Creating Callaloo from Scratch: Finding my Power through Self-Publishing
I never dreamed of becoming a writer or self-publishing a children’s book series. It may seem like my children’s brand Callaloo has been an overnight success but it has taken years of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, self-exploration and a relentless pursuit to leave my mark on the world.
My unique background has heavily influenced my work as a children’s book author. I spent years of study as a classically trained actress in New York and Los Angeles. As a child, I dreamt of performing on Broadway and in Hollywood, like many of my friends. But as I grew out of my adolescent dreams, I began to truly accept my path as not solely an actress but as an artist. Through creating my original work, I found power in my own creativity as a means to speak out against the world’s injustice and to leave a legacy far beyond my physical life. I’ve always had an incredible curiosity about the world, a passion for entrepreneurship, history and the arts. I never planned to become a writer or business owner, but it was inevitable.
My children’s media brand, Callaloo, which I began developing in 2011, promotes cultural literacy and social awareness for children ages 3-7 through books, animation, live performance, digital content and arts education. Callaloo, 100% owned and published by my company, Sepia Works, LLC, is a reflection of my identity, my academic and creative passions and a true reflection of the world as I see it. As a first-generation, Caribbean and African-American woman from Washington, DC, my identity has a played a large role in my work. Finding my voice through my craft has been challenging, rewarding and has taken time.
While in college, I experimented with directing plays and producing community events while pursuing a degree in Theater and African Studies, all of which would later play a major role in my creative and research methodologies. In graduate school, I shifted my focus to studying the politics of art-making and deepened my own practices as an artist-activist. Callaloo is a reflection of these focus areas. To understand how I came to writing and self-publishing, one has to understand my perspective as an artist, scholar, entrepreneur and activist.
In 2010, I completed my Masters in Arts Politics at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. For my thesis, I created a one-woman play called Girls! Girls? Girls. that I wrote and starred in. I was terrified, as this was my first original piece. But after six years of living in New York, balancing three jobs and constantly auditioning for demeaning acting roles, I made a decision to use my skills to do what I want.
For two years, I toured my one-woman show across the country, performing Off-Broadway, at schools, theaters, parks and even on the subway. My creative foundation is rooted in grassroots performance, which has deeply affected my perspective as a content creator. During this time in my life, I learned by doing and failing… failing a lot. Nevertheless, I had tremendous courage and belief in myself. It was the beginning of finding my power. By late 2011, I began working on my second play, mostly for the small fan base that supported my first play. This next play would change my life.
On a chilly evening in Lower Manhattan, I went to see a friend, Trinidadian trumpet player, Etienne Charles, perform jazz from his album Folklore. Etienne and his band brilliantly celebrated the richness of Trinidad and Tobago’s folklore. His music transported me back to my bedtime as a child, when my mom would tell me scary stories about Trinidad folk characters like the Soucouyant and Papa Bois. That night, my vision was ignited. I closed my eyes and saw the story of a Caribbean-American kid traveling back to his parents’ homeland of Trinidad to discover his purpose through his ancestral island. This was my story. That night, I knew I had a brilliant idea─ to create a story called Callaloo.
That year, I became obsessed with folklore, specifically African-Caribbean diaspora folklore and oral traditions. I also became increasingly intrigued by the lack of African diaspora stories in theater, literature and mainstream media. I studied the work of legendary animator, Walt Disney, who packaged European folk stories through animation. Disney did more than create cartoons; he created values and upheld European folklore for children to celebrate. Disney never did this for African diaspora folktales. As a trained artist and scholar, I had spent years studying the power of images in the classroom and now it was time to put these theories into practice. I knew what I envisioned with Callaloo had the power to influence future generations.
By 2012, I had independently assembled a small team in Los Angeles and New York City to produce the play, Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale. At our final Washington, DC performance, my high school friend and brilliant visual artist, Nabeeh Bilal, attended the show. He was so moved by the play that he approached me about developing Callaloo into a children’s book. I was surprised and taken aback by how deeply he connected with the story; I had to jump on this collaboration, as I too was inspired by his work. It was the perfect marriage of friendship, trust, respect and creativity. Soon after, we began adapting my play into our first children’s book.
We had no idea what we were doing but we were determined. The first logical step I took was to reach out to publishing companies and literary agents. They all rejected me. I was told I was an unknown writer, there was no audience for this work and Caribbean folktales would never sell. But I knew they were wrong. I knew so many children who could relate to growing up in a city with parents from another country, as this was my experience. Besides, I had faced so much rejection as an actress in New York City in my past that these rejections from publishers meant nothing to me. They actually fueled me.
|Photo credit: Chris Creese|
Once again, I headed back to researching, but this time, it was children’s books. I studied the works of Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers and the Grimm Brothers fairytales, and deepened my understanding of African diaspora mythology and folklore. On the business side, Nabeeh and I taught ourselves the nuts and bolts of self-publishing: formatting, editing, illustrating, producing, writing, directing, web developing, distributing and animating. We did it all, just the two of us. By January 2014, we had completed our first book.
My business partner and I operated in a space of not knowing and although it was frightening, it was also freeing, as it allowed us to truly create without limitations. It was truly a perfect mix of our individual talents, work ethic, drive and vision. Our goal was to produce our children’s book, but it quickly grew into something bigger. Because we self-published, we had full control of the marketing, distribution, production and direction of the Callaloo products.
We performed readings for free across the country and partnered with local businesses, literacy organizations and schools within our community. In our first year of production, we also began to produce film, animation and educational classroom tools. We even integrated hand rod puppets into our live performances. We were slowly creating a brand with black and brown children leading the narrative. Since 2013, we have self- published two books, produced an online web-series, developed an arts education classroom curriculum, partnered with major institutions like the Smithsonian Institute, Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy and Children’s National Medical Center, secured national distribution in all Barnes and Noble stores and sold thousands of books worldwide.
|Photo credit: James Jeter|
Self-publishing has taught me a lot and it has been no easy journey. The mistakes I’ve made have allowed me to grow, and to find my inner voice and power authentically. I have learned that writing is a craft and publishing is a business and creating a solid team is essential for your survival. In self-publishing, quality and professionalism means everything. Being an inclusive leader when there is no praise, and enduring long hours of re-writes and rehearsals while making tough decisions that affect the entire team, has been a learning process for me. My team began with just two, and now we have over twenty consultants, designers, animators, performers, musicians and educators who make Callaloo live everyday.
I hope my story encourages aspiring children’s book creators to take control of their voice. I’m proud I chose to self-publish. I would have never been able to find my power any other way.
I still dream of making it on Broadway and Hollywood one day; after all, I still have time to make it to the bright lights as writer, director and producer of Callaloo with my voice center stage.