way you did?

Jasmyn is complicated. She comes from a place that I think we all struggle with, which is wanting to do the right thing in a modern world full of contradictions. For example, we all know that climate change is happening, but we still fly in planes that contribute to it. We do things that aren’t always in service of a larger cause, and there’s some guilt that can come with that. She was born out of that feeling. She struggles with it too, to her own detriment when it comes to her relationships with her husband and her friends.

Jasmyn is also a mom. She wants to protect her son as well as her unborn son from a world that is difficult for Black boys. Her vigilance is driven by her intense love for her children. But she doesn’t always get it right, and she’s judgmental to a fault. She’s a real, whole messy person.

Q. In your acknowledgments, you said you wrote the book from a place of despair and anger. I also felt like there was some exhaustion mixed in.

I mean, I think there is a lot of exhaustion. How could there not be? It’s that Toni Morrison quote again – having to defend your smarts and your beauty and your right to walk down the street and be left alone. If you’re a parent, you also have to find ways to protect and defend your children. Psychically, it can be exhausting.

Q. You also said you wrote from a place of hope. What do you hope readers will take away from the book? 

I think what’s missing from a lot of our discourse is a sense of grace – by which I mean really listening to people, and letting people sometimes get things wrong, rather than believing the worst about each other. I have gotten things wrong, and friends have gotten things wrong, and in the end, we listen to each other and correct each other and move on, and it’s fine. 

I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna – some people are terrible and you should not talk to them! But I think most people will do the right thing, if they know what the right thing is. Having real conversations with grace – I think that’s how things change. That’s what I hope people do after reading this book.

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