5 things we learned from Kekla Magoon | Fort Wayne

On Aug. 31, 2023, award-winning author Kekla Magoon was INconversation with local Fort Wayne author Dori Graham at the Allen County Public Library.

As we like to do at Indiana Authors Awards, we’ve recapped the conversation below with “5 Things We Learned.” Here are some moments that stood out to us:

1. Whose history? Reading stories about people experiencing big moments brings history alive for Kekla. She recalled not understanding why she was being bullied in school when she was taught that because of the Civil Rights Movement we were all supposed to be equal now. The history felt incomplete to a young Kekla, this incongruity between what she was taught and what she experienced. She went to the library looking for books that explained what happened since 1968 and couldn’t find them. Kekla wrote Revolution in Our Time about the Black Panther Party partly because she didn’t have anything like it as a child. Her research unveiled another version of American history told through the lens of Blackness, which was very different from the history she was taught in school. She recalls wondering how could she just now be learning these things in her twenties. And how could she play a role in getting this history to the next generation earlier? What she learned made her imagine what her life would’ve been like if she were alive during the Civil Rights Movement. Who would she have been? What would she have done?

2. Looking for a mirror. Kekla spoke about growing up in a predominantly white rural community in Indiana as the biracial child of a Black father and white mother. She understood what it meant to be biracial, and in middle school she was bullied about her hair, skin and “unusual” name. She was an enthusiastic young reader (and creative writer, though she didn’t recognize that at the time) and sought to see herself represented in the books she treasured. She vividly remembers the excitement of discovering Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor in the library. In that novel about a Black family in Mississippi, Kekla saw herself reflected on the book’s cover, which depicted Cassie Morgan, the story’s young protagonist. Finally! She was always looking for books with Black characters and by Black authors and didn’t often find them.

3. From writer to Author. When Kekla decided to devote herself to writing, she was single-minded about the endeavor, printing out manuscripts at work then heading to a Starbucks in her New York neighborhood to spend hours revising. She sent The Rock and The River to an editor at Simon & Schuster in an attempt to get a contract job to write Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. Instead, the editor was more interested in her book. One of the first events for that book took place at the Pontiac branch of the Allen County Public Library. When Kekla saw her book on the shelf of the library, it hit her. She was an Author with a capital A, and her work was really out in the world, not just in a notebook anymore.

4. Do I deserve this? When asked by Dori if she experiences imposter syndrome, Kekla remarked that it’s a common topic among her peers, but it’s not something that she has struggled with personally. When she was younger, she always had a core of confidence — perhaps because of youth or naivety — but it has always been there. She knew that there was something great about her, something that her parents reinforced. However, the further along she gets in her career, the more she has doubted her ability or right to tell certain stories. As the child of a black Cameroonian father, she didn’t have connections to some traditions and culture that other Black Americans had. She has to remind herself that she can tell her story, and she can tell any story well. It’s OK to challenge herself and grow in the process.

5. You, too, can be a writer! You can start writing at any age and do it in concert with other things — it’s flexible like that! You can be a bricklayer and a writer. A teacher and a writer. You just need to do it. Sit down and write. Recognize that you don’t have to write everything you want to write in one sitting. Kekla tries to write one page a day. Double-spaced. 12-point font. Can you believe it takes less than a year to write a 200-page novel this way? You can even skip weekends! Don’t be afraid to take that little step. A rainstorm is nothing but a bunch of little raindrops together. For writers of any age, Kekla said it’s important to always be thinking about a couple things: Self-expression — What you have to say has value. You must believe that. Writing as communication — You need to learn how to express yourself in the best way possible. Some people receive what you say differently. You address this in conversation organically, but on paper it’s more complicated. She recommended these three books as good guides to honing your craft: