At Canada’s Edge, Trails of American History

IMG_2422.JPG

Review copy courtesy of Groundwood Books

The Africville of this heartfelt and beautiful picture book no longer exists as it did for 150 years just north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. That community, largely consisting of the descendants of Black Loyalists migrating north after the American Revolutionary War and Black Refugees fleeing American slavery, was torn down in the 1960s and its inhabitants forcibly relocated. Few know that Halifax itself was built with the labor of enslaved people.

Africville’s history is the background and context for Shauntay Grant‘s lovingly crafted picture book, illustrated with Eva Campbell’s lustrous oil and pastels on a textured canvas background. The graininess of the canvas gives the characters shadowy edges, blurring the borders between past and present. Imagining the community as it must have been many years ago, the young narrator leads the reader through details of landscape and sensory experience, from hill to field to pond and to the ocean’s shore. Infused with the tenderness of family and community, conveying the sense of stories kept alive, the book simultaneously embraces today’s child reader.

Africville may no longer be the thriving town it once was, the book suggests, but feel the stubborn love that kept its stories alive. There is much to this history. The residents of the community paid taxes but got no services. A railway extension cut through the village, destroying several homes. But wait. The story also includes an admission of racism, an apology rendered by the Mayor of Halifax in 2010, a replica of the orginal church built to house a museum, part of a compensation deal. Lyrical and healing, this picture book offers a window into a little-known past and suggests it holds deep relevance to the present.

What might America look like, I wonder, if healing from the past’s wounds could ever be made a priority? What would that mean for America’s children of every color? Compensation? Apology? What a concept!

Writers Supporting Refugees in Canada

Writer and author of books for young readers  Robin Stevenson asked if I’d like to moderate a panel she’s putting together. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make that date, but the panel is in a cause that’s worth writing about and somehow it seems right to publish this post on September 11.Robin-Stevenson_event_08-30-18-Poster.jpg

20180606-20180606-_M8A1619.jpgI asked Robin to tell me more about her forthcoming event. Here is what she wrote:

Like many Canadians, I got involved in refugee sponsorship back in 2015, when the refugee crisis was headline news. Since that time, media interest has waned, but the number of refugees worldwide has continued to grow. Canadians have a unique opportunity to help: by joining with others to form sponsorship groups, we can help more refugees resettle in our communities. I’ve been a part of two groups sponsoring wonderful families who are now living here in Victoria, and I have started a third group—this one to sponsor an 18 year old girl who fled persecution in her country two years ago, and has been on her own as a refugee since. She is highly vulnerable in her current situation– we hope her case will be processed quickly so she can start a new phase of her life here in Victoria.

Part of the commitment of a sponsorship group is financial: the group commits to supporting the refugee for their first year in Canada. So we are fundraising. And because I am a writer who loves working with other writers, I am working with author and sponsorship group member Kari Jones to organize an event that combines our interest in refugee justice with our love for all things literary. It is called Pathways to Publication: Finding a Home for Your Children’s Book or Teen Novel, and it will take place Saturday October 27, in Esquimalt.

We will have two panels: one of successful authors— Susan Juby, Mahtab Narsimhan, Ria Voros and Laurie Elmquist–and one of professional editors of picture books, middle grade and young adult novels. There will be opportunities to ask questions and chat with the panelists. And there will be door prizes! You could even win the chance to get a chapter of your own manuscript critiqued by a published author.

Tickets are available on EventBrite. (link:  https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/pathways-to-publication-tickets-49233930010) I hope to see you there! And if you can’t come, but want to support this young refugee, please consider donating through our fundraising page. (link: https://chimp.net/groups/victoria-young-refugee-sponsorship-group) Every dollar gets us closer to our goal. Thanks so much!

And thank you, Robin, for those important thematic links of community and home–for writers, for the work they care about, and for these young people who have endured horrific circumstances and whose future now depends on the help and goodwill of strangers.

Arushi Raina on When Morning Comes

874626fe2e706d603eb600721a1466e0

Photo © Nidhi Raina

Meet Arushi Raina, Canadian author of When Morning Comes, a YA historical novel set in South Africa at the time of the Soweto student uprising. I had a chance to trade emails with Arushi about writing in multiple voices, fiction vs. life, and the power of the children’s and YA writing community.
[Uma] What made you choose to tell this story the way you did–in multiple voices, and aimed at young readers?
[Arushi] More often than not, these artistic choices emerge when I realize the story I want to tell, in a pretty organic, or intuitive way. Some of this choice traces back to my growing up in South Africa, living with the narrative instability of a place that had just come out of apartheid and the diverse, often conflicting perspectives that different racial groups, genders, had in South Africa in the late 1990s. I grew up in a time when South Africa, and its people were trying to make sense of what, indeed Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” would be, and what to make of this country’s traumatic past.
 
And so no story I could tell of South Africa, could have one “true” narrator. At every point Jack, Zanele, Thabo and Meena’s perspectives interact, conflict, and grow from eachother. The plot, if you look closely, is solely based on the characters interactions from eachother, and the tensions between their different perspectives.
whenmorningcomes[Uma] You have said about this book, “To make it real, emotionally, I needed to fictionalize it.” Tell me what that means to you—what power does fiction hold for you?
[Arushi] I learned about the Soweto Uprising in Grade 10 History class in Johannesburg. At that time, that was maybe what I needed, understanding the facts, the first hand accounts, trying to put the timeline together, connect it with our school visits into Soweto, the Apartheid Museum. At the same time, however, non-fiction can have the affect of distancing us from the story. We are concerned about facts and objectivity – but sometimes these aspects cannot be experienced or felt. We are not following the path of a living, breathing person, in the way we typically access non-fiction. There are some exceptions, of course. Fiction, though, is very freeing. I am not trying to stick to the facts, only, to be objective. Instead, I’m trying to hit on a far more difficult thing – the emotional truth of the story, of the different stories and points of view that are in this story. How can I come to this emotional truth, with the tools I have in my hands?
[Uma] Grade 10 history class. That’s quite a timeline. Thank you for sharing that.
[Arushi] Thank you so much, as a writer yourself, for showcasing and supporting other writers. Its a small but mighty world, and I so appreciate your time, thoughtfulness and perspective.
[Uma] It’s my delight! But your comment leads me to another question. Generally, in the marketplaces of the real world, we think in terms of competition. Businesses that produce similar good or services compete with one another. In some ways, of course, that is true of writing and publishing as well. But writing is also an art and it’s a solitary pursuit. We spend quite a lot of time, let’s face it, talking to imaginary people. We’re at the mercy of our own minds! In that context, what does that notion of community mean to you? How do we participate in our literary marketplaces while still viewing other writers as community rather than competition?
[Arushi] For me, one of the most magical things that happened when I got published, was getting to meet other writers, and experiencing the kindness and generosity of writers, particularly children’s writers. I cannot even count the number of authors who have shared so much of their time, and supported me through my debut year. Some shout outs would include: RJ Anderson, Robin Stevenson, Adwoa Badoe, Rachel Hartman.
What I realized, really early on, is that writers are the best support for writers. And there’s a business rationale for this too: we live in a world where the literary marketplace is shrinking and consolidating. There are now a smaller percentage of diehard readers who read a lot. There are fewer publishing houses. You realize very early (particularly if you’re with a small publishing house) that other writers are going to be your biggest supports, your encouragement, the ones that shout out your work. In this way, they draw their readers to your work.  As a collective of writers, we’re trying to get everyone to buy and read more books, not to compete for a reader’s specific attention. The advice I give to writers who haven’t published yet is to build that support system of writing friends early on.
[Uma] Very true. I’m grateful myself to my book collective. Good luck and good writing, Arushi Raina!

The Book of Small

IMG_0875When I told my friend and former VCFA colleague Sarah Ellis that I was moving to Victoria, she gave me a copy of The Book of Small by Emily Carr. In her introduction to this 2004 edition (the book was first published in 1942) Sarah writes:

One of Carr’s greatest accomplishments in The Book of Small lies in her ability to express the visceral and transcendent joy of a small child, “boiling over like the jam kettle.”

Of the city itself, Emily Carr wrote:

Victoria stood like a gawky girl, waiting, waiting to be a grown-up city.

I enjoyed my first reading of the book, its droll commentary and the clever device by which the writer fictionalizes her own life. But it has taken me some time to read it as a story map of a place I am learning to call home.

Now the landscape is starting to glimmer through for me. The nine o’clock gun at Esquimalt. Fort Street and James’ Bay and Dallas Road. They’re all still here but now that I know them a little better I can see glimpses of their past as well. Childhood perspectives on people and events give the book its sense of a deeply felt yet impulsive reaction to the world.

The house was the wide, sitting sort. Vines and creepers tied it down to the ground.

Passages like that allow The Book of Small to rise above its occasionally archaic viewpoint. A few chapters read awkwardly through a 21st century lens—“green little Chinese boys for servants…” Shuffling Chinamen and squatting Indians. The elusive Oriental. The sort of thing gets under my skin but I have learned to set it aside when I’m reading across the borders of time.

Her overall perceptions remain remarkably astute—now I see what she means by that little aside on the gawky city. A city with a small-town feel to it, still torn between past and present, and still, perhaps, waiting to be grown-up.

Interview With Karen Rivers

Karen Rivers is a friend and colleague, a neighbor, and a fellow writer who teaches. She is the author of The Girl in the Well is Me, which Kirkus, in a starred review, called “a brilliantly revealed, sometimes even funny, exploration of courage, the will to live, and the importance of being true to oneself.”

Here she is talking to me about her new YA novel from FSG, Before We Go Extinct. In praise of the book, the National Reading Campaign says:

Before We Go Extinct has no easy answers. Rivers’ characters are complex – sometimes cruel, and other times child-like in their innocence – and she does not condescend with a tidy conclusion that ties up all the plot threads.

Here’s Karen talking about the main character’s journey and the process of writing the novel.