Published on August 10th, 2019 | by Kristen Stone0
Writing FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME: an interview with Mariama Lockington
Earlier this summer, I read an advance reader copy of For Black Girls Like Me, Mariama Lockington’s glorious debut YA novel. it follows a year in the life of Keda, a young, transracial adoptee who’s just moved from Maryland to New Mexico. Friends, I could not stop reading! Keda is funny and smart and tender, and Mariama’s writing made me ache. Mariama agreed to answer a few questions for Mutha about writing, family, and the books she’s reading lately.
How do you relate to the claim that writing is therapeutic or healing? Which is another way of asking: what was it like to write this book?
I have been writing FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME for about ten years. It’s the book I wish I’d found on bookshelves when I was a young adoptee. I really struggled as a kid to see myself reflected in literature, and so yes, writing my own stories was a tool for survival and healing. As a kid, I used to make my own books out of cardboard and fabric. I kept meticulous journals including everything from mundane day-to-day observations to epic friendship stories to angry or sad poems about being adopted and lonely. I grew up in a household where classical music was a kind of spirituality, and where the arts in general were prioritized. In many ways, the practice of music (I played flute and piano growing up) led me to a more formalized practice of writing. In high school and then in college and beyond, writing became more communal. I began to look outside of my own angst and participate in the spoken word/SLAM community, as well as teach creative writing workshops to youth. Today, I wholeheartedly believe that writing can be healing or therapeutic, but I also know that I do not heal in a vacuum. For me, it’s very important to be able to engage with readers, writers, and people in general. I have to be in the classroom teaching or learning alongside young people in order to create my own work. I love the human conversations and connections that storytelling can fuel.
Growing up, did you have a friend like Lena?
Oh yes! Lena is an ode to a few adoptee friends that I had growing up and still remain close with. I was actually adopted from the same agency as one of my childhood friends, Jessye, and she and I grew up together in Colorado until my family moved away when I was in elementary school. Then, when we lived in Maryland, I became friends with transnational adoptee, Leah, and she and I were fast friends as well. All the gymnastics references in the book are in honor of her, since I remember attending her meets and cheering her on. I was so impressed that she could do a black handspring that I’d sometimes make her do them on command for others. Then in High School when my family moved to Michigan, I ended up in Spanish class with another transracial adoptee named Liz. Once we learned about one another, she and I were attached at the hip. We went through the rest of high school commiserating bout how challenging it could be to be the “whitest black girls” or even try to explain to our peers the racial make-up of our families. All of these friendships really shaped and informed who I am today, and I am deeply grateful for them.
What books did you love when you were Keda’s age?
Well, much to my mom’s dismay, I was obsessed with the Sweet Valley High and the Babysitter Club series for awhile, even though these stories did not really feature girls like me. I also loved the Animorphs series because I could relate the the “otherness” that characters embodied in these stories.
I also really loved any story about a kid who somehow got lost in nature or had somehow suffered some familial loss. So, books like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, or L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I wasn’t really interested in escaping the world through fantasy, but instead liked to read stories about real kids, going through real things.
What books are you loving now?
I read anything and everything that I can! Prose, poetry, graphic novels, etc. Lately, I’ve really enjoyed tapping back into the middle grade and young adult sphere. Some favorite’s that I’ve read this year so far are:
Pie in the Sky, a graphic middle grade novel about two brothers who move to a new country and love to bake cakes by Remy Lai
The Sun is Also A Star, an all-in-one-day YA romance (recently adapted for the big screen) by Nicola Yoon
See No Color, a YA novel written by and featuring a Transracial adoptee who plays baseball by Shannon Gibney
Genesis Begins Again, a middle grade novel featuring a young black girl who loves to sing and is struggling to love her dark skin by Alicia D. Williams
Has writing For Black Girls Like Me changed your relationship to your own family?
Yes. FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME took shape in its current form starting in 2016, after I wrote an article for Buzzfeed about my own experiences as an adoptee. In the article, I told my truth the best way I knew how, but it proved to be a really challenging article for my family and I to have productive conversations about. My family and I are still struggling to speak the same language when it comes to adoption, race, and identity. I have hope that one day we will be able to be more open with one another, but for now it’s something we’re working on. Maybe FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME will help us get started, or maybe it won’t. In any case, one of the reasons I wrote this book was to provide an adoption narrative that is nuanced and messy. To show that it’s possible for multiple things to be true at the same time. To validate the experience of belonging and not belonging, and to reiterate that there is power in allowing yourself to feel two things at once: love and grief.
It’s so easy for adults to write children badly— I’m thinking of all the children’s and YA books that try to take on Big Issues in a way that feels corny, or overwrought, or where the language falls flat. But Keda is such a delightful narrator– clever and funny and perceptive and vulnerable– and you do a brilliant job of showing a kid learning to hold these messy, multiple truths. How was it, as an adult, to take on that younger person’s voice? Did you ever get stuck or feel your adult self coming in? What’s the hardest part of writing for a young adult audience?
I think a lot of people have an age that sort of speaks to their soul, and for me it’s that awkward middle-grade age. I like to joke with friends that I’m really just an 8th grader at heart. Middle school students get a bad rap, but it’s my most favorite age to teach and write for. Middle grade students are curious, creative, and uninhibited in ways adults are not. They ask tough questions, will catch you in a lie, and keep you on your toes. They are also vulnerable, resilient, and brave. And if you treat them like humans (because that’s what they are), talk to them like you’d talk to a regular adult person, then it’s not that hard to engage them or hear their voices. One thing that helped me write in Keda’s voice was just talking to and being around middle schoolers. Beyond that, Keda’s voice came really naturally to me and in fact was really hard to get out of my head when I was writing other projects aimed at an older audience. Of course, when it was time to go through the editing process for this book, there were passages and phrases that I had to re-write, that maybe sounded too abstract or unrealistic, but that’s when I’d go back into the classroom and just listen to the way young people talked to each other. All of this informed Keda’s voice and spirit. I think the hardest part of writing for young people is that they can sniff out inauthenticity in a heartbeat. They are not afraid to let you know what they think of your writing or you, so you have to be ready to be open, honest, and real with them on and off the page.
Are you a parent? Thinking about or planning to become one? How does being an adoptee affect how you think about making/building/starting/creating family (whether that involves kids or not)? (I know this is more of a personal question and swerves away a bit from talking about writing/your book, feel free to disregard if you don’t want to answer)
I’m not a parent, and right now I’m planning to live a child free life. However, I am an auntie to a slew of nieces, nephews, and chosen family members. I love being an auntie, and I love the family that I am building with my partner. We have a little dog, and an extended network of loved ones who hold us up in many ways. As an adoptee and as a queer person, family has never just been about blood. It’s always been about chosen family, and finding community and homes in many places and people. It really bothers me when people ask: “When are you going to have a baby and start your family?” My response is: I already have started my family. I started my family when I left home and met my best friends in college. I started my family when I married my partner and became a co-Godmother figure to her Godchild. I started my family when we adopted our dog Henry. And this family continues to grow as new young people come into our lives via our beloved community. I know first hand that parenting can come from so many places. Sometimes we have to parent ourselves, and sometimes we have to be a parent to someone else. I hope this book can be a support to someone who needs it, that it reflects all the different ways mothers/parents/mentors can come into our lives.
Thank you, Mariama! I hope your book sells a zillion copies.
For Black Girls Like Me was released July 30th, and you can order it here.