Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Liara Tamani’s first book, Calling My Name, has drawn swift comparisons from literary critics nationwide to the top young adult novels of recent years. Lone Star Lit reviewed the book in last week’s issue and fell in love with it — so we couldn’t resist emailing her a few questions and learning what makes this up-and-comer tick.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Where did you grow up, Liana, and how did your raising influence your writing?
LIANA TAMANI: My roots are in Houston, Texas, and that definitely comes across in my writing. Calling My Name is set in Houston, and my second book is as well. As a writer, I love representing my city, its people, and its culture.
What authors did you enjoy reading growing up?
It’s funny, my parents always tell stories of me reading constantly growing up, but I don’t remember reading that much. From a young age, I recall being very studious. I took a lot of pride in making good grades. But outside of school, I don’t think I read a ton. I mean, there were some books I remember loving as a young child: Corduroy by Don Freeman, The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey, and some others. In my middle grade years, I vaguely remember reading the Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal. But it wasn’t until high school, when I was introduced to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, that I fell in love with books. And it’s because I saw myself in them. That’s why diversity matters. Being able to see yourself in books matters.
Did you always want to be a writer? (Or, when did you know that you wanted to be a writer?)
No, I didn’t. Even though I’ve always loved writing, I didn’t realize becoming a writer was a possibility. Growing up, I was determined to become a lawyer, like my father. It was his dream for me, and I adopted it as my own. It wasn’t until I abandoned his dream that I was able to connect to my dream of becoming a writer. And that didn’t happen until I was in my mid-twenties, living in Los Angeles and running my own design company. One night, as I sat at my drafting table, I started to write. It felt like magic. From then on, I knew writing was what I wanted to do with my life.
You went to Duke and then Harvard Law, and even design school at Otis in L.A.
How did living outside of Texas affect you?
Living in other cities gave me a sense of freedom. After high school, I felt the need to move away, to explore different perspectives on life, to connect with possibilities that weren’t within my realm of thinking (without the watchful eye of my family and friends). In short, I needed space to figure out who I was, apart from the community I was raised in. And living in other cities gave me that space.
What was your first big break as a writer?
Well, it depends on what you deem a “big break,” but I would say it was my first publication in a literary magazine. I’d been sending things out for years and getting rejected. Receiving my first acceptance made me feel like a writer. It’s interesting how external validation works in that way. I was writing all the time. I wish I could say I had the confidence to claim being a writer before I received that stamp of approval, but I didn’t. Also, once I received my first acceptance, more acceptances followed. The stamp of approval definitely affects editors too!
Can you tell our readers about your debut novel, Calling My Name?
Calling My Name is about a girl named Taja Brown, who’s growing up in Houston, Texas and trying to find her own path. Hard to do when everybody around her seems to have an opinion about her life.
Her parents have an opinion about basically everything. Her brother has an opinion about her needing to be a “good” girl. The church has an opinion about what she should believe about life’s big questions. New girls at her school think she talks too “white.” Her younger sister and friends have plenty to say about her boyfriend. Her boyfriend has too much to say about where she should go to college. Her top choices are prestigious schools far away, but he wants her to go somewhere closer to home, somewhere he can get into himself.
Let’s just say listening to herself and believing in herself enough to find her own way is no easy feat.
What's your creative process like?
The process changes for every project, but I always start with something that has made an emotional impression on me, something that has touched me deeply. I recall these moments, and how they made me feel, and begin constructing fiction around them. The construction process can vary greatly. With Calling My Name, I wrote the chapters out of order, rearranged them many times, cut some, added some. The process wasn’t at all linear. With the second novel, even though it’s also written in short chapters, the process is definitely more orderly.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Keep pushing. There’s a lot of rejection in this business, but you can’t take it personal. Your work just needs to meet the right set of eyes at the right time. This usually doesn’t happen overnight. On the contrary, it can take many years. Don’t be like me. If you write, even if you’ve never been published, you’re a writer. Claim it! To yourself, most importantly, and to the world. Connect to your local writing community and to the larger writing community via social media. Get in the game.
What project are you currently working on?
Book two! I’m writing it in alternating perspectives: a sixteen-year-old boy’s and a girl’s the same age. It’s a love-at-first-sight story that deals with complex family issues. When the protagonists meet, the boy’s family life (which has a tragic beginning) starts coming together, while the girl’s family life (which has an ideal beginning) starts falling apart. The question is: can they stay together? It has a title, but I’m not ready to share it yet. Stay tuned!
As someone who grew up in Houston and has written about Houston, what do you consider the best thing about H-town? What should visitors to Texas’s largest city not miss when visiting?
The food! And the margaritas! Houston is consistently voted one of the best food cities in America, and its Tex-Mex is on point. Get thee self to a Mexican restaurant. I also love the Buffalo Bayou hike and bike trails, the Bayou Bend Gardens, and Herman Park. The Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is not to be missed. And if you come during February, definitely check out the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo!
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“An excellent portrayal of African American culture, gorgeous lyrical prose, strong characters, and societal critique make Tamani’s debut a must-read.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Taja deals with the insecurities that most young people feel regarding identity, love, and fitting in. Stylish prose brings home quiet depths.” —Kirkus Reviews
“If there’s one book I wish I could reach through time and hand to seventeen-year-old me, it’s this one. Calling My Name is a treasure.” ‘Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin
“This lush debut novel is written in distinct prose that reads like poetry. Young adults will connect with this protagonist and this dynamic new voice. Fans of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas will especially love this lyrical novel. A great selection in any library collection.”
—School Library Journal
“Tamani’s debut novel brims with heart and soul, following its African-American protagonist, Taja Brown, as she searches for spirituality, love, and a sense of self. Absorbing.” —Publishers Weekly
“This debut coming-of-age novel showcases the complex relationship between family, spirituality, and self. On her journey to discovering herself, Taja learns the importance of recognizing self-worth and feeling like you truly belong.”
“While not quite stream of consciousness, this novel moves dreamily along wayward paths. ...Readers willing to be swept along by Tamani’s poetic language and imagery will appreciate the journey. ... This debut is reminiscent of Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming or Marilyn Hilton’s Full Cicada Moon.” —Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA)
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