Sawyerr is a Sierra Leonean-American writer with a passion for people and storytelling. For Hannah's literary and community involvement, she was recognized as the 2016 Youth Poet Laureate of Baltimore, an honor awarded by DewMore Baltimore, the Baltimore Mayor's Office, Urban Word NYC, and Enoch Pratt Libraries. For her original poem “For Girls Growing Into Their Hips”, she was awarded a national medal in the NAACP Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) in the category of poetry. Her spoken word has been featured on the British Broadcasting Channel's (BBC) World Have Your Say program, as well as the National Education Association's “Do You Hear Us?” campaign. Her written word has been featured in several publications such as gal-dem, ROOKIE, Sesi Mag and more. She holds a BA in English from Morgan State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Currently, she is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Loyola Marymount University and lives in Los Angeles, California.
Talia Smart of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, served on the panel that selected Sawyerr’s debut for Indies Introduce. Smart said of the book, “When Amina’s mom died, she and her dad each inherited some of her mother’s qualities. While her dad adopted his wife’s intense spirituality and found comfort by withdrawing into the church, Amina picked up her mom’s fighting parts. She’s got a sharp tongue and has never been afraid to use it. When Amina is assaulted by a pastor, her tenacity fades. Her community — her best friend, her boyfriend, and especially her father — must figure out how to show up for Amina, help her heal, and fight alongside her. An intense, beautiful YA novel in verse, highly recommended for fans of Jason Reynolds and Elizabeth Acevedo.”
Here, Sawyerr and Smart discuss All the Fighting Parts.
Talia Smart: Amina, the protagonist of All the Fighting Parts, lost her mother as a child but feels her mom's influence in both her dad's personality and her own. How did you go about writing a character who's not on the page at all, but is still a clear presence in the lives of main characters?
Hannah V. Sawyerr: When I think of advocacy, I think of a woman from my former church who passed. She had a reputation for being bull-headed, but to me and to a lot of young people, she was a fierce protector and full of love. Her funeral was on Valentine’s Day in 2015. When I think of her, I think of the ways she spoke unapologetically and advocated to protect people. She reminds me that anger and rage serve a purpose and sometimes, especially in her case, can be used for good. Amina’s mother was vocal and protective, and Amina longs for that especially considering that her father is a lot more docile and quiet. Amina often thinks of her mother when she needs to find the courage to speak for herself. Even though Amina’s mom passes before the novel begins, her memory is still felt throughout the story. To me, her character proves that even though death is inevitable, positive impact can be forever.
TS: Within the story, the characters are challenged to reevaluate where they put their faith and trust after a community and church leader abuses his power. For folks who are in a similar situation, having lost trust in a person or institution, can you suggest a starting place to move forward with trust in other relationships?
HVS: I’ve had to think a lot about community over the last decade or so. When I first came forward as a teenager, at the time, my former church community was the biggest community I had. Outside of my immediate family, I don’t have much family in the U.S. and my closest relative lived about four hours outside of my home state. In a lot of ways, my former church wasn’t just my “church” community, they were an extension of my family. So when I came forward and people chose to defend my abuser or simply not speak to me, it really forced me to reevaluate what community looks like for me and ultimately, figure out how to trust again.
For me in order to move forward, I had to spend a lot of time being honest with myself about the ways in which that community hurt me and made me feel small. I also had to recognize the parts of that community that I did love and the ways they, at a time, were a genuine light in my life. Even though I will not (and truly have no desire) to be a part of that particular community again, I consider these things when I think of fostering new relationships and my current relationships today are stronger because of it.
TS: So much of how Amina is perceived — by herself and others — has to do with her volume: whether she expresses herself loudly or is withdrawn and quiet. I love how you challenge the reader to think about silence as meaningful and deserving of more perception. Can you share anything about your own journey with volume and self-expression? How does writing and publishing this novel fit into that journey?
HVS: I’ve had a really complicated relationship with volume and silence along my journey. Sometimes people ask me if All the Fighting Parts is a memoir but I always respond that it isn’t because (1) Amina is WAY cooler than me, but (2) Amina learned lessons that took me many years to learn.
I’ve felt a lot of shame surrounding the times when I struggled to speak about my experiences. A part of the reason I wrote All the Fighting Parts was to combat that shame. For myself, and a lot of my friends who have also experienced sexual assault, I find that even when our situations were different, one of the common denominators is that we’ve all felt a deep shame surrounding the assault and the silence that followed. There were times throughout my journey where I was very vocal about my experiences, and there were times when I couldn’t put words to it. Writing All the Fighting Parts (and therapy!) taught me that all of those feelings are valid. Even on days when I can’t or don’t want to speak, I am still a fighter, because every day is a day that I have survived.
I also think that it’s worth mentioning that being able to speak about your experiences one day, doesn’t mean that it will come so easily the next, and I think we see that along Amina’s journey. It’s a bit of a cliche to say this, but progress really isn’t linear.
TS: One of the most powerful moments of the book, in my opinion, is Amina’s description of the assault — which takes the form of blacked-out text. Can you tell us about the decision to present Amina’s recounting of the assault in this way?
HVS: This is one of my favorite moments in the novel as well. It came a bit later in the revision process and was one of the last changes I made before handing in the final version. All the Fighting Parts is a heavy read with heavy themes. I understand the book isn’t for everyone, but for folks who do decide to follow along Amina’s journey, I do feel a responsibility to guide the reader through that. Because the physical description of Amina’s assault isn’t integral to the plot, I wanted to focus a bit more on how she’s feeling/coping with the aftermath of the assault, the ways in which that one night changes her, and how she learns to build herself back up.
Along with that, I wanted to incorporate a new form in the book. That poem is the only blackout poem in the entire novel. This section of the novel was also a way for me to pay homage. (I wish there was a way to explain what exactly that means without dipping too far into spoiler-y territory, but I guess folks will have to read the book to figure that out!)
TS: All the Fighting Parts is a beautiful, lyrical novel-in-verse. How did you decide on this format, and what were some of your influences or favorites within the genre?
HVS: I originally tried to write All the Fighting Parts in prose. (Bad decision!) I wrote only a couple of chapters and immediately realized that telling this particular story in prose wouldn’t work. I love reading novels in verse. I love that verse novels typically require the reader to spend time in the main character’s head and really experience their journey. Whether it be the white space, purposeful line breaks, or different poetic forms, I find that verse novels invite the reader into the story in a way that’s intimate and special. One of my favorite parts about writing in verse is being able to zero in on a particular feeling or emotion and I find that being able to tell a story through poetry really lends itself to that. Whether it be through the words I share on the page, or the words I choose to leave off of the page.
As for influences when it comes to verse novels, hands down Elizabeth Acevedo and Joy McCullough are the first authors that come to mind. I read The Poet X in 2018 and it was the very first verse novel I ever read. Shortly after that I found Joy McCullough’s Blood Water Paint, and was inspired by the fact that it was both a verse novel and a novel that dealt with the topic of sexual assault. I didn’t know that novels could read the way their work did and I don’t know if I’d be writing novels (and I truly don’t think I’d be writing novels in verse) if it wasn’t for their influence.
All the Fighting Parts by Hannah V. Sawyerr (Amulet Books, 9781419762611, Hardcover Young Adult, $19.99) On Sale: 9/19/2023
Find out more about the author on her website.
ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce debut authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions. Please let us know if you do.