That Is Life
The Haitian Times Arts & Culture Mar 3-9,2004
The inspiration for Selavi, A Haitian Story of Hope (Cinco Puntos Press
17.95) by Youme Landowne came instantly. The Massachusetts born, Miami-raised, New York educated professional muralist was listening to a discussion about a Haitian children's radio station when she began to entertain the idea of writing a book about it. Her friends held a fundraiser for her and raised enough for her first trip to Haiti. From there, Selavi the book was born. The book is targeted to children in the elementary level, although with its lush watercolors, contemplative photography, poetic text, it can be enjoyed by older age groups. Its storyline follows a nameless little street urchin, who at the encouragement of another orphan names himself Selavi. Soon Selavi and his cohorts decide to build a house for children like themselves. Yet soon he faces opposition. The oppressors come in the form of three shades wearing, military regalia sporting men. Each member of the trio are painted in varying hues, with the black, mulatto and griffe all represented. It's been an issue in
children's books-particularly those targeted to Hispanics and Black Americans that villians often the darker skinned. Mention of a man who says:" We may be a single drop of water, but
together we can make a mighty river" makes clear that this story is taking place around the Namphy-Avril era, but its theme is certainly timeless: despite the efforts of many stray children is an epidemic in Haiti. Landowne says that she wrote the book mainly to fight the hero myth-the illogically-impossible-according to her perception that a hero works alone.
HT:You are writing an autobiography and you're on the first chapter after the epilogue where you trace your beginnings...
YL: I grew up climbing trees, swimming in the ocean and living through stories. I traveled the world and beyond by reading and drawing. When in high school I heard Derek Walcott's "I had a colonial education, so either I am nobody or I am a nation," and I thought I had an environmental(colonial) education, I am half nobody and half of all creation. My given name allowed me to recognize the influence and importance of others. We just do not exist without one another;I am a product of not only the time and place I came into the world, but also of all who came before.
HT: Tell us about your book Selavi.
YL:Selavi is based on a true story, but I do not consider it a biography. Inspired by stories I heard as a child,I was seeking to write a story with collectives heroes, that is to say where the charachters did not succeed on their own,but in collaboration with others so that the entire group succeeds. I went to Haiti to find out about Radyo Timoun and the young people whose voices were being broadcast. I thought of the old saying,Children should be seen and not heard." and contrasted that with my own experience, and knowledge, that children should be seen AND heard. How could I do my part in listening to and support their voices?
HT: You illustrated Selavi as well?
YL: I wrote and illustrated Selavi because for me drawing,painting and writing are a unified activity, the story actually came to me first as a drawing. I understand visually before verbally. In this book the words are a sort of translation for the pictures...
I have to say that many, many people helped to develop the pictures and the words. You can see the influence of the children's artwork in the illustrations, and hopefully, you can hear words of the children in the text. When I began this project my primary debate with myself was whether to make the book direct interviews and child illustrated or show and tell the story by my own hand. In response to the question how can I do my part to listen to and support these voices, I saw that i had to enter into a relationship with the story that was actively creative rather than the distance of a more traditional documentary.
HT: Many balk at the idea of a non-black woman illustrating a book for the black populace.
YL: This book is designed for the place where all of us meet, all human beings have been children, and have known the power dynamics of childhood. Every culture,gender,economic difference meets in the commonality of adult-child relationships. All beings have this in common. Our experiences are very diverse. We have the responsibility to express our understanding. Never to silence others, and never to allow ourselves to be silenced. Selavi supports others telling of their own stories. I was shy as a child who found a community which supported my expression.(I was shy partly because I recognized inequities in society which i did not want to participate in). Selavi is my story too, because at its center is the experience of a shy child finding a community which supports expression. I chose the children's book genre because children's books are very transparent in that each is one of many, the more stories you hear the richer you will become-the more knowledge you seek the stronger you will be and the more diversity we find will both entertain and educate us.
As much as I created this book to celebrate Haitian culture and therefore as a gift to Haitian children and families-I also created it as a gift to those who know nothing, or have limited views of Haitian culture. I feel a necessity to educate non-haitians, because as someone not born in Haiti I have first hand experience of our ignorance-to be blunt. I am aware that we all have a great deal to learn from our shared history.
HT: You've spent time in Miami, which is increasingly equalling-if not surpassing New York as the Multicultural City.
YL: Miami-my ami, mezanmi your zanmi (my friend,your friend). Concentrations of cultural diversity exist to enrich and strengthen the human spirit. Lynton Kwesi Johnson writes of the factors which cause migration and immigration, saying something to the effect of, I am in your house because you made it impossible to stay in my own house. I was a child in Miami, its flora and fauna helped to teach me the values I abide by. It has only a thin layer of topsoil, but an abundance of plant life. It was a nourishing and fertile place to be a child.
HT: Currently you are involved with Groundswell?
YL: Groundswell Community Mural Project is a not-for-profit Brooklyn based organization that combines personal expression and community activism. The purpose of Groundswell's community murals is to organize and facilitate mural making projects designed and painted by under represented groups with a special focus on youth.
HT: There's a section in Selavi where you write, those (children) who could read and write, wrote stories and news reports. Some made songs telling of their experiences." Illiteracy in Haiti is still widespread then?
YL: There are various reports on the illiteracy rates in haiti. Not being able to read or write does not eliminate the voice of a person, and that is the point that I am making here. There are children too young to read and write who still have ideas and thoughts which deserve to be heard. It is by expression and recognition that we become literate-that we come to know ourselves and others. Literacy also exists in a context,if there are no books, how will we learn to read? We read people's faces.
HT: Can you describe the circumstances that led you to write Selavi?
YL: for a brief answer I would say - in the United States we have a poverty of historical awareness and storytelling is the best way I know to learn and to teach. It is prayer and song, it is connection and liberation, it honors the individual listening and at the same time dissolves the myth of isolation. I see the false dichotomy between U.S. policy towards Haitians and Cubans in Miami. I see the false dichotomy between Europe and africa, and I see the U.S. suffering from our ignorance of our origins. We all come from the same root, a real awareness of which might enable U.S. policy makers to stop attacking our parents and children in the middle east and here at home.
HT: There are many phrases of creole all over your book. Are you fluent?
YL:Map etidye. I am studying but I am not fluent. M-vle konpran kreyol paske m-konne,nou pa kapab tradui tout bagay. I am interested in what we cannot put into words and what we do not have words for.
HT:You lived in California at one point. Did you mingle or deal with the Haitian population in California? I attended a talk in Berkeley in 1996 with the Haitian community. Jennifer Cheek-Panteleon who is the American photographer whose photos are used to illustrate the addendum lives in California with her husband who is Haitian.
HT: Did you approach a publisher prior to writing the book or after?
YL: I made my first version of the story and took it to Haiti, to the kids in Port-Au-Prince. The story developed over the next few years as I worked here in New York. I took it to several publishers who felt it was not in their capacity to produce it. I received a great deal of support from friends and family, and finally found Cinco Puntos Press(http://www.cincopuntos.com), a bilingual publisher in Texas, whom i recognized because of their book La Historia de los Colores, A History of Colors by subcomandante Marcos and Si! Se puede!, Yes We Can! A children's story about unions in Los Angeles, because of these stories I trusted Selavi to them.
HT: How was your trip to Haiti?
YL:My three trips to Haiti have been amazing,epic and magical. Only too brief... In 1997 when I first arrived I noticed the stunning natural beauty and the commanalities. Having grown up in Miami, it felt very much like home,the plants ,the air, the diversity and the desire to love and be loved. returning, all of this became both clearer and more complicated.
HT: We understand you are donating a portion of the proceeds to Haiti.
YL: Yes,I created the book,as public art,to contribute to a dialogue of hope for Haiti/US world relations, not only with words, but also with attention,money and time. The only way to say it,is to say with love.
So far half of the money raised by the book has been distributed through the real TiFré on whom the character in the book is based to young people in Port-Au-Prince.
HT:Do you think there will be a time when children like the young TiFré won't exist?
YL:If you mean will the future bring us more like him, and by like him,you mean inspiring,dedicated, loving and brilliant children,yes the future will bring us more like him. If you mean all that and having to face devastating losses, yes the future will also bring. finally, the future contains also, the friends and resources to overcome all obstacles, this is the strength of hope and the lesson of nature.
Youme, an artist and activist, makes a powerful debut with this
true story of Port-au-Prince’s street children. As one of
many orphaned or homeless boys and girls in war-torn Haiti, Sélavi
(so named for a Kreyòl expression he uses, meaning “that’s
life”), ekes out an existence searching for scraps, doing
odd jobs and avoiding the military police. Youme’s experience
as a community muralist informs every picture—her work emits
a streetwise sense of lyricism and urgency. The palette darkens
with acts of violence, and lightens to reflect images of hope. In
one spread, the police stare out at readers while scenes of murder
and destruction are reflected in their black sunglasses; a motif
that incorporates tanks and broken hearts frames the image. Ultimately,
Sélavi succeeds in rallying a group of adults to build an
orphanage and, later, a radio station, from which a boy and his
compatriots advocate for their welfare (“We will write our
messages in the air where they cannot be painted out.”) The
book lays out the realities, however, explaining that the children
are plagued by political callousness even as “they continue
to struggle.” But the book’s animating belief that people
can come together as “a mighty river” of change and
caring is genuinely inspiring. Photographs from the actual orphanage
and an essay by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat make for a compelling
closing statement. Ages 5-up.
The street children of Haiti (abandoned because their families were
killed, their homes destroyed, or simply because there were too
many in their households) found each other on the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Through the story of a boy named Sélavi, readers learn of
a shelter for such children, built and destroyed and then built
again, of murals to spread the word, of a children’s radio
station, Radyo Timoun, where “We will write our messages in
the air where they cannot be painted out.” Beautiful illustrations
using watercolor, photographs, collage, and techniques like batik
make vivid Sélavi’s life. He and other are real, as
Danticat’s essay indicates, and their home and the radio station
may now be abandoned as Haiti surrenders to unrest. A strong message
of caring for the children and for each other rings through the
kinds of sorrows too many children face in the world. Picture book/nonfiction