As a group of Black writers, we thought it fitting to gather during Black History Month at the Toronto Public Library to reach out to our peers who are also crafting books and memoirs, poetry and other writings, and provide a space for us all to share the importance of writing cultural stories, and the importance of letting your personal experiences and perspectives shine through.
Our listing, via the Toronto Public Library read: "WRITING THE BLACK NARRATIVE: How To Tell Your Cultural Story // An interactive panel discussion with writers Stacey Ann Berry, Kamilah Haywood, Selwyn Jeffers, and Angelot Ndongmo, sharing experiences and strategies for writing culturally-specific narratives. Writers will also provide individual workshops and share tips and resources for starting, sustaining, and publishing writing projects in a variety of genres. Facilitated by Jameel Davis (Elevated Waves Publishing, Cleveland) and Stacey Marie Robinson (Kya Publishing, Toronto)."
With the combined efforts of the participants and the library's promotional efforts, we had over 30 registered attendees at the North York Central Library (5120 Yonge Street) on the afternoon of Saturday, February 2, 2019 to take part in this celebration of our culture, and session dedicated to stressing the importance of documenting our voices.
Dedicated to promoting kindness, understanding and hope, Ohio's own international author and speaker Jameel Davis is committed to sharing his story and empowering others with his motivational talks, inspiring poetry, and books.
Writer and communications specialist Stacey Marie Robinson, is passionate about documenting cultural stories, and she uses this hobby as a tool to fulfill dreams and explore life.
Angelot Ndongmo, a best-selling children's author, and instrumental part of the ongoing development of the Toronto Urban Book Expo was a fitting representative of children's books and communicating the importance of fostering self-love and self-reflection in children, through literature. The author of the Loving Me Series, her books have received international acclaim and places in the hearts of many as a bright and positive tool for cultural understanding.
Canadian urban fiction author Kamilah Haywood, writes stories about urban reality and isn't afraid to tackle uncomfortable issues like abuse within the prison system, and sex trafficking in Canada. Her latest novel "Diamond in the Rough: Part Two" was published through Kya Publishing, and is a gritty look at a fictional experience dealing with incarceration, mental health issues, as well as discrimination.
Also an urban fiction author, Selwyn Jeffers is a screenwriter, blogger, and poet from Toronto who has recently completed his first novel "The Vapours" that also addresses otherwise invisible subjects in Canadian literature. A story about a young man making his way through college, who also finds himself tied up with drugs and an unfortunate underworld of money and deceit: it's a familiar urban story written in familiar Toronto surroundings.
Stacey Ann Berry, an entrepreneur and writer of "Deeper Reflections of Life" is a published author and speaker who inspires her audiences to take a leap of faith, motivates them to make a difference, and helps them to ignite their inner talents. She is also an executive reporter for Soulful Image Magazine, has a column in Where Itz At Magazine, and writes for her blog, Resources for Youth.
THE PANEL DISCUSSION
Some of the questions included:
What do you think is the future of reading and writing for the Black urban community?
What are the upsides and downsides to being a Black author?
What is the toughest criticism given to you as a Black author?
How do you think you have evolved creatively?
Are there any marketing techniques you used that had an immediate impact on your sales figures?
What cultural value do you see in writing, reading, and storytelling?
When you develop your characters, do you already know who they are before you begin writing, or do you let them develop as you are writing?
Both informative and entertaining, with Jameel's leadership, the panelists had a chance to share their processes, their opinions, and also cultural observations through the two-hour discussion.
Kamilah defines the genre of "urban fiction" of a literary genre that take takes place in an urban setting, and explores diverse cultural backgrounds. She enjoys taking moments of history, and telling stories through character development and circumstance.
She enjoys writing and noted that her characters often develop themselves along the way: the journey itself is a process that is unpredictable, yet satisfying.
Kamilah sees the importance of capturing stories like her novel "Diamond in the Rough" and other urban fiction stories as cautionary tales, as a look into the life experiences of others, and as a way to project reality and alternative circumstances to those who may not already be familiar.
The premise of his book "The Vapours": Shawn "Banneker" Beckford is a young, handsome, charismatic business student. He uses his charm and social skills to make connections with all walks of life. His connections have led him to being in the middle of the drug trade. Shawn realizes that he's now the gatekeeper for Toronto's underworld. Will he graduate and become a successful businessman? Or will his deadly connections cause his demise?
Stacey was recognized as one of the 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women in 2016 and received a Role Model award from Diversity Advancement Network. She is also the recipient of the "Women of Courage - Young Leaders" award from the Endless Possibilities of Hope and Development Organization, and the "Outstanding Contribution to Student Experience" award from York University, Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.
Angelot developed her love for writing through storytelling with her sisters, growing up, as a form of entertainment and escapism. Also an avid reader, she always put reading hand-in-hand with writing, and enjoyed the experiences. Always eager to share her thoughts, Angelot frequently wrote introspective reviews about the books she had read, which caught the attention of others who encouraged her to begin to publish her own stories. Angelot began to consider taking her passion serious, and invested in a children's writing course at the University of Toronto. Encouraging the participants to take risks and chances, she said "don't be afraid to invest in your dream," suggesting that new writers talk with others, network, and ask questions.
Another tip from Angelot: let go of perfectionism! She said that the worst thing a writer can do is hold themselves back, and she encouraged those in attendance to walk boldly in the direction of their dreams. She has loved being an independently published writer, and enjoys the personal approach she can take to sharing and marketing her work.
Her dedication to writing stories for black children in particular came from her love for children, and how much she loved to see them empowered to love themselves just as they were. While reading children's stories as a child, she would often wonder why all of the "other" characters were having all the fun, with the black children often just an afterthought or side character. "I wanted our kids to love how they look; they need representation, and to be connected to the human experience," said Angelot.
ADVICE FROM THE AUTHORS
Stick to your vision!
Have a social media strategy!
Plan for the future!
Remember that with each new generation comes a new set of readers; spend the time to commit to ongoing marketing.
Attend networking events, workshops on public speaking, leadership seminars, and be open to different methods of obtaining information like setting up informational interviews, and interviewing other authors for their words of wisdom.
Be persistent, and don't take no for an answer!
Get out there and meet people; a lot of readers want to know about the author's personal story as well!
RESOURCES FROM THE LIBRARIAN
Elizabeth Lai, the librarian of the North York Central Branch also had a few words of advice to share with the attendees, and stressed that new authors should do their research and understand the titles and types of books (and content) that has already been published in their desired genre. She distributed a range of reference notes with links to Toronto Public Library databases and tools.
ANCESTRY DATABASE: Ancestry Library Edition (must be accessed from a library computer)
ACCESSING ARTICLES AND ONLINE RESEARCH: available for TPL cardholders here, from the Toronto Public Library website
UPCOMING ARTS PROGRAMMING AT NORTH YORK CENTRAL LIBRARY: additional events were also presented from Elizabeth, including the February 13 presentation about John Coltrane, the February 13 workshop on the Making of African Art in Contemporary Settings, and the Gumboots Dance presentation. .These and other cultural arts programs are listed on the North York Central page of the TPL website.
New connections were made, advice was shared, voices were heard, and all writers and participants present were able to leave the presentation with new information and inspiration to move forward with.
A special thanks was extended to the Toronto Public Library and all of the participating authors for their commitment to creating and executing this Kya Publishing and Elevated Waves event!
Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.