“How’s the weather in Houston?” I ask shyly.
“It’s been storming with little bits of beautiful sunny skies,” answers Liara Tamani, author of Calling My Name and the upcoming All the Things We Never Knew. This little piece of small talk sticks in my mind after our interview.
Chatting with Liara Tamani was a little patch of sunshine in a stormy week. Her infectious hope and optimism shined as we discussed her second novel, the importance of Black love stories, spirituality and creating your own life.
Read the full interview below.
All the Things We Never Knew is a heartfelt romance that captures the ups and downs of first loves. I think there are a lot of young readers who are really going to connect with it. Why is it important to tell black love stories for all teens?
Love is universal. We can all connect to it and we understand the feeling because it’s such a large part of our human experience. But as we know, from recent events and the long history of racism in this country and around the world, the media and society at large doesn’t often see or value or portray Black people’s humanity. They don’t see or value us as fully human.
In my work, I want to counteract that. I want to craft stories about Black people in all of their beauty and desire and conflict and humor and doubt and joy and light and … all the things! I want Black teens to see themselves reflected. I want them to be able to see their families and friends and their culture reflected, to feel that sense of familiarity, even if it’s just like the hairstyles, the jokes, or whatever … to feel that love, to see yourself as your mom sees you or your uncle sees you or your friends see you, to see yourself like that instead of seeing yourself as society sees you. I feel like it’s validating and it’s healing for Black teens.
And then for teens from other backgrounds, it’s really equally important. When they see Black teens dying at the hands of the police all the time or being wrongfully incarcerated, seeing Black lives being stolen and dismissed again and again, it’s important for them to know our pain is not all we are. Black love stories are a great way to broadcast the full beauty and humanity of Black people to a world that doesn’t see it or value it nearly enough.
Society often wants to put stories that feature Black characters in a box labeled “for Black people.” You often hear “Black love stories? These are for the Black teens.” But if it’s a white love story, then it’s for everybody. Black love stories, Black stories in general, stories that feature Black people, they’re universal: they’re for everybody. Yeah, this is a book that has two Black teens on the cover, but it’s for all teens!
It’s so important and I think your book does do all that and more. You mentioned the cover and it is absolutely beautiful, I love the cover. Do you know who did the art for the cover? Did you get any say in that or did you just get really lucky to get such a fantastic looking book?
Loveis Wise did the art for the cover. I actually got to choose her. The cover was kind of collaborative because she didn’t really come from a basketball background. The first time, with Calling My Name it was like here’s your cover! And I loved it, Vashti Harrison did that cover and I was blown away by it too. This was a totally different experience.
I chose Loveis Wise because of the energy she brings to her work. It’s like her name! Her name is Loveis! I love that energy, I love her art. I told my publisher this is who I want and I was lucky enough to get her and she was humble enough to work with me on what I wanted for the cover so it was an amazing experience. I absolutely love Carli and Rex on the cover! I love all of the celestial elements! I love the color! I love everything about it!
It’s awesome! Carli and Rex both feature on the cover and they are great characters, both dealing with a lot of uncertainty in their lives. They search for meaning and guidance in different ways; Carli looks for signs and Rex finds comfort in nature. Can you tell me more about how and why you explore spirituality in your writing?
I want teens to know that they have the power and the right to shape their spiritual lives, their internal lives, their human experience — whatever you want to call it — in the way that serves them best. It’s really something I wish I’d known as a teen.
I grew up in a super religious household that didn’t fit me. I struggled with it. I wasn’t allowed to explore anything beyond it until I was out of the house. It was really a traumatic experience, my religion. It’s not [that way] for everybody, but it was for me because it didn’t fit me. I want kids to know there are a lot of tools out there, there are a lot of ways of being, there are lots of ways to be your best self. Please explore all of them and find out what suits you!
In this [book], Carli’s belief in signs and Rex’s connection to nature have different purposes.
Rex is so lonely. His mom died when she was giving birth to him. His dad doesn’t really talk to him. He’s led a lonely life. He feels a closeness to his mother when he’s in nature. He has formed this relationship with nature, really to survive. I don’t even want to know what or who Rex would be if he didn’t have nature. I want all teens to be able to find solace in nature. The sky is always there for you! And often a beautiful blue sky. The trees are always there for you. To appreciate. To remind you, this too shall pass.
For Carli, she’s a believer in signs but takes it to the extreme. Everyone has those experiences, those moments, where some completely random thing happens and it directly speaks to what’s going on in your life and you’re like “Woah!” You get chills! That’s what I call signs. Carli is searching for signs everywhere and at all times. I wanted to show a teen trying to find answers outside of herself.
Nobody has all the answers. Nobody does. When looking outside stops you from looking within, it can become a problem. I wanted to show the power of looking within and recognizing your own light and wisdom that resides inside of you and trusting your own intuition. I think it’s an important one for teens.
They also get a lot of guidance, in very different ways, from their parents. Parents tend to hide in the background in YA literature, so I found it refreshing that in this story both Carli and Rex actively navigate changing relationships with their parents. Why was it important to you to reflect both the joys and sorrows of parental relationships?
Realistically, most teens are living with their parents! They are experiencing their parents when they are happy. They deal with their parents’ pain and frustration. They also deal with their parents’ mistakes.
Teens are at home dealing with a lot that nobody knows about. [They’re] not going to school saying, “hey guess how messed up my parents are!?” Most of the time they’re not talking to anybody about that. I wanted to show them you may be dealing with your parents’ problems, issues and pain, but you don’t have to take ownership of it. Even though you come from your parents and you may be living with them now, you’re living your own life. Your parent’s pain is not yours. You can choose a different path. That’s really why I included that.
I’ve known people who have inherited their parents’ pain and lived with it their whole lives and took it on as their own. I know kids who are hurt by things their parents have done or ways their parents have been. You can already see the signs of that hurt, of their pain. I want kids to know they can try to shake that off. Shake that off! Create their own lives for themselves.
Which is such a great message! It stuck out to me the Rex was written as a “fiercely tender boy”. I also really enjoyed the character of Cole, Carli’s brother, I thought he was the real MVP of the book. I wanted to thank you for writing boys with big hearts, who aren’t afraid to show they care. Were these portrayals of masculinity something you were conscious of while writing?
Oh yes! Very, very conscious. You know we hear about the term “toxic masculinity,” we hear it! It is very real and it is pervasive. It’s everywhere. I’ve definitely suffered from being in relationships with men who’d obviously learned what being a “man” was from the wrong men! And I know plenty of women and girls who have also suffered … the world suffers! It is harmful and it is hurtful.
I want young boys to see a teen — who, by the way, I hope is cool — being vulnerable and tender because you can be! When you are vulnerable and tender, when you open up, you invite so much beauty into your life in terms of relationships and the closenesses that you can get with another person, to be able to explore that person and that person’s beauty and be able to receive all that they have to offer. You only get that when you are open and you are tender.
I want them to see that and I want girls to see it too! To know that they deserve to be with boys who are open emotionally.
Absolutely! It’s one of the things I enjoyed most. Part of what makes Rex and Cole so cool, and Carli too, is that they are big basketball stars! As a basketball fan, I enjoyed all the references to things like Lance Stephenson blowing in Lebron’s ear, Jason Kidd’s free throw kisses (which I had to YouTube), and the LEGEND Candace Parker. We even get a Stephen A. Smith tirade! Why did you choose to put basketball at the center of this love story?
Personal reasons. I grew up playing basketball … I really didn’t like it! But I am 5 feet, 11 inches and I come from a basketball family, like my dad and my brother played in college. Growing up, my sister and all my cousins played. Friends played. I was kind of pressured into playing. So that’s kind of where that — that Carli doesn’t really wanna play — that’s where that comes from.
My ex-husband played in the NBA and so I spent 13 years going to games and being immersed in that NBA culture. So it’s a subject that I’m close with. I knew I could write it well. I honestly tend to write, in the two books I’ve written so far, to heal parts of myself. Neither of them are my stories, the characters are not me, but definitely, my experiences are in there, my emotions are in there. Basketball has been a big chunk of my life and I wanted to put that in a book.
Speaking of your experiences, I read an essay you wrote titled “Love & Basketball Was More Than a Movie. It Changed My Whole Life”. You describe how watching the film motivated you to be more true to yourself and find your own dreams, which led to you dropping out of Harvard Law School on your path to becoming an author. You have an incredible story and I want to say that you capture the spirit of ‘Love & Basketball’ in your writing. What message did you hope to pass on to young readers with this novel?
First of all, thank you so much. The main message is to create the life you want for yourself. Only you can do it. And [you] have the power to. So get after it!
I don’t know if when I was 15, or 16, or 17 I realized that. I was like — you know, you read the essay — I was doing things other people wanted me to do and people-pleasing, which a lot of people spend a lot of time doing. But I eventually found my way.
Wouldn’t it be cool, though, if you were 15 or 16 and said, “I want this type of life and I want to be this type of person and I want all of my actions from here on out to reflect that and I’m going to start shaping my life right now?” The power in that is just amazing.
And that’s not to say there is isn’t such a thing as privilege, or there isn’t such a thing as discrimination or any of the other challenges that a young person might face. Challenges will be there for sure. Certainly. But I think one of the biggest challenges in life is really yourself: what you tell yourself and what you do. [Young people] have the power to shape their lives and to create the life and the future they want, if I could drive home any point it would be THAT!