How ‘Chlorine Sky’ Author Mahogany L. Browne Grieves and Grows From Friendship Breakups

The poet and organizer reflects on writing, hoops, and relationships

Photo Illustration: Save As/Medium; Source: Jennie Bergqvist

Poet Mahogany L. Browne made her young adult novel debut in January with Chlorine Sky, a literary gift told in verse. Chock full of resonant Black girl childhood moments, Chlorine Sky is a coming-of-age story about the power and perils of a young friendship and the growing pains it takes to become self-aware and self-assured. We journey through it all with the book’s protagonist, Sky, a teen with mighty basketball skills trying to understand — and accept — who she is and who she is becoming as she experiences colorism and sexism. Whether you’re 14 or 40, it’s a novel that reminds us to not shrink ourselves in the relationships and spaces we navigate.

Browne, an Oakland-born, Brooklyn-based writer and organizer who is also known for her spirit-stirring performance poetry, opens up about the childhood experiences that shaped Chlorine Sky with ZORA. She also discusses the art of revision, grieving and growing from friendship breakups, and a possible screen adaption of Chlorine Sky.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ZORA: How vulnerable did you allow yourself to be in accessing your past memories of friendship while writing the book?

Mahogany L. Browne: I didn’t realize it was dirge work. I didn’t realize that until I had finished and I felt depleted. My body felt exhausted. After I turned in the last edit, I allowed myself to grieve. It felt like I was burying the ghost of who I thought I was. As a young person, I thought I was just kind of like a sucker. I was so easily manipulated. I was so naive. But, I realized that there was so much strength in that little girl. This book allowed me to really unwrap some of that fear of weakness and vulnerability and be okay with being this person now.

A memory I recovered, reflected in the book, is someone laughing at me at the pool and my best friend [doing nothing]. I remember being so devastated by her not having my back. But also, I realized how much of that echoed in the way I saw myself for years to come. So I made myself let go of those negative ideas and images that I thought of myself and held inside.

That sounds freeing.

Yeah, it felt freeing. It ain’t therapy, but it was close.

“For me, basketball taught me how to be the only woman in a room.”

I love that basketball is a big part of this book. What was the significance of basketball for young Mahogany?

I played in middle school, and I played pickup games for many years. It’s how I got off my grandmother’s front steps. She wouldn’t let me go to the park by myself, and she wouldn’t let me go hang out with my boy cousins. Basketball was my out. Once my uncle saw me playing, he told my grandmother, “She’s good. You should let her go play.” But what I learned, which comes up in the book, is how much resolve one has to have in a certain kind of body in a space that is not designed to ignore you but, with the laws of this patriarchal nature, is constantly trying to push you out of that space.

I love the basketball court for giving me language. It gave me language for how to move differently in a sport where I was told I didn’t belong, and I had to prove myself. So how do I just keep myself safe but still keep myself in the game? I feel like so many young girls are having those same conversations when we walk into spaces that are not known as safe spaces or when we’re working in environments that are controlled by other people and other narratives. For me, basketball taught me how to be the only woman in a room.

Who were some of your favorite basketball players back in the day and today?

Growing up, my brother told me, “This is who you like.” And I trusted him. So Magic Johnson, of course. Jordan, of course. I loved Lisa Leslie. She was so amazing. But if you asked me now, it’s definitely LeBron and Curry. Period.

Why was it important for you to publish Chlorine Sky as a novel in verse?

Because that is my love language. That’s the nucleus of all that I do. Poetry exists in every genre that I write, even when I’m writing articles for journalism. My editors used to get really upset. They were like, “Could you tone it down?” And I was like, “Why, it’s amazing!” So I find ways to sneak poetry into my everyday life. This felt like the perfect place to do it, not only because I’m a poet practicing for the last 20 years but because in a novel in verse, you don’t have to have resolution. You can be as fluid as possible. You can present this picture, and folks can study it, and they can walk away and answer it when they’re ready. And I wanted that kind of energy along with this kind of learning experience. I wanted those things to live beside each other.

What did you discover as you journeyed from the first draft to the final draft?

Altogether, I went through seven drafts before publishing. The early drafts of Chlorine Sky were too disjointed for me to feel comfortable giving this book to someone who’s never met me. That’s really the easiest way I can explain it, because it wasn’t the wrong way. It just wasn’t the way I wanted to be introduced to the world. I wanted to make sure that even if you didn’t agree with or believe what I was saying, the story was there. So I went to my friend Jason Reynolds, who’s known me for about a decade plus. He knows who I am as a poet. He understood my concerns about how you live on the page versus how you live on the stage and how to make those two synonymous.

How do you approach revision?

I love revision. That means that that first draft, I really kicked its butt. It’s out there. The revision is the tightening of the story. It’s adding foliage to the front yard. It’s opening the window curtains and seeing how the sun hits. And it’s dusting. It’s a lot of cleaning. I don’t mind that work. I’d rather do the revision work because that meant that I had a good thing I started.

I’m one of those persons that came from the journalist world, so I’m used to the red lines. Red lines means that your piece is still alive. What I find happening in the revision world is how many times we take for granted the generosity of an editor, the person helping you midwife your baby into the world safely. I do not take it for granted. I have a great editor at Crown. But I also have amazing friends who are editors and writers as well. They’re willing to give their time to me. They’ll call me on my thing. “You were lazy with this, sis. What are you doing?” And I want that. I would rather somebody tell me “That was a lazy metaphor” and really make me dig into my bag to be better, to be stronger.

“An amazing way to grieve a friendship, I’ve found, is to just honor that it’s over.”

In Chlorine Sky, Sky’s friendship with Lay Li is fraught with ambiguity, and then it dissolves. What’s your best guidance on how to grieve the end of a friendship?

I’m still working on it. People are like, “Oh, my gosh. Chlorine Sky happened eons ago.” I’m like, “It happened three years ago as well.” We are always losing friends. It happens. If you’re lucky, it doesn’t happen often. An amazing way to grieve a friendship, I’ve found, is to just honor that it’s over. Don’t play yourself into, “Well, I’m going to call, and we’re just going to be weird.” Or, “I’m going to pine after and think of all the reasons that I deserve to be mad at you.” Nah, just honor that it was a good thing. It was a great moment, and it’s over. It’s okay for it to be over.

How do you grow from a friendship breakup?

The growth is taking responsibility. We usually work from a space, “Well, it’s not my fault.” What I realized when one of my friendships ended was that I was attracted to the same kind of energy that I said I would not bring in my space again. It just has a different face. I had to really take note of what I was doing. Like “Why am I putting myself in a space to be around someone who will, whether they meant to or not, probably disappoint me?” I have to take responsibility for bringing anything into my space that I know is not good for me.

How do you tend to your friendships and hold space for space loved ones during the pandemic?

I do a really easy check-in, low stakes. “Are you good? How’s your heart?” That’s it. I try not to ask much more than that because I recognize that folks hold stress and anxiety differently. And if the pandemic didn’t do anything, I think it’s been a great reminder of how much of our humanity is looked over for an end goal, like a project. Like we’re working off of deadlines without ever thinking of the person with the pulse behind that deadline. So how do we extend a little more space? How do we make room and time for growth and hiccups. And “How’s your heart?” feels much more palpable and possible than “How are you?” or “How are you feeling?” Because most times, we don’t know how we’re feeling, right? But if you talk about the heart, the heart can be about the space you’re living in. It can be what you’re working on. It can be what you’re eating. It allows so much of your life to be represented in that one question.

What’s next for you and Chlorine Sky?

I’ve already finished YA novel number two, which is called Vinyl Moon. It is a part of the universe of Chlorine Sky. It is not a novel in verse. It’s a hybrid, takes on poetry and prose, text message, pigeon mail, whatever. All of it. It takes on all various forms of writing to tell the story of a character that y’all may remember. With Chlorine Sky, I am finishing up a television treatment. We have a great agent that I’m working with for the rights. I’m excited about this series that could live in our homes in the near future.

Rule breaker, champion of women and education, and recovering sports journalist.

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