Years after relocating to Maine, a former refugee co-writes a picture book based on his experiences

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OD Bonny and her family arrived in Maine in 2004 as refugees, after fleeing their home in South Sudan. This fall, Bonny is celebrating the release of a picture book he co-wrote with Maine author Terry Farish that draws heavily on Bonny’s culture and life story. “A Feast for Joseph”, illustrated by Ken Daley and published by Groundwood Books, came out this month.

The book tells the story of Joseph, who, like Bonny, is a member of the Acholi ethnicity of South Sudan and Uganda. Before coming to the United States, Joseph and his family travel through Kyangwali Refugee Camp in Uganda, where, in real life, Bonny lived with her family after fleeing South Sudan.

Once in the United States, Joseph faces loneliness and homesickness as he longs for the community, music, and food he left behind – and finds that celebrating his culture is a way to bring people together in his new home.

Joseph first appeared in “Joseph’s Big Ride,” a children’s book that Farish wrote herself. But Farish said the character of Joseph has evolved significantly as Bonny helps create a background rooted in Acholi culture.

“Every time OD and I worked on the story, Joseph turned into a boy who was very proud of [his] culture, ”said Farish. “Joseph loves the food, the music, his family, especially his grandmother who is still in Uganda. He wants to bring people together in the United States to love his Acholi food as well. “

Farish said the process of co-writing with Bonny was transformative, adding that “the book is richer and deeper for collaboration.” She said they wanted to tell a story of resilience, “not just for the kids who survived the war, but for the kids who didn’t so they could understand a little bit about the kids who didn’t. not themselves “.

Ari Snider

Joseph’s friend Whoosh, left, helps him adjust to his new home in the United States. Illustration by Ken Daley.

Journalist Ari Snider spoke to Bonny, who now lives in Omaha, Nebraska, about the importance of writing a story so similar to your own life.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Snider: How did you come up with the idea of ​​writing a book?

Bonny: This idea started when I first worked with Terry Farish. She wrote a novel for young adults called “The Good Braider”. And this is this girl who came from South Sudan. And so I wrote an original soundtrack for this book. And then after a little while she got in touch with me. And she told me that she had this idea to write a children’s storybook. And then, little by little, we started to develop the idea. And one of my things was to push the book to be multicultural. Not just to have it 100% in English. I put in a few Arabic words, and a few words from my language, Luo [spoken by the Acholi people]. A few Swahili words too.

The main reason I wanted to do this was because I was about to have a son at the time. I say to myself: “What do I want to teach my son when he grows up in the West, where he will not have the same knowledge that I had when I was in South Sudan and Uganda, growing up? in Africa ? “

Could you elaborate a bit on the importance of including words from other languages ​​in books, as well as references to specific Acholi foods and musical instruments?

The food really has to do with the fact that I can’t get the kind of food that I used to eat in Africa. So I missed it a lot and I’m sure my son will never have the same kind of food. Like I said, growing up in the West, I really want my son to have as much African influence as possible, and I feel like that’s one of the reasons I really have it. pushed into the book.

Even with the music, even the awal [a percussion gourd mentioned in the book], this instrument is specific to the Acholi tribe. As a musician, I really want my son to not only learn modern types of instruments, but also know, and if possible even play, African and Acholi instruments, because it’s so different.

To what extent is the character of Joseph based on your own experiences? Because there are a lot of parallels.

I remember that we [Bonny and Farish] were talking a few weeks before our last edits. And she said to me, “How about we bring Joseph from Kyangwali refugee camp?” And all of a sudden the light came on – looking at the book is like literally a reflection of my childhood. Joseph came here when he was much younger than me, but I can clearly see him going through what I have been through.

And so, how does it feel as a writer to watch this character who’s going through a lot of experiences that you’ve had?

He feels good. I almost feel like this book was written by another author about me, you know what I mean? As an author wrote a book about me growing up in Africa and coming to America at a young age and learning all of this. I can’t think of a word that can describe this feeling, to be honest, but it’s a great feeling. And it’s not just about me. I know a lot of children who come from different parts of the world, seeking refuge in the western world, not just here in the United States but everywhere. And I feel like this book touches their lives a bit too. So it’s not just about me, it’s just this general feeling about almost all children who leave their home countries and seek refuge in different places.

Have you ever read the book to your son?

Yes. My two year old still doesn’t fully understand the story, obviously, behind the book, but I’m reading it to him. And Whoosh [Joseph’s friend in the book] is his favorite character. So when I say “Whoosh” in the book, he loves it, he laughs so hard. But he obviously doesn’t understand the story behind this book yet, but I’m sure that as he gets older he will start to understand this.

The back cover of a children's book, with the phrase

Ari Snider

Bonny said it was a remarkable feeling to write a book that so closely reflects her own life story. Illustration by Ken Daley.


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