Rethinking #BlackGirlMagic: Christina Hammonds-Reed
If you looked up "laid back" (Snoop Dogg voice) in Webster's Dictionary, you'd probably find a picture of author Christina Hammonds-Reed. For someone whose novel debuted in the middle of a pandemic, became an NYT Bestseller (for multiple weeks), and was named a William C. Morris finalist (http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2020/12/yalsa-announces-2021-william-c-morris-finalists), Christina is sooooo incredibly chill. Recent discourse in the writing community has suggested that writers must take on an influencer-type persona and make themselves "super-seen" on a plethora of social media platforms in order to achieve success. But that level of engagement takes considerable time, energy, and sometimes even money which often affects the attention authors can give to their writing. So what do writers do? Well, Christina is here to remind us all that we're writers first (she doesn't even have a Twitter page—such peace!) and the best thing we can do for ourselves is to hone our craft and tell the stories of our hearts.
1. Welp, the first question for these sort of things is usually the ‘how did you get your agent or book deal’ question, but if readers haven’t heard of The Black Kids by now then they need to head to their nearest bookstore ASAP and buy a copy of your powerhouse debut. So with that being said, can you give us a summary of your novel and what about the book that you hope resonates with its readers?
The Black Kids is a coming-of-age story about a privileged black girl whose world gets turned upside down during the L.A. riots. It’s a book about girlhood, class, race, family and most importantly love - loving yourself, loving your people and community even in the face of intergenerational trauma.
2. The Black Kids hit the NYT bestseller’s list and was a William C. Morris finalist. Were achievements such as these always a goal for you? What advice would you give to debut authors about goal-setting and expectations?
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it was a dream of mine to hit the New York Times bestseller list. I’ve been dreaming of that since I was a kid, and I think so often women, and especially black women feel like it’s arrogant to admit to dreaming big. That said, those achievements aren’t in any way an indication of having written a good book. I was always very cognizant of that, and some of my favorite writers and friends of mine have written absolutely beautiful books that never made the list and/or won awards. There are so many variables that go into these things that are very beyond our control. And it can be dangerous to judge your self-worth or the worth of what you wrote based on the recognition of traditional gatekeepers.
I’ve found the moments that have been most meaningful to me have come from connecting with other black girls and women who said that this book made them feel seen in a way they’d never experienced before. So I would say to other debut authors, that the achievement of writing and publishing a book is in and of itself a massive accomplishment - just make sure you’re writing from your gut and people will gravitate towards that, whether it’s in the form of awards or simply younger people telling you that you’ve inspired them to write their stories.
3, Diversity in publishing conversations imploded over last summer; however, many BIPOC and other marginalized authors have spoken out that the lack of representation, and in some cases outright racism, has always existed in publishing but was often dismissed under the guise of ‘what sells’. Your novel’s main character, Ashley, deals with an experience that is very specific to her Black identity. While writing, querying, or seeking a book deal, did you ever fear that this would be rejected by publishing?
I definitely did a bit. I think people who are non-BIPOC tend to think of our experiences as monolithic and they absolutely never have been. Ashley is also a somewhat unlikeable character at first. She’s emotionally disconnected from herself and her people and I was afraid that readers would think it wasn’t intentional. So often characters and especially black girl characters have to be likeable, plucky, funny, strong, and I wanted to do something entirely different with Ashley because I think the stereotype of the “strong black female” is so damaging to our humanity. We can be fragile and unsure and insecure and soft. Plus, Ashley’s privilege removes her from the riots for a large portion of the book, but it still very much serves as the catalyst for her growth. I was slightly afraid that publishers would think that just because Ashley wasn’t necessarily in harm’s way herself, that her story was somehow less powerful. On the other hand, I was a little less fearful because The Black Kids was first published as a short story and I got such an overwhelmingly positive response to it. It’s also how I got my agent, so I didn’t have to do much by way of querying myself.
4 . As someone who grew up in a middle-class suburb, I can’t begin to express how much I wished I had your book when I was Ashley’s age. I felt so seen. Why do you think it’s important that books written by and about people of color show the nuance of identity as opposed to treating these communities as a monolith?
We have so so many stories that have yet to be told. What Blackness looks like is so different depending on the circumstances of how you’ve grown up - the where and the when and around whom. Yes, we’re unified by what it means to live in this skin in a white supremacist society, but that’s not all we are. I want the full breadth and depth of our humanity on the page. I wanted to explore Ashley and LaShawn in the same space for that very reason. They are both black kids in LA, but the less than ten miles between them makes all the difference. Selfishly, I also had never seen my own experiences of what it means to grow up with some degree of privilege in predominantly white spaces, and how does that impact your sense of self? For many years I shrank myself to make others feel comfortable with my existence and I think so many BIPOC people who grew up in similar circumstances have struggled in the exact same way, but have never seen that struggle on the page.
5. You debuted in 2020—a time of endemic shutting the world down and the US elections playing out like an episode of Celebrity Deathmatch. Needless to say, the restrictions of in-person events drastically changed the scope of marketing. Zoom events, Instagram live, and Twitter became very prominent marketing tools. What are your thoughts about the social media and marketing expectations of authors?
I think social media has provided a wonderful sense of community for me with other authors, and I’ve actually made people I now consider really close friends through Instagram. But it’s also been extremely draining. I’ve spoken with others about it and many of the black women I know, especially those debuting in 2020, fear saying “no” because we don’t want to offend or be seen as difficult. It can feel like you’ve hit the lotto just being a black writer publishing to begin with, so you almost feel as though you should be grateful and accept all the opportunities that come your way. It can be extremely hard to focus on the work itself when you feel like you have to be selling yourself as much as anything. I think I’m just starting to get a handle on how to make social media work for me but it’s taken months.
6. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?
I’ve been on the verge of burnout all year lol. I think for me it’s been a learning process to finally be able to take a step back and ask if somebody else can handle a task for me, or if I can push a deadline, or simply just not respond to an email until I feel ready to do it. I get very overwhelmed sometimes as somebody who struggles with really bad anxiety, and so reminding myself that the sky won’t fall if I don’t complete a task ASAP helps. My self-care is usually going to the beach. It’s honestly the only place I can completely quiet my brain. Or exercising! Jogging, or doing a pilates session, or Yoga With Adriene (I LOVE HER), is the best pick-me-up if I can’t make my way to the beach.
7. Can you tell us anything about your upcoming novels or WIP?
Working on book 2 - it’s an adult novel that looks at a family aspiring to be like the Jackson Five over decades. Traditionally entertainment has been one of the paths to the American Dream for black people - but what does that pursuit look like? How does society both give and take from these black performers? What are the expectations placed on their expression (or lack thereof) of their blackness? And what does success and failure at the pursuit do to a family? Hopefully, I pull it off.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
8. The Black Kids takes place in the early 90’s. What are your top three 90’s sitcoms or movies?
-Fresh Prince of Bel Air
-The Lion King
-Daria (I know that makes four, but still...I’m very excited for the upcoming Jodie spinoff)
9. Pitch your author brand to the tune of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song.
Is pitching your author brand a thing now??? How nerve-wracking! I live in my own little bubble sometimes, thank god.
Christina Hammonds Reed is the New York Times bestselling author of THE BLACK KIDS, a William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist. She holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Her writing has appeared in ELLE, Teen Vogue, the Santa Monica Review, and One Teen Story among other outlets. A native of the LA area, she is a proud Angeleno and self-proclaimed beach bum.