Author Q&A with Robin Farmer
When I received an opportunity to review MALCOLM AND ME, I was so moved by the description of the book that I knew I was going to read it even before I reached the end of the email. I didn’t expect to ALSO have the amazing opportunity to do a Q&A with the author, Robin Farmer, whose own experiences inspired this amazing story. I’m super excited to share her answers with you today.
First, here’s a little bit about the book in case you aren’t familiar.
Malcolm and Me
Published November 17, 2020
Philly native Roberta Forest is a precocious rebel with the soul of a poet. The thirteen-year-old is young, gifted, black, and Catholic—although she’s uncertain about the Catholic part after she calls Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite for enslaving people and her nun responds with a racist insult. Their ensuing fight makes Roberta question God and the important adults in her life, all of whom seem to see truth as gray when Roberta believes it’s black or white.
An upcoming essay contest, writing poetry, and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X all help Roberta cope with the various difficulties she’s experiencing in her life, including her parent’s troubled marriage. But when she’s told she’s ineligible to compete in the school’s essay contest, her explosive reaction to the news leads to a confrontation with her mother, who shares some family truths Roberta isn’t ready for.
Set against the backdrop of Watergate and the post-civil rights movement era, Angel Dressed in Black is a gritty yet graceful examination of the anguish teens experience when their growing awareness of themselves and the world around them unravels their sense of security—a coming-of-age tale of truth-telling, faith, family, forgiveness, and social activism.
Author Q&A with Robin Farmer
Q: I find that a story was often inspired by a question. Was there a question that inspired you to write this story?
Yes, how did my fight with a nun and the resulting suspension affect me? The question arose when I had to write an essay for an application for a prestigious journalism fellowship. I realized the traumatic incident changed my life and shaped the trajectory of my career. Seeing racism and religion collide as a girl led me away from organized religion, sealed my resistance against bullies, and shaped my decision to work as a journalist to expose truth, scrutinize powerful institutions, and amplify the voice of marginalized people. I was 39 when I realized it all can be traced back to what happened in that classroom and maybe it was worth writing about.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about Roberta’s character? What do you find most challenging about her?
She’s not afraid of speaking truth, even if it involves a bully doubling as her teacher. She’s also 13, so she’s a trapeze artist in the mood department, bouncing up, down and all around.She’s often emotionally messy with one leg in childhood and the other headed toward young adult independence.
Q: Is there a moment that sticks with you most from the story? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
There’s a point where Roberta’s Mom shares a devastating truth about Roberta’s father. It’s a moment that sucker punches Roberta as she pieces together clues she had overlooked. In an instant, she shifts her respect and affection toward her Mom. She experiences an emotional roller coaster in a matter of minutes and I hope her reactions feel authentic.
Q: What do you most hope that readers take away from MALCOLM AND ME?
Truth matters, especially today in a world of alternative facts. Speak up, criticize, question and think critically. Doing so can be scary. Do it anyway. Another takeaway is to embrace the power of forgiveness, especially when someone hurts you deeply. I want readers, especially younger ones,to know hate is a heavy load to carry. Forgiveness allows you to heal and move on. And finally, love your family and yourself hard. Shortcomings and all.
Q: What is one question that you are often asked by readers?
When people ask what MALCOLM AND ME is about, I think they want a pithy answer. But a book can be about numerous things, with rich and layered themes. In my novel, I explore adult hypocrisy, racism, divorce, faith wrangling and social justice activism.
Q: What was the hardest part of the story to write? What made it so difficult?
I struggled with helping readers understand why Sister Elizabeth disliked Roberta so much. It’s clear both are headstrong. A militant upstart, Roberta clashes with a steely nun who cherishes tradition. But is there a deeper reason for the tension? The story is told through Roberta’s viewpoint so presenting Sister’s perspective is a challenge.
Q: Was there a scene or character that you had the most fun writing? What made that scene or character so much fun?
I had an absolute blast writing about Sister Carol jumping rope with Roberta. It was rare to see the nuns jump rope back in the day, but the ones who did are forever embedded in my brain. This scene serves as a love letter to every nun unafraid to evoke her inner child and have fun with young people. I also adore the idea of these two figures — one a budding social justice activist, the other a stalwart of a faith she too has wrestled with due to racism — literally in sync with each other.
Q: Are there any books or movies that you recommend to readers interested in learning more about the time period in which MALCOLM AND ME is set?
“Brian’s Song” was influential because it depicted a powerfulfriendship between a Black and white football player at a time when race relations were strained in certain cities, Philly included, as schools integrated and “white flight”occurred. “All the President’s Men” — the book or the movie — details the Watergate scandal and a heroic moment in U.S. journalism. I Loved “Sounder” and” Claudine.” And THE FRIENDS by Rosa Guy was one of my favorite novels. I recall seeing myself in those pages, which is why I recently purchased it and will read it again more than 45 years later.
Q: Are there other novels that inspired you that you’d like to share?
Yes, The GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY by Heidi Durrow forced me to toss my manuscript into the trash. The originality and emotional truth of her debut novel inspired me to dig deeper. THE WHORES ON THE HILL by Colleen Curran was a fantastic story about defiant Catholic teens with a major plot twist. That story influenced me to add a bit of mystery. ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams Garcia was masterfully executed. I learned so much from it. Finally, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was the first book I recall reading that made me say I will write a book someday. I adored Atticus Finch and then I saw a gorgeous Gregory Peck play him in the film and cherished him more.
About Robin Farmer
Robin Farmer is a national award–winning journalist and transplanted Philadelphian who currently calls the Richmond, VA, area home. At eight, she told her mother she would write for a living, and she is grateful that her younger self knew what she was talking about (many young folks do). Her other interests include screenwriting, poetry, movies, and traveling. She’s still hoping to write stories about young people for television and film. Robin earned her degree in journalism from Marquette University. She lives in Richmond, VA.