Tonya C. Hegamin is an author that refuses to be penned down to one category. She has degrees in both poetry (from the University of Pittsburgh) and in creative writing (from the New School University). She’s penned both picture books (Most Loved In All The World, Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and novels. And even within her novels, she’s avoids categorization. Her first novel, M+0 4EVR (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) is a seamless blend of contemporary fiction and historical drama, and her second novel, Pemba’s Song (Scholastic, 2008) co-written with Marilyn Nelson, blends poetry and prose.
For the 15th day of 28 Days Later, we are proud to present Tonya C. Hegamin.
After receiving an undergraduate degree in poetry, why did you decide to back to school for your MFA? Why in writing for children and young adults?
After undergrad I decided to take a few years off to “experience the real world”. I worked as an educator for Women Against Rape in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. I also prepared teen moms for the GED in a town whose median income was $9,000. Then I was the teen safe sex educator for Planned Parenthood. I even taught 6th grade math for a minute! That was a total disaster–I barely know the times tables! I only knew that I wanted to help and teach kids and teens and reading was my number one passion as a kid. It was something I always wanted to do–write the books I loved.
M+0 4EVR is mainly a contemporary story, but you also weave in narrative about a runaway slave named Hannah. Was it difficult to intertwine the two stories together?
Writing M+O was like watching some complex organic biology experiment unfold. I had written long stories before but never attempted a novel. It was really just the beginning of a puzzle for me when it was sold off of 30 pages. Nobody expects that! I didn’t really have a plan for it, I was just fascinated by the characters and the story they wanted to tell. It was like a vine in my brain. Every character took on a complete life of their own. I’m working on a sequel that is in the voice of M. Gran has perhaps an entire book to her life, as well as the rest of the characters. Hannah and Mine were just a story that the characters wanted to tell. The only thing I consciously did was make Mine a Nanticoke; my Grandfather Coursey’s family was from a line of chiefs in that community so I added some of his history.
What gave you the idea to write the novel?
I think the idea germinated when I was in High School and my mother and I had moved to Rochester, NY from the suburbs of Philadelphia where I grew up. We drove hours through the wilds of Pennsylvania several times a year and it gave me the opportunity to dream unlikely dreams. I love wondering what people’s lives are like in those houses you get a glimpse of when driving through country highways. I wanted characters that I had never seen written before in those places. It’s the perfect storm for a melodrama.
According to some reviews, Opal’s love for Marianne goes beyond platonic? Did you or your publisher have any concerning about including this thread in the novel?
Yes, Opal is in love with Marianne; it’s not totally overt because I’m not an advocate for gratuitous sex scenes in teen lit. One of the reasons I read so much as a kid was looking for “sex parts” in Norma Klein books! Reading them now, they were so ambiguous and tame, but that tension was what led me to keep reading. I wanted to write a love story that wasn’t typical or urban and Opal’s story was important for me to tell. She is the witness to tragedy but not tragic herself. Understanding that makes her realize that being open about her sexuality is actually not going to cause the Earth to stop spinning. I wanted the love stories that surrounded her to be untraditional yet unconditional so that she knew how to love well. I think most teens can relate to longing for someone they can’t have. I wasn’t trying to write a “coming out story”, just a good love story. Of course, Opal is the first African-American lesbian protagonist in teen lit; that’s not easy to market and that’s what publishers think about. Strangely, I’ve had more direct ‘controversy’ over my picture book, MOST LOVED IN ALL THE WORLD. Recently I spoke to a group of Queer teens at the New York City LGBT Center. Even though my publishers haven’t put vampire money into M+O, getting to see those kids’ faces and to hear how much they needed the book was payment enough.
You also wrote a novel, Pemba’s Song, with Marilyn Nelson. How did this novel originate?
We wrote it to help our friend, Abraham Haqq (who is a character in the book). Abraham did a lot of research about African-Americans who built the town he lived in, which did not celebrate or note the integral part that African-Americans played throughout history. Abraham taught himself to read and do research. He recently left his life in Connecticut and is now living in Mexico. He’s a blazing fire of information as well as an amazing inspiration!
Marilyn wrote Phyllis first since her story is chronologically first. Once she gave me her poems I wrote Pemba’s story around them. Originally Pemba’s story was going to be all poems but I felt that the narrative flowed better and would interest more readers if told in a hybrid fashion.
Tough Question—do you consider yourself more of a poet or more of a novelist?
I’m a storyteller. In teaching fiction and in teaching poetry I want to get my students to the same underbelly of human beauty that strikes a chord in the reader. I write poetry for instant voluntary torture and novels for prolonged voluntary torture. It just depends on my mood or the nature of the story I want to tell. My Introduction to Poetry class (in 1996?!) was with Toi Derricotte (co-founder of the first African-American poetry retreat, Cave Canem) and she taught me that the most important thing about writing was to open your heart onto the page. It really doesn’t matter to me what form it comes out in.
Can you talk a little about what you’re working on now?
Mostly these days I’m working on teaching writing as an extension of my craft. Over my winter break I worked on another historical novel and a graphic novel. I have a large section of the sequel to M+O that needs to be edited (again). I’ve got a short story or two for adults percolating and I’m refining a performance of a poem/song about John Henry’s wife, Polly Ann. I’m also trying to write two really good Haiku poems a week. It’s harder than you’d think!
(Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths (http://rachelelizagriffiths.com/)).