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Connecting all the pieces of her life’s journey: Kim Johnson’s debut young adult novel is ‘This Is My America’

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 14, 2021

For author Kim Johnson, activism and social justice have been a lifelong pursuit. Her debut young adult novel, “This Is My America,” is a continuation of that goal and, in a way, a gift to her younger self.

“Writing my novel finally connected all the pieces of the journey that I had been on,” she said.

Johnson will discuss “This Is My America” during a virtual meeting of the Northwest Passages Book Club moderated by Spokane NAACP President Kiantha Duncan at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The event is free and will include an audience question-and-answer session.

In “This Is My America,” 17-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes every week to Innocence X asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time – her father has only 275 days left.

In her debut novel, Johnson explores the effects of racial injustice and mass incarceration from the perspective of the families left behind, and, in particular, that of a daughter and a sister.

An NPR Best Book of the Year and 2021 Pacific Northwest Book Award Winner, among other accolades, Johnson’s debut novel has already performed beyond her highest hopes.

“I hadn’t been expecting anything, you know,” Johnson said. “I didn’t even know some of these things existed … so that makes it that much better for me.”

The first spark of inspiration came to Johnson nearly seven years ago, but it took her a few years to start writing in earnest.

“When I started thinking about it, it was just about Jamal, the older brother of Tracy, the main character,” Johnson said.

But as time went on, she said, and the conversation around Black Lives Matter became very focused on young Black men, she was moved to broaden that perspective to include more of their families.

“Like many young people, I wanted to change the world and make a big impact,” she said, explaining how all of that drive and youthful enthusiasm worked together to build the brand of literary activism that she has begun to craft.

“It’s probably the most powerful form of activism that I’ve ever engaged in,” she said, explaining how, in some ways, this project has surpassed the work she has been able to do in higher education.

“(I’m) reaching so many people now, and the conversation is happening all across the country. It’s been quite a journey, but I feel like I landed in a place in the discussion with a background that I think can advance the conversation.”

As a teenager, Johnson struggled to find representation in literature.

“I loved to read, but it wasn’t until I was over 18 that I read a book by a Black writer,” she said. “It was never something that I had access to or knew where to look for.”

And when she started writing her own work, she found herself being influenced more by listening to artists like Lauryn Hill than the authors she was reading in her English classes.

“To me, it was actually like poetry,” Johnson said. “It was so lyrical, it pierced your heart. I think it taught me because I memorized those words. And now when I feel like I’m in my writing groove, it feels like music to me.”

Today, she hopes that her work will inspire young writers of color in a way that she missed as a young person herself.

“They’re such an inspiration to me,” she said. “It’s about helping young people see themselves while hopefully reminding the not-so-young people that they can still do something.”

“This Is My America” is available at Wishing Tree Books; 10% of the book’s sale price will be donated to Spokane’s NAACP.

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