Posted in Author Interviews

Interview with Author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Mommy’s Khimar was one of our favorite books published in 2018. We had the wonderful opportunity to have a conversation with the author, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, this past fall.

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What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Hadeal: We talk a lot about windows and mirrors for marginalized readers and readers of color. Where and when did you first see yourself in literature?

Jamilah: When did I first see a book that mirrored me? I think I was in fourth grade when I felt that I really found a book that reflected my experience, it was called The Shimmershine Queens, I don’t think it’s very well known but I kept it for a long time, it’s by Camille Yarbrough. And I liked that book because it dealt with different things like colorism. It’s about two black girls and one black girl was getting picked on a lot; she had even gotten into a fight. It was in an urban environment as well, which was something that I could connect to – knowing kids who got into fights and went to urban schools and lived in apartments and were black.

I hadn’t seen a book like that before. Before that, in all the books that I read, there were white kids who lived in the ‘burbs and not using the kind of language that was in the book it just changed my worldview for a little bit. So that was my first experience.

Then a lot in high school, when I first discovered Maya Angelou — I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Toni Morrison – those books helped me to see myself.

One thing I didn’t see when I was growing up were books about Muslims. It was just not something that I saw at all. Some titles that are out right now that coincide with my identity, definitely Saints and Misfits is one that represents a young Muslim teen. I still remember that scene where she is feeling embarrassed in the opening of the book because she was in a burkini and she’s swimming at the beach and she doesn’t want to come out and be stared at. I know that feeling, so that is definitely one. Ilyasah Shabazz has a few things out that I think are good mirrors as well. Jacqueline Woodson always, she always has some great work that reflects that experience of being a Black girl. I love Brown Girl Dreaming very much. I’m sure I’m missing so much I could name; we could be here all day going from picture books to YA.

Judy Blume also wrote a lot of books that I loved growing up. I read everything by her. I could connect and relate to the characters, but those books were definitely windows for me in a lot of ways because of their living situations; they were always white, so it wasn’t something I was used to.

Mahasin: I wish I had known about The Shimmershine Queens because I was reading Sweet Valley High. (laughs) When did you decide to be a writer and what inspired you to write Mommy’s Khimar?

Jamilah: I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a writer someday, growing up, as a child, but I just kind of shoved that dream away as not being very practical. And so I didn’t really do it for a long time. I published a few things here and there but it was nothing serious. But then I was diagnosed with a chronic illness, with lupus, and it made me focus a lot, I had to focus my energy on what I wanted to do with my time. I hadn’t thought about writing for children until I was actually in a Facebook group. This story is a little weird to me because I feel like I should have some mind-blowing, great source of inspiration. But actually, my inspiration was being in a Muslim Moms group where most of the moms were African American and the moms just complaining about a lack of books for Muslim black kids that they could share with their children, books that talked about our history and stuff like that. It was just the weirdest feeling because all of a sudden I started having all of these ideas, thinking, “I could write a book about this or that” and kept jotting down different ideas for books that I wish I had as a kid or that I wanted for my own children.

Mommy’s Khimar was one of my ideas – and I felt like I needed to do something related to hijab. It’s one of the most seen things but one of the least understood aspects of Islam. I felt like people would want a book about hijab, but it kind of was bothering me that I felt like you had to write a book about hijab, there was an urge to write it – that you have to write it because I know all of the things, there is so much pressure to write the book and the conversation is often fraught. And writing a book about hijab, what kinds of expectations would people have about it? What kind of language would they want us to use? Do I have to defend it? Do I really feel like defending it? I came to a point in my life where I was like, “I just like wearing hijab and I am going to wear it anyway.” And even the language, you know, “khimar,” there were just a lot of those things. When I sat down to write it I was just like, “what if I wrote a story that didn’t really match the expectations that people wanted in a book about hijab. What if I just wrote a story about it as if I’m writing it for the Muslim kids that I know, especially the Black Muslim kids I know and ignore the other pressures and expectations?” That’s where Mommy’s Khimar came from. I thought, who was I as a little girl and how did I look at khimar, and as a little girl we called it a khimar. So how did I look at that? And I remembered playing with my mom’s khimars and seeing it that way, there wasn’t all this political stuff around it, it was just these beautiful pieces of cloth and I thought, I wanted to write the story I wanted to write. I don’t really want to write a defense or something like that.

Mahasin: I think that’s what makes the book so great is that it’s not a defense. I think I wrote that up in my review of the book, is that what is left out of it is also what makes it so great because it just is. You don’t have to defend it. You don’t have to make it an issue. It just is.

That leads into the next question which is. We have read about some of your work as an anti-racist advocate with MuslimARC and we were wondering how your activism is translated into your writing? We noticed that there a few points in the book that challenged stereotypes about Muslims, for example, the Arabic teacher being a Black woman. I was thinking, “Yes! We can be Arabic teachers! So I was hoping you could talk about if that work translated into the content of the book if it did.

Jamilah: It did. So, one of the reasons I joined MuslimARC, of the different reasons, was because I felt like there was erasure of Black Muslims, within the conversation around American Muslims whenever there is any representation of Muslims, it is as if we don’t even exist. There are always immigration stories and not people who are African American and that legacy. So I wanted it to be the blackest thing ever. I wanted there to be no doubt whatsoever. I was so happy to see that the mother and daughter are dark-skinned, the family is dark-skinned and yes, there is no doubt, no question that these characters are Black Muslims with textured hair. You know, some of the things I wanted to put in with the way of putting on khimar with all of the plaits, I wanted it to be unmistakably Black.

Mahasin: It is a beautiful thing.

Hadeal: That leads into the next question, like we have said what is great about Mommy’s Khimar is the text and illustrations and how well they work together. In a way you can’t have one without the other, it is almost impossible to read them separately because they compliment each other and flow so well. Can you tell us a little bit about your collaboration with Ebony Glenn. You had mentioned that you wanted your characters to be unmistakably Black. Did you have to emphasize this to the illustrator? How did you work on this together? A separate question is: the color yellow stands out so much throughout the text and the illustrations. Did you choose that?

Jamilah: So the first question, the answer to which, is always shocking to people is there isn’t really much collaboration with the artist at all. This is my first children’s book so I didn’t realize how much of a lack of collaboration there would be. The process is really that I had my editor and there is the art director, and they really act as the mediators who are having the conversation and they did not want me to direct. Which is common with these big publishing houses is that they don’t want the author to direct much and the reason why is because you have to see the illustrator as an artist too and at times an author can be very limiting.

I think if I had had more ability to talk about what I wanted it would not have come out as well because I am not a visual artist, I’m a writer. I was very surprised by how well she did and how much she got it. And really it was just a couple of times that I gave a little bit of feedback and that was to the editor who talked to the art director who talked to Ebony. So they just kind of kept us separate so she could create in her own space and it just worked out really well. Zareen Jaffery who is the editor at Salaam Reads is just an amazing editor, she really listened. She really wants to depict the diversity of the Muslim community with Salaam Reads and I think that is why it came out the way that it did.

The yellow color, I chose yellow because it was sunshiney. That was pretty much it. When I had first started out with the book I had chosen read because I like red. But it felt stalling, like, no this book isn’t going anywhere. But when she wears mommy’s khimar she can be the sun and that really changed a lot, there was so much she could do with the color yellow.

Mahasin: I would have never guessed that you and Ebony had been so limited in contact. In my mind, you two were on the phone, like, vibing off both being Black. That’s really interesting. Thank you for that. So our next question is: how do you hope that your work can impact the Muslim community? And how do you hope that it may affect perceptions of Muslims?

Jamilah: For me, I really do write for Muslim kids, especially Black Muslim kids. I’m just hoping that they have books. That I can give them more books. That they can see themselves as worthy as being celebrated and that our stories are worth being told. And a lot of times kids may not feel like their stories are worth being told or are as important as people from mainstream and dominant culture, because all the stories seem to be about them. When I think back to when I was a little girl, and I wanted to be a writer then and I was writing a lot of stories about white kids, because what I was reading in books was white kids. They were never Muslim because that was not what happened in books, right? And it was very important to me to have our books, not only in Muslim shops but also in the public library, at Barnes & Noble, in those places to kind of say, “you know what? This is an acceptable identity, and your story is worth being told.” So that’s really the hope with the writing that I do, that our kids see themselves there. And you know, the book is a window and I do want to let other people in to see this culture and to appreciate it as well.

Mahasin: What is the best feedback that you have received from a reader and what has been the reception in your community?

Jamilah: So, the best feedback was someone who told me that they got emotional when they read the part about the grandmother and that the grandmother also got emotional reading the book. People saw themselves and cried. This was their book. This was their family’s book and that was special to them.

Mahasin: That is one of my favorite parts in the book. I loved all of the book but I was at work when our copy came in and I was flipping through it and when I got to the part with the grandmother saying, “Sweet Jesus,” I started to tear up because it felt so personal. I felt like, this is somebody who gets my story and gets my life. So I’m not surprised to hear that. Sorry, I sort of cut into your answer. Has the reception in the community been very positive?

Jamilah: It’s been positive. It’s a little surreal because I have been waiting for that really negative review to come in and someone saying something about it and I haven’t gotten that. I’m sure that there are some Islamophobes and bigots, that if they see it, they have comments for it but I haven’t gotten that from, pretty much anyone. It’s been so amazing to get that much positive feedback and really with some of the major critics, like starred reviews and things like that. I keep waiting for something to happen, but wow, I am in awe of the whole thing.

Hadeal: How did you decide which settings/vignettes to include, for example, the masjid, with the little girl and all the Muslim ladies looking at her and her hijab, her khimar, and there is also the scene at home with her father, who is embracing her and holding her up.

Jamilah: I just wanted to show this girl going through her day. And this is why the settings came about, thinking about the people a child would be interacting with. I wanted people to see everything, to see her father and the people in the mosque, that was really important to me and the settings really fall into place with those things. In a lot of ways I wrote this book as a poem at first, and there was a pattern to the little girl interacting with people and then those things start to take on settings, so that is really where that came from.

So as far as being based on people, the grandmother is definitely is my kids’ grandmother, my mother-in-law. She says, “sweet Jesus” all of the time. She was the person that I had in mind for that character. The little girl is really kind of me as a little girl. I was really very active (laughs).  And the dad is kind of my father, he was really the kind of dad that would snatch me up and give me a kiss, that kind of thing. The mother…so this is the thing that people don’t expect, my mother didn’t actually wear hijab full-time, she wore khimar to the mosque, so it’s a little weird to write about a mother wearing khimar every day, since it wasn’t really my experience, so she wasn’t really based on my mother. Though my mother had a lot of nice khimars and I did play with those.

Mahasin: You told us a little bit about the publishing process with the artists, but we were wondering if you could tell us about whether you intended to publish with a mainstream publisher or did you consider self-publishing or publishing with an Islamic publishing company? Were there other publishers that you looked at? How did you come to work with Salaam Reads?

Jamilah: A friend told me about Salaam Reads because she knew that I was writing children’s books at the time and I was kind of experimenting with my writing and ideas. And then there was the call from Salaam Reads, so I submitted directly to them. I had talked about a few things and they accepted Mommy’s Khimar. And that was really how I got started.

I didn’t really go through the process like a lot of writers do, applying and submitting and then getting rejection after rejection. I am kind of in that phase right now. There are some things that are coming down the pipeline and I can’t talk about them yet, but in 2020 I think you might see some cool things coming out. Having my work accepted by Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster really made me feel like I should continue to submit to mainstream publishers. Kids deserve to see their books on library shelves and in bookstores, not just on Amazon. They deserve to have their books illustrated by the best illustrators that are out there, that are in the industry. That is really why I have stayed on this sort of path and in that direction.

I think that there is always a space for self-publishing and I am considering doing some more Islamic books through self-publishing – when you are doing things for the mainstream, you’re doing anything that proselytizes or is Islamically pedagogical, so that is a reason why I would do something in self-publishing/Islamic publishers. But as far as telling stories about Muslims with Muslim kids in them, it is worth trying; it is worth the effort to get it into the mainstream.

Hadeal: Definitely. And thank you for that, whether it is independent or big publishing, to keep trying is so important. As a child, I would have loved to see Muslim characters and really anything to do with Islam. We’re seeing some Ramadan books in younger children’s books, going to the mosque, and we are seeing more voices in YA, but this is amazing and I hope that it continues to grow and that more people see the need for it.

Paired with that question, we understand that you had to work closely with Zareen Jaffery (editor at Salaam Reads/Simon& Schuster) but not with the illustrator. Was there anything you had to edit out of the book or in general, that you feel that there are specifics that Muslim writers are pressured to include or not include in their narratives?

Jamilah: I don’t think Zareen is someone who wants you (the writer) to edit out that Muslim voice. She was really encouraging in including that “Muslimness.” Salaam Reads is very clear that they don’t want proselytizing books, and I wanted to write that book to be a representation of a Muslim family, and didn’t want to write in things like, “Allah commands us to wear hijab and read the Qur’an,” but that is not the place for it. There is a place for that and a place of just being. I guess there is that pressure if that is your intention, but I understand that that is not going to be a mainstream, general thing. Just like I wouldn’t go to a bookstore and expect to see books on display in the Children’s section that are encouraging my kids to be Christian, that’s not really what’s going to be on the bookshelves there.

Mahasin: What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace? Are they books that you would encourage others to check out? And it’s fine if they are not published by a major publisher.

Jamilah: The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi is on my shelf. Going to shout out all the Salaam Reads people! Salaam Alaikum (Harris J), Rashad’s Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr (Lisa Bullard), Bashirah and the Amazing Bean Pie (Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins), Golden Domes and Silvers Lanterns (Hena Khan) such a beautiful book! I have a lot of children’s books because I love reading Children’s books and it’s part of being a children’s writer. Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States by Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is an adult title that I have. Also, children’s X by Ilysah Shabazz.

Mahasin: Have you read Betty before X yet? Ilysah Shabazz’s newest book.

Jamilah: No, not yet! I will check it out.

Hadeal: What do you hope the literature world looks like for Muslims in the coming years?

Jamilah: I just hope that there is a broad array of literature for Muslims, even books that I might not necessarily like and care for, but they are different expressions of Muslimness. There may be some books that don’t really go along with how I express or view Islam or being a Muslim. But I think that there should be a variety, a diversity of texts, diversities of the cultures that are represented by American Muslims, the diversity of the practices. There should not be a single story all the time about what Muslims are. So if we could get that, that range, that would make me happy.

Mahasin: Are there any words of wisdom that you would like to pass down to young writers or other Muslim writers?

Jamilah: Shoot high. Submit your work to the big five publishers. Your stories are worth being in these places. Don’t lower the bar or your standards. Take your time to learn craft and industry standards of writers. Muslim people deserve high-quality books, just as any other people do. There are so many resources, especially free resources, that are available for those who want to write children’s books, picture books, and novels. You don’t necessarily need to invest thousands of dollars to learn how to do it. Take it seriously though. You can write those books, you never know if they will be best sellers but we need to shoot high.

Hadeal: This interview may be read by librarians and other library professionals. Is there anything you want to say to those librarians that are responsible for getting books into the hands of children?

Jamilah: Fight for the kids that are in your libraries, your readers, fight to have them be represented. Buy those books; support those books. Care about those kids that come in every day and think about what they might not be seeing on the bookshelves.

*Photograph by Michael E. Gray, Jr.

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