From the Lesley MFA to the 2020 National Book Awards: Candice Iloh’s Every Body Looking

At Cambridge Common Writers, we know our alums are all immensely talented and work very hard to produce creative works that are a joy and a privilege to read. That’s why we’re always so pleased when that talent is recognized by the rest of the world, as has happened with Candice Iloh’s debut novel, Every Body Looking.

When Ada leaves home for her freshman year at a Historically Black College, it’s the first time she’s ever been so far from her family—and the first time that she’s been able to make her own choices and to seek her place in this new world. As she stumbles deeper into the world of dance and explores her sexuality, she also begins to wrestle with her past—her mother’s struggle with addiction, her Nigerian father’s attempts to make a home for her. Ultimately, Ada discovers she needs to brush off the destiny others have chosen for her and claim full ownership of her body and her future.

Every Body Looking has been nominated and is now a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, which will stream online on Wednesday, November 18th at 7 p.m. EST (and is hosted by our own WFYP mentor Jason Reynolds!). You can RSVP for the ceremony here (donations encouraged).

Available at Penguin Random House and other sites.

Check out these stunning reviews for Every Body Looking:

Take a look below at blurbs from our alums as well as questions we asked Candice about their novel:

This story felt authentic and lived. I recognized myself in it at different points, which is, I guess, surprising, considering all of the ways Ada’s and my backgrounds are different. But for the ways in which they are the same, this is a book that a much younger me would have found essential.

— Diane Griffin (Nonfiction, January 2018)

What’s the biggest challenge of writing a narrative in verse as opposed to writing a narrative in prose?

Writing a long form story in verse poses the challenge of making a lot happen on the page with way fewer words. I came up in the open mic poetry scene while living in Washington D.C. and, for a long time, I focused all of  my energy on perfecting singular poems in which I wrote about moments instead of whole stories. There was a time when I felt like it was much easier for me to express myself through poems and I still feel that way sometimes. I love the art of brevity and I’m pretty matter of fact in how I naturally speak. I like to focus on the distilled meaning in a brief period of time, as well as practice naming things directly without disclaimer. The challenge I’ve faced in writing verse novel is telling the fullness of the story while maintaining the integrity of each poem. I feel too proud to sacrifice the poem for the sake of the book.

I read Every Body Looking in one exhilarating whoosh and adored every single page. A book about a young woman’s discovery of her creative passion has never been written so creatively or passionately. Candice’s writing is a gift to young and not-as-young readers alike.

— Hurley Winkler (Fiction, January 2017)

The risk for any writer using the first person singular voice is that readers – including family – will assume some measure of autobiography. I imagine that risk is greater for a first-gen Nigerian American, carrying the burden of expectations and exhortations against shaming the family. Was this so for you? How did you overcome the self-protective instinct to censor your writing of Ada?

I definitely put a lot of myself into my work. Storytelling helps me make connections with the world both as an artist and person. I began writing, wanting to be heard and understood. That being a big part of my creative work requires a decent amount of vulnerability from me. Being compassionate and gentle in how I navigate the themes I weave into my work is a constant struggle. I care deeply about how my work affects my family but I feel a much greater responsibility to be truthful than to be too careful.  I don’t know that I’ve necessarily overcome the instinct to protect myself and I don’t really want to.  I want to keep having that instinct, paired with the boldness to still find ways to say what I mean. But I don’t believe I’m ever telling an entirely singular story. I draw from so much outside myself to create the fullest narrative that I can.

Is this prose or poetry? Classification doesn’t seem to matter with Candice Iloh’s debut novel, ‘Every Body Looking.’ With few brushstrokes, they paint vivid scenes. The reader is plunged, from page one, into Ada’s multicultural world, a world of unspoken codes and uneasy transitions, of Aunty’s smelly stockfish, Daddy’s furrowed brows, and Mama’s thorny love. More impressive, though, is Candice’s mapping of Ada’s changing emotional landscape as she comes of age and learns to own it – all the ‘its’ which make her a different kind of girl, which make her more than Magic.

— Celeste Mohammed (Fiction, June 2016)

How did performing elements of your story in front of a live audience at your one-woman show affect the process of writing the book, and the ultimate product overall? Is this process something you want to continue to develop for future works?

The first iteration of Every Body Looking was about half the length that it is now and I created the one woman show around half of the original scenes. For one, getting the opportunity to perform parts of the story as Ada on stage felt extremely transformational. I had to think deeply about her character and bring everything on the page to life up there by myself.  In ways, I had to think about her in ways I hadn’t before in order to play her in front of an audience. Telling the same story using different mediums gave me the opportunity to experience the story again for the first time. This helped me identify areas in the book that I could develop and unpack further. I’m definitely thinking a lot about seeing my stories on the screen more and more as of late.

I loved Candice’s novel in verse. This is a book where every word is intentional and nothing is extra. Because the writing is so tight and thoughtful, nothing gets between the reader and Ada, the main character, allowing you to shadow her in a way that leaves you deeply invested in her story. The kaleidoscope of time, the choice Iloh makes to not present the story in a linear way, builds the portrait of Ada beautifully. I loved this as an adult but I can feel how empowering and validating this book could be for a younger person, which made me love it more. There is something pure about Candice’s writing, something authentic and true, and it makes you know that this is a writer with a brilliant career in front of them. I can’t wait to read what they write next.

— Cindy House (Fiction, June 2017)

You were able to workshop earlier drafts of your novel with Lesley WFYP mentors Jason Reynolds and Tracey Baptiste. Was there any advice or feedback they offered you that really helped in your revisions or helped you tell the story you needed to tell?

Both Jason and Tracey taught me a lot about getting into the headspace to create authentic characters. In Every Body Looking I wrote a protagonist who we see experience life at five different ages: 6, 7, 11, 17, and 18. I did this to help the reader draw direct connections between Ada’s childhood and how she interacts with the world on her own as a young adult, free to make her own choices and judgments. Jason coached me through finding the most dynamic ways to illustrate her identity while Tracey challenged me to pull from deep within my own childhood memories.

Writing Every Body Looking as a novel in verse allows Candice Iloh to effectively submerge readers into Ada’s experience, placing them directly in Ada’s consciousness and allowing for seamless movement through the stages of her life. Iloh’s verse is syncopated and complex, and there are no wasted words, no impurities weighing down this story.

— Michael Mercurio (Poetry, January 2017)

What’s next? What projects are you excited to work on now, or are thinking about working on in the future?

It’s so wild that everybody is already asking that, haha! I’m just gonna be cryptic and say I’m in the throes of some exciting things, including my second YA novel with Penguin and some Middle Grade that I’m excited about. I’m looking forward to writing all the things.

Listen to Candice talk more about their novel by checking out any one of these videos below:

Candice Iloh

Philadelphia, PA
Graduated June 2017

CANDICE ILOH is a first-generation Nigerian-American writer and performer whose writing has appeared in Fjords Review, The Grio, For Harriet, Blavity (x , x), No Dear Magazine, Glass Poetry Journal, Puerto Del Sol, and The Black Girl Magic Anthology by Haymarket Books. They are a recipient of fellowships from VONA, Home School via Lambda Literary fellowship, as well as a Rhode Island Writers Colony Writer-in-Residence alum. They hold an MFA in Writing for Young People from Lesley University, where they completed their debut young adult novel in verse, Every Body Looking (Dutton YA/Penguin Random House, Sept 2020). They are a 2018 Hi-ARTS Critical Breaks artist residency recipient where they debuted their first one-woman show, ADA: ON STAGE. When Candice isn’t writing, they dance. You can follow them @becomher on Instagram and Twitter.

Visit their Author Website

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