Told in a series of vignettes from multiple viewpoints, Kekla Magoon’s Light It Up is a powerful, layered story about injustice and strength—as well as an incredible follow-up to the highly acclaimed novel How It Went Down.
A girl walks home from school. She’s tall for her age. She’s wearing her winter coat. Her headphones are in. She’s hurrying.
She never makes it home.
In the aftermath, while law enforcement tries to justify the response, one fact remains: a police officer has shot and killed an unarmed thirteen-year-old girl. The community is thrown into upheaval, leading to unrest, a growing movement to protest the senseless taking of black lives, and the arrival of white supremacist counter demonstrators.
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First of all, thanks so much for speaking with us about your book. Congratulations on its release!
Thanks for having me. I’m pleased to be joining you.
LIGHT IT UP does such an excellent job of showing how a single incident of police brutality radiates harm, and how its aftermath affects the black community not only locally but nationally as well. It’s also a follow-up to your book HOW IT WENT DOWN. When did you know you wanted to write a follow-up, and did your priorities as a storyteller shift between the two books? Or was the specific focus of each narrative the only shift?
Light It Up begins with the shooting death of Black thirteen-year-old Shae Tatum by a white police officer. The tragedy occurs in the same community where, two years earlier, seventeen-year-old Tariq Johnson was shot and killed by a white man in controversial circumstances, which was the focus of How It Went Down. Each book is a stand-alone novel, though certainly they exist in conversation with each other, as well as with the reader. The novels are tied together by a similar multi-viewpoint structure. The characters in Light It Up heave a collective sigh of “No, not again,” thereby emphasizing the repeated nature of these traumas—the loss of Shae is heartbreaking in itself, and yet the deeper tragedy is the pervasive, repetitive trauma that police brutality continues to inflict on Black communities.
My priorities as a storyteller haven’t changed. The world changed. I wrote the first book in 2012, after Trayvon Martin was killed. For context, remember that this was over a year before Black Lives Matter existed as an organization, and two years before communities in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, and elsewhere rose up in protest against the justice system’s failure to address police brutality. The first book came out in 2014, well before this conversation became so widely recognized, right when these issues were coming to a head and gaining national awareness. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to do a second book, to capture the way things were changing: the growing social consciousness, the grassroots youth protest movement, the intergenerational dialogue about what it means to be an activist in this day and age, the continued struggle to see the law support and value Black life.
All along, my goal has been to capture a particular truth about the aftermath and impact of a controversial/wrongful shooting. And, to invite teenagers into a public conversation that often excludes them, although they are among the most directly affected by police brutality and bias. Conversations with teen readers of How It Went Down led me to new questions and avenues to explore in Light It Up. I tried hard to write the book they asked for, and I hope it lives up to their expectations!
Did you have any specific sources or real-life figures/instances that you referred to while writing?
I always say the book is “ripped from the headlines” because it is inspired by many, many disturbing and tragic deaths that have happened and are happening in our midst, due to police brutality and bias. Light It Up is not based on a specific real-life case, but the broad strokes of the novel’s premise reflect parallels with many real-life cases, so readers often draw connections between elements of a real case and what appears in the story. In fact, that’s part of the point—to highlight the reality that this is happening all over the country, and to draw attention to aspects of these cases that don’t normally get the spotlight. The focus here is the on-the-ground community reaction from Shae’s family, friends, and neighbors, set against the backdrop of a media that isn’t really interested in the whole truth and a justice system committed to perpetuating “white equals right” values.
Every point of view in the book feels so distinct, down to the ways in which characters express themselves. For example, while both Eva and Tina are children, Eva’s POV uses prose while Tina’s is more like free verse poetry. How did you track all of these different voices and how did you decide on formatting/method of expression?
Thanks, I’m flattered (and relieved!) that people receive the characters’ voices as distinct. As a creator, it’s the thing I worry about most, because wrangling 15+ separate viewpoints is indeed challenging. Tina’s “poems” come out that way, and that is just her voice. It was always her voice, no question about it. It was one of the few completely unconscious things that happened to create character distinctions. A lot of the rest of the differences are planned or honed in revision! With Eva, I tried to keep her sections short and succinct, too, which seemed to befit her age. The characters all feel very real to me, so a lot of what makes them different is me following my instincts and trying to inhabit each voice. There are also some mechanical things I do to differentiate the speaking style of each character—varying their use of language, favorite expressions, the types of observation they tend to make, the types of figurative language they tend to use. Those things go a long way to making different voices pop on the pages.
Structurally, I use a lot of giant paper scrolls and Post-It notes to keep track of the order and pacing of the story, and to make sure each voice is represented fairly evenly throughout the story timeline.
You include social media and cable news very effectively to form the media narrative around the narrative in Underhill — is that also something you knew from the beginning that you wanted to include, or did those pieces emerge organically? What was your thought process behind including them?
These elements felt true to the conversation as it was playing out in real life, so they struck me as important to include. I use the social media segments to convey a sense of the cacophony and arguments that are absolutely constant surrounding these issues of bias and police brutality. I don’t subscribe to the idea that “all points of view have merit,” and yet part of the challenge of modern life is figuring out how to separate what has value from what is chaos and noise. There is a difference between being aware of all points of view, and actually giving equal weight to everything.
With the television segments, I wanted to incorporate some intellectual arguments that would have been hard to work into traditional scenes. I also think the mock-TV interview structure works well to show how uninterested the media can be in actually hearing what their expert guests have come to say. Everything must fit in a soundbite and the hosts tend to have an agenda that they don’t deviate from even when answers to a question should rightfully lead in a new direction. It’s one of the most frustrating things for me about watching TV news, so I decided to lean into that and play with it.
Awareness of police brutality has increased in recent years, thanks to social media and books like yours. Where would you like to see the conversation go, now that people are paying more attention or even paying attention for the first time? Whom do you hope this book reaches?
I’d like to see the conversation lead to systemic change in how our communities are policed, how police officers operate, and how they are trained to respond in situations of stress. In 2019, members of Congress introduced legislation to require law enforcement officers to use lethal force only as a last resort. It troubles me that lethal force isn’t already and inherently considered to be the last resort in policing. I’d like to see our communities policed by people who are willing to actually put their lives on the line to serve and protect, rather than those who seem committed to protecting themselves first and foremost against any whiff of a possible threat. It is—or should be—a job that requires courage and the ability to face a certain amount of personal risk without knee-jerk violent response instincts kicking in. I’d like to see more anti-racism and anti-bias training for police officers to help mitigate the bias that causes so many of them to feel intense fear at the mere presence of a Black person. Of course, those things are far out of my control, and far beyond the purview of my books. But at the same time, if all of us channel our collective will, we do have the power to insist upon concrete and systemic changes that will upend racism in this country. So, my intended audience is teen readers, people who have teenagers in their lives, as well as communities that want to have a vibrant and challenging conversation about how to protect and honor the lives of Black youth.
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