Sometimes I lie awake and worry. For hours and hours and hours. The moon often keeps me company, in her own solitary way. Last night she lit up a jug of flowers from my garden. And I could not help smiling.
I remembered that I live in a world of outrageous beauty, where loveliness keeps me company absolutely for free; all my problems are first-world problems, and all my worries are man-made worries. The world in fact is a beautiful place. And I can just stop worrying and go back to sleep.
I've just got back from the extraordinary Hay Festival in the UK. Hay is a literary festival that gathers together authors of some of the very best books in the world to do presentations to the public. This year Margaret Atwood was there, and Phillip Pullman, Rose Tremain and many many more, including ground breakers like Candice Braithwaite who are currently blowing people's minds.
Usually I gorge myself on events presented by novelists, getting inspired and amused by their own peculiar ways of getting the job of writing done, taking comfort in the fact that I am not alone, even though most of the time, I am alone.
This year I said my youngest son could choose the events we went to. I thought it would be all David Walliams and Derek Lundy. But no! He picked quantum mechanics, Ada Lovelace and the history of computer science, People vs Tech, and maths, maths, maths....
So I found myself sitting in events listening to questions like, "If some infinities are bigger than other infinities then are some zeros smaller than other zeros?" You know the feeling... when you don't even understand the question....?
But it was Hay, so it was a magical mystery tour of brilliance - even when I could not understand!
And when my mum took over going to events with him I got to hang out with some brilliant novelists.
Like Chibundu Onuzo (in the pic with me) who is one of Nigeria's most promising young novelists. She wrote the hilarious and heart rending novel "Welcome to Lagos" where a deserting soldier and a woman escaping an abusive marriage and a minister on the run with billions of stolen government money and a deluded BBC correspondent all end up in the same hide out in Lagos together. My country-o!
And Catherine Johnson who writes important and necessary historical novels for young teens with diverse heros that history overlooks.
And Candice Braithwaite who is audacious and outrageously inspiring.
And, of course, the audacious Candice Braithwaite of Make Motherhood Diverse who I took the world apart with and put it back together so it looked a little more like us. Which is - as Candice defines it BMW - Black Mother Woman.
And when the sheer brilliance of it all got too overwhelming... well, Hay is held in the green hills of Wales... so we just ran for cover in the trees!
It's been five years since I posted here. FIVE YEARS!! I've been mostly busy dreaming, and mothering, and writing... and posting a little on Facebook. I've written a lot of new books in these five years -
Three new Anna Hibiscus books complete the amazing 8 book series. Go Well Anna Hibiscus & Love from Anna Hibiscus & You're Amazing Anna Hibiscus (in that order).
I am so proud of these books, of their depth and their kindness. I can't quite believe that I wrote them.
The New York Times commented in January - "This joyful series... is a revelation."
The No.1 Car Spotter series is now complete as well - with 3 new books out in the UK -
The No.1 Car Spotter and the Broken Road
The No.1 Car Spotter Goes to School
The No.1 Car Spotter Fights the Factory
I'm proud of this series too. It's unique. Creating the voice of an uneducated clever boy who is so-called under privileged is so important to me. And to others as well, it seems, because the books have won awards such as "Notable Books for a Global Society" and "The Africana Notable Book Award".
Another two stunning picture books "Splash Anna Hibiscus!" and "Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus" have come out in the last five years.
Lauren Tobia's illustrations just get more and more joyful and bright and alive. Don't you think?
And last but not least, I've a brand new picture book called "Baby Goes To Market". It has new characters, and a new illustrator whose work is stunning.
"Baby Goes To Market" has been winning awards in the US - I'm so proud of it. It's out in the UK as well, and in French and Japanese. So look out for it wherever you go!
So you can see that I've been pretty busy, while I've been silent here. I hope that you've been delighted - or will be delighted - with what I have been doing!
I was lucky enough to be asked to participate in the Storymoja Hay Festival in Kenya this year. So lucky to have the opportunity to follow my books to East Africa and meet my young readers there. It was wonderful to experience a different part of the amazing continent of my birth and to share my stories with so many children there both rich and poor.
In the days coming up to the festival I visited orphanages and schools. There are so many children unable to attend the festival we decided to take the festival to them!
I was lucky enough to visit my No.1 charity, an SOS Children's Village in Nairobi. The standards there are high and the people so inspiring. House mothers make a commitment to bringing up at least one generation of orphans, 10 at a time, working 26 days on and 4 days off! Can you imagine?
I was also lucky enough to visit Mama Fatuma's, an orphangage for Muslim children on the Somalian side of town. There one man finds a way through thick and thin to provide a home and school for 80 children. (They are so much in my thoughts right now.)
The festival itself was WONDERFUL. Nearly 4 thousand children (!!!) attended and their questions at the end of each event came thick and fast. I will never forget one young girl who asked,
"Were you ever told to forget about your dreams? That dreams don't matter. That they never come true anyway?"
I felt so humble and so glad to be asked that question, and to answer:
"Yes, I was told that too. But look at me standing here. I am proof that it is not true."
Spending time with the other authors was another highlight. We laughed and talked late into the night. New ideas were born out of that laughter, new poems, new books, new collaborations. We spend days, weeks, months alone in front of our screens. Spending time with each other is like gold dust!
The third day of the festival was interrupted by the terrorist attack on the nearby Westgate shopping mall. The sound of explosions and the helicopters passing overhead silenced the presentations and performances. Our laughter turned into grief. Audiences' questions to incomprehension. And what we shared that night not creativity, it was terror. Were we all alive? We knew not.
Kofi Awoonor died that day. A great Ghanian poet attending the festival. You can read my tribute to him, and to the festival, here.
The grief went on and on for the remainder of my days in Nairobi, as the siege went on and on, and the festival organisers, and the whole city, struggled to cope with their responsibilities as well as their own personal grief. And part of that grief, shared by taxi-drivers and CEO's alike, was incomprehension. How could people do this? What makes people capable of killing unarmed civilians?
It is a question every war raises.
On my return from Nairobi, looking for comfort and a way to make a difference, I came across this you tube video. It gave me part of an answer to my own incomprehension.
And I found a poem by an old university friend who has sent me this excellent reading list on Kenyan and Somalian history and politics.
Well, my incomprehension lessened. But it did not exactly cheer me up about the state of the world. Or how I could make a difference.
Then few days ago I received the following email from a first-grade teacher in the US:
I just had to attempt to contact Atinuke. Last year we did author studies and we contacted (through letters, emails and skype) but this year I thought about doing a long study on just one author but go deeper into the text. And I chose the Anna Hibiscus series. Then it just worked out perfectly that a student moved into our class from Cameroon a few weeks ago! That is what caused me to share this with you!
That little boy is VERY shy and was actually lying about where he came from. He was embarrassed about his accent! But while I was reading to them I have seen such a change in him. The other students are constantly encouraging him to share his experiences. And today he actually ended up all but on my lap because he just could not get close enough to the words coming out of my mouth!
It is a small thing an email. But a huge encouragement to me. That I can make a the world a slightly easier, better place for one small person. It is enough. And right now that - and holding my own dear children close - is all I want to do.
A lovely review from the Bishop's Stortford College Festival of Literature published in the Herts And Essex Observer on Saturday 09 February 2013
Atinuke's world of African folk: so different to us, so dear to her
Once upon a time . . .’ in the most generic of fashions, Atinuke, to a packed lecture theatre, began something remarkable.
Nigerian-born storyteller Atinuke Photo: Ian Taylor
A Nigerian-born storyteller used to ‘sleeping rough and singing for her supper’, Atinuke has long transfixed her audiences with her mesmerising blend of African folk tales.
However, the best way to describe her intoxicating performance at the Bishop’s Stortford College Festival of Literature would be to call it a transportation – a vibrant and hilarious painting of a world so different from our own and so dear to its creator.
Atinuke’s Africa was a place of evil stepmothers, singing bones and love-sick suitors. And, like a chameleon, she morphed into the characters she spoke of – becoming a chieftain, an entire school of children, a beast with 152 tails and, my personal highlight, an uncannily accurate talking lizard complete with flicking tongue.
Through voice, song and gesture, Atinuke literally brought her stories to life, mesmerising her audience in the process.
Most striking, however, were the references to our own modern lives within the fables and lore of the African bush. A chieftain’s daughter desperate for an iPod and a father convinced ‘Nokia was a disease’ provided charming yet potent reflections on the chasm between rainy Bishop’s Stortford and the sun-drenched simplicity of the African savannah.
Atinuke’s performance was a tornado of colour and charm, transcending age and time. From the eldest to the youngest members of the audience, there was nothing but wide eyes and mesmerised faces – through voice, colour and humour, Atinuke made us all children again.
Claire Devine, 17, from Little Hallingbury, is a sixth-form student at Bishop’s Stortford College.
Some people are incredulous when I tell them that one of my little books can take a year to write....
The deadline for the sixth Anna Hibiscus book was March 2012.
So in January I went to Nigeria for Inspiration (and my beautiful father’s 70th birthday celebrations)... but before I got inspired there was a General Strike. Airports closed, flights were cancelled and roads were blocked by angry strikers. I had one of my children with me. The other was now on another continent with no easy way of getting back to him. I cried a lot, meditated a lot, and attempted to surrender. (A for effort, E for achievement.) I did not write AT ALL.
When I got back - a hairy-scary journey later - it seemed that I had only just caught my breath and it was time to go on tour! Because it was by now March. And March is is a very busy month for storytellers and authors. Every school wants an author on International World Book Day (or as close to as they can get one)!
I did mean to get down to writing as soon as March was over but the children were sick and off school with one thing and another.... And one of the great pleasures of working-from-home is being able to Be There For The Children... (When I am actually there that is!) It is a good time for reading aloud drafts - and there was plenty of that to be done because I am always working on more than one book at once. But children off school is not much good for the silence a new book requires.
By the time they were better it was the Festival Season. The Hay Festival, the Dinefwr Festival, The Edinburgh Festival. That is when I get to hear other authors talk about the crazy struggles and joys of writing (or meant-to-be-writing). I get to take the children along on such trips, but not much writing gets done!
And it was the Summer. With my children off school (again) and my daily bedtime stories for the Siblings Together camps. You can read about that below.
Then - at last - it was September. The boys went back to school. September is a very good time to write. I am always ripe and ready for some good solid quiet work after the noisy chaos of the summer months. And I was only 6 months late!!!
2 people that I really loved died. Breath in. Cry. Breath out. Cry more. Work does Not Matter.
Then my laptop broke. At that point I almost had a small nervous breakdown. I bought a new one. (Ouch!) That one was faulty. I had a nervous breakdown. A whole week of stressful cross and weepy phone calls passed before I got it replaced.
Just in time for October. October is Black History Month. If March is busy for authors and storytellers October is CRAZY busy for black authors and storytellers.
Then I wrote the book and sent it to my editor. Eventually I got encouraging noises from my editor. I reread it . And emailed both my agent and editor: “I am rewriting.”
There were words (not for the first time that year) about sticking to deadlines and respecting the schedules of publishers, editors, designers, and illustrators who would all (ideally) like to organise their working lives sweetly, without stress, and months of delay.
I was truly sorry. And truly stressed now myself. I was wrestling with the book. Or wrestling with myself, I am never sure which it is, but the more stressed I am the more the words and ideas just won’t come. It is suddenly not a pleasurable joy to sit at my desk and stare into the woods and let the ideas and words flow out of me. But the process becomes more like being pushed onto a stage and asked to pull a rabbit out of a hat. I know I did it last time. But I don’t know HOW I did it...... And certainly I can’t do it now.
When the week of my son’s 13th birthday came I gave up. I sat outside in the sun sewing bunting for his party. I decided that sewing in the sun was much more fun than writing. Which was lucky as I had obviously completely forgotten how to write....
I abandoned my desk. I gave up completely. “I am going to be a house wife.” I announced to my skeptical husband.
Then whilst I was dozing in bed one early morning, it came. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Effortlessly. And in one single perfect beautiful day “Go Well, Anna Hibiscus.” was written. In December 2012.
Did it take a year? Or did it take a day?
To be asked to participate in a festival on my own doorstep is one of my ideas of heaven. Not only do I get to do what I love to do for a living but I get to take my family along too!
My boys listen to almost every draft of every book I write. They listen to me rehearse for each storytelling performance and reading that I do. (Sometimes this is because they happen to be at home when I am working and our house is so small they can't help overhearing! But mostly it's because I need an audience to hear myself properly!)
But the boys still ask to come to my events - and I love it when I can say yes!
My 6 year old sits right at the front saying "Go on, mummy!" "Carry on, mummy!" "Another one, mummy!". (How can I help enjoying myself when that's happening?) My 13 year old now stands at the back trying to get whatever camera we have borrowed to work!
A few Sundays ago was one of those heavenly days. I did not have to get on a train and stay somewhere with an en-suite over night. No, I got to iron my dress in my own house and we all trooped off 20 minutes down the road to the PENfro Book Festival.
This is a lovely local, busy festival all about bookish things. The cafe is yummy, there are plenty of interesting stalls, and just the right number of talks! And - as we are local - it was also full of friends and family including some special favourites like The Carningli Press.
Most of my performances are far from home, and full of wonderful strangers. But it is heavenly to do a performance and see the faces of people who I stand outside the school gates with, faces of my in-laws, faces of my friends. Thank you PENfro!
I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August this year. And was even luckier to be accepted onto the outreach programme.
I went up to Edinburgh with my almost-13 year old son and we had fun! Edinburgh is a wonderful city and in festival season it becomes a celebration of music, dance, drama, books. We were mesmerised by Ben Okri, astounded by Michelle Paver, thrilled by Mother Africa, delighted by Debbie Galiori and..and..and..
As part of the outreach programme I gave a reading at the Sick Kid's Hospital in Edinburgh. There I got to meet a very special little boy. After telling stories in a playroom attached to a ward of rosy cheeked children I was asked if I would go and tell a story to somebody waiting on another ward. There I was introduced to a child too sick to sit up. The nurses asked me to be very careful when approaching his bed not to touch any of the many tubes and drains going in and out of his body. He told me with his fingers that he was four. I read him a story about Anna Hibiscus. And told him a story about why Tortoise made a magic drum. When I had finished (and was ready to go) he very carefully held up a book that had been tucked down the side of his pillow. It was Thomas the Tank Engine! Immediately I guessed that he had probably had been waiting and hoping for me to read that very book all along! So I did. I read Thomas the Tank Engine in the Sick Kid's Hospital in Edinburgh. I think I had been waiting for that moment all along too because it was the most special reading of my life!
For 14 delicious days at the beginning of August my laptop stayed closed. I did no writing, and no storytelling performances.
Yet it was disconcerting during those delicious days how often my legs wandered automatically over to my desk!
During those lazy days the rain rained a lot here in wild, wet, windy, west Wales but the sun also shone. And often both in one day.
Because my laptop was firmly closed a lot of time was spent outside both in sunshine and in rain, and mostly at the beach.
We walked and swam and picnicked, and kayaked and climbed, rock-pooled and paddled, and sometimes, I even got to read!
I am Atinuke. I am author of all the bright and beautiful children’s books shown here. I am also a traditional oral Nigerian storyteller.
All my books are set in Africa. And all the stories I tell as an oral storyteller originate in Africa too. There my roots go deep into the rich soil.