Thursday, November 30, 2017

New Voice: Liara Tamani on Calling My Name

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Liara Tamani is the debut author of Calling My Name (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2017). From the promotional copy:

This unforgettable novel tells a universal coming-of-age story about Taja Brown, a young African American girl growing up in Houston, Texas, and it deftly and beautifully explores the universal struggles of growing up, battling family expectations, discovering a sense of self, and finding a unique voice and purpose.

Told in fifty-three short, episodic, moving, and iridescent chapters, Calling My Name follows Taja on her journey from middle school to high school. 

Literary and noteworthy, this is a beauty of a novel that deftly captures the multifaceted struggle of finding where you belong and why you matter.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I started writing Calling My Name to explore and heal the wounds of my teenage self. 

Like Taja, the protagonist of Calling My Name, I grew up in a very loving and religious family. My family was always in church—Bible study, choir rehearsal, Sunday services, Vacation Bible School, Church conventions—you name it, we were there. Also like Taja, I had a lot of doubts and questions about religion but quickly learned that I wasn’t supposed to have these doubts and questions, that their presence meant I might not be saved. So I dealt with them internally, fighting against the fear of hell, which was very real to me at the time. 

And when I became sexually active in my later teenage years, my fears were compounded by guilt and shame. Let me tell you, it wasn’t fun.

While Calling My Name is not my story, it was definitely born out of my experience. And I wanted to share my truth, to give voice to the struggle of sexual shame and guilt (which a lot of teenagers deal with, especially girls), and to speak to the terrifying experience of departing from one’s family and community teachings to find one’s own way.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Because Calling My Name is written in vignettes, I mostly studied novels that were composed of interrelated vignettes and short stories. 

I read any short-story cycle or novel-in-vignettes I could get my hands on, but my favorites were The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros ( Arte Público Press, 1984), Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (Harper & Brothers, 1953), and Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997). I loved the lyricism, economy of language, voice, and characterization in these books. I love their liberated story structures. 

I studied their linking devices and transition techniques. These books taught me how to construct relationships between my vignettes and stories in order to connect them and move the larger story forward. 

They taught me how to take the images, observations, ideas, and threads of dialogue in my individual vignettes and stories and expand them within the larger social, cultural, and emotional context of my book.

As an MFA in Writing student/graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

I wrote Calling My Name during my MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I started the first piece at the very end of my first semester, fell in love with the voice, and spent the next year and a half adding to the novel piece by piece. Upon graduation, I had a finished, polished book. I didn’t plan it that way, but I was very fortunate to have it happen that way.

It was great to have each new chapter of my novel critiqued every month by an adviser. It was also nice to be able to dedicate the critical analysis part of the program to studying books and techniques that would help me write Calling My Name. And the structure and discipline of the MFA program was invaluable. I don’t think I would have written Calling My Name so fast without the deadlines.

Obviously, an MFA isn’t essential to becoming a fiction writer. There are so many paths, but this one was the right one for me. And one of the best things about the program is the lifelong community of writers it creates. 

I can’t tell you how much inspiration and support I’ve received by being connected to the VCFA community. And that inspiration and support has been vital to me through all parts of my publication journey.

Dream Keepers YA Authors Panel with Renée Watson, Nic Stone,
Liara Tamani, Jacqueline Woodson, Ibi Zoboi, and Vashti Harrison 
As a member of a community underrepresented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

Taja is a young African-American girl, and her culture is on full display in this book; it’s embedded in the story. Some issues with race come up because race is always a factor for black people, and I wanted to be honest about the ways it’s a factor in Taja’s life. 

One issue involves the time when the neighborhood families of Taja’s white friends move away when the neighborhood starts becoming too black. Another issue surrounds the hard time Taja has with the new black girls at school who thinks she talks too white.

These issues are present, but they aren’t the focus. While books that explicitly deal with America’s race problem are very important (especially in these times), books that remind readers that black people and people of color have more than race problems, that we are whole human beings, with the whole spectrum of human problems and human joys are equally as important. 

Taja is African-American, but she is also just a teenage girl who is trying to figure out her path in life—a human experience so many of us can identify with.

Cynsational Notes

Booklist gave Calling My Name a starred review, "An excellent portrayal of African American culture, gorgeous lyrical prose, strong characters, and societal critique make Tamani’s debut a must-read."

Liara Tamani lives in Houston, Texas with her daughter.

She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College and a BA from Duke University.

Read about how illustrator Vashti Harrison designed the cover for Calling My Name at Epic Reads. 

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