Today World Kid Lit Co-Editor Johanna McCalmont talks to Afrofeminist writer and blogger Laura Nsafou about her picture book that was recently translated from French into English by Ros Schwartz (Tate Publishing), Fadya and the Song of the River. If you missed our review of Fadya and the Song of the River earlier in the week, you can catch up here.
Johanna McCalmont: Thanks for joining us on the World Kid Lit blog for Reading Africa Week. We’re excited to celebrate the launch of Fadya and the Song of the River, illustrated by Amélie-Anne Calmo & translated by Ros Schwartz (Tate, 2022). Would you like to start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you came to write this beautiful picture book?
LN: I was contacted by Lunii, an audiobook publisher, who called to ask if I would like to write twelve adventure stories set in Africa. It was perfect timing because I had already started to collect material from West African countries for my young adult novel, Nos Jours Brûlés. I’m a big reader of Afrofantasy and I noticed that most of the time the references used by English-speaking authors were inspired by English-speaking African cultures. It’s much easier to find Afrofantasy inspired by Nigerian, Ghanian or South African myths and beliefs. So I wrote twelve stories where Fadya and the Luminaries travel across West and Central African countries—and one of these adventures was Fadya and the Song of the River.
JM: Do you have particular readers in mind when you write?
LN: I think the first reader I have in mind is my younger self, to be honest. There’s always an urge to share a story I wish I’d been able to read when I was a child, an urge to find a poetic fantasy world that highlights the beauty of my diaspora.
JM: Is the story inspired by any specific legends from West Africa? The River Goddess, for example, feels like she could be similar to Mami Wata.
LN: Definitely! When I did my research for Nos Jours Brûlés, I worked on comparative mythology. I loved seeing how a lot of the female deities, such as Mami Wata, Iemanja, Oshun, Manmandlo, and Kambisi were similar—and how they differ due to various rituals in their original countries. The River Goddess comes from Kambisi, a water goddess known in Pointe-Noire, Congo. My father used to talk about her and I wanted to honour him through this character and her instrument.
JM: Fadya is such a vibrant, fearless character with a huge heart. How did you ‘meet’ her? Did she come to you fully formed? Was she inspired by someone you know?
LN: She came to me so easily! She’s probably one of my most joyful and vibrant characters. I was moved by her honest will to help, not only motivated by the promise of her golden tunic, but as someone who’s looking for her place in the community, in society.
JM: I love the illustrations: the colours, the sense of movement, the contrasts reflecting the different moods and emotions. Fadya, the Luminaries, the landscape and the River Goddess all seem to be brimming with so much life and energy! How much input did you have when it came to the illustrations? Did you know Amélie-Anne Calmo before you started working on the book? Does Fadya look like you had pictured her yourself?
LN: Thank you! I had actually already found Amélie-Anne’s portfolio on Instagram and tried to collaborate with her on another project, but we couldn’t find a publisher. So when Lunii asked me who could illustrate Fadya and the Song of the River, I thought about her colourful and vibrant art. Amélie-Anne did such a great job from the start that I didn’t feel the need to say anything about it. It was really natural.
JM: You recently attended the launch of Fadya and the Song of the River at the Tate. It looked like a fantastic event with lots of music and the chance to interact with the story. What was it like meeting your readers in London?
LN: It was very emotional. I never expected to be a writer, or to see my work translated into English and celebrated in a huge institution like the Tate. So when I went there, knowing that everything started with a legend my father had told me, and met all these families who came to listen to Fadya’s story, all these artists and the team who made this event what it was, it was hard to not cry a bit (laugh).
JM: That’s beautiful! It sounds like a very special day indeed. You also write YA and graphic novels, you’re such an all-rounder. Is it hard to transition between genres? Is your writing process different?
LN: I came to do it by chance, I’d say. I’ve always loved writing novels, but the first project I was asked to work on was a picture book, Comme un million de papillons noirs. So, for years, I’ve been known for my picture books, even though I found it easier to write a novel.
When my YA novel Nos Jours Brûlés finally came out, I thought “Why not try something else?” and wrote my first graphic novel. Each project started with trying things out, making adjustments, and allowing myself to be a beginner, over and over again—which is hard for Black women, because we usually struggle with perfectionism and imposter syndrome in a society that doesn’t allow us to fail. But I tried. I found the artists and the publishers who wanted to work with me, and voilà!
As for the process in itself, I think it’s about the voice and the image which come to my mind when I get an idea. If I have strong and colourful images coming along with the voices of my characters, I know it needs to be a picture book. If it’s only a character’s voice immersing me in another world or space, it’ll be a novel. If it feels like an animated movie with vivid scenery, with silences and movement, then it’ll be a graphic novel.
JM: What are you currently working on? Can we look forward to reading more of your work in English soon?
LN: I’m currently working on the last volume of my trilogy Nos Jours Brûlés and a scenario for a graphic novel. As for more of my books coming out in English, I’ve good hope that my graphic novel will be translated soon. I’m also preparing a little story for Instagram, written in English as well (you can find find me @mrsrootsbooks).
JM: Thank you for taking the time to share your passion with us and giving us a glimpse into how you created these beautiful stories for younger readers. I can’t wait to read more!
LN: Thank you so much for your questions!
Laura Nsafou, also known as Mrs Roots, is an Afrofeminist blogger and author. She reviews books from Afro literature and writes articles about Afrofeminism in France. Her different projects challenge anti-Blackness and seek for a fair representation of Black women in French culture. Founder of the Afrolab workshop, Laura is also the author of the eleven-times reprinted picture book Comme un million de papillons noirs (Like A Million Black Butterflies) published at Editions Cambourakis, as well as A mains nues (Editions Synapse), Le chemin de Jada (Jada’s Journey, Cambourakis), Fadya et le chant de la rivière (Lunii and Fadya and the Song of the River, Tate Publishing in the UK), La demeure du ciel (Cambourakis), Nos jours brûlés and book 2 in the series, Les Flammes ivoire (Albin Michel Jeunesse), as well as the graphic novel Amours croisées (Marabulles).
Johanna McCalmont was born in Northern Ireland and now lives in Brussels, Belgium where she works from French, German, Dutch and Italian. Her translations for children have been published by Blue Dot Kids Press. Her work has also been featured in the Los Angeles Review, Asymptote, Lunch Ticket and the European Literature Network. She loves connecting writers with audiences when interpreting at literary festivals and has a particular interest in African literature. Read more about her here.