Author Spotlight: Nadia L. Hohn

Author: Nadia L. Hohn

Book: Malaika’s Costume

What is your ethnicity? Black Canadian of Jamaican parents

Where are you from? Toronto, Canada

Was it a diverse community? Yes, Toronto is quite diverse.

Were you exposed to other cultures? Yes, I was exposed to a lot of other cultures (too many to name — Ghanaian, Jamaican, Guyanese, Trinidadian, Filipino, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Croatian, Lebanese, Indian, Irish, Hungarian, etc.) In my province, at the time, it was mandatory to study French from first until ninth grade. I did and continued until my final year of high school. I also attended an elementary school with a Heritage Language program, in this case Italian, which was optional. Being that it has always been my dream to travel and learn all of the languages in the world, I took Italian classes daily in addition to French. I attended Catholic schools so my religious diversity came when I was in high school as I was exposed to friends with Hindu or Muslim beliefs.

I had experienced prejudice and racism as well. Friends who said they did not want to/couldn’t be your friend because you are black. Friends who did not invite you over. Teachers who treated you different. When we first moved to our neighborhood, we were one of the first Black families on the block, there were a few strange incidents that took place at our house. It wasn’t until I got older and realized that not only were these kids perpetrating the prejudice immigrants or children of immigrants themselves but often this “prejudice” was inherited or reflected the mainstream’s racist ideology. I think my parents tried to instill in us positive Black self-esteem. We knew we were Black. We heard about Martin Luther King, Mandela, and Marcus Garvey.

What led you to authoring a children’s book? What were you doing before you wrote your book? I have been writing picture books since I was a child. I have always written and made books. I made picture books just for the fun of it (and for school assignments) when I was a child. As I got older, I attempted novels as well as writing for my high school newspaper, poetry, and entering a playwriting contest (which I lost). I continued writing for my university and community newspapers and even did an internship at Psychology Today magazine in New York City. Even though writing gave me so much joy, I did not quite know how to make a living from it. I pursued a career in teaching instead which I have been doing now for about thirteen years.

About 2009, during the summer before I started teaching at the Africentric Alternative School (Canada’s first publicly-funded Africentric school), I had an idea for a children’s book which I started writing. I also found that I was writing songs and rewriting history and biographies in language about such topics as shadism, emancipation, Black-First Nations alliances, Kwanzaa, for students that is fun, engaging, and age-appropriate. So in 2010, I enrolled in a writing for children course at George Brown Course offered in the evening and one course led to another and conferences and workshops and the rest is history. By the way, I still teach elementary school, I am a writer with a “day job”.

What was the inspiration for writing your book? I used to write stories and make books as a child. “The Greatest Carnival Ever” is one of the few books I still have that I both wrote and illustrated was for a project when I was in Grade 5. A book that featured on Reading Rainbow about Carnival in Monserrat also inspired me. I always loved the idea of a book culminating with a Carnival. Years later in the winter of 2010, I took a writing course at George Brown College with author Ted Staunton. He gave us a picture book assignment and this is when I wrote Malaika’s Costume. I was so excited about the details of the story. I have also played Mas’– which means I wore a costume and danced– in the Caribana parade, Toronto’s annual summer Caribbean Carnival, and loved the experience.

After Malaika’s Costume book was published, I started to read reviews of my book and what readers often saw was the story of immigration and globalization. Only then, did I realize how much I was influenced with what occurred in generations of family — patterns of migration to the US, UK, Canada, Cuba, and Panama — in which members left Jamaica for work to send money back home to help “make a better life” for their family members. Also, I wrote the book in what I call “patois lite” — which is very similar to how we speak in Jamaica and other islands. It’s specific enough language that you know it’s Caribbean yet it is broad enough that it is easily understood by all, even though some reviewers found it “challenging”.

Yet, from my own experience of doing readings, all children have no trouble understanding the story when I read it to them. I am glad the book is making people listen to another voice, accents, and worldview. Malaika would be considered a “barrel child” — a child whose is left in the care of a guardian (sometimes a family member or neighbor) while the parent is away working to send money and items back home until the family is reunited. This can take years. This theme of immigration and separation is Malaika’s story and is part of my families history like many other Caribbean people. The story is also largely influenced by Trinidad Carnival tradition with all of its characters and the backdrop of rural Jamaica, where my parents come from and I have visited.

Is there anything from your personal life that influenced the characters in the book? Yes, I refer to some of the connections to the immigration and “barrel children” experiences in my family history. I am a lot like Malaika. I don’t give up easily. I always try to find a way when it seems impossible. When people say I can’t do something, I usually enjoy proving them wrong. I am quite resourceful.

For example, I founded and ran a nationally touring film festival showcasing Black Canadian films on a shoestring budget for three years, which toured to 9 cities in 6 provinces across Canada. I had proven doubters wrong many times in that endeavor. When someone said I couldn’t get an internship working for a magazine in New York City and when they all turned me down, I thought, “Watch me.” With much effort, I found an internship.

Why do you think exposure to other cultures is important for young children? It gives them a sense of understanding, develops their emotional intelligence and empathy, broadens their worldview, and develops their character. It makes them better global citizens.

Why is representation of all colors and backgrounds important for children to see? Diversity in representation is very important. It helps to improve the self-esteem of children of color. It helps children to develop a positive understanding of people of diverse backgrounds. It helps to reduce prejudice.

What do you want children to get from reading this book? I want the to love themselves, others, understanding that they have agency in seemingly impossible situations. Children will also get a love of language as I write this story in what I call “patois lite” and Caribbean culture. Empathy for other children and people going through difficult circumstances,

Please visit my website for updates, kids’ activities, and I have a peacock naming contest going on!

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