We are delighted to welcome Jessica Wilson, poet and author, to discuss her writing and the impetus behind and creation of her picture book Sofia the Dreamer and her Magical Afro and its creation.
My children’s poem-story Sofia the Dreamer and her Magical Afro, tumbled from me one afternoon like a remembered song. This magical-realism picture book is the winner of a GoFundMe award and seeks to unpick the politics, history, heroes and joy entangled within the tight coils of kinky hair. A Jamaican Rastafarian, African ancestor and Black Panther stepped into my imagination, unravelling their narratives in rhythmic rhyme. These were voices, like my own, which had been suppressed or not yet fully heard. The piece grew into a space where each character had their own solo; an ensemble of individuals relaying their stories, in their own words.
Aimed at 5-8 year olds, my fantasy poem is primarily a response to the continued under-representation of black children in literature. I recall feeling ostracized as a youngster by trite tales of snowfalls and apple-picking which lacked the cultural collisions of my domestic life: for example, Sunday roasts enlivened with plantain and our linguistic fluidity which slipped between patois and the Queen’s English. My mother sought out African American books for me, such as Half a Moon and One Whole Star and Alice Walker’s To Hell with Dying which featured protagonists I resembled and storylines bridging fantasy and the everyday; a realm where my mind already dwelt. Spotlighting characters with skin the colour of coco-tea whose faces were framed by billowing halos of afros, these looking-glass pages planted a sense of recognition and belonging within my young mind. My own books had already begun to bud.
Sofia the Dreamer and her Magical Afro also aspires to counteract the aching lack of black history taught within schools. I chose to publish this book in May rather than wait until October (Black History month) because I do not believe multicultural narratives should be sandwiched into a small section of the year: British history with its myriad threads of migration and colonialism is not a monologue, it is a colourful, polyglot, interweaving chorus. I want to encourage children to delve into theirs and others’ historical backgrounds and be inspired to share their stories. We need more dialogue about the multifaceted nature of our national identity in the mainstream.
Examining my origins was a catalyst in my poetry career: whilst I had written articles and reviews for many years, self-expression in verse-form sprung from an urgency to communicate my own cultural eclecticism. Being both Jamaican and British, I felt like an anomaly or, as I describe in my first collection,
“I am both yet neither and the hinterland between;
I am Usain Bolt taking tea with the queen.”
-The Bulldog and the Hummingbird
Poetry provided an apt, elastic vehicle to communicate the riddle of this hybridity. Within ‘reclamation’ which was shortlisted for an Aesthetica Award, I reconfigured the diaspora as a site of creativity, noting:
because our first names are at war with our last;
because we feel like flecks of dust
caught in a light stream between two closed windows.
because magic is dripping from our tongues
like the honeyed juice of overripe mangoes.”
Our roots, no matter how embattled, are a creative font we can tap into. By sharing the conflicts of my own legacy, I not only reconciled them but learnt to celebrate life at the interstices. Soon after, I was shortlisted for WriteNowLive, an exciting diversity initiative spearheaded by the BBC and Penguin Random House to find emerging literary talent in underrepresented communities. Recognising the need to amplify marginalised voices, I later founded Tallawah Publishing with the aim of supporting writers and artists of Caribbean and African descent.
I join many other Caribbean poets in my belief that it is our duty to rewrite our history and conserve our storytelling inheritance. It is my hope that by interweaving the ancestral past with the present, Sofia the Dreamer and her Magical Afro contributes in painting a richer, more diverse and promising literary future.
Sofia the Dreamer and her Magical Afro is available for purchase via Jessica Wilson’s website: http://www.jessica-wilson.com/buy-books/sofia-the-dreamer-and-her-magical-afro-by-jessica-wilson-paperback
The Bulldog and the Hummingbird will be available for preorder on 22nd June 2020 (the anniversary of Windrush) at www.tallawahpublishing.com