It’s that time of the year again! The fabulous list of this year’s William C. Morris Award finalists is out and the lovely tradition of past winners interviewing the current nominees endures. I was fortunate enough to be paired with Akemi Dawn Bowman, author of STARFISH, which was a book I’d heard wonderful things about from Brandy Colbert, whose taste I always trust. Well, it was right up my alley and I loved this book and its thoughtful exploration of trauma, anxiety, art, pain, and identity. STARFISH is about a biracial teen, Kiko, who lives in a household where she’s made to feel as if her needs and her autonomy and her personhood don’t matter. Kiko’s also an artist and she values the ways in which she’s able to express her emotions and truth on paper, in a visual medium, and when she’s reunited with a childhood friend who also processes the world in a space removed from verbal language, Kiko sets out to define her universe on her own terms.
1. Congratulations on being a Morris Award finalist! How did you find out that STARFISH was selected?
Thank you so much! I was sitting on the couch with my three-year-old when I read the email. It had actually been sent hours before, but we’d been out running errands and it had been a while since I checked my phone. When I finally did, I had a bunch of messages from my editor and agent, and I promptly started bawling my eyes out.
2. How did STARFISH come to be? Can you tell us a little about the evolution of the book and Kiko’s journey?
I wrote STARFISH because it’s the book I needed most as a teen. I really wanted to write a book that would help teens going through similar situations feel seen, and understood. Kiko’s story is about feeling like you don’t belong, healing from trauma, and making sense of what it means to not have the unconditional love I think every child is entitled to. And those can be very isolating, lonely, and difficult concepts to deal with. I wanted to create a character who really struggles to navigate through these things, but ultimately comes to a place of hope and wanting to move forward without depending on anyone else. And hopefully this story will allow other people to feel like they aren’t alone in what they’re going through.
3. The relationship between Kiko and mother is both a fascinating and painful one, especially as Kiko is treated very differently than her two brothers. How did you navigate the intersecting realms of gender, culture, trauma, and mental health in the development of this dyad? Did anything surprise you about their relationship over the course of writing the book?
I knew how this relationship would start and end from the first page, so nothing about the way their characters interacted surprised me. I think the easy way to describe Kiko’s mother is to say that she’s self-centered, but it’s also a lot more complicated than that. It’s also never fully explained in the text. Because the reality is that some people will never understand why their abuser makes the choices they make. They’ll never get closure, or an apology, or an explanation. And maybe that’s frustrating, but it’s also real life, and I wanted this story to be about Kiko finding hope and healing on her own, without trying to give an abuser a redemption arc. Because STARFISH very much centers a victim of abuse—this is Kiko’s story, not her abuser’s. And her trauma intersects with every other part of her life—and might do for years to come, because sometimes that never fully goes away. So, for example, when her mother makes negative comments about her Japanese features, or calls Kiko “too sensitive,” Kiko’s natural reaction is to internalize all of this and to assume that she herself is the problem—because her trauma has made her feel like she’s never been good enough, and therefore being half Asian isn’t “enough” and having anxiety makes her difficult to be around. These things obviously are not true, but trying to make sense of the world when you have trauma—particularly when you’re still a teenager—is incredibly difficult. Ultimately, Kiko wants her mother to love her, and when she realizes she doesn’t—at least not in the way Kiko needs her to—she comes up with reasons of why that must be. Kiko has to unlearn a lot about how her mother’s biases affected the way she thought about herself. It’s a journey, for sure, and one that I hope opens up discussions for people and allows those with trauma to feel seen.
4. Kiko’s art is such a huge part of who she is and where she feels free to express herself. As readers, we can’t physically see her art, but it’s described to us at the end of each of chapter. Was it challenging to put words to something visually creative and what was your approach to finding Kiko’s voice in her artwork?
Creating Kiko’s artwork was actually the easiest part of the entire book. I wrote most of them really quickly—in a matter of seconds, usually. I just thought about how Kiko was feeling after each chapter, and let those emotions morph into a drawing or painting. In a lot of ways, art is Kiko’s voice. She struggles so much to say what she’s thinking, and even how to make sense of what she’s feeling. Art is how she not only expresses herself, but voices the biggest emotions and fears she has buried inside her. I think readers might get more insight into her thoughts at the end of these chapters than everything Kiko says within them.
5. I just read the summary and saw the gorgeous cover for your next book, SUMMER BIRD BLUE, and I wonder if it also explores the experience of anxiety (although in a different form than Kiko’s social anxiety)?
No, I wouldn’t say Rumi (the main character in SUMMER BIRD BLUE) really deals with anxiety. She struggles with depression and grief in the aftermath of losing her sister, but there are also other themes like learning to forgive yourself, feeling abandoned by a parent, questioning your sexuality, and feeling like you don’t quite fit into any one “box.”
6. Are you working on anything new that you can tell us about?
My third book was just announced the other day! It’s another YA contemporary with Simon Pulse, about a teenager who dreams of being a trapeze artist in her parents’ Las Vegas circus, against their wishes. She ends up joining a rival circus in an act of rebellion, and meets a handsome musician/performer while trying to make sense of her past and the relationship she has with her parents. I am very excited about this book, because I’m obsessed with all things circus, though its release date is quite far away—Fall 2019!
7. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Sleeping. Honestly. I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old, and I have not slept through the night in over four years. I’m exhausted! But if I wasn’t on deadline and actually had a good night’s sleep, I do enjoy playing video games. The Sims, Zelda, Pokémon, Mass Effect. I like to binge-play though, which is probably not the best for someone who seems forever short on time.
8. Do you have a favorite Pokémon (I’m quite partial to Slowpoke)?
YES, of course I do! Vulpix has been my favorite forever and ever. I’m an Aries as well, and a Fire Rabbit, so I guess it makes sense I’m prone to fire Pokémon!
Thank you so much, Akemi!