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Nadia Hohn & Irene Luxbacher talk about the Malaika books

Irene: When you are writing, who are you trying to talk to?

Nadia: I love this question. When I am writing for children, I am mostly writing for “US (I am quoting author Kiese Laymon)... thechildren that did not see themselves represented in books, the child I was and still am.” Lately, I have been writing stories thatfeature Black children of Caribbean or specifically, Jamaican ancestry in Canada. When I was growing up, there was only one bookthat I saw like this and it was called Harriet's Daughter by Marlene Nourbese Philip. These were the 1980s and although I was 11years old when I found it in my school library, I knew that it was very special because it took place in Toronto and it featured BlackCaribbean girls like me. I had never read anything like it before (or since). I write also knowing that many others will learn aboutBlack history and experiences through my books and I take that very seriously. I am glad my books can be “windows, mirrors, andsliding doors” (Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop) into the world of Black and underrepresented stories.

Nadia: My question for you is, what was the moment that you knew you wanted to become an illustrator?

Irene: Great question! The honest answer is that there wasn't one "Big" moment when I knew I wanted to be a children's book illustrator. Instead, there were lots of little moments that kept leading me towards it. Being a children's book illustrator has taken me a long time to come around to. I started out studying painting and drawing and then teaching painting and drawing to kids, and from there I realized that illustrating lesson plans was a helpful skill to develop, so that my lessons could reach more kids in the form of art books. Once I had done that, my love of painting, and drawing blended together with my love of teaching and communicating ideas and stories to kids...From that point on, I was hooked. I love everything about illustration and (visual) storytelling. The depth, the sincerity, the accessibility, the beauty and especially the truth found within it. It's incredibly challenging! Far more challenging than I ever imagined when first starting out - which is probably why I can't seem to stop myself from trying to get better. I think about it and work at it every day because I love it so much! For me, working at my art is like trying to reveal little treasures hidden in my mind and heart. I'm so curious about whatwill be revealed that I can't stop looking.

Irene: How do you know when a story you've been working on is done? Nadia: I know a story is done when I feel a sense of completion and, for me, that completion is usually a specific emotion. True also, is if I am laughing while writing the story and in the telling or the read aloud, then the story is finished because it is stirring joy and humour. If I finish a story and I feel the sadness, anxiety, or loss of a character, that can also mean it’s finished, or at least it is getting very close to the heart of the story. Of course, a story needs to go through a rigorous editing process before publication, but the “main ingredients” should all be there. My critique group would probably say it's not done until I mention a food, and I would add to that music as well.

Nadia: One thing that drew me to your work is the intensity of colours, and the emotions I felt looking at it. Where does that come from?

Irene: I do love colour. I am far more at home surrounded by colours and shapes and textures than I am in the part of my brain that uses language to explain or articulate why that is. I think the use ofcolours in my art reflect my need to "tune in emotionally" to an idea or a story as a starting point. When we are held or hugged as infants or young children, we understand the feelings of caring coming from the person who is hugging us long before we know the word "love" or the name of the person that is expressing that love for us. Colour is primal in that way. It's experienced in a deep, essential place where no explanation is needed. Perhaps using painted, textured backgrounds as a starting point for my illustrations is my attempt at connecting emotionally to readers -- even if they are having difficulty relating to the story or can't yet read the words...

Irene: Do you ever wish you could go back into a time machine are re-write, add to, or edit a story from the past?

Nadia: No, I can't say that I have felt that way. I feel like my publishing journey has been full between 2013 when I knew that Malaika’s Costume and the Sankofa series would be books and now (2021) with my seventh book release (Malaika’s Surprise). Maybe more years down the road, I will have time to think and look back on what I would change. I feel pretty good about a picture book manuscript before I send it out to an editor. And by good, I mean that I feel like it is complete and whole which is why I think writing and editing my novel manuscripts is challenging. A novel has so many layers and there are so many parts I have been going back and re-writing which then affects the rest of the novel as a whole. It is such an involved process and perhaps this is why I have been working on the same ones for so many years. But come to think of it, there was one line in Malaika's Winter Carnival that I forgot had not been changed from my original... it was Grandma's use of Caribbean patois. I thought, 'Oh my gosh. I forgot that was in there. That sounds so Caribbean." Maybe almost too Caribbean, an insider’s phrase which I thought some readers would not understand. And yet, this Caribbeanness is what makes the Malaika stories special, this authenticity and clear use of Caribbean patois. I love it.

Nadia: The Malaika series features a Black Caribbean girl protagonist who is also an immigrant to Canada. As a white author, how was it illustrating a series whose culture and experiences are different than your own? What approach did you use? What did you learn?

Irene: As a white author/illustrator, it was challenging for me to know that I was being entrusted with visual content that would be based upon a Black Caribbean family. I was nervous about it. But Sheila Barry felt I had important aspects of the sentiment behind the story in common with you and Malaika. I was the daughter of a tailor who was also new to Canada. The feelings of being new to this country and having to make do with creative solutions to circumstances that sometimes left my family feeling somewhat like outsiders were real for my parents and me growing up. In hindsight, I recognize that my experiences feeling like an outsider (as a white person/family) were very different from someone’s experiences would be growing up as a Black person. I hope I handled your beautiful Malaika stories with respect and as much empathy and understanding as I was capable of as a white author/illustrator -- I hope. Going forward, I'll be watching you and your characters thrive and flourish, and be their ally as I adapt to making space for their voice and vision to shine. Being a good listener and observer is the greatest skill any artist/author/illustrator can possess... Being a good listener/observer and having the courage to change as a result of what you see and learn. That's what I think about when I reflect on having been the illustrator of the Malaika series during this tumultuous year. I hope I have the courage to change and make good on all that Malaika and her family have taught me.

Irene: Given that I'm probably one of your biggest fans, have you any tidbits on future projects to share? What's a dream project for you? Nadia: Why, thank you! I am working on completing my MFA in Creative Writing program which has been quite exciting. It is allowing me to write adult genres in fiction, non-fiction, and screenwriting. I am currently editing my middle grade novel manuscript. I also just signed a contract about an exciting anthology of sorts and awaiting a contract of another picture book. A dream project is to illustrate at least one of my picture books and I have a long list of 40+ titles/projects that I would love to see on a bookshelf one day— each one featuring diverse groups and underrepresented stories. I also want to adapt some of my stories into other media for the stage and screen.

Nadia: Same last question – Have you any tidbits on future projects to share? What’s a dream project for you? Irene: I’ve been taking a bit of a break this past year to listen and reflect. I’m fortunate in that the lockdown (although so painful – psychologically and emotionally) has forced me to do just that (despite having to balance homeschooling my son with work). SO much has happened to change how I see the world and my place in it. I do have a lovely dream project that I’m working on with a most wonderful Canadian Writer/Poet (to be published by Groundwood Books) - I’m afraid to even talk about it for fear it’s all a dream – Ha! But mostly, I’m working on some new stories of my own. For anyone who writes/paints or is new to writing/painting, I’ll say this, that for me, it doesn’t get easier. Finding the heart of what you’re trying to say is still such a challenging and arduous process. But, I keep getting up every morning to face the day and even when I struggle to find the words and images (and time!!), I wouldn’t trade it for anything.


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