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Matthew Dawkins

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Matthew Dawkins’s YA debut, Until We Break, explores artistic sacrifice, mental health, and personal growth

Watty Award–winning author and poet Matthew Dawkins has achieved more than 400,000 reads on Wattpad. This month, he releases his YA debut Until We Break (Wattpad Books), which follows Naomi Morgan as she re-examines her relationship with ballet after a serious injury forces her to stop practising. She befriends Saint, a street artist, who shows her a different approach to art.

What inspired this story?
Growing up, I was really invested in what it meant to be silent, what it meant to be loud, and what it meant to break away from all the ways that we know ourselves. I was always concerned with the man I was becoming: what values I wanted to stick to and what values I wanted to create for myself.

Naomi’s coming of age revolves around becoming the truest version of herself. She’s always loved ballet, but the institution that propels ballet has disrupted this love. How do we love things that hurt us? What does it mean to break away from who we think we are?

Part of Naomi’s journey involves grappling with grief over the death of her best friend, Jessica. She also reflects on how they became both friends and rivals because they were the only Black dancers at their school, and how her darker skin gave her a different experience of ballet. Why was it important to explore the difference in Naomi and Jessica’s skin tones?
As I was developing and writing a dark-skinned Black female character to lead my novel, I wanted my discussion of Blackness to be multi-faceted, especially since I come from Jamaica, where most people are Black. There’s so much discourse around Blackness, the different layers to the type of Blackness that’s “palatable,” and how we change the way we speak, look, and dress.

I wanted Naomi and Jessica’s relationship to be one where they’re both Black, but they express their Blackness in different ways, and some of it very much goes unspoken. I think that’s often the reality in the Black community, so their relationship was about me really wanting to explore and discuss the different layers in the community.

Saint takes Naomi to an abandoned museum of Black artifacts. He tells her, “We’ve always belonged here; we just didn’t know it … [This space is] one of the few things we have in this white town. Adding to it means keeping our legacy going.” What was going through your mind as you wrote that scene? What did you want to share?
For me, it was crucial for Naomi to face – in a way that she cannot ignore – her position and her reality in that white town and, more acutely, face and confront her Blackness. Growing up in a white town, having a white father, and being in a predominantly white art field like ballet, Naomi finds it difficult to take up space.

For Black people, it’s often a situation of, well, I’m the only Black person in this room or this town. But you’ve made it into that room in the first place. For that mere fact, you belong there.

I wanted to have this teaching moment where we see how belonging and the self isn’t something that can be restricted. I wanted Naomi – and all of us – to realize that we deserve to take up space, and no one can take that away from us.

How did you get into writing?
I was a reader first. After consuming so many stories, I knew I had a story I was passionate about. I had no followers, no platform whatsoever. But I had a schedule and about 12 chapters written and edited before I began posting on Wattpad.

I’m grateful for the practices that got me here. I loved my craft enough to share it with the internet, and also respected it enough to put in the work it required. I took myself seriously because I want to be taken seriously.

I’ve been lucky enough to read Caribbean authors who showed me we have a voice in global literature. We contribute our own stories and way of writing that’s special and deserves praise. Growing up, I almost never saw my own culture represented in stories. It’s important that Naomi is Jamaican. There’ll be Caribbean boys and girls reading this who can say, “I can be the main character. I deserve to be the protagonist.”

Any tips for other writers?
What we’re creating is art, and art is subjective. I guarantee there’s a space where you’re able to thrive, and that means you should be writing stories that make you truly, truly happy. Once you do that, you’ve already won.

This interview has been edited and condensed.