Author Spotlight: Interview With Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Salaam, everyone! It’s the first day of #RamadanReadathon 2020 and we’re kicking off in style with the first author interview of this year.

As you know, the readathon is themed around the anthology Once Upon An Eid, so I wanted to spotlight as many of its contributors as possible during the month. The first story in the anthology is written by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and I’m so pleased to welcome her on the blog today!


Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow author photoJamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is an educator and children’s book author. She began writing children’s books when she couldn’t find enough stories about kids like the ones she birthed and the ones she was teaching. Her books include Mommy’s Khimar (Simon & Schuster, 2018), Once Upon An Eid (Abrams Books, 2020, contributor), Your Name Is A Song (The Innovation Press, 2021) and Abdul’s Story (Simon & Schuster, 2021). Her works, which feature young Black Muslim protagonists, have been recognized and critically-praised by many trusted voices in literature, including American Library Association, School Library Journal, and NPR. She’s taught youth in traditional and alternative learning settings for 15 years and currently directs and develops writing programs for Philadelphia and New Jersey youth at Mighty Writers. You can follow her on Twitter @jtbigelow.


once-upon-an-eid-s-k-ali-aisha-saeed-coverOnce Upon An Eid is a collection of short stories that showcases the most brilliant Muslim voices writing today, all about the most joyful holiday of the year: Eid!

Eid: The short, single-syllable word conjures up a variety of feelings and memories for Muslims. Maybe it’s waking up to the sound of frying samosas or the comfort of bean pie, maybe it’s the pleasure of putting on a new outfit for Eid prayers, or maybe it’s the gift-giving and holiday parties to come that day. Whatever it may be, for those who cherish this day of celebration, the emotional responses may be summed up in another short and sweet word: joy. The anthology will also include a poem, graphic-novel chapter, and spot illustrations.


Salaam, Jamilah! Thank you so much for joining us! To begin with, could you quickly introduce yourself?

JT: Wa alaikum salaam! Thanks for having me. I’m Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and I am a children’s book author and I also teach writing to youth. I started writing stories for youth when I couldn’t find enough books about Muslim kids, especially Black Muslim kids.

Your short story, Perfect, in Once Upon An Eid is about a young African-American girl who learns to love and accept being a part of two cultures. Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

JT: This inspiration came directly from my own background. Like my main character, Hawa, I have an African American convert parent—in my case, it is my father. And like her, I have an African immigrant parent from Guinea who is from the Mandinka culture—that is my mother. As a child, I found it more difficult to be proud of my Guinean or Mandingo side because I wasn’t around people of this background very much and I didn’t speak the language.

When we visited the Bronx to see family there, I would have to learn that culture and I learned to appreciate it that way. A few of the situations I have Hawa encounter were also situations I encountered too: the spiciness of the food, being embarrassed about not speaking Mandingo, and having trouble putting on a lapa or wrap skirt.

I think a lot of people will be able to relate to that experience of belonging to two cultures! In addition, Eid Pictures, which comes later in the anthology, is a poem that really captures the essence of Eid celebrations in very few words. What does Eid mean to you? Do you have any favourite traditions?

JT: Eid to me means coming together and the importance of praying together. In Eid Pictures, I tried to capture how that tradition has been so important from the time African American Muslim converts were first establishing their mosques in America and having their small gatherings to today when Muslim gatherings for the Eid are huge and explosive and can’t all fit in any inside place.

We pray together, and I think that’s the most important tradition. However, in that poem, I also try to imagine what an enslaved Muslim African in the U.S. might have felt on Eid—the loneliness they must have experienced—and I ask us to pray for those Muslims in that poem. We need to pray that Allah accept their dua and I think that’s a way to give them a jamaat, to come together for them.

This Eid, we will likely be alone, and maybe this is an opportunity to reflect on all the Muslims who couldn’t (or can’t) worship openly or in congregation with others. I think a great tradition that could come out of this time is to remember the Muslims suffering alone in the world today and in the past on the Eid who can’t celebrate Eid the way they would like. We can remember them and give them a jamaat with our dua.

I love that! Especially how we can specifically relate to the poem through our experience of Eid this year. Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming picture book, Your Name Is A Song, and how you approach choosing names for the characters in your stories?

JT: Your Name Is A Song is a story about a Black Muslim girl who is frustrated after a first day of school when no one pronounces her name correctly. Her mother cheers her up by having her think about how her name and other cultural names are musical. Throughout, this rhythmic discussion of names, they are celebrating African American names, African names, Asian names, and Latinx names. This empowers the girl to be able to return to school the next day and teach everyone how to sing her song or more specifically, say her name.

Her name isn’t revealed until the end so I’ll be a bit circuitous about answering how I chose it—my apologies. However, let’s just say it has a lot to do with Mandinka culture although it isn’t a traditional Mandinka name. I created something new using that culture as a basis in the way I’ve seen lots of African Americans do with names. In this way, I again tied together my background.

That sounds amazing! And finally, what are some of your favourite books written by Muslim authors?

JT: There are many. Some of my favourite picture books, written by Muslim authors, include Not Quite Snow White by Ashley Franklin and The Arabic Quilt by Aya Khalil—both of these books have a lot of heart. Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga is phenomenal. I love The Weight Of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf and Love From A to Z by S. K. Ali in the YA category. I’m also a lover of poetry and reading Black Seeds by Tariq Toure and Youssef Kromah’s books of poetry are always spiritual experiences for me. This list isn’t complete but it’s my starting point.

Those are some great recommendations! Thank you so much for joining us, Jamilah, and for taking the time to answer these questions.

Once Upon An Eid will be published on May 5th 2020. Pre-order the book now at an indie bookstore near you, and don’t forget to add it on Goodreads.

For more books by this author, check out her critically acclaimed debut picture book, Mommy’s Khimar. And keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming Your Name Is A Song, and Abdul’s Story which will be published in 2021.

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