By Yolanda T. Marshall
Nadia L. Hohn is one of Canada’s most influential literary voices of Jamaican descent
Nadia L. Hohn is one of Canada’s most influential literary voices of Jamaican descent. An erudite educator and a multi-award winning writer of non-fiction, middle-grade, young adult, and picture books. I recall walking into a TD bank, and there on the big screen, the announcement of the 2021 TD Grade One Book Giveaway – it is “Malaika’s Costume”, a book representing our children of the Caribbean diaspora written by Nadia L. Hohn. Over 550,000 grade 1 students are receiving their copies this fall. An empowering sense of Caribbean pride tickled the widest smile on my face. It is an honour to conduct and share my interview with this exceptional author: –
What’re some of the most empowering things about writing stories representing the Caribbean diaspora?
“I love that I am adding to the body of Caribbean children’s literature and creating the kinds of books that I would have loved to have read as a child. I was born in Canada in the late 1970s and hadn’t visited Jamaica, the island of my parents’ birth, until I was 20. Growing up Black in the 1980s was challenging and it was hard to find books with characters who looked like me. If I did, they lived in the US and if they were Caribbean, they lived in England. I still read those books as a child however, when I found M. NourbeSe Philip’s young adult novel, Harriet’s Daughter, meant so much to me as an eleven-year-old. It was the first time I had seen Black and Caribbean girls living in Toronto with experiences that I could relate to. I love knowing that my books are helping our first and next generation Black Canadian children remember their roots and stay connected with the Caribbean. Lastly, it feels wonderful to know that my work is helping to open doors for other Caribbean children’s literature authors to get their books published and accepted more widely.”
What was your first reaction when it was announced that the title for the 2021 TD Grade One Book Giveaway is “Malaika’s Costume” and please share the importance of having over half a million of this book gifted Canadian Grade 1 students?
“When I got the e-mail about Malaika’s Costume being selected for the 2021 TD Grade One Book Giveaway in March, it may seem a little weird, but I wasn’t shocked or surprised… I kind of had a feeling for some time that something was going to happen for this book. Maybe it was because my late publisher, Sheila Barry (passed away in 2017), who acquired and edited Malaika’s Costume in 2013, told me she had a feeling this book would win a lot of awards and be “big”. I didn’t know how big she meant and so when Malaika’s Costume came out in 2016 and received many nominations but no major awards, I kind of thought that was it. So, I had only told my agent about the Giveaway and kept it secret.
When the news about the TD Giveaway was announced publicly in April 2021, this is when it really hit me, the magnitude of this award. That was a particularly busy day in which I had appointments, two book presentations for a festival in BC, deadlines, and I had skipped a meal (or two), but my social media was on fire. So, when I finally paused and reflected, I got a bit emotional.
Having taught Grade One at the Africentric Alternative School and written Malaika’s Costume while there, I had given my students those annual Grade One Giveaways books, with characters that did not reflect my students. So, I had dedicated Malaika’s Costume to these students. I imagined hundreds of thousands of kids all over Canada, plus their families, reading this story which reflected Caribbean culture and language, family history… I was also saddened that my late publisher Sheila Barry was not there to share the moment with me, my illustrator Irene Luxbacher, and the Groundwood team. I sat down to eat a meal and thanked God for the amazing privilege to share my story with so many across the country. I imagined Black and Caribbean kids feeling seen, as well as Asian students seeing themselves in the book. I felt the award was a win for picture book authors of colour in Canada.
What are you working on now?
I am completing my final year of a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph to hone my craft and learn more about creating in other forms, such as drama and adult fiction. Part of this program includes completing my MFA thesis which is a young adult romance novel. Soon, I will have a story published in the upcoming, 100+ Voices for Miss Lou anthology. I just completed my final draft of the fourth picture book in the Malaika series and now editing a middle grade anthology; both will be published in 2023. I’m revising another picture book based on a childhood experience which will be published in 2024. Plus, I’ve got other projects, writing related work, and soon teaching again. It’s a very busy schedule but I’m building a sustainable writing career and I’m living my childhood dream.