Georgia Sparling: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. My name is Georgia Sparling, and today, I'm joined by an alumna of our Master’s in Education program, Mariama Lockington, to talk about her debut novel For Black Girls Like Me. Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Mariama.
Mariama Lockington: Thank you so much for having me.
Georgia: I read your book and I loved it. I really think that maybe for those who haven't delved into it yet, that the best introduction would be the opening paragraph of the book. Would you read that for us?
Mariama: Absolutely. The first section is called Tumbleweed and this was the first paragraph. "I am a girl, but most days I feel like a question mark. People throw their looks at me, then back at my mama, sister, and papa, who are all as white as oleander, then they look back at me, black as a midnight orchard. I see their puzzled faces trying to understand where I fit. People ask me where I'm from, but I know they really mean, who do you belong to?"
Georgia: That's great. As I said, I love this book. Your main character is Keda. She's an 11-year-old girl and she's going through a lot of stuff. Could you give our audience an introduction to this character and what's happening in her life?
Mariama: Yes, absolutely. Like you said, Makeda is 11 years old and she is a transracial adoptee. She was adopted when she was a baby into a white family. Both of her parents are musicians and she has an older sister who is her parents' biological child. At the time the novel starts, they all live in Baltimore, Maryland, where Keda has grown up her whole life. She has her best friend who is also a black girl who's been adopted into a white family. Her dad gets a new job with the New Symphony all the way across the country in Albuquerque in New Mexico.
In the middle of her sixth-grade year, she's torn away from the life that she's grown to know and her best friend and she and her family pack up and move to New Mexico, which is the desert and very different in landscape. Keda is dealing with things that a lot of young people deal with, like being the new kid, having to start a new school, having to deal with bullies and with a lot of questions about the way her family looks, but she's also starting to have really intense dreams, and questions, and wonderings, and feelings about where she comes from, and who she is, and what it feels like to grow up in a family that loves her but that doesn't always understand her or the experience that she's going through because they don't share the same skin color.
It's really a story about a young girl trying to find her voice. It's a story about a family that looks like a lot of families in this country and around the world, but it's a story that I really wanted to highlight the nuanced experiences of growing up in a multiracial family, but also specifically, the nuanced experience of growing up as a transracial adoptee, which is a story-- I didn't find books about adoptees when I was growing up and so I was writing into that when I created this book.
Georgia: I'm biracial, I grew up in Small Town, Mississippi. Even though I was not adopted, I got a lot of the comments that Keda gets in this book, just racist comments, microaggressions, and things I didn't have a word for and I don’t know even think words existed for when I was a kid, but I was criticized for talking white because my mom's white, and I got questioning looks and just outright questions when I'd go to a grocery store or a department store with my mom. This book felt pretty personal to me and it also felt like it came from someone who had lived this experience.
How did you decide to write Keda's story and where did you get these experiences from?
Mariama: That's such a good question. This book is what we call an own voices novel. It is fiction, but it is a book that's inspired by my own life experience, and a lot of the emotional things that Keda goes through as a young person are things that I went through. I was also adopted and I was adopted into a white family in the '80s. I grew up in the same kind of family that Keda did. I have black siblings, white siblings and my parents are white. I was a really avid reader as a young person, but I was constantly looking for a book that mirrored experiences like mine.
I was looking for books about young black girls, I was looking for even just young black people. It didn't have to be a girl specifically. Then I was always aware of the stories about girls who are growing up either with a parent that's a different race from them or two parents because I felt really isolated sometimes as a young person in that experience. We always like to talk about that Toni Morrison quote that's like, "If there's a book or a story that you want to read, you must be the one to write it."
I actually started my writing career out as, I'm a poet at heart. For those people who read or will read the book, the hardcover edition of the book and the form is really experimental. There are poems in this book, there are pieces that look more like paragraphs, or songs, there are definitions. I've played around a little bit what that looks like, but poetry is how I learned to survive and share my voice as a young person and then into college and adulthood, and so, storytelling through poetry became really important to me.
Then, I found my way into writing for young people, because I wrote an essay about my own experiences that was published and an editor read it and asked if I'd be interested in writing a book based on those experiences but for young people. I'm an educator as well and so everything just clicked. I love working with middle schoolers, I love encouraging young people to tell their stories, and so writing a book for young people and continuing to write books for young people has really engaged me in a new and exciting way.
Georgia: I can tell you're very passionate about it, obviously [laughs]. The fact that you have worked with this age group, like Keda's age group a lot, and that you are in education, was that an impetus to also write a book that's pretty raw, to write something that's really real? Because I feel like maybe when I was growing up, that some hard things happen in books, but maybe not to the degree of what Keda is experiencing, because I don't think we've mentioned this yet, but aside from moving to a new place, her mom is having some serious mental health issues that Keda and her sister just have a front row seat to and aren't really sure what to do with. It's a pretty heavy topic.
Mariama: Absolutely. I think I have been always interested, as a young person and as I continue to work with young people, in stories that don't really shy away from some of the harder truths of either growing up or experience. I think there's totally room for stories that deal with lighter topics or that are escapist. I love reading all types of things, but for me growing up, I was really looking for stories that were contemporary, that were about young people in the here and now of the time that were really dealing with some struggling things. Those stories, for me, while they dealt with maybe heavier topics, felt really validating.
I've worked with middle schoolers primarily, but also high schoolers and I think that young people are really resilient. I also think that we don't give them a lot of credit for the things that they are experiencing, for the feelings that they're having, for how intuitive they are, and the fact that young people don't really like to be lied to about things that are going on. For me, it was important to write this story and just be as honest and open as I could be, knowing some of my own struggles at that time, working with young people who are going through all sorts of identity issues and issues at home.
Also, mental health is so stigmatized within our society. Most people, whether they know it or not, know someone who is living with a mental illness, and it's important, I think, to provide stories for young people that highlight what living with a mental illness looks like, what having a parent who's living with mental illness might look like. Also, Makeda herself struggles with some anxiety. That it's okay as a person to feel lots of things at once and then also prioritize figuring out how to take care of oneself and share your story. It's also okay to ask for help when you need it.
For me, it was important to talk about those things. Then also, I think, to validate that when you're growing up as an adoptee, sometimes you feel like you belong and you feel really loved and you feel really safe, and then sometimes you don't. Those two things you can hold them at the same time and it's okay to have those conflicting contradictions within yourself.
Georgia: In the book, beyond the things that are going on externally with Keda's mom, with going to a new school, trying to make friends, there's also these questions that she has about her birth mother. Like you were saying, there's that feeling that adoptees can have where you feel very safe, but also maybe out of place or unsafe at the same time. I'm curious about the way that you approached that kind of anxiety with the Georgia Belles, as they're calling it, this chorus that comes to her at night, and those chapters are told in verse. How did you decide to include the Georgia Belles in the story? It's almost as a supernatural element that I thought was really interesting and effective.
Mariama: Originally, this book in its really early form is actually a collection of poetry that I put together for my MFA thesis when I was at San Francisco State. The Georgia Belles piece was something that carried over into this current version of the book that's now published. I love that you said that they are like a chorus or I think of them as sort of dreams or spiritual guides that help Makeda work through some of her anxiety or her fears or her questions.
I also think that there's this underlying theme of thinking about what is a mother? What does it mean to be mothered? What does it mean maybe to have a mother that's out there that you've never met before? Then in turn, what does it mean to be black? I think a lot of Keda's dreams and wonderings are also about what does it mean to be a black girl, what does it mean to be a black person, and what does it mean to be part of the history that she's learning how to engage with in ways that maybe she wouldn't be doing if she were growing up in her biological family, or would be doing in a different way?
Those moments, for me, in the book, are about that, are about anxiety, about those questions, about those dreams and give Makeda a place to work through some of that nastiness as she's trying to look in the mirror and figure out what she loves about herself and what's important to her.
Georgia: I felt like in the book, I got frustrated with her parents quite a few times and I think you're supposed to. Even the fact that they named her Makeda after her mother heard about, I think, an Ethiopian person with that name who had died and she was like, "I am not a dead girl" [laughs]. Everybody has frustrations, probably, some time or another about their name and like, "Why did you name me this?" Even just that idea of like the mom, in particular, maybe just not quite getting it and thinking that she's maybe a little more intuitive, well, than she is, even though she's super well-meaning, but you're also like, "Oh, gosh, come on."
Mariama: Well, intention doesn't mitigate impact. I think that there are lots of people who are well-meaning, that are well-intentioned. Sometimes we hurt people and we don't mean to.
I think, for me, one of the biggest things that was important for me to put into this book, that's maybe one of the things that's a little bit heavier, or harder, or that people get frustrated with is that, obviously, Keda experiences racism when she goes out in the world in different ways. It was important for me to show that, sometimes, even within a loving family and a loving environment, people hurt each other and that sometimes microaggressions can happen over a dinner table or on a shopping trip. How do you navigate that as a child when maybe you don't have the words for that yet, maybe you don't know what that is, but your mom, or your sister, or your father says something? Because they don't share your same perspective and they don't know how that makes you feel.
It was really important for me to get those moments into the book. Those moments make people uncomfortable, but that was important for me because I know, from my own experience and from being a part of the adoptee in a transracial adoptee community, that those moments happen all the time in families, and not just in the adoptive families, but it's the same multiracial families as well, the ways that we, unintentionally, sometimes hurt each other when we don't share the same perspective.
Georgia: What you were saying about Keda not always being able to say what it is that's bothering her, to say what the actual problem is. That was something I noticed. I read it, and I thought, "Of course, it's hard enough as an adult to bring up some of these things, but for an 11-year-old to have the language to do it much less--" I mean, she could talk about a million things that were going on with her.
I love how in the book that she's not just a black adopted kid who moved to a new town. Also, she's got a crush, and she has a best friend that she writes to. She's got all of these things happening that no matter what your race is or your upbringing, you experience these things. They're common life things. I just really love that you didn't focus solely on that, but it really was this whole picture of a person. I really did appreciate that.
Mariama: Oh, thank you. I'm glad to hear that. I know some people have felt a little frustrated with the mental health themes that the book brings up. I think adopted people, black people, we're not a monolith, we're individuals, and so we have all types of things going on at the same time. Makeda can both be a black girl who's adopted into a white family and she can be a kid who's grown up with a parent who lives with a mental illness, and she can love to sing, and have best friends, and have crushes. Makeda herself is not a perfect character, she says some hurtful things as well in the story. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but-
Georgia: Yes, I know. I thought about bringing that up.
Mariama: --she's also trying to figure out how to be social and how to deal with the fact that sometimes you make mistakes as well when you're growing up. It was important to me that she was, hopefully, a rounded character in that way, and that she had ways that people could relate to her in lots of different ways.
Georgia: I think you did a great job on that. Going maybe more into your writing process, you talked about, a few minutes ago, that this started out as poetry, as different poems. I read in another article or another interview that you had done that you said it took about 10 years to write this book. How did this story change and what kept you from just dropping it altogether? Because 10 years is a while.
Mariama: Yes. I should say, I love doing school visits, when young people ask me, "Well, how long does it take to write a book or this book?" and I say, "Well, the long answer is that it took me 10 years to, the short answer is that this draft you hold in your hands took me a year and a half." The reason I say 10 years is because I started my MFA program and you have to compile a thesis. It's pretty early on in that program, these poems with the same girl voice, which then turned into Makeda's voice, just kept coming to me, and I started to write them and put them aside and write them and put them aside.
It was different than, I would say, other poetry collections I've written because there was this narrative, there was the same girl and she had the same family members. It was a little more autobiographical and a little more abstract, I would say. When I compiled these poems together, I really thought it was a book for adults. I graduated from my program and went out into the world and started to submit the 50, 65 pages of the manuscript to different prizes and poetry publishers thinking that what I had created was for an adult audience, even though the main voice in all the poems was this 11-year-old girl that was nameless at the time.
For a while, I was sending it out. Publishing is a long game and so I was getting a lot of rejections. I was working a really demanding nonprofit job, so I wasn't producing a lot of new stuff and I put it aside. Then in 2015, it's that summer of 2015, I believe, I wrote this essay that was autobiographical that got published in BuzzFeed, and then was reached out to by my now editor who gave me this idea and said, "I'd love for you to write this book, a book about your experiences, or based on your experiences, but for young people." That's when I picked the manuscript back up. I said, "Well, actually, I have this sort of manuscript that’s about an 11-year-old girl who's adopted, but it's very abstract. Some of the content is maybe a little racy for a middle-grade, but I'm willing to take a look at it."
I went back to it, and from that moment, got really excited. I'd been feeling really stagnant with that manuscript and I got to think about it for young people and think about the story. So, I gave Makeda a name and I worked on more concrete plot points and I worked on additional characters and voice. That process then took a year and a half, thinking about this poetry that I had and then turning it into an actual book with a narrative arc and all the things that happen for that.
I will say the other thing that I had to do and that was really helpful is that I worked with young people, specifically, middle schoolers. At the time, I was writing parts of this book, I was the Director of Education for the Writing and Literacy Center in New York. Then I moved back to Michigan, but I was coaching middle school girls on the run team. Something that really helped me was just being around young people, listening to how they talk to each other, engaging with them in conversations, figuring out what they cared about.
Some of those experiences also helped inform some of the more social interactions that Keda has in the book and some of the tension and conflict that happens with her and some of the other young people in the book. That became the process of taking something that was the foundation, revising it, and then getting excited about being able to provide a story for young people. I didn't really have to change that much of the content, it was just more so fleshing it out.
Georgia: Did you have any hesitation about turning it into a middle-grade novel or writing a middle-grade novel versus poetry?
Mariama: I did not. I think partly it's because I felt really supported by my editor and he was willing to let me experiment with form, and to let this next draft come out as it needed to. Then also because, like I said, I think what happened is I got so excited. I had been feeling like, "Okay, well, maybe I'll just put this aside and this is never something again, and I have to figure out what the next thing is". Thinking about writing for young people and the fact that part of my life passion is working with young people, I think middle schoolers are really great. They got a lot going on, but they're really great.
It all clicked. I had no hesitation. I just got excited and I went right back to work. I think I will write poetry for adults. I don't necessarily like to limit myself as far as what might be in the future, but I feel really good about being in that middle-grade space and writing stories for that age.
Georgia: Awesome. I was looking on your Instagram for a second. It looked you have another book coming out next year. Is that right?
Mariama: I do, yes.
Mariama: Thank you. Yes, it's another middle-grade. It'll be out probably next summer. We don't have an exact date, but 2021. It's about two black girls who go to camp and it's a love story. They meet at a music camp. Again, tackling some contemporary and maybe slightly less hard-hitting issues, but really excited about things, young black girls and young black people on book covers. Also, just wanted to write a story set at camp because I think it's such a good and fun place.
Georgia: Whatever it is a camp story, I think of The Parent Trap or something like that, the original Parent Trap. As far as ideas go, a lot of our listeners are writers or would like to be writers. What advice do you give them? Do you have endless ideas that you want to develop now? What would you tell people who say like, "how do I do this?"
Mariama: I say the thing that a lot of people say, that I think is really true that, "If you want to write, you need to read." It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to read one type of specific thing, but just read widely and read things that interest you. Read blogs that interest you, follow people that write interesting things, but being a reader and being able to support other authors and storytellers that you love will inspire you in the long run and help you also build your craft, I think.
The other thing that I say to young people about writing is that, I think, obviously, you can't publish a book or publish something until you've written it. You do have to make the time to sit down or stand up and write the thing that you want to write. I get the question about writer's block a lot. I also think that we don't think about the fact that sometimes writing happens when you're not sitting down at a desk and either typing away or writing on a piece of paper, sometimes it happens because you're out in the world and you're experiencing things to write.
I know that when I take my dog for a walk, I try to leave my phone at home for most of the time, not all the time. Most of the time I try to leave my phone because I need to unplug, but I noticed that when I'm doing something walking, or I run sometimes, sometimes I'm thinking about my characters. I'm thinking about what they might say to each other or, "Oh, maybe they like this type of activity." Sometimes having those things, those mundane things that you feel like you do, folding laundry, gives you an opportunity to think about your characters. That's important too for writing. Listening to music, going out and meeting new people, all of that is writing too.
I try to tell young people when they're like, "I have writer's block, I have no good ideas," to go out in the world and experience something new, or connect with someone, or read something, because that's also the work of writing. That will also help you get back to the page. Then I think you just got to sit down and do it sometimes, but when I teach writing, if you're having a hard time getting in today, I like to do pre-write warm-ups, where you pick a phrase like, "I believe," and you put three minutes on the timer and you just freehand, or if you'd like to type, and every sentence starts with, "I believe." You just write off of that for three minutes, even if you have to repeat I believe, I believe, over and over again. Then you set the timer again for three minutes and you say, "I don't believe," and then you go over again. Just making yourself not get so caught up in like, "Am I writing something profound or amazing," but just starting to get things out on the page, and then hopefully, using that to get into a writing moment.
Georgia: That's great advice. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Mariama. I think you gave some really great advice. I hope that people, all of our writing folks out there will heed that and also that they'll go check out your book, For Black Girls Like Me. It's really a compelling and important story. I'm really looking forward to checking out your next book next year.
To our audience, thank you for listening. For more information on Mariama and her debut novel, For Black Girls Like Me, check out our show notes or head to lesley.edu/podcast where you can check out our full archive of more than 30 episodes and all of our show notes there. We'll be back in a few weeks with another episode.