See Yourself Represented: An Interview with Tamika Burgess
Author Tamika Burgess is another writer I’ve never met in real life, but I certainly would love to! Her debut novel, Sincerely Sicily, is about a girl who “learns to use her voice and take pride in who she is,” something that will resonate with many readers, regardless of their age. From the time she was young, Tamika took an interest in writing, especially themes “explore her Black Latina identity,” and that theme reads loud and clear in her debut. Readers are loving the theme and the messages the book lays out. One reviewer wrote, “I think this story is going to launch many amazing discussions at home and at school,” while another reviewer said, “This is a book that will build empathy and understanding, especially as Sicily discovers more about her own unique background and learns to stand up for herself.” Tamika is always working, so I expect we’ll see great things for her in the future. I’m so thankful she made the time to answer a few questions.
Christina: Congrats on your debut Sincerely Sicily. Can you give us a look into who Sicily Jordan is? Is the character in the published book the character you began with in the first draft? How much is Sicily like you? Does she embody anything that you wish you did?
Tamika: Sicily Jordan is essentially me when I was in middle school. Her favorite color is pink, she loves pizza and music. She does well in school and is confident in who she is. But she is different from the early drafts of the book. When I started writing, Sicily was timid and didn’t speak up for herself. But that was never me, so I didn’t want that for Sicily either.
In terms of attitude and determination, Sicily mirrors me. The only thing that isn’t the same is how Sicily can open up and speak freely about her feelings to her parents and Abuela. Growing up, that was something I never did for fear of being told I was disrespectful. And that is referenced in the book, yet Sicily still finds her voice to speak her true feelings to the people who need to hear them most.
Christina: I love the tagline on the book: “Change can begin with the end of her pen.” Words have so much power. What was one of your early experiences that taught you that lesson?
Tamika: I learned this in elementary school while writing stories for my school’s Young Writer’s Conference.” The feedback I received is what planted the seed that later blossomed into Sincerely Sicily.
Christina: The cover is also striking. How much input did you have on the cover? Does the cover embody everything you hoped it would?
Tamika: I was able to share concept ideas, but it was ultimately the publisher who decided that Sicily would sit in front of her school. After speaking with my agent, she recommended I focus on one important thing and convey that to my editor. So I decided to leave everything else up to the publisher, but Sicily had to look the way I wanted. From her hair being braided to her wearing her favorite color, pink, to the shade of her Black skin was all my say. And I am thankful that the publisher didn’t try to change anything about that.
Christina: In a prior interview, you mentioned that the book is “loosely based on [your] experiences growing up and came out of a need for representation and understanding.” Did you have access to any books that reflected you and your experience when you were young? Did they exist here in the US? In your opinion, how much more work does the publishing industry need to do to make sure that all people are represented in books? How can readers help in the quest?
Tamika: Growing up, I never saw myself reflected in books, which is why I feel I wasn’t much of a reader when I was growing up. Even in school, the books we read were about children our age, but all the characters were the same, regardless of what book we read. The publishing industry has made strides in the area of diversity since I was a child, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I think readers of all ages can help by demanding to see themselves represented. And if they happen to be a part of a group that has much representation in books, they should demand to see something different and new. And I’m not just talking about race and culture. Demand books that feature people with disabilities, diseases, etc.
Christina: You also mentioned that the book began as a picture book. Why did you decide to move to a novel instead? Was it a difficult decision to switch gears?
Tamika: When I imagined the book, I saw all these beautiful pictures accompanying it. But as I started writing, I realized I had too much to say and was way over the word limit for picture books. I knew I wanted to reach a young audience, so switching to a middle-grade book was not difficult. It felt right from the minute I made the decision.
Christina: Your bio states that “because of [your] passion for spreading the knowledge of Black Panamanian culture, [you have] been featured on various websites, podcasts, and panels.” What is your favorite topic concerning Black Panamanian culture to speak about? Is there something you haven’t yet spoken about but would like to?
Tamika: I really like telling my story. To this day, people are still amazed to see me, a Black woman with a Panamanian culture. In addition, I like talking about the significant roles Black people played in building the country, specifically Black people building the Panama Canal. I want to talk more about Panama’s musical influence on the world, including the country’s impact on Reggaeton.
Christina: You posted on Instagram six quick facts about you. Like you, I’m always cold, I cook to survive, and I like Red Twizzlers (great minds, right?). Unlike you, I have no interest in voice over acting, but I’m definitely interested in hearing about that new project of yours. Why are you drawn to it? What are your plans?
Tamika: I’m unsure where or when the desire to do voice-over came. But for a while now, it’s been tucked in the back of my mind, occasionally popping to the front and screaming, “Don’t forget about me.”
The person’s voice always sticks out to me when I listen to ads and movie trailers. And I think about how their emotion and tone affects me as the listener. This past summer, I did a lot of research on voice-over acting, and while it intrigued me even more to pursue a career in the field, I sadly realized I don’t yet have the time to dedicate to it. So once I get a handle on being an author, working full-time, and trying to live life, then I will squeeze it in.
Christina: What’s next for you?
Tamika: I am working on my next middle-grade novel, which features a Panamanian boy. I am still in the early stages of outlining and figuring out book #2’s themes. But just as with Sincerely Sicily, readers can expect Panamanian culture and historical elements. I am also developing some picture book ideas too.
Tamika can be found in multiple places!
Thanks to Tamika for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an artist, author, or podcaster who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.
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