In 2018 I read Nancy Johnson's article on Writer Unboxed encouraging writers to figure out what their novel's big question is. I saved it on my desktop and went back to it several times as I wrote Half-Truths. That question is in my mind and shaping the sequel.
So, it's no coincidence that after I finished reading For Black Girls Like Me (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2019) by Mariama J. Lockington one of my thoughts was, "What is the big question this book answers?"
I don't know if Ms. Lockington has this in her mind when she wrote this middle grade book, but my question for this book would be, "What does a black girl experience who was adopted into a white family and never knew her birth mother?"
Using free verse poetry and poetic prose, the novel provides powerful insight into eleven-year-old Makeda June Kirkland's reality. Readers are immersed into the life of a girl whose hippie mother named her after an Ethiopian girl who died in a famine. Makeda's response: "I like Keda for short. I am not a dead girl." (p. 8)
The book opens with Keda, her older sister Eve, and her used-to-be-concert-violinist mother driving across country to New Mexico to meet their father who has taken a job as the principal cellist in the New Mexico Symphony. "Mama is up front with one hand on the wheel. Her violin in the passenger seat. The neck tipped down like a bottle being emptied into the seat." (p.3) This image poetically foreshadows Mrs. Kirkland's battles.
Music, according to their father, is their legacy. Forced to play piano, but loving singing more, Keda wonders if she sounds like gibberish when she sings since her father outlaws the gibberish of rap, hip-hop, and R and B. Keda's constant question is, "Where do I belong?"
I love Ella and Billie Holiday and oh I just can't get enough of Nina Simone. These women sing and I feel like they are talking to me. Like we are speaking the same language. Like they know what it is to feel loved and lonely all at the same time. (p. 18)
Although Keda realizes her parents love her, that knowledge doesn't stop her from wondering about her birth mother. "Even though these days I can't help feeling like I'll never be whole. That somewhere out there is a woman with my face. Another mother. Missing me the way I miss her." (p. 33)
Keda's voice is in the songs she makes up.
.... I try to imitate different instruments with the sound of my voice. I don't sing any real words. I just open myself to the sounds and sing what I feel. I close my eyes and sway back and forth. I like to think about notes as colors and shapes. I like to swish the notes around in my mouth. Taste them on my tongue. Then I try to fill the whole world with my breath. With my sound.
In Albuquerque, Keda misses her best friend Lena (who is Haitian and was adopted by a white family) and has problems at her new school. Although Keda is used to people staring at her parents and then at her, trying to figure out where she came from, this time it is particularly painful. A teacher assumes she is from Africa, a fellow sixth grader calls her the N-word, and Keda's fragile new world breaks apart.
A brief stint of homeschooling is followed by a disastrous summer. Her father goes on tour, her mother pulls away from the girls and into her own world, and Keda stops hearing from Lena. In a manic turn of events, her mother suddenly decides to take the girls on a trip to Colorado which ends in her attempted suicide--for which Keda blames herself.
The end of the book is a symphony of clashes between the sisters that climax with new empathy and forgiveness. The ways in which the family pulls together after Mrs. Kirkland's hospitalization are painful, tentative, and yet authentic.
I loved one of the final scenes when Keda's mother's violin-playing invades Keda's dream--and she realizes that it's not a dream. After her mother ends her impromptu concert, the two speak honestly about her mother's mental illness and her mother suggests that Keda take formal voice lessons. That night Keda sleeps better than she has in months. In the morning her fantasy friends who she calls the Georgia Belles, sing their last song to her ending with:
You are ripe
Your own magic
You don't need us to be free
All you need is a song
So I fling my blinds open, I open my mouth. I smear my ripe voice all over the morning. And let it ring. (p. 316)
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