Today we’re delighted to welcome Mariama J. Lockington to the WNDB blog to discuss her upcoming debut FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME, out July 30, 2019.
In this lyrical coming-of-age story about family, sisterhood, music, race, and identity, Mariama J. Lockington draws on some of the emotional truths from her own experiences growing up with an adoptive white family.
I am a girl but most days I feel like a question mark.
Makeda June Kirkland is eleven years old, adopted, and black. Her parents and big sister are white, and even though she loves her family very much, Makeda often feels left out. When Makeda’s family moves from Maryland to New Mexico, she leaves behind her best friend, Lena— the only other adopted black girl she knows— for a new life. In New Mexico, everything is different. At home, Makeda’s sister is too cool to hang out with her anymore and at school, she can’t seem to find one real friend.
Through it all, Makeda can’t help but wonder: What would it feel like to grow up with a family that looks like me?
FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME is for anyone who has ever asked themselves: How do you figure out where you are going if you don’t know where you came from?
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Congratulations on your debut, and thanks so much for talking to us about your book. We’re already huge fans!
Love how you combine verse and prose so fluidly — did the inclusion of poetry happen organically, i.e. did you write both in that intertwined way as you went along? Or was it more of a process to figure out what worked for the story?
Thank you! I am a poet at heart. I grew up writing poems, found the spoken word community in college, and then later earned my MFA in poetry. It was in my MFA program where I wrote the first draft of what would become FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME. In its early days, the manuscript was a collection of abstract poems about a nameless, adopted Black girl. It was aimed at an adult audience and was much more autobiographical. In 2015, I began working with my editor at FSG to turn this manuscript into a more concrete, fictional story for a middle grade audience. So, the poetry was actually the foundation. What I had to work on was adding more prose, and then developing a stronger plot and cast of characters. I loved the process of writing FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME, it was such a satisfying puzzle to figure out how to weave all the different forms together. In many ways the hybrid form of FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME mimics my main character’s identity. Keda belongs in many places, and holds many identities, and so does this book.
What kind of stories did you gravitate towards while you were growing up?
I loved stories about real kids going through real things. I wasn’t big on fantasy because I was looking for books that mirrored some of the angst, alienation, and grief I felt growing up Black in a white family. I didn’t find books about Transracial adoptees when I was young, but I did gravitate towards books about young people who were orphaned, left behind, or somehow had to fend for themselves in the wilderness. Books like Jane Eyre, Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, the Boxcar Children, Anne of Green Gables, and The Bluest Eye. I also admittedly was obsessed with the Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley High, and Nancy Drew series. These books let me escape into a girlhood world where the stakes were often low.
When you were writing, which readers did you envision? Whom do you hope most that this book reaches?
First and foremost, this is a book that I hope other adoptees — young and adult — will be able to read and find some sliver of validation in. There are a ton of books and media narratives that center the voices of adoptive parents, but not nearly as many that center the adoptee. It was important for me to try and write a book that deals with this nuanced perspective, to provide a mirror that was not there for me growing up. I also hope that this book will speak to young readers who might feel like they exist in the in-between, that are struggling through the muck of growing up. This book is about adoption, but it’s also about so much more. It’s about a girl searching for her voice and sense of belonging in the world, it’s about what it means to be the child of a parent who is living with a mental illness, and it’s about the bonds of sisterhood and friendship. I hope this book will spark conversation about identity, race, and family between siblings, parents and their children, teachers and students, and anyone else who has ever asked themselves: Where do I belong?
Keda experiences some intense macro- and micro-aggressions, even from her own family, and you handle them deftly while also portraying all of the painful, complex feelings that come with experiencing them. How did you decide on what to include?
Macro and micro-aggressions are a constant part of my own experience growing up Black in a white family. As an adult, I am much more adept at identifying and directly dealing with these moments when they arise, but as a kid, and especially as a Transracial adopted kid, these moments were extremely painful and silencing. To write these scenes I had to tap into memories from my own childhood and then think about how Keda might respond, how her family might respond or not respond. It was important for me to show that micro-aggressions happen both outside and inside of her family system. In many ways, the micro-aggressions that happen within Keda’s family were the ones I felt the most responsibility to get right because it’s even more silencing when micro-aggressions come from someone you love. As a kid, I didn’t have the language to identify what was happening to me, and I also didn’t have the benefit of bringing these moments to a parent who would automatically understand or relate. It was really important to me to portray the silence and shame I felt as a kid going through all this alone, and bring that into Keda’s story. To show that while, yes, love can bring families together in all kinds of ways, love will not always protect Transracial adoptees from violence or harm, even within their families. That there can be joy, and safety, and understanding, while at the same time really uncomfortable, isolating, and painful difference. Including these moments of conflict in FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME came pretty naturally.
There’s some heavy subject matter in here (including mental illness) that a lot of middle grade books skirt around. How important was it to you to address it head on?
Very important. I think middle schoolers are really wise, intuitive, and resilient, and can handle much more than adults think they can. I was a middle schooler who hated when an adult was being inauthentic or talking down to me, and I think there are young people who are looking for books that don’t shy away from the hard stuff. It was important for me to write a book that addresses the messiness of growing up head-on, but hopefully still provides hope and moments of joy. This is not a story with a fairy-tale, happily-ever-after ending. I’m not super interested in writing books like that. I want to write books that provide a mirror for young people who might be going through some pretty tough or real things. I want to write books that let young people know that it’s OK to feel two or more things at once. I want to write books that allow young people to grapple with the fact that adults sometimes hurt the people they love because they are struggling themselves. Young people are living their lives in all kinds of beautiful, scary, and hopeful ways, and they deserve books that tell the truth about the world.
Any reading recommendations for readers (especially fellow transracial adoptees) to check out once they’re done devouring your book?
See No Color is a wonderful YA book by fellow Transracial adoptee, Shannon Gibney. I’d also recommend the adult memoir All You Can Ever Know, also by a Transracial adoptee named Nicole Chung.
Some middle grade books that are in conversation with FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME are: Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams, Just South of Home by Karen Strong, and A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee, All the Impossible Things by Lindsay Lakey, and The Other Half of Happy by Rebecca Balcárcel.
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Content Note: FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME includes a depiction of the aftermath following a character’s attempt to complete suicide.
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Mariama J. Lockington is an adoptee, writer, and nonprofit educator. She has been telling stories and making her own books since the second grade, when she wore short-alls and flower leggings every day to school. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including Buzzfeed News Reader, and she is the author of the poetry chapbook The Lucky Daughter. Mariama holds a Masters in Education from Lesley University and Masters in Fine Arts in Poetry from San Francisco State University. She lives in Lexington, KY with her partner and dapple haired dachshund, Henry.