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Liara Tamani on poetry, female sexuality, and racial representation in fiction

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

Recently, I had a chat with author Liara Tamani from Houston, Texas (H-Town!). We started talking about what life’s been like for her in quarantine, before going deeper into the themes of her books 'Calling My Name' and 'All The Things We Never Knew', and the importance of having more black characters in fiction.

Scroll to read the interview:

So I love your writing, it’s just so beautiful and poetic.

Aw thank you. I’m a lover of language for sure. One day I feel like I’ll write some poetry. It’s so crazy when I tell people this, but I read poetry all the time, I’m just still really intimidated to write it.

Yes! There’s so many different styles.

So many different styles, and so many different rules, you don’t exactly know if you’re doing it right. Even with freestyle - it’s free - but then it’s also…is this poetry? I don’t know. The only poetry I’ve ever written is for my daughter. Her school has an annual poetry night every year and I always write poems to her. And it seems easy to pick out things that I find beautiful about whatever stage she’s in, and what she’s enjoying, and who she is in that moment, because kids just grow so fast and so I find it easy to connect to write. And it’s like an assignment right? Every parent has to write their child a poem, so I have to do this. But I’m grateful for that! So at least every year I’m writing a poem. Other than that though it feels intimidating. My vignettes and the short chapters allows for poetic language. It’s a good approximation without calling itself poetry. It’s not, so I don’t have to worry, is this a good poem or not? It’s an area I need to grow in for sure. I need to get rid of that intimidation by learning more. Instead of just reading poetry I need to study it. Maybe even take a class. I love taking classes. I love being a student. Maybe take a class in it so that I feel more confident calling a poem a poem, saying, ‘this is a poem, damn it!’.

So what kind of poetry do you read at the moment?

Well everybody’s poetry. I love Mary Oliver, ‘A Thousand Mornings’, is the name of her book. And she’s big on nature, and just being with nature, and being present to nature - I feel nature has saved me in so many ways. It brings you to the moment, of listening to the sounds - the birds, the wind in the trees. Lately I’ve been studying birds, studying the names of trees, looking at the clouds, paying attention to the moon cycles and all of those types of things. I know for me at least, going down into the detail of things helps me stay grounded and centred and not get whisked away by everything that’s happening in the world. It’s like all those small details really help centre me.

But you know poets in general…Gwendolyn Brookes, I love her. Tracy K. Smith. Terrance Hayes, there’s a great book - it’s so inventive - he has a great book ‘How To Be Drawn’, that is really beautiful. Sandra Cisneros, Lucille Clifton - ‘Blessing The Boats’ is a beautiful book. And her book ‘The Book of Light’ is also beautiful. With poetry a lot of it is connecting to the poet and what they have to say, and what they’re centred on, and so I guess those are the poets I like to be connected to, but so many more. Every day I get an email. Tracy K, Smith has an email 'The Slow Down', so I get a poem from her every day. I usually get a poem from The Writer’s Almanac every day, so that I’m connected to a lot of people’s words.

I like that. It sounds like so much to read! But it is really good to set that time for yourself. Like you were saying, to connect to what the writers are saying.

Yeah. And what somebody told me is just give yourself an hour a day to read, and I feel like an hour a day - obviously if you’re on vacation or something you can read a book in a day - but if you just give yourself an hour a day to read, you’ll be amazed by how many books you will finish just dedicating that amount of time to it every day. It will add up.

It’s all about carving out space and time, right? So many other things demand our time. But I try to, because I know that connecting to words is like connecting to the human experience. How other people are processing this human experience, I appreciate that. Especially as an author trying to put things in my own words, I appreciate other people doing the same thing.

That’s one of the really special things with teenagers about your books, the way that they can connect with the stories. Especially with the themes of female sexuality, and getting away from toxic masculinity. Was that something you were aiming for when you were writing?

Yes, certainly. Especially with my first book Calling My Name. I experienced - not even just as a teenager - but as a young adult, as an adult, I experience a lot of slut shaming and men just trying to control me, by judging my sexuality. I feel like it’s something that’s still very pervasive in society. Even though society is so conscious of it now, it’s still so bad. Especially away from the news articles, down in people’s lives. Even in families, which Calling My Name shows. Most often times there’s a double standard. It’s always, ‘oh boys will be boys’ but, ‘girls you have to behave this way. Oh you don’t like sex. Boys have to go out and that’s their nature, but girls aren’t sexual beings’.

Exactly. It’s such a hard world to navigate. You can’t have too much sex, but you can’t have no sex, because you’ve got such different people from different sides telling you what’s okay and what’s not.

Yeah it's kind of like, with every person you have to navigate your own experiences and decide what’s best for you. And I feel like with girls, people tell girls it’s not okay for them to have sex, they’re not good if they have sex, or somehow they’re dirty if they have sex. It really creates a lot of shame about sex. It quiets them about it. I think a lot of times people will keep experiences and relationships to themselves because they are afraid of the shame and the judgement. There’s a lot of danger in that: in these secret, quiet, hushed spaces. There’s a lot of abuse that can go on there. Even if it’s just mental and verbal. There’s a lot of control that can go on there with women and girls being controlled by people shaming them. Shame is very powerful, it’s a very powerful tool of control. I’m all about taking away that shame and taking away that form of control over women. And it’s also speaking to toxic masculinity. So many boys just have such bad examples out there, such bad behaviour, that for a while in our society was welcomed and encouraged. It’s like, ‘you’re not a man if you don’t act like this’.

It’s something I loved in All The Things We Never Knew, how Rex could cry and it wasn’t seen as a bad thing, it was just who he was. I really loved that and I think it made me more open to him. That’s actually what most girls want in a guy.

Yeah, guys have feelings too. Guys have emotions. It’s hard on a lot of young boys too, always trying to suppress their feelings. Always being taught that they can’t cry, they can’t have these emotions. It’s hard on them too. And it’s hard on the people in relationships with them, because obviously if you’re suppressing your emotions that’s going to turn into something else that’s bad and harmful for the people around them, and so that’s part of where toxic masculinity comes from. All these suppressed emotions over a long period of time converting into just bad behaviour, and then that getting passed down and so twisted, it’s like a cycle that continues one man to another to another. And so it’s important to break that cycle.

And Rex is cool too. Rex is a cool kid. It’s not like he’s lame. I feel like - I guess I’m the one who wrote it - but I feel like he’s cool. And he’s still very much showing his emotions and being vulnerable. And you have to be able to go to that place where you can be vulnerable if you really want to connect with them. I love Rex. Love his tenderness. I too, that’s what girls want. And so it’s like…give more examples of that, so they know it’s possible. I feel like girls have so many examples of bad guys that when they get in a relationship with a bad guy they think, ‘Oh this is normal, this is fine, because this is how all guys are’. But it’s just not the case.

Yeah that’s definitely a mentality that goes around a lot. You don’t really expect much - which isn’t really a good thing to have, but I think your books, they definitely break that stigma.

And you were talking about Rex being cool - which I agree with - but getting into that teenage mindset, was that something you had to work hard for, or was it something you found quite natural to go back to?

I found it quite natural because…I do have a lot of nieces and nephews, so I’m not completely detached from that world. And as an author too, I am in connection with young people. And so that’s also a way of connection. And then I always found it easy to go back inside of myself and visit my younger selves, and to visit the relationships and the people I was in relationships with, too. And young people, they experience the same emotions as us adults. Their worlds are just different in the way that they experience them. And maybe they experience them in an exaggerated way, because some of these emotions and experiences are new to them. But it’s still the same thing. I guess a lot of people ask that, but I guess you can’t imagine, ‘how does an adult connect?’. But if you have respect for teens, and don’t think of them as ‘half persons’. They are fully developed human beings. They have the same feelings we do, and if you look at them like that, it’s easier to write for them.

I also really love how the stories centre around black teens, just having normal stories. It’s so relieving to find someone with some of my experiences in a book, and for them to be not in a degrading light. Is that something you were looking to put out there?

Yeah, that also comes kind of natural to me. When I was younger in school, a lot of the books you pick up - and even now - a lot of the books you pick up are about race. Or racism. Or the race problem. Whether it be police brutality, or the prison complex, or racism in general. I feel like all those books have a place in writing. You need work to reflect the truths that are happening in society. And a lot of those truths are brutal. There is a lot of injustice that is happening in this world, that has been happening for a long time, so it’s good that people call attention to it. But I also strongly feel that when there’s a propensity to only shine a light on books written by black authors, and that have black characters, about race, you’re missing part of the truth. Black people live full lives. And we live very much. A lot of the life that we live isn’t related to white people. We are living our lives, and we have the experiences of human beings, just like anybody else. We have joys, we have common everyday things that we are living. Not everything that we are living through has to do with race. And that is the truth. Especially on an everyday basis. And so I feel that when media companies only wanted to focus on the race problem, and only wants to show black people getting disrespected or being murdered, or all the injustices that black people are facing, it flattens black people and the black experience out, in a way. We need books and films that reflect all of who we are and our day to day experiences. We need books and films to reflect our beauty. We need books and films to reflect our joy. We need books and films to show and represent our culture - the details of our culture: the way you wear your hair, or the way you dress, the way you talk, turns of phrase. All of these things, it’s just a part of who we are. It’s a part of the culture. Even that’s just one part of us. Other than that so many people are just going about living their day to day lives. And having the same struggles and pains as everybody else. It’s the one thing that connects all of humanity, and by only focusing on one aspect of the black experience, it’s dehumanising in a way. And so while we need to bring truth to it, to all the abuses, we also need to bring truth to our everyday experiences, and the beauty of our culture.

So I’m in that lane. I feel like there’s enough people writing about race. There’s enough of it. I’m in the lane about kids learning about themselves. Every time a black kid picks up a book it should not have to be about race. It should not have to. White kids pick up plenty of books about all types of their experiences, and they’re not confronted with their race. They’re not confronted with their privilege. They're not confronted with the history of white supremacy every time they pick up a book about a white person, so why should a black person be confronted with race every time? It’s not fair to black kids. And it’s not fair to white kids either. Black people a lot of the time are living and working in spaces that are predominantly white, and so we have to experience a lot of aspects of their culture. But white people can almost avoid spaces that are predominantly black. If they don’t want to interact with spaces that are predominantly black, they don’t have to. There are some white people who haven’t even been inside a black person’s house. There are a lot of white people who may have had a couple of black kids in their class, but overall they’re just going on about their lives, and every time they pick up a book about a black person in school, it’s about race. How is that shaping their idea about what the black experience is? They should be able to relate to the everyday things. We’re all human! So I feel a strong calling in my work to write to that space and to give kids more options, and more books that don’t deal exclusively with race. And it’s not to say race stuff doesn’t come up. Race stuff comes up in my book too, because it’ll come up…it’s just not the focus!

It’s just not the focus, yeah. I got that a lot. There were subtle nuances, like you were saying, about hair…that are just part of the experience and people’s hair journeys. But it’s not the central thing to focus on. It gives hope to aspiring writers who are black as well, that they don’t have to write about race either, which I think is something that is projected onto you, if you want to write.

I think it is. Because it’s financially encouraged too. I think that books about race get promoted more. They get promoted harder, they get marketed harder. I wish somebody could do a study on it to see how many books by black people are about race, and then how books by black people measure up in terms of how they get paid - the ones that deal with race, and the ones that don’t deal with race. I don’t know the numbers, I don’t think there’s a study out there, but I’d be interested in a study like that, because it’s a way to recon with that. Why are our race stories more important to you than our every day stories? Why do you value those more? It’s a question for the people in charge, for sure.

You can look up books about race, but if you want to find books about black people going about their daily lives, you have to go out of your way to find them, which is really othering.

Yeah it is very othering. And for white people, it’s like, ‘oh, here are my books about black people’. It’s not like, ‘let me look up a romance, and it happens to be by a black author, and it happens to be about black characters’, which is the way it should be. We have to stop othering black books. And it’s not even black books, it’s books featuring black characters, books that are written by black authors. That’s it. But there’s romance books, there’s mysteries, and there’s thrillers and dramas. We have all the books out there, we just need to be about lifting them up and promoting them, in all the ways that we can. So that the people with the purse-strings start putting money behind them and pushing them more.

Definitely. And going back to culture again, with hair in the two books, that was something I noticed a lot. With Taja, she longed for straight hair when she was little - something a lot of young black and mixed race girls can recognise - but with Carli she took a lot more pride in her natural hair. Were those two differences something you were conscious of?

Not necessarily something I was conscious of…and actually when you say that I was thinking, ‘oh yeah Taja did didn’t she’ - I had to go back in time for a second. But it’s probably just representative of my hair journey. I remember as a young child, when you look around and everybody else’s hair is straight, you want straight her. I remember that feeling. And I remember when I finally got a perm, I thought my hair would start growing straight out of my scalp! And I was excited about that…clearly that’s not how it works! But getting older, coming to love my hair…I think I went natural in…a long time ago, 2005? So I’ve been natural a really long time. I remember just standing in front of the mirror with just some scissors - I had really long straight relaxed hair - and I just: CHOP. I was so tired of just managing it, and the time it took to straighten, and so I just chopped. But now I’m wearing it short again and I just love it.

I’m very conscious of my eight year old daughter to have her love her curls and her hair. Because she too is surrounded by a lot of girls with straight hair, and it’s a thing in school to have people comparing the length of their hair. And I have to talk to her about shrinkage, and how when you curl and spiral around, it’s not going to be the same length. Just being proud of her hair, and what she has, and her hair in general.

It’s funny, my daughter she really loves herself, she’s one of the most confident little girls, and I love it, I’m like, ‘Can I have some of that confidence?!’. All the things I teach her, it’s on full display and I feel like I could use some of her confidence now that I’ve taught her all these things.

But yeah, with hair I feel like a lot of girls are going natural these days and people are embracing their natural hair more and more, which I think is a beautiful thing, because it’s a part of ourselves. It’s something we wake up every day and do, and interact with. It’s funny, it’s a thing, black women are always talking about their hair - or people say that - but it is something we have a relationship with. It takes time and maintenance, and love. So we want to be able to - and we want our young children to be able to love their hair, and have a good relationship with it. Maybe I didn’t consciously put that in the book - for Calling My Name I probably did - for All The Things We Never Knew, it was maybe more of a given to me, ‘Of course she loves her hair!’.

Yes! And just a kind of last hot potato question, what is a surprising skill that you have?

Ooo, a surprising skill? What are my skills? That are surprising? This is a hot potato question because now I’m like, ‘What can I do?’. I can cook, is that surprising? I can do a handstand…well no probably not now, I haven’t practiced in…I don’t know! This is a hard question.

I feel like on my website I say I can make a really mean guacamole. Really cooking is a skill. I can put together some kind of guacamole, or a spritzer drink with mint or watermelon…I could put together some tasty things. I enjoy putting together tasty things!

Find out more about Liara on her website, or follow her ig or Twitter.

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