Saturday, April 2, 2016
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
The first time I encountered writing by author Kekla Magoon, it was through her collaboration with Ilyasha Shabazz on X: A Novel, a YA novel based on Malcolm X's teenage years. X was a featured audiobook through Audiobook Sync last year, a program that pairs a YA and required reading title every week between May and August, and provides them free of charge for download. I enjoyed listening to X. It was an immediate story with language that was evocative of the time period - through the Great Depression and WWII. How It Went Down is the first novel I've read that is solely authored by Magoon.
How It Went Down balances the perspectives of eighteen characters who are somehow affected by the shooting death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson by a white man, Jack Franklin. In the Reader's Guide at the back of the novel, Magoon noted that she initially had written from about thirty viewpoint characters, but limited these to eighteen as the drafts progressed. While some of the characters witnessed the shooting, no two perspectives are alike, and media reports further distort the differing versions of events. The novel was very reminiscent of other multiple perspective books like Siobhan Vivian's The List - which is related by eight high school girls who appear on a list posted at their school - or Karen Hesse's Witness - a verse novel that explores racism in a Vermont town in 1924, and the ways the townspeople are implicated in one way or another. How It Went Down is very contemporary in terms of its focus, and Magoon has stated that is does have a "ripped from the headlines quality to it." She continues, "Tariq Johnson's fictional death certainly bears similarity to Trayvon Martin's real-life murder, as well as dozens of other wrongful or controversial shootings have have occurring in recent years."
The novel focuses largely on a handful of teenage characters who knew Tariq. There's Jennica, who witnesses the shooting and attempts to resuscitate Tariq using CPR. Tina is Tariq's younger sister, who has a developmental disability, and relates her observations in verse. Tyrell is Tariq's best friend, who worries Tariq has recently joined the Kings, the neighbourhood gang who has been trying to recruit him for years. Reverend Alabaster Sloan has been waiting for an opportunity to advance his political career, and Tariq's murder is the platform he chooses to stand on.
Magoon balances her character perspectives, and each voice is distinct from the others. The characters consistently interact with another as Magoon reveals their complicated relationships, background, and present contexts. How It Went Down is an incredibly powerful book, and I look forward to searching out Magoon's other novels.