A New Year of We Need Diverse MG
Happy 2023, everyone! Welcome back to a new year of We Need Diverse MG, (WNDMG) where we get the chance to amplify the voices of marginalized creators and center publishing issues in the voice of underrepresented communities.
A New Year of Authors
Our first post of the year features a debut author, Tamika Burgess, who is part of my own debut cohort: MG in 23. Tamika holds the distinction of being the first of our group to publish in 2023 – Congratulations, Tamika!
I got a chance to interview her about her debut experience, and also to read her wonderful debut: SINCERELY, SICILY.
About Sincerely, Sicily
Sicily Jordan’s worst nightmare has come true! She’s been enrolled in a new school, with zero of her friends and stuck wearing a fashion catastrophe of a uniform. But however bad Sicily thought sixth grade was going to be, it only gets worse when she does her class presentation.
While all her classmates breezed through theirs, Sicily is bombarded with questions on how she can be both Black and Panamanian. She wants people to understand, but it doesn’t feel like anyone is ready to listen—first at school and then at home. Because when her abuela starts talking mess about her braids, Sicily’s the only one whose heart is being crumpled for a second time.
Staying quiet may no longer be an option, but that doesn’t mean Sicily has the words to show the world just what it means to be a proud Black Panamanian either. Even though she hasn’t written in her journal since her abuelo passed, it’s time to pick up her pen again—but will it be enough to prove to herself and everyone else exactly who she is?
Interview with Tamika Burgess
HMC: Sincerely Sicily began as a picture book—how did you decide that its real identity was middle grade?
TB: When I started writing what is now my debut novel, Sincerely Sicily, I started out writing a picture book. But while writing, I realized I had a lot more to say, which would not work well for the concise way picture books have to be written. But I knew I wanted to write for an age group who is young and at the age where they are starting to learn about themselves and discover the world around them.
HMC: Before turning to writing fiction, you were an advertiser and newsletter publisher. Clearly, one common theme for you is connecting creators within the Latinx-African community. What else has this career path revealed to you about yourself?
TB: A recent revelation is my ability to prioritize my time. While writing Sincerely Sicily I had all the time in the world, without any deadlines. But now that I am under contract for Book #2, I have learned the importance of planning and prioritizing my writing time. With working full-time, it’s been hard. But I have figured it out and am progressing nicely.
HMC: One strong theme in Sincerely Sicily is the importance of unpacking the difference between race and culture. Can you talk a little about why you wanted to write a book about that particular question?
TB: Sincerely Sicily is loosely based on my experiences growing up and came out of a need for representation and understanding. As a child, I didn’t fully comprehend how to explain my Black Panamanian background when people asked, “What are you?” Being asked that question, coupled with the fact that I was growing up in a predominantly white community as a Black Latina, I often felt out of place. My peers were all the same, and not only was I of a different race, but my culture was entirely out of their understanding.
I always wished for a point of reference, someone I could point to and say, “I’m just like them.” But characters in books, movies, and TV shows didn’t look like me, nor did their experiences resemble mine. So I wrote the book I needed and would have loved to read as a child.
HMC: One of the key moments in Sicily’s story is when her abuela criticizes her braids. It’s heartwrenching, and speaking as a person of color who has definitely struggled to navigate the world of “straight hair is beautiful hair and everything else isn’t,” I can tell you this part RESONATED. What did writing this part of Sicily’s arc mean to you personally?
TB: Although I have never experienced hair discrimination (at least not to my face), I know the issue of hair texture is big in Latinx culture and Panamá. I’ve read plenty of articles about women telling their hair stories and heard about the struggle Black women faced as children and adults. It was important to add this element to Sicily’s story because it brings awareness to discrimination that is still prevalent today. Also, how Sicily handles the situation with her Abuela can be an example to readers of how to handle conflict in general.
HMC: Your dialogue is spot-on for the middle-grade reader. Any craft advice for the authors reading this interview about how you channeled that vibe?
TB: Fortunately, I work at a school, so I’m around my targeted age group all day. I pay attention to the things they’re talking about/what they are interested in and ask them about things when I have specific questions regarding my book.
HMC: This is your debut year, and you’re one of the first in the 2023 cohort. Any lessons learned you want to pay forward for authors whose books come out later?
TB: I have been working on promoting Sincerely Sicily for about six months. Looking back, I wish I had not let myself get overwhelmed. I was saying yes to everything and would end up feeling like I was drowning in book promotion.
With that being said, I have learned that saying “no” is okay. My mental health is most important, and I can’t let myself get lost in this publishing world.
HMC: What’s your creative process like? Do you create a playlist, light a candle, take a walk, anything in particular that helps set you up to write?
TB: The main thing I need is space. I can’t have clutter on my desk, or I’ll feel cramped, and then I won’t focus. I do listen to music, but not all the time. Sometimes I need the room to be completely silent. Other times I’ll let a random playlist play in the background. I might listen to a podcast if I’m doing some revisions or entering something I’ve already written into my manuscript. It all depends on my mood and what I’m working on.
HMC: Almost every author writes “Easter Eggs” into their novel—references that only special people in their lives will recognize. Are there any Easter Eggs from Sincerely Sicily you feel comfortable sharing with the rest of us?
TB: I have many of these, from characters being based on people in my life to using friends and family members’ names and specific qualities and likenesses of people. The book cover image is also an “Easter Egg,” as the clouds at the top are in the shape of the country of Panamá.
HMC: You’re working on your sophomore novel—can you tell us anything about it?
TB: My next middle-grade novel features a Panamanian boy. I am still in the early stages of outlining and figuring out the book’s themes. But just as with Sincerely Sicily, readers can expect Panamanian culture and historical elements.
HMC: BONUS question: Anything you want to tell us about that I didn’t mention?
TB: I want to share my favorite line from Sincerely Sicily. It’s when Sicily asks her mother how she should self-identify. Her mother tells Sicily that decision is hers but also reminds her of the following:
“Afro (short for African) comes before Panamanian to let people know I am of African ancestry… Panamanian or Latina, either way, I am Afro/Black first.”
HMC: Wonderful closing words, Again, Congratulations, Tamika!
About Tamika Burgess:
Tamika Burgess (Ta-mee-Ka Bur-jess) is a storyteller with over a decade of novel, TV/film, and personal essay writing experience. Born to parents who migrated from Panamá, Tamika has always taken a particular interest in writing themes that explore her Black Latina identity. Because of her passion for spreading the knowledge of Black Panamanian culture, Tamika has been featured on various websites, podcasts, and panels. When she is not writing, Tamika is somewhere cozy online shopping and listening to a podcast. Tamika resides in sunny Southern California, where she is writing her second novel. Learn more about Tamika at TamikaBurgess.com.