Today we're sharing part one of our interview with author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed. Jamilah is an educator and children’s book author. Her books, which feature young Black Muslim protagonists, have been recognized and critically-praised by many trusted voices in literature, including American Library Association, School Library Journal, and NPR. She’s taught youth in traditional and alternative learning settings for 15 years and currently directs and develops writing programs for Philadelphia area youth. Jamilah recently contributed to the anthology Once Upon An Eid and today we feature her story "Perfect."
What inspired you to write "Perfect"?
It’s taken from episodes from my own childhood. Like the main character, Hawa, I was raised by an African American parent and an African-immigrant parent from Guinea. While I grew up mainly in African American culture, I remember going to the Bronx to meet my Guinean relatives. There were clashes as there are in any family but a lot of good times too and I wanted to represent what I feel is beautiful about this side of my heritage.
Tell us briefly what is Eid?
Eid literally means festival. It’s the word used for the two main Muslim holidays: Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha. The former marks the end of Ramadan and the latter comes at the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The ways people celebrate these holidays vary by culture but it typically involves prayer services, getting together with loved ones, great food, new clothes, and gifts or money especially for children
In "Perfect," Hawa was excited to wear a special outfit for Eid. How important are new outfits for Eid?
We are literally taught to wear our best clothes for the Eid. It’s in our religious texts. So, looking nice is a very big deal. Getting a new outfit for Eid was the thing I looked forward to the most as a kid and at times, I cared a bit too much about dressing up like the kids I depicted in “Perfect.” I think a place you can see just how valued dressing up is for the Eid is if you scroll #BlackOutEid on Twitter and Instagram. Black people from all over the diaspora show off their Eid best each holiday.
I really enjoy books that mention ethnic dishes and you talk about stew and jollof rice in "Perfect." You also mention plantains (my favorite). Do you have a favorite African dish and can you make it yourself?
I’m much better at making soul food, but I’m learning how to make West African cuisine too. I LOVE jollof rice. I can make it but not the way my mom does—still trying to learn. She also used to make an amazing peanut soup that I’m still trying to get right. I eat plantains like crazy and I’m glad those are easy.
What are some differences between your African and American families and did you draw from those differences for this story?
My African family (and many Africans I’ve known) can be pretty blunt and I thought about that in the kinds of jokes they might tell. It can come off rude to many Americans but often they’re just more straightforward. This translates in the very open ways they welcome others too, which I showed in “Perfect.” When I think of African American families, I think about how the women are so warm and encouraging even when they’re scolding you. They speak life into their children. When I created Hawa’s African American mom, I thought of my aunts and other mother-like figures in my community who model that kind of nurturing.
Hawa, the main character, carries a personal slight made toward her Mom in her heart for a year. That “slight” created a wedge between the cousins. I appreciated that tension and could relate to it in some ways because I’m protective of my mom. How did you tap into this preteen’s feelings so accurately?
I can’t say it was my own personal experience although I have at times felt protective of my mother. I think writers often have the ability and a need to tap into the emotional experiences of humanity. Something pushes us to imagine those experiences, even painful ones, in vivid detail, and that can lead to second-hand trauma if we don’t learn how to channel that impulse. But I think we create characters and stories for those characters because that impulse is there.
If you had to describe the takeaway for Perfect in one or two sentences what is it?
Embrace your family, embrace your culture, embrace all of you.
Finally, how did you celebrate Eid this year?
We dressed up and performed a short Eid prayer at home. Afterwards, we grabbed balloons and signs my kids made and we got in our car and with at least 100 other cars, we paraded up and down Broad Street, which is one of the longest and most historic streets in Philadelphia. Afterwards, we had an online Eid lunch with family and I posted all about it on social media, which was fun too!
Tell us about your upcoming picture book Your Name Is A Song.
Your Name is a Song is a book about a little Black girl whose name isn’t revealed until the end of the book. We meet her at the end of her first day of school and she is very upset that no one in her school –not even her teacher –can pronounce her name correctly. Her mother cheers her up by convincing her that her name and other distinctive cultural names are like songs. They explore and celebrate a number of African, African American, Asian, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names together while also responding to the kinds of insulting things people might say about the names from these cultures. By the next day of school, the little girl feels more empowered to teach others how to say, or rather sing her name.
Where can we pre-order this book?
Your Name Is A Song is available wherever books are sold for preorder. However, I strongly suggest Bookshop.org. You can use them to order books from your local independent bookstore OR you can just order directly from them and proceeds will still go towards your independent bookstore. They are helping keep independent bookstores alive and authors like me need our independent bookstores to thrive.
Thank you Jamilah! Please join us next week for Part II where we discuss Eid Pictures.
To learn more about Jamilah please follow her on social media.