KidLit in Color author Gabriele Davis interviews Amina Luqman Dawson about her new middle grade novel, Freewater, which explores a little-known part of Black history.
What’s the story behind your story, and what inspired you to write about it?
I first learned about enslaved people who escaped and lived clandestinely in the wilderness while taking a Latin American studies course in college. They are known as maroons. In that course we discussed maroons in the Caribbean and South America. It blew my mind. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known this history before. I thought of the story of two children escaping enslavement and finding a secret maroon community way back in 2002. However, it took years for me to seriously begin writing it. Having my son was my inspiration. Being a parent made how I would share the story of my son’s enslaved ancestors with him a pressing question. Freewater was my answer.
How much of the setting sprang from your imagination and how much was based on research you were able to locate?
There is so much we have yet to learn about maroons in the United States. In part, because maroonage was on a much smaller scale here than in other countries in the Americas. Also, because smaller instances of maroons are harder to find given that their very survival was built on being clandestine.
Still, while writing Freewater, it was fun intertwining bits of information I garnered from maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp, maroons in other parts of the American South and those in other countries. Here are a few pieces of history I loved including. The character, Suleman, a skilled marauder, is based on maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp and those in other swamps and forests in the American South. Marauders who stole from plantations were pretty common. They would steal everything from corn to cattle for their survival. I appreciated including patrols or “Tree People” as Ada called them. In Freewater, these people camouflaged themselves in leaves and vines to blend into the swamp. They watched over Freewater and offered protection. Well, among the maroons of Jamaica, there were maroons who used the same strategy to make themselves unseen.
You use multiple viewpoints to tell your story. Can you share why you chose this device? Did you add viewpoints during the revision process?
Multiple viewpoints allowed me to share numerous voices of children, each with their own story to tell and challenge to overcome. My very first draft only had a couple of characters, over time I layered on character voices one by one. When their voices come together it creates a tapestry. It’s in that rich fabric that the humanity of these children comes to light. We see how each brings their own personality and point of view to the story. I loved that I was able to do this for enslaved children. I love that we get to hear their voices. Too often depictions of enslaved people stop at the pain of their bondage. I hope that these multiple viewpoints help the reader to see beyond that pain.
Only one character, Homer, speaks in first person. Why?
Homer is my protagonist. He’s spent his life trying to make himself invisible. As a result, he keeps much of who he is inside and hidden. I liked the idea of being able to hear that inside voice and the journey he goes through to learn that he matters and that he can and must be seen.
Nora, the plantation owner’s daughter, is the only white character whose perspective challenges the status quo. You compare her realization of her father’s cruelty to “a first small crack setting into a sheet of lake ice.” Why was it important to include her point of view?
Nora has her own journey. It’s a journey in what it means to be an ally. From a place of privilege, first learning to recognize injustice, then striving to do something about it. Yes, beyond Nora the other white characters chose the status quo. That’s a reality I wanted to convey. Enslavement of African Americans was an accepted norm. I wanted Nora to show that allyship is a choice, sometimes it’s a hard one that goes against everything everyone around you claims to be true. Ultimately, Nora had the courage to make some good choices. For readers, I think there’s something children of privilege can still learn from Nora’s journey.
Suleman is such an enigmatic character. One of my favorite passages is when he says: “None of those are good questions…Here are some questions: Can you spot bear tracks in mud? Do you know how to keep snakes off you at night? Do you know how to hunt?” What purpose does his character serve in the novel?
Suleman is my superhero. He invokes the most courage and comes across as almost having super powers. So much of what enslaved African Americans overcame has been lost. Yet, the truth is that they survived and sometimes found ways to thrive against almost insurmountable odds. Suleman helps depict the amazing essence of who they were in a language children can understand.
Many of the young characters come to realize unexpected strengths towards the end of the book. It’s a great reminder to children that our gifts develop in their own time. What other jewels do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I hope they feel a bit of excitement and thrill when they think about the enslaved souls they came to know while reading this book. I hope they leave the book with a feeling of connection to these characters that can translate to a connection to this important history.
Thanks for sharing your inspiration and insights, Amina. How do you plan to celebrate your book birthday?
With COVID my plans are modest. I’m having a virtual book launch. Since the COVID lockdown in 2020, my family does a weekly Facetime call. I imagine we’ll have some sort of virtual celebration during the one we have on my book launch week. Mainly, I’ll just try to pause and be thankful to have made it this far with a book that only started as a dream.
Can you share what you’re working on now?
I am working on a new book. I’m not quite ready to say what it’s about, although I think it will have some connection to Freewater.
Amina Luqman-Dawson loves using writing to tell stories and to build an understanding of race, culture and community. Her published writing includes op-eds in newspapers, magazine articles, travel writing and book reviews. She’s authored the pictorial history book Images of America: African Americans of Petersburg (Arcadia Publishing). She’s worked as a policy professional, researcher and consultant on issues of education and criminal justice. She has a BA in Political Science from Vassar College and a Master of Public Policy from UC Berkeley. She’s a proud mother of a 13-year-old son. She, her husband and son reside in Arlington, VA
To learn more about Amina, please visit her website and social media pages.
Facebook: Amina Luqman-Dawson
Freewater is now available in bookstores and online.
Join Amina at her Book Launch on Feb 3rd!