In the interview, the author talks about how Lauryn Hill helped her find her voice, the pressure of representing, going home, the best book she’s read all year and what she hopes readers will take away from the book.
- Why did you write this book?
I really wanted to tell a different story about growing up in America. I wanted to tell it from the perspective of a young Black girl, then woman. I was born in the late 70s in Los Angeles, California. I don’t believe we have very many stories about girlhood from that generation.
To prepare for the book, I went back to California to visit my childhood homes, schools, and teachers. I also interviewed some of my old friends. I loved recalling old conversations and hearing them tell stories from our childhood, many that I had long forgotten. The texture and feel of the book is very L.A., southern California. This book is for us.
- Do you feel lucky to be able to tell your story?
I wouldn’t say I feel lucky as much as I feel extremely fortunate. I feel fortunate to be able to tell my story—and by extension the story of my family and the communities in which I lived in such a public way.
There are thousands of books published each year and only a handful of them are written by Black women—and only a few by one of the big five publishing houses– and with little exception are they memoirs.
I think that it’s rare for a Black woman, woman of color, to be both the subject and the storyteller.
In Born Bright, get to write about the people and places that shaped my life—from my second grade teacher Ms. Slaughter who was the first person to tell me I was smart to my girlhood crushes on George Michael and Prince. Both of whom I thought I was going to marry some day.
- What was the toughest thing to write about?
For sure, the most difficult person and experience to write about was my mother and our relationship. It is a relationship that has troubled me in some shape or form for most of my life.
She is beautiful and complicated, with very sharp edges. Her love was delayed and never spoken. It was a utilitarian love. It was also fleeting. Writing the book, I gained a deeper understand of her life because I had to see things from her perspective and give voice to her struggles. That was difficult.
For years, I kept tally of the many ways I was different from her. I told myself were nothing alike. However, after writing the book, I realized that I am without a doubt my mother’s daughter.
- How did you find your voice?
I’ve always been a writer. I wrote my first article for the school newspaper in the third grade. However, I can’t say that I was ever sure of my voice. Born Bright was the first time I had to grapple with the question of voice—was it sad, was it angry, was it funny, serious—was there a gap between what I was feeling and what was showing up on the page. Was my voice honest? Having an honest, authentic voice was really important to me.
It took me awhile. I remember thinking I want it to sound smart—like it was coming off of the pages of the New York Times. That just caused me a lot of anxiety.
Then one day while driving Lauryn Hill’s Every Ghetto, Every City came on the radio. Now, I had heard that song many times over, but this time I paused and listened to the story she was attempting to tell and the feelings it evoked. I knew exactly what she was talking about. It took me back to my own childhood and the neighborhood kids there.
After that, I knew that I could not worry about sounding smart or telling the story that I thought everyone wanted to hear—it had to be my voice—my story. I couldn’t concern myself with the imaginary audience or the critic in my head.
In Born Bright, you get to see the neighborhoods and the people in them so clearly. When I’m hungry, angry, confused or lonely, you feel it. When I’m happy, you feel that too. The voice is authentic and true to my experiences.
- Tell us about Little Nicole:
One of the best parts of writing the book was telling the story from the perspective of my girl-self and allowing her to re-tell and interpret her experiences. The girl is clear-eyed, observant, prideful, and precocious. She also works hard to understand the people in her life, particularly her parents, who are struggling to take care of her and her brother.
I liked her.
- Did you feel any pressure writing the book?
In general, the book was difficult to write. I cried nearly everyday. And some days, I just couldn’t write. I had so many memories floating around in my head at any given time. And many of them were very painful to recall.
I also felt a tremendous amount of responsibility and pressure to get the story right. It felt like I had a community of people looking over my shoulder as I typed ensuring that I wasn’t misrepresenting our collective experience.
- What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
Hands down, it’s Citizen by Claudia Rankine. It’s beautiful, well crafted, and truth in its simplest form. Every story, every sentence reverberated throughout my entire body. Just thinking about it right now gives me chills.
- If you could tell anyone’s story, besides your own, whose would it be?
Mary J. Blige. I think she has a beautiful story—It’s bluesy filled with the highs and lows of life. And everyone, I believe, can relate to her even if they haven’t gone through what she’s has. I have loved her music and her story since forever. Anyone who knows me, knows this about me.
- Will you allow your children to read the book?
I will when they are older. Their lives are totally different from my own as a child. I am hoping they will read the book and walk away with a better understanding of who I am, where I come from and how they might work, in their own way, to make the world a better place. They have a responsibility to do so, I believe.
- What do you hope readers will take away from Born Bright?
I think they’re most likely to remember the people and their stories. Everyone is connected and all of their experiences come together to tell a unique, wholly American story about life and overcoming, or in some instances not overcoming where one starts out in life.
I also want readers to be curious about the journey of the person sitting across from you on the subway, in the classroom or in your office. It will humanize us all and shift how we relate to one another.