Caribbean-Canadian children's authors Itah Sadu and Nadia L. Hohn stand at opposite ends of their writing careers— Sadu about to publish her tenth picturebook, Greetings, Leroy, in May 2017 and Hohn still riding the wave of success from her debut picturebook, Malaika's Costume, released in early 2016. Both books are published by Groundwood Books, an independent Canadian children's book publisher, and both tug at the theme of immigration. Born to immigrant parents themselves, Sadu and Hohn inhabit a growing sphere of Canadian literary culture carved out largely by black women writers, many of them with Caribbean roots. They have both created black-owned spaces— a bookstore and a writers network— which serve as vital hubs for their communities. In the spirit of the authors salon, we asked them to dialogue without any planned topic or prompt and let us in on the conversation. Here's what they had to offer.
Itah Sadu: What is the coolest thing you have done in your career as an author?
Nadia Hohn: For me that would be organizing and traveling on my own book tour. I enjoyed connecting with people and made appearances or presentations at schools, libraries and bookstores in Ottawa, Toronto, Brampton, Montreal, New York City, Boston, Atlanta and London. I found and signed my books in bookstores in Miami and New Orleans, and even at the Eric Carle Picture Book Museum in Massachusetts.
It was all done on a shoestring budget and I had a great time staying at hostels, hotels, and relatives’ homes, traveling by plane, train and automobile, and vacationing too. It was also cool to see how Malaika’s Costume, my picturebook set in the Caribbean, written in “patois lite”, connected with readers cross-culturally and across age groups.
IS: Who were your favourite authors growing up?
NH: I didn’t really have one when I was young but I got into Laura Ingalls Wilder in my childhood years. In my teens I liked Rita Williams Garcia, Babysitters Club author Ann M. Martin, Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Rosa Guy and Walter Dean Myers
IS: What cultural influences do you bring to your work as a children's writer?
NH: Caribbean culture, music and language, as well as childhood interactions are all influence my writing. My personal mission is to ensure our histories do not get forgotten and this also comes out in my writing. In Canada, my identity is Jamaican yes, Caribbean yes, West African yes; it is hybridized, a pan-African-Caribbean if you will.
I grew up listening to reggae, ska, and rocksteady at home and eating curried chicken, oxtail, curried goat, soup on Saturday, and rice and peas. My childhood friend invited me to events at Our Lady of Good Counsel’s Caribbean Catholic Church where she attended. There, I ate pilau and macaroni pie and would watch her Trinidadian mom dance to soca and sing old calypsos.
I would marvel at how another friend with Guyanese parents was Black and her aunties Indian. Her mom once gave me sugar water when I skinned my knee. I would talk to my best friend’s Barbadian grandmother whom I had difficulty understanding at first, but years later I could grasp every word and cadence clearly. My friends were Grenadian, St. Lucian, Barbadian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, Guyanese, and of course many other ethnicities each with a different story, listening to their parents’ accents, different cooking smells in their homes, all of us growing up in Toronto.
Of course, attending and playing Mas’ in Caribana (Toronto’s annual Caribbean Carnival) had a large part to play in the backstory of Malaika’s Costume. The culture of Carnival in Trinidad was also a major influence. I have not yet been to Trinidad but would love to go. The poetry of Miss Lou and Jamaican proverbs, their musicality and cadences, all influence my writing of both stories and songs.
IS: Why children's literature? Have you considered writing for adults?
NH: My writing for adults is in the form of magazine and newspaper articles, and through my blog; however, I have been making picturebooks since I was a child. I also started writing novels in elementary school. I wrote about people who were the same age I was but now, stories often come to me that are for children. I feel a personal responsibility to teach, inspire and entertain children.
As a teacher at the Africentric School, although there was a great collection of books in the library, I found very few books that reflected my students who were Canadians of Caribbean and African descent. There was a lack of books about certain topics so I started writing some stories myself. I'm on a personal mission to write books that educate younger and future generations about Caribbean cultures and that expose them to stories from the African diaspora.
IS: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
NH: Keep writing. Find a community that is supportive, encourages you and gives you good feedback. Write about all kinds of things, including outside of your genre. Stretch yourself. Read. Never stop learning, take courses, go to conferences, meet other writers. Don’t give up (as clichéd as that sounds). Lastly, in the words of Toni Morrison, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
IS: How can writers of color impact the Canadian publishing industry?
NH: I think we can impact the industry both inside and outside. First, we must get our books published. We need to write great manuscripts and send them to publishers and work at our craft. We need to make sure we are at the decision-making table, so we need to get in there and work in the industry.
Writers of colour are highly underrepresented in the publishing industry but have a long history of independent (self) publishing and developing alternative presses of our own. In addition to these, I think we need to be “at the table” in mainstream publishing conversations in order to see a shift. Movements like We Need Diverse Books and publications like Anansesem are needed to increase the visibility of our work. We need to play a role in the acquisitions process and marketing like my Haitian-Canadian colleague Leonicka Valcius is doing, and hold others accountable to increase the publication of more diverse books.
IS: What motivates you? From where do you draw inspiration?
NH: From life and my students. They inspire me to write new stories. Seeing the joy that children get from stories and the inspiration I can share is so important. Sometimes it’s the character or the situations that influence me and also life. Life is full of pain but sometimes humour can be found there too. Learning about interesting people and hearing their stories makes me realize that they need to be shared.
IS: How has your teaching experience shaped your writing?
NH: Hugely. I get to spend every day, all day, with students. As an educator, I think a lot about the absence of our stories as people of colour and I worry that future generations of the African and Caribbean diaspora will forget our wisdom or histories. Sometimes, while teaching, I think up new stories or characters who are an amalgam of the children I know. Sometimes, stories come from the need to creatively teach something; but of course, with a picturebook, you can’t be so explicit or over the top with your teaching. Kids can smell that from a mile away. The story comes first above all, it has to be good, or else children won’t like it. They are pretty obvious about that too. The lessons are kind of sprinkled in.
IS: What is the current role of Sankofa Pen and what is your vision of the group?
NH: Sankofa’s Pen began as an idea that I had at the end of 2013 when I received two publishing contracts that I was about to sign. Even though I belonged to other writing organizations and groups, I felt the need to find and connect with other writers of colour who are focused on children and young adults, and writing about similar things. There was nothing like that at the time so I formed the African-Canadian Writers for Children and Young Adults (ACWCYA). My vision was to provide a support network and workshops and for it to be communal. I eventually changed the name to Sankofa’s Pen. We have a Facebook group.
IS: Name an emerging author we should be looking out for in the future?
NH: Hmmm… I am in touch with quite a few authors so I don’t want to just pick one. In kid lit in Canada, I am thrilled that there are more and more people of colour writing kid lit and in publishing. The number is small but growing. There are several self-published authors in the African diaspora whose books I love; however, I would like to see more first-generation Caribbeans (like myself) writing and publishing books. In terms of kid lit authors with Caribbean and Canadian roots, I am thinking of Simone Da Costa, Jennifer Mook-Sang, Nadine Chevolleau, Natasha Henry, Ann Marie Meyers, and Zetta Elliott who are all “killing it.” I would love to see more of their work now and I think they are doing really well. I hope I didn’t leave anyone out.
|Nadia L. Hohn (L) and Itah Sadu (R) at the launch of Malaika's Costume |
at Sadu's bookstore, A Different Booklist
Nadia Hohn: I know you are both Barbadian and Trinbagonian. What are your roots in the Caribbean?
IS: I am especially proud to say that my roots are in the beautiful country of Barbados, because 2016 marks Barbados’ 50th anniversary of independence. This shaped my formative and early years. My family understood the value of independence and what it represented.
NH: I’ve heard you attribute your earliest writing influences to the storytelling that took place around you while growing up. Can you tell us what that was like?
IS: My home in Barbados was in front of a sugar factory; can you imagine the “sweetness”? I lived across the street from the beach…endless pleasure. The rum shop was two doors away. The butcher was my neighbor. There was the mid-wife; the fisherman; Clem, the man who sold milk and had a donkey; Ms. Headley the seamstress; Ms. Gibbs who went to America; Ms. Griffith who had an accent. They all told stories and had stories of their own. There was the climbing of every fruit tree, freedom… these childhood memories have inspired my writing as well. A million stories to be found.
NH: What year did you migrate to Canada?
IS: Well, I was born in Canada. As a child, I was sent off to Barbados to be steeped in my grandparents’ love. There, I was educated in the ways of the culture. I was brought up with the knowledge that African-Caribbean people are people of excellence and are able to undertake any aspect of leadership. I returned to Canada in the early 70s.
NH: Who is the audience for the books you write?
IS: Everyone! In particular, children.
NH: Why was it important for you to open your bookstore, A Different Booklist?
IS: I believe I had that romantic desire to own a bookstore. Writers, I have learned, have a couple of desires in life. To write something down. To write poetry and get it published. To record family history. Me on the other hand, I bought a bookstore because someone sold me the idea at 11.00 pm at night. Now that’s a story.
NH: You have been an oral storyteller for many years. When and how did you decide to commit your stories to the written page?
IS: In 1986, the late Dr. Milton Phillips met me in the parking lot of Tropicana Community Services in Ontario. He said, “Young lady, you are great storyteller. Think ‘Dr. Seuss’ and write your stories down.” The rest is history. As Barbados’ national anthem states, “We write our names on history’s page with expectations great.”
NH: How does your Caribbean background/ancestry influence and come through in your writing?
IS: Reference points. The rhythm of the piece. I write through the lens of Caribbean people. I am Caribbean and I write what I know.
NH: You have a new book coming out in 2017. Can you please tell us about it?
IS: Greetings Leroy, which will be published by Groundwood Books, is a story about Roy, a boy from Jamaica, and his first day at school as an immigrant in Canada. The book references the artist whose music is played very second, every minute, every hour, everywhere, every day in the world. I mean Bob Marley of course.
NH: Where did the inspiration for the book come from?
IS: One evening after a book fair, a teacher came to the bookstore and said, “I look forward to a book on Bob Marley for my students. He was a great ambassador of peace.” I found it interesting that people from all walks of life are brought together by their shared love of Bob Marley, which is what happens in the book.
NH: Was it harder to get published after the first time?
IS: Sixth time, seventh time…it’s always hard. I welcome independent publishing and publishers. I thank the hip hop movement for leading the way in breaking this glass ceiling.
NH: Can you paint a picture of what it was like for you as a newcomer (and at one time you were also a publisher) to a Canadian literary landscape that was far less diverse and socially aware than now? How much has changed since then?
IS: I am less interested in looking back and more interested in where we are going with publishing and technology in Canada and the world. Will we continually seek permission to enter spaces or will we define new spaces and ways of doing things? The glass is full, not half-empty. This is the PR we have to debunk.
NH: Can you separate your art/your writing from your activism?
IS: I haven’t met such an artist yet.
Nadia L Hohn began writing, illustrating and making books at age five. She is the author of the Music and Media books in the Sankofa Series (Rubicon Publishing, 2015.) In 2014, she was awarded the Helen Issobel Sissons Canadian Children's Book Award for her picturebook manuscript, Malaika's Costume, which was published by Groundwood Books and won the 2015-2016 Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) Children's Literature Award. She has studied writing at the Highlights Foundation, Humber College School of Writers, George Brown College and Voices of our Nation (VONA). Le Costume de Malaika, the French translation of Malaika’s Costume, is due in January 2017 and the sequel, Malaika's Winter Carnival, is due in the fall of 2017. Presently, she is on leave from her Toronto public school teaching position and lives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) where she teaches early grades music.