On October 23rd, the stage adaptation of my novel LOCOMOTION will premiere at The Kennedy Center. The book was a National Book Award finalist, won the Coretta Scott King Honor, and inspired a second book, PEACE, LOCOMOTION, but the story started much earlier than that.
A story begins in so many places -- inside the writer's head, their heart, their childhood. When I think of my book, LOCOMOTION, the story of Lonnie Collins Motion began, for me, in the fifth grade -- the first year I knew I was going to be a writer. Prior to that, I dreamed of being a writer, but I didn't know.
In fifth grade, poetry brought me from dreaming to knowing.
That was the year I began to understand that poems told stories, that if one read a poem closely enough, slowly enough, the stories would begin to unfold. I knew I wanted to tell stories the way poets did. I knew I wanted the stories to have meaning, to be about real things, real places, real people ... that I imagined.
What was it about fifth grade that made the dream of being a writer more real to me? I guess now -- all of these years later, I will call it 'An Unbelieving'. Up until fifth grade, I read slowly. I talked a lot in school. I was terrible at math. I didn't even know that people of color wrote books. So even as I imagined myself becoming a writer someday, a part of me didn't believe it could really happen. Not for me.
But the world slowly presented deeper truths: I read slowly because I was a writer -- studying the ways other authors told stories so that I could learn from them. I talked a lot because I had so many stories to tell. And math? Who knows? I still don't get it.
And here is where Locomotion arrives -- because this story was always coming, was always being told -- in bits and pieces, the story of a boy who is learning to love himself, his life, his world -- through poetry. Who, like a locomotive, is moving forward, no matter what. A boy who is learning to tell his story. Just as I learned to tell mine. Where did Lonnie Collins Motion come from? He came from the pages of my own story -- We're different in so many ways -- Lonnie is in foster care, I grew up with my mom and grandma and a village of aunts and uncles looking out for me. Lonnie has only one sister, I have a sister and two brothers. Lonnie is in sixth grade, I was in fifth. But like Lonnie, I too learned to love poetry, to tell my stories. Like Lonnie, I too take in every detail of the world, watching it carefully, and writing down what I think, see, feel. Like Lonnie, I too grew up in Brooklyn, New York. And like Lonnie -- I too hate pigeons and love basketball.
In PEACE, LOCOMOTION, we meet Lonnie again -- a year older, settling into his new family, coming to terms with his own internal wars ( a teacher who tells him he is not a real writer until he's published, a younger sister who wants to forget the past) and the war his foster brother is fighting in. We see this war's impact on young people, on the elderly, on people of color...
I don't know what it's like to be a child in this present war. Vietnam was almost over by the time I was old enough to understand what was happening. Adolescence and my college years, young adulthood... So many things kept me distracted from the wars that came after. And now, even with two young children of my own, I have a hard time imagining the impact of this war on their psyche. As a mom, I want to believe it doesn't affect them. I want to believe they're glazing over it, unfazed. But as a human, as a writer, as a grown up looking back, I know this isn't true. Looking back on Vietnam, my first war -- images come to me -- young addicted men, legless soldiers, photos on the covers of magazines, brown children crying into cameras...
In PEACE, LOCOMOTION, I took Lonnie/myself into the heart of the world of PTSD -- as a means of figuring out how one can walk through this tragedy, and emerge whole.
I know now, many years and many stories later, that the characters we as writers create have a lot of us inside of them. But once you meet Lonnie, I think that you'll agree -- There is a little bit of Lonnie...in all of us.