It’s November and you know what that means… it’s time for our group discussion of SLAY by Brittney Morris! NOTE: There will absolutely be some spoilers, so if you haven’t read SLAY, then it’s best to steer clear. But if you’ve picked up SLAY, then read on! And we’d love to hear your thoughts on SLAY, and what you’re reading next.
First things first. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the incredible cover.
Jessica: IT’S SO GOOD.
Audrey: The cover is fantastic! I love the model and the colors and the glitchy effects. That shade of pink is eye-catching in the best way.
Crystal: Love it! She looks like she is not messing around. And after wearing glasses for more than 30 years and rarely seeing them on covers of books or magazines, I was excited to see her wearing them.
K. Imani: The cover is so beautiful. I really loved that we see a Black girl wearing glasses, and the fact that it’s all digitized really felt like this was going to be a novel that pushes ones expectations about race and gaming.
Before we really dive in: What’s your familiarity level with video games and the gaming world? How did that influence your reading of SLAY?
Crystal: I started playing video games back in the 80s. Yup. I’m old. I didn’t really play anything after high school. Once I had children, I watched quite a bit since both of my children are very much in the gaming world. So, it’s not totally my area of expertise, but I’m generally familiar with the language and concepts. I love that Kiera has this level of involvement in the gaming world. She pushes herself to learn more, do more, and keep tackling challenges.
Jessica: I wrote for a mobile game studio for the last few years up until recently, but ironically, I’m not much of a gamer! But I do keep up with games industry news, and dabble in playing mobile games. So when I heard about SLAY, I knew I absolutely had to read it. Since I know what it takes to create a game, I’ve got huge respect for Kiera as a character, and the author. Game dev, and writing about it, is no joke.
Audrey: I love to play video games but don’t consider myself a gamer. I mostly play RPGs and a scattering of mobile games and hope to start playing more PC games once I upgrade to a proper desktop. I bump into a lot of industry news and general video game discussion in the places I frequent online. When I heard about SLAY, I was very interested in reading about a Black teenage girl as a game developer and seeing how she tackled some of the downsides of the internet and video games in particular.
K. Imani: Because of my vision, I don’t game at all. Well, when the Nintendo Wii came out, I definitely played because it didn’t trigger my motion sickness, but that is about all. I know very little about being gamer aside from watching my husband play, friends play World of Warcraft, and of course, reminding my students to focus on school work instead of gaming. I didn’t know much about SLAY, but when I got the book and read the summary I was excited. Black girl cording and creating a popular game – cool! I think my lack of experience with gaming allowed me to experience the novel through a window and understand how video games are an escape for folks, just like books are an escape for me.
Kiera is one of two Black girls at Jefferson Academy, the other being her sister Steph, and they both approach this in different ways. Through her game, Kiera creates a community space where she can be comfortable being herself. Thoughts on Kiera’s relationship with her friends and family, and the work of creating safe spaces?
Audrey: One of the themes that was brought up constantly in the book was that Black people aren’t a monolith, and Kiera and Steph had different approaches to and tolerances of the nonsense at Jefferson Academy, in other parts of their lives, and online. They also supported one another, sometimes unintentionally. I loved the reveal that Steph played SLAY, too, that this safe space Kiera built also happened to give Steph an outlet she loved. And by the end of the book, I felt like that was returned, when Steph helped Kiera at her emotional low point and was able to assist Kiera with what she couldn’t manage on her own. Their relationship was one of my favorite sibling relationships this year in YA.
Jessica: Ditto on loving Kiera and Steph’s sibling relationship. I just love their dynamic! Their love for each other really shines through. It was fascinating to see how Kiera and Steph both approached their lives at Jefferson Academy. Kiera turned to creating a game where she could escape to, a space all her own. Steph reminded me of something I heard someone at a queer Asian conference say about safe spaces: You, as a person, can become a safe space for others. You can actively create that environment and carry it around with you. Both approaches are valid and so important.
Crystal: We all need at least one place and/or person that can be our safe space. Being able to let down your guard and not constantly being vigilant is such a gift. I liked the sentiment Jessica shared. Individuals can be that safe space. Kiera didn’t even have that safe space in her own home because she didn’t trust them to accept all of her. They don’t make it feel like a safe space because they hold certain ideas about what a Black woman should be and Kiera knows she doesn’t fit that mold.
K. Imani: I so related to being one of the few Black kids in a private school as that was often the experience of both my sister and I (though our high school was more diverse). Throughout the book I was thinking of how Kiera’s and Steph’s high school experiences are so different than mine because of the access to information and a younger, more woke, generation. Like the book mentions, Black folk are not a monolith and I feel like that the novel really showed how different we are within our own households. Like Crystal mentioned, Kiera doesn’t really have a safe space in her own house so she really needed to create SLAY for her own sanity. And I completely agree that safe spaces are needed. Kiera’s relationship with Harper & Wyatt showed exactly why she needed a safe space. While they were friends, the microaggressions can sometimes come from the most innocent of intentions that make folks just need a place where you are not always on guard. I completely understood Kiera’s motivation for creating SLAY and loved how she went about creating a space not just for herself, but for others.
When SLAY is brought into the spotlight because of an in-game conflict that leads to a murder, the news media zeroes in on it being exclusive to Black gamers, and deems it racist. What was your reaction to that?
Jessica: How the media reacts to SLAY felt too real. I can see that happening in real life, because of course, people are always up in arms when it comes to things like this. And what gets forgotten is that so many spaces — whether it’s games, academia, publishing, Hollywood, etc — are already exclusionary and set up to privilege white voices. I really appreciated how this gets called out and unpacked throughout the novel.
Crystal: I see this at some conferences when there is a caucus that is not open to all. Some people get a little starchy about it, but seriously, Kiera and others have a valid point. They are not safe in the places that say they are technically meant for everybody. Yes, anybody can play, but the racist bullying happens when a gamer is seen as a person of color and they may not even have avatars that look like people of color. I totally get the desire to have a place where you just don’t have to deal with all of that – a place that feels made for you specifically, not just letting you try to fit into something designed for others.
Audrey: Yeah, it definitely felt way too real. I got so angry on Kiera’s behalf when the news and social media showed up. Watching the terrible opinions roll out on the tv and online was just awful, and of course all of it was complicated by the very real fact Kiera might be doxxed and sued. It was impossible to miss how SLAY was subjected to the worst assumptions from pretty much every corner. But I loved how we saw through various one-off POVs just how much having a place created by a Black developer meant to Black video game players around the world. It was in everything from the range of skin tones/hair styles available for avatars to in-game items. And I loved the mentions that Kiera took community feedback on how to add more inclusive aspects to her game, too (while still pointing out that people wouldn’t agree on everything).
K. Imani: I was so angry because it was so real; as in a conversation I had with a person who couldn’t grasp why the concept of a BSU (Black Student Union) was necessary. I loved that SLAY was unapologetically Black and was a place to really celebrate Blackness. The snippets with the individual POV’s perfectly highlighted why SLAY was so necessary. While I was so angry about the media’s criminalization of SLAY, like Jessica, I’m glad that was unpacked and shown how systematic racism works, and how safe spaces are often criticized and the point of these spaces completely missed by those of a certain privilege.
Kiera goes by the pseudonym Wakandria at one point, and later on, her boyfriend goes by the Twitter handle @xxPeaceMongerFOOxx. What parallels did you draw between SLAY and Black Panther?
Jessica: I loved seeing the references, and honestly, it made me want to rewatch Black Panther. I’ll probably do that after this. Spoiler warning again, but Malcolm definitely reminded me of Killmonger because of… story reasons.
Audrey: I loved the Black Panther references a lot. For me, I think the strongest parallels between SLAY and Black Panther was the setting: this semi-secret place designed to be protected against colonization. There were a whole bunch of great people in both places, though they didn’t always see eye-to-eye. And then, of course, both were held hostage and disrupted by someone who disagreed with the foundational principles of that space (and ended up pushing it into change).
Crystal: Her game was such a celebration of Black culture. It was overflowing with Black Girl Magic. Also, a young woman gets to show her genius. Like Wakanda, it was dazzling, but also in both are people and people complicate everything. I agree Malcolm’s ideas were much like those of Killmonger.
K. Imani: So I didn’t see the references to Black Panther as any parallel because since the movie came out, many Black folk just reference Black Panther all the time. To me, it is just part of being Black. I wonder if this is a case of where others see it as something deeper, and for me it was part of everyday life.
Food for thought! As we wrap up, let’s talk about other books on our must-read list! What are you planning on reading next after SLAY?
K. Imani: I’m kinda playing catch-up on series so I’m currently reading Heidi Heilig’s For a Muse of Fire, and then reading an adult sci-fi series. I’m going to NCTE, so who knows what goodies I’ll be bringing back.
Jessica: Ooh, excited for your NCTE trip! As for me, there’s so much exciting stuff in my TBR pile. I’m about to start on By Any Means Necessary by Candice Montgomery, and I plan to read I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi. And just this week, I read the comic Mooncakes and it was so much fun.
Audrey: The very next thing on my list is Rogue Heart by Axie Oh, but I also hope to get ahold of I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi and Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett, just to name a few.
Crystal: I will be reading, Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai soon. I loved her middle grade books and am eager to see this one. Pet by Akwaeke Emeze, and Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes are two more I’m eager to get my hands on. Oh, and I have access to an ARC of Say Her Name, a poetry collection by Zetta Elliott! I’m excited to read it soon.
And that’s it for our group discussion for this quarter! What did YOU think of SLAY? What are you reading right now? And what are you planning to read later this fall? Share with us! We’d love to hear from you.