Campus News

Writing the Book That Hadn’t Been Written, a Q&A With Mariama J. Lockington

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Mariama J. Lockington
Mariama J. Lockington's book "For Black Girls Like Me"

LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 6, 2020) — Growing up as a Transracial adoptee in a multiracial household, Mariama J. Lockington scoured library shelves for books with covers that featured someone like her. Yet few of the protagonists were someone with whom she could identify, and none seemed to reflect her experience growing up as the Black daughter of white parents.

This experience led to a 10-year labor of love and creativity by Lockington, who holds master’s degrees in creative writing and education and is the research administrative coordinator in the University of Kentucky College of Education’s Office of Clinical Preparation and Partnerships.

“For Black Girls Like Me” was published in 2019, to critical acclaim and has rocketed into the public eye again in 2020 as readers — young and adult alike — seek out creative works by Black authors.

Yet, Lockington says, while the book is targeted at young readers ages 8-14, it’s a novel to which many can relate. At its heart, “For Black Girls Like Me” is a universal story about growing up and figuring out where one belongs.

UKNow talked to Lockington about her book, its impact, her perspectives on young adult literature (especially in the context of education) and what’s next in her career as an author and educator.

UKNow: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Lockington: I’ve always been a storyteller, and I come from a family of artists, including classical musicians, fine artists and writers. When I was little, I was that kid who would staple pieces of paper and cardboard together to make my own books. Even before I knew how to write well, I would fill the pages of my homemade books with pictures and symbols. I started to really identify as a writer in high school when senior year I had the privilege of attending an arts boarding school in northern Michigan called Interlochen. I attended as a creative writing major, and that is where I really started to work on my craft and set goals of one day being a published author. I went on to study African American studies and literature in college and then I eventually earned my MFA in poetry.

UKNow: We were struck by the Toni Morrison quote about how you must write the book that you always wanted to read but couldn’t find. Does that sum up your inspiration for "Black Girls Like Me"?

Lockington: Absolutely. “For Black Girls Like Me” is not a memoir, but it is a #OwnVoices novel based-on some of my own experiences as a Transracial adoptee. When I was a young reader, I was constantly looking for books that mirrored my experience growing up with white parents. I never found any — in fact, even today there is only one other book for young people (ages 9-18) that is written by an adoptee, about the Transracial adoptee experience. I was also a kid who was constantly looking for books with Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) protagonists on the covers, and this too was hard to find. The WeNeedDiverseBooks.org movement was started to address a lack of representation in children’s literature, and it is a movement that I am honored to be a part of. Even today, data collected by Children's Cooperative Book Council shows that the majority of stories being published for young people feature white or animal protagonists. Toni Morrison was one of the first writers I encountered as a young person who wrote unapologetically about the Black experience for Black people. Even though I was probably too young to fully grasp all the nuances in her novel, "The Bluest Eye," it was the first book I read where I felt completely seen when it came to contending with my Black identity and American beauty standards. Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So, that’s what I tried to do with “For Black Girls Like Me.”

UKNow: Thinking about the books children bring home today, literature for young adults seems to offer more realistic and accessible characters — even conflicted sometimes — than those who populated the popular books my friends and I read. As a writer and a teacher, what impact do you think this has on adolescent readers?

Lockington: Young people don’t get enough credit for how intuitive, resilient and aware they are of the issues in this world. I think it’s important to provide young people honest stories that reflect back some of the messiness of growing up. Of course, there always need to be stories that provide adventure, escape and deal with less issue driven plots, but I personally am interested in validating young people’s joys and struggles in my books. “For Black Girls Like Me” deals with some heavy topics — racism, microaggressions and mental health — but it is also about friendship, finding a voice and having hope. I’ve found that sometimes adult readers are unsure whether young people can handle all of this, but when I’ve had the chance to speak with young readers they’ve given me feedback proving otherwise. Many times when I talk to a young reader about my book, they tell me it’s the first book they’ve read that deals with “real issues Black kids have to face” or that they are re-reading it because they felt so seen. We need to trust that young people can handle the good and the bad of being human.

UKNow: What more could/should school administrators, teachers and parents be doing today to provide a deeper reading experience, especially for opening conversations about race, adoption and other topics woven together in the book?

Lockington: I wrote this book first and foremost for young people, so this is the audience that takes priority for me as far as impact and learning. I guess the most important thing for adults to know is that “For Black Girls Like Me” is not prescriptive. It’s not a parenting book, it’s not a “how to end racism” book, but it’s the fictional story of one Black girl, in a specific context and time, trying to survive the messiness of growing up. I think the most important thing to do is first take an inventory of the books you currently have in your school or home library. How many of these books feature white or animal characters? How many feature BIPOC, diversely abled, or LGBTQIA+ characters? What year were these stories published in and are there more contemporary titles you can either pair them with or replace them with entirely? Then you need to ask the young people in your life what kinds of books they want to see more of, what do they want to read? The #ProjectLitCommunity (started by a teacher in Nashville) is a national school book club model aimed at updating outdated curriculum and putting book choice into students' hands. We Need Diverse Books, Lee & Low Books and Here Wee Read are great sites that provide extensive diverse book lists.

The last and most important thing here is that as adults we also need to inventory our own reading habits. It’s great to want to diversify your home or school library for young people, but what are you reading as an adult? If your own bookshelf is homogeneous, how can you expect to have rich, productive, and honest conversations with young people about race, sexuality, gender, diverse abilities, etc.? You can’t. Adults also need to do the work of engaging with more diverse stories in order to model an environment that is truly safe for youth to have these book driven conversations and experiences in.

UKNow: Your book has been shared and recommended on social media, especially in recent weeks. How do you feel about the book’s increased visibility in that regard?

Lockington: I have a lot of conflicted feelings. On one hand, it’s great that more white people are becoming aware of Black creators and sharing and buying our books, art, research and content. The sales numbers for my book have gone up astronomically this past month (even though I debuted in July 2019), and while that’s good in some ways, I feel a deep frustration that George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and so many others had to literally die in order for the world to wake up and realize that Black lives and Black stories matter. I hope that white people continue to support Black creators long after the initial shock of this moment dies down, and that the publishing industry, specifically, takes a long, hard look at the financial and marketing resources they put behind Black authors versus non-Black authors.

UKNow: How can students grow after reading it? What is the main point you want readers to gain?

Lockington: I want young readers to know that it’s okay to feel more than one thing at once. My main character both feels love for her adoptive family, but also feels deep grief related to the trauma of having lost connection to her biological family. My main character both loves her Black skin, and also hates how her skin color makes people treat her differently than her parents and sister. Growing up, no matter if you are adopted or not, is full of joy and pain. It’s OK to not be ok, and it’s ok to speak up and ask for help and support. “For Black Girls Like Me,” more than anything, is a book about a young person searching for her voice and sense of belonging.

When a young person tells me that they “don’t like to read,” but read my book faster than any other book they’ve ever read because they felt seen. This is the best compliment, the best gift and why I feel honored to write for young people.

UKNow: What was the most difficult aspect of writing the book for you personally?

Lockington: Letting go of this book and trusting it was done. Technically, it took me 10 years to write and publish this book. My main character Makeda was an integral part of my everyday imaginings and writing process. No book is ever perfect, and at some point you have to trust that it’s ready to be in the world and that you’ve done your best. Readers will either like it or not like it, relate to it or not. All in all, I put my heart into this story, and I hope that’s evident. Now, I have to be brave again and move on to the next story.  

UKNow: Do you plan to write more books?

Lockington: Yes! I have another middle grade novel called "In The Key of Us" coming out in 2022. It’s about two Black girls who find themselves at a prestigious music camp in Michigan and fall in love. I also have a short story coming out in 2021 in an anthology for young people called, "This is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them and Us." I plan to keep writing stories for young people, and I also hope to publish a poetry collection one day soon.

Lockington will be one of five authors featured on the Kentucky Women Writers Conference Preview Party broadcast on WUKY-FM 91.3 at 7 p.m. this Wednesday, July 8, and rebroadcast at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 12.   

You can find Lockington on Twitter @marilock and on Instagram @forblackgirlslikeme. For information about school author visits (virtual or in-person), plus upcoming virtual events visit www.forblackgirlsme.com.

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