Mine is an adoptee-rich family on both sides and I’m a foster parent and so glad The Rumpus has made space to hear from adoptee authors—putting the focus on them and their stories.
As such, I leapt at the chance to read and then talk with Mariama J. Lockington whose book, For Black Girls Like Me tumbled me deep into a fictional world that has traces of her adoptee story woven in. We meet Makeda, a Black tween adopted into a white family, and experience her struggles and joys as she figures out who she is, and we rally with her as she survives a cross-country move to a new school. She is a heroine who you want to cheer on. Lockington clarifies that the book is not a blueprint or a manual for adoptive parents, but just one story from the perspective of an adoptee. It’s not often enough that the protagonist in a book is an adoptee, or that a fictional book has a Spotify playlist, or an author has their book banned in Oklahoma along with other esteemed authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.
It’s a book I will cherish.
Over our interview on Zoom, Lockington said: “I improvise a world where a young person can find themselves on a bookshelf and feel validated by some part of a story. I improvise a world where truth telling is freedom.”
The Rumpus: You embodied the voice of a middle schooler so well—how did you get into Makeda’s character? What did you read or listen to, to round her out?
Mariama J. Lockington: I’m deeply passionate about writing in storytelling but I’m also an educator. I got my degree in education, and I spent the last thirteen or so years specifically working with middle school/high school-aged students. I know that middle school gets a bad rap for lots of reasons—maybe middle school was hard for you—it’s hard for a lot of people. But as an adult, I find working with middle schoolers to be delightful and unfiltered because they just say things to you, and they don’t worry about how it comes across. There’s this lovely exploratory, creative, and not jaded point of view that I think middle schoolers have.
That time in my own life was formative for me. I very vividly remember that moment of [being] not quite a little kid, not naïve to everything. You’re starting to realize adults have their own stuff going on and are not the end all and be all, and are maybe struggling with things, but you’re also trying to hold onto some of that childhood magic.
When I was writing the bulk of those manuscripts, I was also coaching a running club for middle schoolers through this program called Girls on the Run, so we would run around a track two times a week and I would stop in, and I would get these little pockets of dialogue and conversation that these sixth, seventh, or eighth grade girls were having.
Then, also, I’m a poet. This book actually began as a series of poems in my MFA program in San Francisco. Writing poetry, being lyrical, using the influences of other arts is also how I tap into voice.
Rumpus: You can tell you’re a poet! Many of the sentences in the book are incomplete but include periods. At first, my eye hesitated and then over time, stopped seeing the periods. Were you conscious of or intending that as a tactic?
Lockington: I know I offended and maybe made some people extremely frustrated with the lack of punctuation or the creative punctuation in the book. It happened for a couple reasons. Before it was a middle grade book, it was a collection of poetry, and was my thesis for grad school, and it was a collection of abstract poems—maybe more autobiographical than the book is about this eleven-year-old girl.
And this voice of this eleven-year-old girl kept coming out in prose blocks, but playing with punctuation and with enjambment and all those lovely things that you get to play with when you write poetry. When I revisited the poetry manuscript and transitioned it into an actual manuscript for middle school students and had to work on plot and character and all of that stuff, my hybrid style of writing still came through on the page.
Something that was important to me as far as the way that the style and the mishmash of different styles was that it was sort of mimetic to Makeda’s character as an adoptee—as someone growing up as a transracial person, as someone who is experiencing various forms of belonging or not belonging. She didn’t really fit in one box. And neither does the style of writing. There are pieces that look more like linear poetry. There are pieces that look like prose blocks but no periods. There are songs. There are definitions. I sort of live in that space in my own identity of belonging to a lot of places or popping into a lot of places of belonging. So, I wanted to play with that with the actual form of the book as well.
Rumpus: Syntax definitely told a story—missing commas creating run-on lists of things not separated, such as “mama papa me Eve”—this shows the connections and bonds. How did you prioritize syntax in the writing and revising?
Lockington: I don’t know if I know exactly how I prioritized it, but I do think that specific moment you’re talking about—the “mama papa me Eve”—is an overwhelming barrage and list of things that are connected to one another, and the lines are blurred. But also, I wanted to create that sense of overwhelm, of all these different things rushing at the character both internally and externally.
When people encounter the book, they maybe feel a little bit of the otherness that Makeda is feeling throughout her life. A little bit like “something is not comfortable for me—I’m not comfortable all the time,” even navigating through the syntax and through the structure of the book.
Rumpus: They say write what you know. What were the important characteristics of your adopted parents that informed how you wrote the characters of [Makeda’s adoptive parents] Anna and Daniel?
Lockington: I talk a lot about the emotional core of Makeda’s experiences being very similar to my emotional core at that age. For me, with Anna and Daniel—I’ll just say I stole directly from my life, as I did grow up in a very musical family. My parents are musicians and music makes its way into all my books. The details about being a musician and practicing and the sounds—all of that is inspired by how I grew up: in the fact that playing instruments, growing up with parents who played instruments, taught me about the practice of writing, that even if you’re good at something and talented, you still have to practice and you’re still gonna have bad days and days that you just can’t get a certain phrase right. And days where you’re stuck on one sentence. With Anna and Daniel—they’re not my parents. But it was important for me to portray something that I experienced emotionally growing up. Even with best intentions—because Anna and Daniel are not the same race as their child—and, even with her sister—there are going to be things that they miss and there are also going to be biases and harm that they cause because they’re not thinking about it in the same way.
Makeda faces racism in her external world, outside of her family in the book. [But] as a Black girl she also experiences that otherness within her family, with the people who love her, as I do think, Anna and Daniel love her. And I think she does love them—but even that love sometimes is not enough to combat some of the unfortunate racism and inequality and things that happen in our world. With Anna and Daniel, I did want to humanize them. I did want to show moments of tenderness, but also these moments of just being completely oblivious and unaware to their actions or how their being in the world is different than their daughter’s.
Because that was a hard thing for me. Growing up, a silencing thing was, “Will my parents believe me if I tell them this thing happened, or will they just say, ‘Oh, I’m sure that wasn’t it.’” And, you know, “Relax your shoulders. Everything’s fine. Why are you holding so much tension in your shoulders?” So that’s what I tried to do in these characters.
It was important for me to show what happens across the dinner table and what happens at school and how she feels silenced in both spaces sometimes.
Rumpus: Sometimes she doesn’t even have the words to translate what happens. Pronouns matter and early on in the book, it became very clear who the “Her” was—that was such an interesting device of not naming and yet underscoring the importance of the bio mom, and her omni-presence. Was that intentional?
Lockington: Not naming Her was intentional for a couple of reasons. Number one, many adoptees, including myself, do not—unless they’re in reunion—I am not in reunion—they do not know names of bio-first family. Often if we’re lucky, we get non-identifying documentation and it’s all pronouns. It’s all: The mother was great in choir. The mother had an A-plus in school.
That information is very separated from an actual human, but absolutely the Her in this book is this. Other female figures show up in the book too, but She is very much a constant presence in Makeda’s life. I will say, as an adoptee, I was never not thinking about where I came from, who I might belong to outside of my adopted family.
But at the same time, as a child, I worked through this—it felt like a huge betrayal to ever utter those things out loud to parents or siblings. Because what if they felt hurt? It’s very much this idea that, even as a kid, I had some concept of, even though my parents should have been there to protect me, I had to protect them from these feelings, of [feeling] even though I’m in this family, I am deeply aware of this lingering Her—this other lineage that I might come from.
So, I wanted Her to be loud on the page when She is present, and for people hopefully to stop and think about that because I think oftentimes with an adoption narrative, they begin when a kid gets adopted and there are a lot of negative connotations that are placed upon first families or assumptions that are made about why a child has been given up.
I wanted Her to be present and I wanted it to be clear that Makeda is deeply engaged in a conversation in her life, in her dreams about where she comes from and who she might belong to outside of her family, that it is a constant and that she’s feeling two things at the same time. There are moments where she’s feeling deeply loved by the family that she’s in and there are moments she’s feeling deeply alone and wondering, “Are there people that would understand this solitude that I feel?”
Talking about biological families sometimes makes people very uncomfortable. I think it’s Toni Morrison who talked about, “I don’t want to write easy; I don’t want my books to be easy necessarily.” I don’t want people to have to struggle through them, but I do think that you might have to ground yourself, or you might have to sit with some discomfort or there might be parts of it that are not for you.
Rumpus: The Georgia Belles with their songs, are also always present. How does the power of words change when going from prose to song lyric?
Lockington: I had to fight to keep the Georgia Belles in the book once I started working with an editor and [knew it was] gonna be published, and I will die on that hill. I think there are some people who get the Georgia Belles and some people who don’t, and I’m okay with that. Making sure that there was an ever-presence—Makeda is growing up in her family in many ways and belongs in that family. But she also belongs in other places and could have belonged in other places just as easily. I didn’t want readers to forget at any moment that other realities exist and could exist for her.
Going from prose to a poem, I had to get to the seed of something a little bit differently on the page. Sometimes I found—especially when talking about the Her, or the other realities/other places of belonging—that a poem was maybe not easier, but was the form that those moments took place in.
“What is it really that I’m feeling here? And how do I explain it in as few words as possible?” The songs relate to the fact that Makeda is, herself, deeply musical. She’s been brought up in this musical family, but she also has this deep soulful connection to some other realm of music, some other form of music.
And so, the Georgia Belles for me, are playing with—I actually did not know this term until recently—but it’s called the “ghost kingdom.” This idea that adoptees always live with this other possible life, like, “I’m here and I belong to this family, but what if I was African royalty?” Or what if Makeda gets asked, “What if your mom is Oprah?”
I definitely had this growing up. I always had this ongoing sort of narrative daydream about this other family that I might have been able to belong to. And so, the Georgia Belles are also Makeda’s way of interrogating that ghost kingdom and also thinking about Blackness and her connection to Black musicians and a lineage of people who sing and express themselves through great turmoil and pain, and also find joy and healing and belonging.
I have an overactive imagination. I have a really vivid dream life. And so, as a kid, dreams played a big role, good dreams and bad dreams in my development as a young person. So, I also wanted to play with that a little bit. Are the Georgia Belles there? Are they there inside of her? Sometimes they’re not friendly and sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re motherly and sometimes they’re very much like, “I’m pushing you out of this nest, go live your life.”
I didn’t want people to forget that that is there—that once a child is adopted, there’s a neat little bow and no other feelings or nuances come up because that’s just not the reality of humans. Even if you are a baby, you don’t forget having lost something.
Rumpus: How might you advise adopted children on how writing can help them figure out or define their own story?
Lockington: Usually with young people I use the word “storytelling” because a lot of times young people associate writing with a book report or school assignment. I often talk about the fact that we tell stories every single day, whether or not you’re putting something on a page and turning it in or showing someone or writing a comment. What we do as humans is tell stories.
As a young person, writing was a way to just get my feelings out because I didn’t feel comfortable coming to family members and saying, “I’m really sad today, and I’m thinking about Her.” And so, I started writing diaries and journals—like I literally had the lock-and-key little purple journal.
I have all my journals—it’s also one of the reasons I was able to tap into middle grade voice because I have this huge box of journals from second grade on that I have still, and some of them are filled with pictures, not even writing.
So, when I work with young people and do writing workshops, when I do a prompt, I say, “You can write this out as a list. You can write it in sentences, or you can draw it out in symbols and pictures if that’s something you’re more comfortable in.”
Stories connect us. Stories help us be able to be brave.
It is okay to feel more than one thing. I wish I had known as a young person that it was okay I was both part of my family and felt loved many days. And okay that I also was thinking about Her and where I came from, and missing that, even though I never knew that really well. Both things can be true: You can be so joyful and also experience sadness at the same time.
Author photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz