Interview with Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

I have now read Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s poignant answers in our Q&A almost as many times as I’ve read her stunning book Your Name is a Song. 

This starred reviewed story follows a young girl in the wake of her teacher and classmates repeatedly mispronouncing her name. Her mother empowers her to see that her name is a musical masterpiece, just like so many other African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx and Middle Eastern names that are readily dismissed by mainstream American culture. Luisa Uribe‘s illustrations animate the strength and explosive beauty of each name and the song it sings.  

I simply cannot recommend Your Name is a Song more highly. In a time when I’m in desperate need of it, it gives me hope imagining what our country would look like if every home, school and library shelf had its own loved, worn copy. An important note: this is the most critical time of the year for independent bookstores. If you are planning to buy books for the holidays, including this gorgeous picture book, please consider making those purchases now through your favorite indie.

What is your favorite line from Your Name Is a Song?

“Make a way out of no way. Make names out of no names.” Sorry I cheated. That’s probably two lines. In them I feel like I’m making an argument about the act of resistance that is making up names.

You describe how Black people are shamed for making up names to fit their own culture. When did you first become interested in the meaning behind and power of names? 

I’ve always cared about names as someone who cares about language in general and has always been interested in etymology. For a long time, though, I didn’t think too much about made-up Black American names. I didn’t believe they were worth much thought. I had internalized ideas that dismiss Black American culture as somehow a lesser culture. Unlearning that came when I started learning more about racism and how that kind of anti-Blackness can become internalized. Interestingly, my path toward becoming an anti-racist educator happened as a result of Trayvon Martin being killed, and his name is also used in the section that discusses Black American names.

In the book you write that “made up names come from dreamers.” Can you share more about this idea and how it came to you?

Well, as I said before, I unlearned a lot of negative ideas about made-up names. And I started to reframe. And as I reframed, I recognized the power and liberation in the idea of making up a name. To imagine a new you–that’s the work of a dreamer. To imagine a new existence and new possibilities and to be hopeful that you can make a way out of no way, you have to be a dreamer. There is a reason why MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech has so much resonance.  There is a reason why Black people say “I am the answer to my ancestors’ dreams.” Social justice is about changing existing realities, and we can’t change those realities unless we dream up new ones. I’d argue dreaming up new names is a form of social justice for the ancestors who were stripped of their names.

What do you hope children take away from this story?

I hope children take away that all the pieces of their identities deserve to be respected and uplifted. I hope they learn to appreciate the identities of others too.

You describe the pressure to justify your existence as a Black Muslim woman, and the importance of having conversations on your own terms. Does sharing your voice through picture books play a role here?

Yes, very much so. In some ways, I feel like I’m doing the work I needed as a girl. I’m writing the stories I needed in the ways I needed them. This comes out a lot in my first book, Mommy’s Khimar. I very purposefully wrote a book that would have appealed to 5-year-old me and ignored the expectations most mainstream readers might have about a book about an Islamic headscarf. Since I was kid, I have always felt the pressure to explain my existence, my faith, etc. So, it was important for me to write a book that didn’t do that at all. I wrote about hijabing in a way I hadn’t seen discussed in the mainstream but that was very real to me and to other Muslim kids I’ve known. 

Can you share a meaningful moment in your journey of bringing this book to life?

Probably when my agent, Essie White, responded to it so emotionally. To know someone else cared so much about it meant a lot.

Do you have a writing habit or quirk that has served you well?

Actually, I feel like I need better habits. I’m pretty scattered as a writer. One thing I do is write everywhere. I type or write on paper and random notepads. The disorganization can be a problem but it also means I’m writing any way I can and making sure I get the words down.

Who are your writer heroes?

Maya Angelou is probably the first person who taught me the power of opening up and using my voice. I connected with her life story of having to fight her way out of silence and the trauma that produced that silence. Writing was her way out and I saw it as mine. Toni Morrison in the unabashed way she wrote for her people inspires me and she is someone I keep in the forefront of my thoughts when I make decisions about writing.

Do you have words of wisdom for aspiring writers?

Learn. Take the time to learn. You don’t know what you don’t know. Be humble enough to listen to those who do, but never lose sight of your vision.


Your Name is a Song is published by The Innovation Press and was released on July 7, 2020.

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