Brittney Morris walked out of the theater after seeing Black Panther with a single goal in mind: Find a way back to Wakanda. Soon after, Morris started crafting her debut novel, a YA book featuring a high school girl named Kiera who creates a virtual reality game for black players. SLAY is one of our must-read books of the season, and we couldn’t wait to sit down with Morris after reading to talk about the book. Here, Morris talks about Kiera’s relationships with other characters, using Black Panther as inspiration, and real games readers can play while battling a SLAY book hangover.
Bookish: Kiera is a normal teenager grappling with the responsibility of being a good daughter, student, and friend. But she’s also the creator of SLAY, an incredibly popular game, and she wrestles with the responsibility for the players’ well-being. What made you want to write about the ways she deals with and attempts to balance these responsibilities?
Brittney Morris: After I saw Black Panther, I was hoping someone would make a Wakanda simulator video game, because I immediately wanted to go back to Wakanda. Then I got to thinking about how controversial an all-Nubian virtual reality massively multiplayer online game (MMO) would be. I realized how much responsibility would be on the shoulders of someone managing such a game. Add real life into the equation, and you get Kiera. There are plenty of teenage game developers now. As engines become easier to download, and coding becomes a more and more ubiquitous skill, teens have more opportunities to make video games right at home than ever before. I wanted to explore the ways Kiera deals with this balance, because she’s a character who could actually exist one day.
Bookish: The game Kiera builds is massive and very detailed. How did you go about creating the virtual world of SLAY? What were the easiest elements to craft and what were the hardest?
BM: Honestly, the whole time I was just envisioning Wakanda, and what it would look like across several climates— Tundra, Desert, Swamp, Rainforest, Forest, and Savanna. I’ve been watching video game playthroughs (or Let’s Plays) on YouTube for years, so I’ve seen tons of games with amazing visuals. I had plenty of idea fodder!
The easiest elements were probably the outfits and items—I thought of clothing items off the cuff, and I’ve had enough different hairstyles to be able to list a bunch on the spot. The hardest elements were probably the names of the arenas. I wanted them to be especially significant, since there are only a few arenas per region. For instance, Fairbanks Arena in the Tundra region isn’t named after Fairbanks, AK, but Mabel Fairbanks, the first Black figure skater to be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
Bookish: If you were creating a character in the game, what would they look like, and which arena would they call home?
BM: My character would probably look different every time I log in, because some days I’d want to be a mermaid and other days I’d want to be a Mortal Kombat-esque warrior with a katana. My character would definitely start in the Swamp region, because it’s an easy place to forage and make money with introductory tools, and then I might venture to the Tundra, because that’s where a lot of spell ingredients are!
Bookish: The book includes chapters narrated by SLAY players around the world. Why did you decide to include these chapters, and which was your favorite to write?
BM: First, I decided to peek into Cicada’s world. She’s such a rich, beautiful character, and I fell in love with her story before I even knew what it was. Chapter three is dedicated to her because I wanted to show her perspective as a Black girl in Paris with a Black father and a white mom. Then I realized I had an opportunity to show the significance and broad spectrum that is Black womanhood from the perspective of a trans girl, Jaylen. I added in another scene from the perspective of a Black businessman in Beijing, since I wrote this book a few months after visiting China for the first time myself and learning about how my Blackness is perceived in China. And finally, I added Professor Abbott’s perspective because he’s not a gamer. His perspective might be my favorite because he reminds me so much of my parents (neither of which are gamers). I wanted to show SLAY meaning something to lots of different Black people, even non-gamers. Professor Abbott is also an accessible character for readers who don’t play video games. It’s an invitation to join the gaming party, even if it’s in book form!
Bookish: In the novel, readers see the similarities and differences between how Kiera’s parents view blackness and how Kiera and her sister do. What drew you to exploring these generational differences?
BM: My parents and I have vastly different opinions on politics, religion, racial identity, activism, and feminism. I love them dearly, but we’re very, very different. Views on Blackness and what it means to be a powerful Black woman, or a pro-Black activist can vary based on gender and age, and I wanted to make sure to explore both of those because they can cause significant differences of opinion. For example, my parents grew up in a world where “natural hair” was considered strictly unprofessional. I live in a world where people with natural hair are advocating for equal treatment in the workplace, not by the style of our hair, but by the content of our resume. Code-switching has different connotations for my parents, and even for my grandparents, than it does for me. Things that “just weren’t said” during their childhood are said all the time now. Things that shouldn’t be said now, were perfectly normal for them. All of that is worth exploring on the page.
Bookish: Kiera’s boyfriend Malcolm lifts Kiera up by calling her his queen, but he also believes in a strict definition of what a black woman should be. His ideals ultimately have a large impact on Kiera and the plot. How did you go about shaping his character and his arc?
BM: Malcolm’s view of Blackness is unique in that it comes with a heaping helping of rules that Black women must abide by in order to be “down for the cause.” For example, the unconditional (read: boundary-free) support of Black men, and the avoidance of “distractions” created by the white man, which includes TV and video games. This puts immense pressure on Kiera, who’s navigating her own definitions of Blackness, especially since she’s exploring through the lens of video games. It’s hard enough figuring out core pillars of who you are, let alone if you choose to do so in ways that are unconventional or “not what people are used to.” As I was writing, Malcolm quickly became a voice in Kiera’s head with a radical view on Blackness that she has to reconcile with her own views.
Bookish: The game SLAY involves players using attack, hex, and defense cards to battle each other. If there were a SLAY card named after you, what would it do?
BM: A SLAY card named after me?? I hope it would give the wielder a magic pen, or something else to do with writing! No idea what that would look like in-game, but we’ve got thousands of influential Black people who deserve to get a card before me, so we don’t have to worry about that for awhile.
Bookish: This book is certain to get readers in the mood to play a video game. What games would you recommend for readers, like myself, who aren’t gamers and now want to start playing?
BM: Aw, this question makes me so happy. If you want to get into gaming after reading SLAY, I have several recommendations, depending on what drew you into SLAY. If you’re looking for more games featuring a largely Black cast, my favorites include Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, Papo & Yo, or Rime. If you’re looking for huge, open-world games with vibrant scenery, I recommend Rime (again), Assassin’s Creed (pretty much any of them, but Odyssey is especially beautiful), and Subnautica. If you’re like me and you like games that feel like playing a novel, I recommend Life is Strange (1 or 2), or Undertale. And if you’re looking for games that tug at your heartstrings, perhaps GRIS, The Last Guardian, or That Dragon, Cancer. I could recommend mobile games, puzzle games, games that make you laugh, etc, but I’d probably need a whole book worth of space. Hit me up on Twitter if you’re looking for more!
Brittney Morris is the author of SLAY. She is also the founder and former president of the Boston University Creative Writing Club. She holds a BA in economics. Brittney spends her spare time playing video games, slaying at DDR, and enjoying the Seattle rain from her apartment. She lives with her husband Steven, who would rather enjoy the rain from a campsite in the woods because he hasn’t played enough horror games. You can find her online at AuthorBrittneyMorris.com, on Twitter and Instagram @BrittneyMMorris.