Full show notes: http://www.adopteeson.com/listen/116
Episode Transcription by Fayelle Ewuakye. Find her on Twitter at @FayelleEwuakye
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Haley - You’re listening to Adoptees On. The podcast where adoptees discuss the adoption experience. This is episode 116, Mariama. I’m your host Haley Radke. Today I’m honored to speak with Mariama J. Lockington, author of For Black Girls Like Me, which releases this month, July 2019. We talk about her experiences growing up as a transracial adoptee, what microaggressions are, how writing was always one of her passions, and why it is so critically important to share our personal adoption narratives. We wrap up with some recommended resources, and as always, links to everything we’ll be talking about today are on the website, AdopteesOn.com. Adoptees On is celebrating our 3rd birthday this week. And I’m gonna talk about that milestone a little bit more at the end of this show. First let’s get to the amazing conversation I had with Mariama. Let’s listen in.
Haley - I am so pleased, to welcome to Adoptees On, Mariama Lockington, welcome!
Mariama - Thank you so much, I’m really excited to be speaking with you.
Haley - Will you please start out the way we always do with sharing your story with us?
Mariama - Yeah of course. First of all, I just wanted to say that I love this podcast so much and its just been a really great way to stay connected with the adoptee community and I just appreciate the work you do on centering our voices. So I was excited to be on it and just have really enjoyed the community that you’re building. So thank you for that.
Haley - Thank you so much, thank you, that’s so kind of you to say.
Mariama -My story is, I am a transracial black adoptee and I was adopted in the 80s. It was a closed adoption so I was actually born in Atlanta Georgia. And when I was three weeks old, I was actually flown across the country by a social worker and I met my parents who at the time were in Colorado, living in Denver Colorado. And you know, like many couples who maybe turn to adoption, not all, but many, my parents had fertility issues up front. However my mom also has talked to me about the fact that she always sort of had adoption as something that she was interesting in doing as well as having biological children. So you know, I was adopted –
Haley - Did she say why? Was that like, a religious thing or a social justice thing or--?
Mariama - A social justice thing. I don’t know if she would use those terms, but I think she grew up in LA and actually has told me a story about the fact that her parents, my grandmother and my grandfather at one point actually started to do the process of trying to adopt a young black boy in the 60s and 70s. And they were actually told they couldn’t adopt because they were on government assistance. And so they were sort of deterred from continuing in that process. And so the story that my mom tells me is that sort of that moment with her parents sort of influenced her in thinking about ways to build her family in the future. So that’s the story that she has told me. I actually, I heard it from her but not from my grandmother when she was alive. So that is something that she has talked to me about a little bit. I am the oldest of four. Because two years after I was adopted, my parents got pregnant with my sister. So I have a sister who is my parents’ biological child and she’s a couple years younger than me. And then I also have two other younger transracially adopted black and biracial siblings who, my brother was adopted when I was 6 years old and then when I was a junior in high school, so I’m quite a bit older, my baby sister was adopted as well. And none of us are biologically connected. But we all are transracial adoptees. So it was not a secret to me that I was adopted of course. I am a different race than my parents. My parents are white. And so, to some extent growing up, I knew that our family was our family, and that families get made in different ways and that sometimes babies come from, my sister came from my mom’s tummy, and I had a biological mother somewhere out in the world that I came from. And you know, similarly, when my other younger siblings were adopted, my parents had to sit us down and talk to us about you now, we are adopting a little boy and give us a little bit of limited background and history that they had on that. So it was never a mystery to me, it was definitely a part of the narrative. And there was no way it couldn’t be. And so you know, I think that in my family, within the confines of our house, our family, our rainbow family was the norm in many ways. And we all belonged to one another. But as I grew up and as my family grew up, my parents are both classical musicians and so we actually had a nomadic childhood. And we moved, I’ve lived in more than 10 states, you know, spanning from childhood to now adulthood. And as my parents progressed in their careers, we moved from city to city or state to state. And so you know, the way that our family operated, sort of on the inside or as an insular unit, didn't change when out into the outside world. But I think the world looked at us differently and I began to encounter the world in slightly different ways than when, and maybe some of my white family members based on my race. And then you know I was definitely a curious, nerdy, overachieving child who really wanted to please. I've always been kind of a people pleaser, really wanted to, a peacemaker, I play the role of peacemaker in my family. And also a bossy older sister. But I think as I began to grow up and sort of experience microaggressions and then just questions from kids on the playground and kids that I was encountering, everything from sort of where are you really from to, are those your parents? To where’s your real mom? All the questions that you get as adoptees, as transracial adoptees. So I think that you know while I felt a lot of love in my family growing up, there was also a lot of silence and a lot of shame and a lot of grief. And a lot of fear of rejection and abandonment which are all things that you know, we’ve heard many adoptees talk about on this podcast. And you know, one thing, my family is not particularly religious, but music is a kind of spirituality in our family and is a big part of my parent’s life. On both of their sides we have sculptors and artists and other musicians. And so I did grow up, I had to play the piano. But I got to pick the flute as my instrument of choice. And so I grew up playing classical music, but I also always grew up writing and telling stories and journaling and writing really embarrassing diary entries and just cataloging and observing the world around me. And then also writing became a way to sort of interrogate some of those messier feelings that I was having, those contradictory sort of scary feelings I was having about who am I? And where to do belong? And what does it mean to be a black person? And who do I look like? And will my parents understand if I bring this sort of grief and questioning to them? Am I being disloyal to them if I, you know, ask them questions about my origins. And so writing became at first just a way to survive and to document my life and to sort of write my experience into existence. Because as we’ll probably get to later, I did not find a lot of literature when I was growing up that really spoke to my experience as a transracial adoptee, as an adoptee in general. So writing was really that survival tool and a tool of resilience for me growing up.
Haley - Oh my gosh I want to get so much of these things. But I wanna stop you before we go too much further. Cause you talked about experiencing microaggressions. And that’s sort of a word I've heard used many times. I'm hoping that you can just explain what that is.
Mariama - Yep.
Haley - And can you give a couple of examples. And then how you might have processed those through writing which is my guess as to how did that based on what you said?
Mariama - Yeah, so I actually looked this up for the best way to explain this. I don’t think, I obviously when I was young did not have the term microaggression to use and so I think—
Haley - That’s pretty new, right? That’s pretty new, yeah.
Mariama - Yeah, it’s pretty new and also just as a kid, you know you’re experiencing difference, right?
Haley - I should have corrected that. That term I think is new but what happens is not new.
Mariama - Yes, so the experience itself is not new. But the term was actually coined in the 70s.
Haley - Oh, okay.
Mariama - So it’s relatively new but not. But basically it’s like, brief, daily sort of consistent verbal, be it unintentional or intentional remarks that are kind of hostile or derogatory or that sort of negatively portray or insult a person of color. Microaggressions can also happen to different groups of peoples as well. But also the best way I've heard it described is, there’s some video on the internet that’s like, imagine you know, getting a mosquito bite, right? You know, one it hurts and it itches and it bothers you. But imagine getting like, consistent mosquito bites over and over again, that is another way to think about a microaggression. Obviously as a child I didn’t have the language to say it like, that’s a microaggression, what’s happening to me? But things for example like, someone asking me where are you from? And that’s a complicated, for me in general, just I've lived in so many different states. But when I would say here, or Atlanta Georgia, sometimes is what I would say, because that’s where I was born even though I really have spent very minimal time in that area. And then they say to me, but no where are you really from? And they’re asking me, they’re not content with the answer and they're asking me like, oh but you must be, people assumed I’m from, you know, different countries in Africa or that I wasn’t born in the United States. That’s an example of a microaggression. You speak so well, is another example because it implies things like, why wouldn’t, this is the way that I speak, why wouldn’t I speak this way, or that there is a correct way to speak, a proper way to speak. So those are some things that I’ve encountered when I grew up. And various different ones to varying degrees. And sometimes they can be really, really overt and sometimes not so much. But it’s sort of a buildup, a buildup of comments and phrases and things that make you definitely feel othered and definitely feel as if there’s something wrong with you or as if people are questioning your truth. Or the things that you’re telling them. Another microaggression is people refusing to get my name correctly. Or saying, asking me how to pronounce my name, and I’ll say it’s Mariama and someone will say, what is it, Miriam? And I’ll say, it’s Mariama. And they’ll say oh well that’s just too difficult. That name is too difficult. You know so it’s, moments like those it think, I encounter them as an adult and definitely as a child and you know, they are a part of my experience as a black person in the world that hasn’t always been a comfortable thing to bring to the attention of my family members, to my parents. And also sometimes you question yourself. You question yourself like, well is that really happening to me? Is that happening or am I imagining it? because also sometimes the world asks you to sort of stuff those things and just sort of suck it up and be like, eh. Maybe that’s not actually what’s happening there. But oftentimes it is what’s happening. And you know, as I've gotten older, I've gotten better at identifying and being able to suss those things out and call them out when I'm able or when I'm feeling like doing that work. And then sometimes letting it pass because I don’t feel like doing that work or there are battles to pick.
Haley - Can you remember like a specific instance in your childhood where maybe that happened and you’re like, I need to process this but I don’t necessarily wanna go to my parents with it, and you wrote about it?
Mariama - That’s such a good question! I wish I had my like stacks of journals that I’ve kept, it’s so embarrassing.
Haley - Oh my gosh, no.
Mariama - It’s actually wonderful, it’s like an archive of amazingness.
Haley - Yeah! When we get, we’re gonna talk about your brand new book very soon and like, I’m assuming that was a treasure trove for you.
Mariama - Yes it is, and it will continue to be. I think the thing is like there are so many. And you know, honestly, there are microaggressions and things that have happened at the dinner table with my family, unintentionally. I think things that family members have said that have sort of struck a chord with me and that have been really problematic in a lot of ways.
Haley - Do you remember coming to a point where you realized those things were happening? Like that, the mosquito bites were adding up? Like, to me, it just seems like, over time, I don’t know, it either is like you get used to it and it’s terrible to say that. But it’s sort of like, well this is just what life is like for me. Or you’re like, oh my gosh, stop this, what is happening right now?
Mariama - Yeah, I mean so I think that the answer is I felt it when I was a kid. I felt those moments building up and yes I did write about them. I mean some of them weren’t microaggressions but just instances of racism that I faced too you know. I had this really terrible moment in 5th or 6th grade where a girl sort of like swatted her nose and was like, you know black meat attracts flies, right? So this idea that I was dirty or unclean and going to attract, you know flies and insects. That one just sticks in my mind. And it’s definitely not something that I talked about. I think I've talked about it as an adult more so. I’ve identified that moment as sort of a really traumatic moment and a moment where I didn’t know what to do with that. At first I was confused and then I sort of figured out what that meant. And then I felt ashamed. And I didn’t, I don’t remember processing that with anyone. I don’t really remember having anyone to process that with. But I do remember writing about it. I feel like I wrote about it in college as sort of like a memory. I don’t know, it might come up in you know, in a journal from that time as well. But my early writing was a lot of just journaling and reflecting, I wasn’t really sharing my writing as much as I was when I got into college, honestly. And it was in college where I started to get the language for some of these things. So I started to understand more things that were either happening at my dinner table. Or I went to the university of Michigan and I was there between the years of 2003 and 2007, and you know, I would come home and hang out with friends and go to parties. And you know sometimes white kids would say, oh, you got into Michigan? They were like, oh well that must be affirmative action. So you know, just, there are many, many instances and yes they build up. And yes they cause anger and, but I think one of my main experiences as a transracial adoptee was, figuring out if it was okay to bring those instances to my parents. And also a lot of times, just sitting in silence with some of those moments. And you know, I had other adoptee friends as a kid, other young girls and people that I knew that were adopted, you know, when I was like in elementary and middle school. But we didn't really talk about those things. We didn’t really, so there was also a sense of not necessarily a sense of am I the only adoptee that exists, but are there other adoptees that are feeling the way that I'm feeling. That are feeling silenced and conflicted and that are sort of stuffing and burying these things. I don’t think I had a sense that there were adult adoptees when I was a kid. So that’s another thing that in college I was like, oh my gosh there’s a whole community of us. So yeah, so I think the answer is there are so many and they're every day and they're constant and they continue to be that way. But I think that what is really important is that, you know if you are an adoptive parent and decide to adopt transracially is, being really aware of the terminology and the things that your child might be experiencing and your own biases and unpacking your own privilege. But also not leaving your child of color to sort of sit in those moments alone in order to preserve your own comfort. Because I think my parents did the best that they could with some of the resources that they were given. You know, they definitely tried to have books featuring black characters in the house, picture books, you know, we had black Santas all over our house. And you know I think they well intentionally put me in African dance and thought that that was a place that I might see myself reflected. But we didn't actually talk with one another very much. And we still don’t talk with one another very well about some of the uncomfortable, hard things that are different about our experiences in the world. And I think for me, I won’t speak for other transracial adoptees but that has been really silencing and hard to wade through both as a child and as an adult, to figure out how can I figure out how to speak a common language with these people that I love, but also that sometimes we are in conflict with each other. And we do not understand, fundamentally do not understand each other’s experiences sometimes. And that’s really hard place to be I think for a child. And then also as you know, as I move through my adulthood as well.
Haley - And I’m curious about your relationship with your siblings then. Because the 2 youngest you said were transracially adopted and your little sister is quite a bit younger than you. And then you have the one bio sister. I mean, biologically your parents’, all children are biological. I was just at an adoption conference, I’m not supposed to use that language. I'm trying to do better. Okay. But did you talk with your siblings about any of that or was it just like, as a family we don’t really go there.
Mariama - Yeah, yes and no. I mean I think also the other true thing is that even though I feel like there are some threads in commonality in adoptees’ experiences, we’re all very different people. And so definitely my sister who is very younger than me, who I honestly only lived in the house with her for about 2 years ‘cause I went to boarding school for my senior year of high school. So we’ve never actually lived together for very long. Because she's actually about to go to college which is frightening and wonderful. And exciting. But yeah, so we have a very different relationship and we actually have had conversations. You know I think, sometimes I am her big sister but I'm like more of an auntie figure because I'm much older. And so you know, we agree on things, and sometimes we don’t. And sometimes she doesn’t wanna talk about adoptee things and that’s fine. So I just try to let those conversations be organic if they are and talk through them. But you know, we do talk about it maybe a little bit more than I did with my brother who has a very different outlook than me on adoption. And so we don’t talk about it much. And then my sister who is my parents’ biological child, you know we do talk about like, she’s very supportive and reads my work and is excited and proud of me in many ways. But I wouldn’t say that we have very sort of in depth conversations at this point now. And I think growing up you know, this was our family and we were sorta like, this is who we are and this is what our family looks like and that was the extent of things, but no we didn't have family conversations necessarily about racism and our perspectives and just who we are in the world in that particular way growing up. That wasn’t, you know, my parents would leave me, there were books about African American history in the house and you know, I would do projects on different or at certain points I got excited about like doing a project about the civil rights movement. But no it wasn’t part of our everyday sort of makeup and language as much as I think I maybe needed it to be. And I think definitely as we’ve all gotten older, and gotten into adulthood, it’s become much harder somehow to talk through some of this.
Haley - Absolutely. We get in our patterns, right? And then you’re like this is how we are. Okay let’s switch back to talking about your writing and what your reading life looked like when you were a young adult. And into college, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
Mariama - Yeah, so I actually was a late reader. But once I got hooked onto some books that I really enjoyed, I could not put books down. So I was actually, was actually homeschooled for a period of time and I, you know my mom took us to the library all the time. And I got super hooked, this is so ridiculous, but no shame, I got super hooked on the Sweet Valley High twins for whatever reason, that series. And you know, maybe part of it was escapism and just wanting to read about like two teenage girls who have very minimal issues and you know. And I mean, they have issues, but like, you know, I felt like they were kind of like low stakes, lovely books to escape into often. And so I –
Haley - Can I, listen this is confession time, I'm gonna go for it. So I read those a bit, but I really liked Lurlene McDaniel which was all the pretty teenagers who got cancer and died. So yeah.
Mariama - Well I will say that like, I've never been a big reader of fantasy. Like I always wanted books about real girls or real teens or kids going through real things. And so you know, I feel like there were different levels of stakes for some of those books. I also was a really really, I've always been really drawn to books that are about young kids who somehow are left behind or have to venture into the woods. Like I remember reading Hatchet or Island of the Blue Dolphins about like teenage characters who are sort of left behind or stranded or abandoned somehow by family members or society. Or stories that were just about like characters that were orphaned in some way. So I love Anne of Green Gables, loved that story. I loved Heidi, the musical Annie, just you know, stories that were about young people who were trying to figure out where they belonged in a sense. And those are the stories that I gravitated to, I wonder why. A lot growing up, and then you know, I loved Jane Eyre, which is a complicated book and very advanced, and I read it probably when I was much too young. But you know, all of these books I feel like I loved and I latched onto but none of them really mirrored or depicted exactly some of my circumstances and I specifically didn't find books about black or biracial kids who were being raised by white families or in white families or in mixed families when I was growing up. But I was always keeping an eye out and trying to hunt and look for those. But you know, didn't really find those. And so I think I gravitated to these out there novels. And then I also encountered Toni Morrison much too early probably. But you know my parents were happy that I was reading and there wasn’t any censorship on what I was reading really. In fact, my mom was actually more horrified that I was reading Sweet Valley High and I had to start like, hiding the books from her. And getting some other books as well ‘cause she was like, those are cheap trash. So I specifically remember like, hiding Sweet Valley books under my mattress at home. But I you know, I read The Bluest Eye and Beloved probably way too early. But I just remember being blowing away by The Bluest Eye and while Pecola Breedlove, and one of the main characters in the book has a very, very different life than me, there was a lot that I related to in that book as far as being a little black girl and trying to figure out what that meant in the world. And encountering racism. And encountering internalized racism. And that longing sometimes for, she longs for blue eyes, Pecola Breedlove longs for blue eyes. And you know I have memories as a kid of like, putting a towel on my head or being really envious of my sister’s whose, my biological parents’ child, of her hair and sort of the ease at which my mom was able to do my hair. And sort of longing for straight beautiful hair that I could braid easily. And so reading, you know even though that’s, Pecola has a very different story than me, that book was really affirming in a lot of ways, as well as devastating. Toni Morrison doesn’t write easy books. And she is not trying to make it easy for a reader and that’s what I like about her work. She makes you work. She makes you grapple with things and I like that about her work. And so she's been a big influence, I've read all her books. And I'm a big Tomo fan in general. because in some way it provided a mirror for me growing up. And then into adulthood as well her books have. So yeah, but I became a voracious reader. I still to this day read as much as I can. Books are my friends. And another way that I survived and I learned to sort of build my identity and to sort of learn about the world around me and was through reading and writing together.
Haley - Okay so you have stacks and stacks of journals from when you were a kid and to now I'm assuming. But when you went to college, did you already know, were you like, okay, I know what I'm gonna study. I'm gonna do this, how did that come about?
Mariama - I have like, been making books and talking about being a writer since I was pretty young. But I think that when it became like an actual goal and a profession and a practice was in middle, end of middle school, beginning of high school. So I actually had the privilege of attending a summer music camp that’s also a boarding school in northern Michigan called Interlochen and Arts Academy and Interlochen Arts Camp. And I went for one summer as a flautist, so for music, was not very successful, it was very competitive. And even though I’d practiced flute for many years, I was not as good or as talented as some of the other students who were there. But that arts camp also had a creative writing program. And so the next summer when I attended, you know I told my parents I really wanna go as a creative writer, that’s really important to me. So that sort of was the beginning to practice my craft and think about being a writer and being an author and honing my skill in that way. And then I actually attended their boarding school for my senior year of high school and was a creative writing major. So even before I got to college, it was a goal and you know I was practicing poetry as like my core and my love. But I loved fiction, I loved nonfiction and so I went to college knowing yes, what I wanted to continue to pursue literature and creative writing so that’s one of my degrees is in. And then I also majored in African American studies at the University of Michigan. Yeah, I went into college knowing that was the path I wanted to follow. In addition to also finding a way because I think for me I love writing and I'm an introvert, I love to be alone, I can be alone for days. But I also felt like it was important to also teach in some way and be an educator and be in the community in that way. And so teaching and writing have always sort of been things that have been pretty focused on for a while. So but in college, I also found spoken word and slam poetry. And I participated in poetry slams like every Friday night in the student union. And then my junior and senior year of college, I actually made it onto our national poetry slam team. And we went to nationals and we competed as a team and so that was also a really important part of my writing identity, but also my identity as an adoptee because I wrote a lot of angry, loud poems about being adopted. And I got to perform them on stage in front of people who were not my parents although sometimes they did come to poetry slams. And so I got to work out a lot of things out loud through that environment. And then also I found my people, I found a really lovely community of friends and chosen family through that slam poetry, spoken word scene at the University of Michigan, many of whom continue to be my writing support and my community today. So you know that time was, I wouldn’t, those poems exist somewhere, but thank goodness it was before YouTube was really a thing and people weren’t filming them because not a lot Mariama, Self Portraits of Mariama at 19 exist in a recorded fashion, but yeah, it was a really important time in my development as a writer.
Haley - Well I’m super disappointed that I can’t see some of this. And maybe I was gonna ask you to, you know, give us a little something by I won’t.
Mariama - I honestly don’t, like, I don’t have any of those poems memorized anymore. So gonna be real honest there.
Haley - Oh my word. That is amazing, I'm just like, my eyes are just huge as she's telling this. I'm just like super invested. Okay. I love that. Okay the question that came to my mind instantly when you were talking about performing angry adoption stuff was, did you ever have any reactions from people after saying something about adoption that maybe people would be surprised by?
Mariama - Yes. I have had many unsolicited comments. The one that sticks out the most is just someone coming up to me and saying, aren’t you so grateful that your mom didn't have an abortion. Which just don’t say that to people. Don’t ever say that to anyone. You know I believe in a woman’s choice, that’s my personal belief, but there’s so much in that statement that is offensive and personal and just an assumption about a person that is a real person that you don’t even know who made a choice for themselves that they felt was best for themselves. Honestly that was in college and I had read a poem and you know it was well intentioned and I didn’t actually know what to do with it. I don’t think I handled it very gracefully, I think I just sort of shook the woman’s hand and was like, on my way with it. But that is a reaction that I've gotten. You know I think that in general, you know I was reading a lot of poems to my peers. And people were really supportive in general of me telling my story because people were getting up and sharing their stories. And that was what was so inspiring about it in the first place, was the truth telling that I saw come out of spoken word and slam poetry and I’d never seen that before and there was something really powerful about getting up and working out some of the messiness of life on a microphone. And so that’s what I was really inspired by. I definitely also remember reactions from my own parents who came to one of like the final poetry slam competitions that happened to be in Michigan that year, the nationals. And you know, there were two different poems that I was sort of, were part of my repertoire. And one of them was a poem about the fact that I grew up in a vegan, vegetarian family til I was 8. And was sort of like a more funny poem about like all the things I dreamed of eating and snuck eating like Skittles and chicken nuggets and my parents didn't know. And so it was like a funny you know goofy poem that got a lot of laughs. And then there was a very intense poem that was basically a self-portrait and I referred to my mother as a Venus Flytrap and I referred to my father as like, a colonizer. Or sort of within thinking about, this is a family that I know and also like bigger histories around us. And so you know like called out some of those things and I just remember my mom, we got to the final round of competition and I was trying to decide, you can repeat a poem when you get to the final round. So I was trying to decide do I do this like Venus Flytrap poem or do I do this Skittles poem? And I remember like, running it by my parents and my mom was like, I like the funny one. you know? Like, I like the Skittles one which you know is like a valid response.
Haley - Fair enough.
Mariama - Fair enough. I definitely went with the other one so I did the exact opposite of what she asked or what she recommended which is just, you know, like my typical behavior. So you know, those types of reactions, I feel like the one that sticks out is really the one just about aren’t you so glad, aren’t you so grateful, don’t you feel so happy that this choice was made for you in this way? And that one was really hard. Don’t say that to people.
Haley - And I mean, I can’t tell you how many times like, that’s been said to adoptees, like you are so not the only one that’s been told that. Me too. I've been told that too, so yeah. Oh my gosh. Okay. Let's get to your new book, For Black Girls Like Me. Wow, I loved it. I read it in, if I did not have teeny kids, it would have been one sitting. I got interrupted and then I read the whole rest of it in one sitting. And as you’re telling me some of your story, I'm realizing there’s a lot more of you in this book than I maybe thought there was. So will you tell us a little bit about writing this and yeah, I mean, I don’t know what else to say, I really loved it.
Mariama - Thank you, do you want me to explain a little bit about what it, like what it’s about?
Haley - Well, yes. I’m trying to be super spoiler-free. And then at some point we will talk again and spoil it and people will already have read it and loved it just like me.
Mariama - Okay, gotcha. So yeah, For Black Girls Like Me is my middle grade, so that’s roughly ages like 8-12. Although I think you could read it if you're older or younger depending on the kid you are or the adult you are. And it is the story of a black transracial adoptee named Makeda and she’s the only black person in her family. And the book sort of begins when her family is sort of uprooted, they move across the country from Baltimore to New Mexico. And it’s the middle of 6th grade for Makeda and so her life is sort of upended. And you know things in New Mexico are very different as far as the landscape and she goes to school and deals with some bullying and she’s also dealing with like a big sister who’s white, because both of her parents are white. And her sister is white. And a big sister who’s kind of too old to play with her anymore and mom who’s not really doing so well with the move and the dad who’s really absent because of his new job. And so Makeda starts to sort of dream and wonder and question where she comes from and what it might be like to grow up in a family that does look like her even though she loves and is part of this family that she was adopted into. So through singing and dreaming and other anchors, she sort of finds a place for herself in the world. And you know this book is, there is, it’s based on some of the experiences that I've had growing up as an adoptee. And there are, you know, parts of the character that I drew from myself. But it’s also very much fictionalized in a lot of ways. But in many ways it’s the book that I wish I had found when I was searching for books on bookshelves. And you know I think it’s about a young girl searching for her voice, it’s about family, about sisterhood, about friendships, about trying to figure out where you belong when you belong in a lot of different places, potentially. And you know, in a lot of ways it’s my love letter to adoptees, to transracial adoptees, and I feel really excited and nervous. But it’s gonna be out in the world very soon.
Haley - I love how you were able to incorporate, so seamlessly, your poetry and all of these, I’ve heard it described as lyrical. You know like, all of these so beautifully written passages. And they just flow so seamlessly with the story. it’s really remarkable.
Mariama - Thank you. Yeah, I think I sort of got my start in poetry but I loved to write all things and I like to write what I call hybrids. So things that look like poems or stories and I play around with different forms and so, I think something that I love about writing this book, or the process of writing it, is that actually the process of writing, of jumping from something that’s more of a traditional poem to something that’s a little bit more like a prose story block, to a song, to definition or things like that, is that it kind of mimics the main character’s identity and the fact that she often feels like a lot of different things and feels like she belongs in a lot of different places. And so in that way, it’s kind of memetic to her experience. And so it was fun to sort of write something that isn’t either or, it’s a little bit of everything. Which felt really natural to me.
Haley - And another thing that seems like such a simple thing, I haven’t seen this done before, though, is that lots of the chapter titles just like flow into the first sentence and so it’s easy to just read in one sitting because everything just keeps going and you just wanna keep the momentum going. And you know, as you said it’s really, it could be for all ages. And there are some very challenging topics addressed. Do you wanna talk about how you decided to incorporate some of those things? Hard without being spoilery, but there’s some mental illness, and some other really difficult things that you know, maybe you wouldn’t have read about as a young adult? Yeah, can you talk about your decision to write about that?
Mariama - Yeah, I mean, I will be the first to say that this book is not a book that, it’s not a book that’s interested in necessarily like a clean, tied up in a bow narrative that I was interested in writing a story that brings to light the nuances of the adoptee experience. But then also, that trusts young people and adults to grapple with some really difficult subjects. So you know, there, the book touches on mental illness, it touches on some really overt racism, it touches on you know, just everyday messy things that you might encounter as a young person or as an adult. And that was really important to me to include those things in you know, hopefully in age appropriate way because I know for me as a kid, I was looking for those stories. And I was looking for those reflections. And I think sometimes we do not give young people enough credit for the things that they’re actually experiencing in their lives. And I think that young people are super observant, super intuitive, and that they are you know, as much as we want kids to be kids for as long as they can be, we have, there are a lot of young people who are dealing with really, really real life things. And so it was important to me to write a book that spoke to some of that truth. And hopefully might validate a young person that needs it. And to trust that you know, the young person who needs this book will find it hopefully and will find some commonality and some thread that is important to them and that’s really why I chose that. And then also because this, you know I feel like it was important for me to write a book that showed that you can both have, you know, something really terrible and sad happen and there also be still hope and joy within a story too. And so you know, I feel like what I wish that adult me had been able to go back and tell young me, was that it is totally possible and ok to feel two things at once. So it is okay to both love and feel a part of my family and it is also okay to be deeply sad and grieve and question and think about where are my biological family, that those two things can live side by side. That it’s possible for me to be in conflict and feel anger about my experience while also feeling gratitude, right? Like those things can coexist, side by side. And so it was important for me to attempt to put that into a book too, where you know these feelings and experiences exist at the same time and it’s not one or the other. It is my daily reality that I am both a part of my family and love them and also deeply mourn and feel sad and angry about being separated from my biological family. Like those two things, one is not more important than the other. They just live side by side.
Haley - Yep.
Mariama - So it was important for me to tackle that. It was important for me to tackle, just some of the other things you deal with when you’re growing up, the messiness of growing up. It’s not always sunshine. It’s just not. And sometimes there’s messiness along with the sunshine.
Haley - So I wasn’t sure if I should ask you this or not. because I almost feel like it’s sort of a spoiler but not really. So the main character, Makeda.
Mariama - Yep.
Haley - She doesn’t, this is not a book about search or reunion. And so much of you know adoptee literature, this small amount there is, is about that. And I was kind of like, excited that it wasn’t included in this story. Because that’s not the experience for most young people. Can you talk about that? Like was that ever on the radar? Or was it just like, you were like, I'm not addressing that in this story?
Mariama - To be honest, I wasn’t addressing, I think it was not part of this story. So it was never, you know this book actually started as a series of sort of disjointed but somewhat connected poems. And I wasn’t thinking about necessarily a young adult audience for it, it was more of like a literary poetry manuscript that I had worked on, and so it was much more abstract and less I guess character and plot driven, than maybe this book is now. But it was a series of poems just about an eleven year old nameless girl at the time who was transracially adopted and some of those poems were definitely more autobiographical then what has made it into the book. But it was really, initially it was you know, a project about sitting in that messiness of adolescence and grappling with those questions. And yes, having the thoughts and the wonderings about what if and who am I and where are the people I come from, but also it was important to me to write a story where that’s not really the point, where the character is yet. The character is just beginning to sort of question and interrogate and really really think about what does this mean for me in the world as I grow up into a person and how do I find my voice? And how do I tell my truth while being myself and loving myself and also loving the people around me. And that was what was important about it. So you know, I think yeah, I don’t think it, I did it intentionally because I wanted to stay within this, you know, one concentrated year or so of this character’s life.
Haley - And you said, like, she has these dreams or thoughts or you know, or there’s the fantasy life that, a lot of experience as young people wondering about our biological families. And so that’s sort of just interwoven just as a normal part of her thought life which is just yeah, so interesting. Everything I have flagged in here, in For Black Girls Like Me, they’re just, as you said, there are these little examples of microaggressions I have flagged, I have moments flagged where Makeda is thinking, I should be talking to my mother about this but I can’t. You know, it’s really things that we talked about in your personal story at the beginning of this interview. But the one you know quote that I wanted to share, was “I have two mothers, you both held me.” And I just think that’s just such a beautiful reflection of what you just said, the both and. Yeah. I don’t know.
Mariama - It’s the yes and. The both and. Both of these things exist at the same time and I think it’s not, not every family is like that. But I think sometimes there’s a fear, or at least in my end that like, well, you know, will one cancel out the other. And that’s not how this works. And it’s not as simple as that.
Haley - Okay, thank you so much for all of those thoughts and let’s go to our recommended resources. And spoiler alert, I'm gonna recommend that you pick up For Black Girls Like Me, it’s just, I loved it. And I think that there are so many moments that as an adopted person reading this you’re like, oh my gosh I just feel, I feel exactly what is happening in this moment for this little girl. And yeah, I think people will be able to relate, especially if you’re a transracial adoptee which I'm not, but also just an adoptee in general. There’s so many things that we have in common with this sweet girl Makeda. Also I picked up your poetry chat book, the Lucky Daughter.
Mariama - Oh thank you, yes.
Haley - And I have to recommend that too. It’s, I, oh my goodness. It’s so good. And I read it and I had to just like slow myself down because there’s so many very deep thoughtful, thought provoking things in your poetry. And one of the lines that I highlighted was from your poem, In This Story. And at the very end it says, “Even when I am wanted, I don’t know how to belong.”
Mariama - Yes.
Haley - Does that still ring true for you? Definitely rings true, yep. In a lot of therapy still.
Mariama - And this is the more adult of your books.
Haley - Yes it is.
Mariama - Definitely not middle grade focused.
Haley - No, no. there is some sexy time and, so yes.
Mariama - Definitely yeah, don’t buy it for your middle grade student. It is definitely more adult although there are some poems that are less adult, but yeah.
Haley - Yeah, so the Lucky Daughter and For Black Girls like me. You guys have to go grab both of those. And For Black Girls Like Me is out July 30th, of 2019.
Mariama - It is.
Haley - Okay, what would you like to recommend to us?
Mariama - So I'm really excited for my book to come out and for it to be in the middle grade sort of cannon but, I really wanted to recommend another adoptee’s young adult novel called, See No Color. And it’s by Shannon Gibney who is an adoptee, transracial adoptee based in Minnesota. And I similarly, if I had found this book when I was a young person, it would probably be dog eared and marked up and just worn with love because it is about a 16 year old biracial transracial adoptee who is growing up in her family. She has a sister and brother and two parents and they’re all white. And you know, in my story and Makeda in my book’s story, sort of the legacy in her family is music. And in Alex Kittridge family in this book, it’s baseball. It’s sports. And so you know, it is a story about a young girl who is very good and very passionate about playing baseball and has this relationship with her father who also is a former baseball player but it also much more than that. It’s a story about a girl who sort of at 16, stumbles upon, in a way that I won't spoil, her adoption file which I think is something that a lot of adoptees can relate to, sort of seeing that document or getting that information for the first time, finds out some information about her biological family and just sort of can't stop thinking about it and is just really is upended by that information and then at the same time is also falling in love with a young black man who is sort of validating a lot of the things that she hasn’t been able to talk about maybe with her white family. And also trying to navigate that relationship and not feeling black enough or you know, like she fits in. And there’s so much, there’s so much in this book. It is a story that touches on reunion a bit, it’s a story that touches on hair care and black identity surrounding hair. And then also that same messiness of coming from a loving family that sometimes doesn’t speak the same language or have the same experience in the world as you. And how you navigate those often uncomfortable, awkward, silencing moments as a young black woman, a young transracial adoptee. So I can’t highly recommend it enough. I devoured it when I read it. It’s also you know, like if you’re, it's got a very cover looks very sporty because that’s a big part of the story. But I would not turn away from it if you’re not a big sports person because there’s so much in it that’s more than that, that compliments sort of the legacy of this character’s family as well. So yeah, it’s about self-love, it’s about romantic love, it’s about familial love and then finding yourself in a lot of ways. And I am really, really honored that Shannon Gibney was able to read my book and give a blurb about it. And that our books hopefully will be in conversation with one another. Because I believe her book is one of the only possible YA books that’s written about a transracial adoptee by a transracial adoptee and I think mine will be one of the first for middle grade as well. And so it’s just been really validating to read her work. And she has another book called Dream Country and I believe she has a memoir coming out eventually as well.
Haley - Can I ask you to put your teacher hat on just for a second.
Mariama - Yes.
Haley - And give us a little lecture. Why should adults not be scared of reading middle grade or YA fiction? Or you know like, sometimes I think people are like, well that’s not written for me, so why would I read that?
Mariama - It’s that or people or like, well that’s just for kids. And it’s not like a real book. Which is problematic in many ways.
Haley - Ouch, ouch. Okay.
Mariama - Well there is, first of all, there are so many incredible like writers who are writing middle grade and YA, just talented storytellers. And so the first reason is that you’re missing out on some fantastic, innovative storytelling that I think that in many ways, YA and middle grade writers are not afraid sometimes to like, break rules or to experiment or to come up with an idea for a story and they don’t feel maybe as bound by some of the boxes that maybe more adult literary fiction sometimes puts you in. So there’s some like, there’s some, such talent, talented people writing middle grade and YA fiction. I also think that for me, I have recently been reading a lot more YA and middle grade and it has been so affirming and so wonderful also to see, you know, I think, there’s a long way still to go, sort of representation and the types of stories that get told or get published. But there is so much more than there was when I was growing up. There’s so many more stories featuring the LGBT community, featuring black characters, black girls on book covers. So many different stories that are out there. So that’s another reason to do that. And I also think that we can learn a lot from young people. I definitely feel like young people have a lot to teach us and a lot of wisdom. And they're looking for stories that are not dumbed down or stories that are not easy either. And so I think young people also will be the first to like critique and tell you about yourself and about your work and so I think that as adults we have a tremendous amount to learn from young people and from the literature that they’re reading and the things that they care about as well. It just, you know, good books. If you wanna read good books, you should read middle grade and YA. And also maybe feel some part of your child, your inner child like validated or seen or just find joy in it as well.
Haley - And you can go back and relook at your childhood. I mean, I had these moments reading this and I was like, oh my gosh, I totally, like it sparks things in you. Okay, you mentioned covers. And black girls on the cover. Your cover is so beautiful. And I kept flipping back just to look at her. And I don’t know, there’s just something about it, it’s just mesmerizing. It’s so lovely.
Mariama - I have to give the cover artist a shout out. Jamea Richmond-Edwards is a phenomenal artist and you should all look her up. She actually did the original piece of art that’s on the cover of the book. And I could not be more happy and in love with it. And I'm also just in love with all of her amazing art. She does beautiful textured, colorful work. And you should all be fangirls in my opinion. because she is just phenomenal.
Haley - I'm getting on the fangirl train, I’m doing it.
Mariama - I am, I stalk her on all the Instagram, on all the social media and just feel really really lucky and honored that she created such a beautiful piece of art for the cover of the book.
Haley -So good. I will link to her in the show notes too, I promise. But where can we connect with you online?
Mariama - So I am on Twitter, @marilock. I’m also on Instagram @forblackgirlslikeme. So a lot of pictures of my dog and other bookish things.
Haley -Who is so cute.
Mariama - He’s pretty adorable. So get ready for some cute dog photos. As well as some other things. But I just feel like you should know it is a lot of pictures of my dachshund Henry, or Sir Henry as we like to call him. And I also have a website for the book, it’s Forblackgirlslikeme.com and so that has more information, just about upcoming events which there will be some events that I’ll be posting shortly, throughout the summer, and just other ways to connect with me and also if you’re interested, if you’re a teacher and interested and bringing me for a Skype workshop or to a school visit, I love engaging with young people and also have a degree in education and so love going in and teaching writing workshops and engaging with young readers in that way as well.
Haley -That’s fantastic. And we will be doing a book club with you in the fall.
Mariama - I’m excited!
Haley -So make sure to follow both of us so you can get more details on that, when that is happening later this year. Thank you, thank you so much for sharing your story with us and just so many insights. I'm just so thrilled that we had this conversation.
Haley -As I mentioned at the top of the show, Adoptees On is celebrating our 3rd birthday this week. Or is it anniversary? I don’t know, I think it’s our birthday. And I wanna share some fun stats with you. So there are 5,384 minutes of Adoptees On content for you to binge. That’s almost 90 hours. And you’re listening the 116th episode. We have been downloaded in 123 countries around the world, 277,560 times, which kind of blows my mind. I have to thank my monthly supporters and people who have given financial gifts. Without that, I couldn’t continue this show. And in fact today I wanna ask if Adoptees On has supported you on your adoptee journey or taught you something, if you’re an adoptive parent or a first parent and you have benefitted some way in listening to the podcast, I literally cannot continue the show without some more people stepping up to partner financially with us. I don’t get, if you think like, I don’t get paid for making this show. All the money that comes in goes to my editor, it goes to the costs of hosting the show, and the website, and other behind the scenes costs and at this moment, I am trying to hire some help from other adoptees to kind of step in and take care of some social media for me and do a couple of other things that are so critical to the continued success of the show that I am just not able to do on my own any longer. So if you do value Adoptees On and want it to continue, today’s the day, I’m asking that you go and sign up. AdopteesOn.com/partner has the monthly Patreon support and there are more episodes of Adoptees Off Script to download, there’s over 20 when this is being released. This show cannot continue without your support. So if you are able to financially support, you can do a one time gift at AdopteesOn.com, there’s a link for that right on the home page, or monthly which is fantastic because that helps us budget and figure out how we can hire and do kind of those things which again, I said these things kind of happen behind the scenes, you don’t see them necessarily because you just see your episode pop up each week in your feed, if you’re subscribed. And so there’s a ton of work that has to happen before an episode ever appears on your podcast feed. Another way to support the show that doesn’t cost anything is to leave a review in Apple Podcasts and to share the show with just one other person that you think would learn something. And because there’s so many episodes now, the best way to do that is say, hey have you heard this one particular episode of Adoptees On? Because sometimes people will go and be like, oh my gosh, there’s like a hundred episodes! I don’t know where to start. And it’s kind of overwhelming so if you just share one specific episode, that’s the best way to share a podcast. With that pitch, I asking you to go to AdopteesOn.com/partner to help cover the costs of the podcast and share the show. And I just wanna say a gigantic thank you to those of you who have already been doing those things, who have been listening since the early days back when I didn't have an editor and I didn't have my fancy windscreen on my mic which, you know. And I was doing absolutely everything by myself which was so unsustainable. So I'm so honored that you choose to download the show and listen and allow me the opportunity to speak to you in this way each and every week and I would be just so grateful if you chose to support me in this way. So AdopteesOn.com/partner has details and thank you so much for listening and cheering me on for these last three years and I hope we are able to continue. Thanks so much for listening, let’s talk again next Friday.