We caught up with dynamic Australian author and illustrator Maxine Beneba Clarke to chat about her new book, When We Say Black Lives Matter. The brightly bold illustrations and uplifting story make this a book for all ages.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired to write this book when contemplating how to explain the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ to children of all ages an from all different backgrounds – including the young African diaspora kids in my extended family. My family live in many different places across the world, including America, England, Germany, Barbados and Australia. The idea was to try and create a text that could exist in any of those settings, but might mean slightly different things in different spaces.
Were you aware of this type of activism when you were a child?
I remember watching the ‘Don’t Celebrate ‘88’ marches in Sydney on television, and asking my parents what they were about, and the discussions that came out of that for me as a child were really valuable. I remember watching Nelson Mandela being released from prison as well, and seeing newspaper articles about it, but not quite understanding what apartheid was, and what he’d done ‘wrong’ to be locked up for so long. I think, particularly these days, when a lot of kids have access to different kinds of news online, kids are very aware of what’s happening in the world. We might think we’re shielding them by not talking to them directly about what they’re seeing and hearing, but I think the most important thing is to create a safe space in which for them to ask any questions and have discussions about things they might have seen or heard – it’s this space that When We Say Black Lives Matter aims to exist in.
The message of the Black Lives Matter movement is very clear, and yet it’s complex to explain to children. How did you find the starting point for this story?
My starting point for generating the text of the book really was a brain storm of just writing down everything the Black Lives Matter Movement might mean – joy, love, history, sorrow, celebration, equality, family, ancestry, despair, love, community, righting wrongs.
There is pain and sorrow in this story, but you also show joy and love. Was it hard to get the balance right?
I wanted to talk about the Black experience in a way that was honest, but not traumatising, simple but not condescending, and joyful, but not flippant. That balance was quite difficult to achieve.
The text of When We Say Black Lives Matter is actually a poem, and that poem went through several different incarnations before it hit the right notes for the book. I wanted to make sure that if the narrative went to a place of sorrow, either something in the illustrations would be comforting or beautiful, or the next line would be a line of power, joy or strength.
A portion of the sale of the book will be donated to The Indigenous Literacy Foundation. They have a wide range of amazing projects – which one is your favourite/resonates with you the most?
The work the ILF does is amazing. Their supply of books to remote communities or communities in need – particularly books written by Aboriginal authors, and/or written in language is an essential part of any project that strives to bring literacy to children and adults.
What medium do you work with for the illustrations? It looks like crayon…..
The illustrations were drawn with watercolour pencil, on heavily textured coloured cardstock, with two of the pages also featuring a collage element.
How did you learn to draw?
I’ve always drawn – in high school, I was one of those kids who hung out in the art block at lunchtime using up all of the supplies, and drawing angsty teen drawings that were probably quite terrible(!) At university, several decades ago, I studied Creative Writing and Law, but whenever we could take an elective, I would always somehow talk my way into a visual arts elective. It took several years to come up with the illustration style in When We Say Black Lives Matter, which had evolved from the style used in my first self-illustrated book, Fashionista, which uses the same materials and jewel-colours, but is slightly more collage-based. So I’d say really, as an illustrator, I’m self-taught. Lots of hits, and misses and more misses, and more hits.
What advice can you give to aspiring young writers and illustrators?
Try, try, and try again. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Your first version of something is unlikely to be the best version you do, or are able to do. With each book I’ve illustrated myself, there’s almost another two books worth of illustrations that didn’t make the final cut, for one reason or another! And read – I read so many picture books, even though I’m an adult. I examine what works with the text and picture and what I think doesn’t work, and sometimes even think about what I would do differently with the words or images.
With worldwide events causing disruption and anxiety for a number of reasons we feel rather lucky to live in Australia. But there is still so much more to be done in “the lucky country”. Can you share your vision for what a more inclusive society would look like in Australia?
To me, a more inclusive society means recognising Indigenous sovereignty in Australia, and making the wellbeing and self determination of First Nations people the country’s first priority. It means being guided by the wishes of the First People of the land, and striving to eradicate inequality in all its forms – whether that be gender discrimination, disability discrimination, racism or anything else. It means fair border and immigration policies. It means electing leaders who thrive on hope, and rise to challenges, as opposed to those who govern with the politics of fear and exclusion. It means looking out for each other, and looking after each other, and looking after the world we’ve been gifted. It means respect.
What can young people do to help fulfill your vision?
Young people can keep open minds and open hearts. They can learn about Black history, both in Australia and globally, and engage with the wrongs of the past. They can read widely, particularly works by Australian authors from different cultural backgrounds to theirs, and talk to their friends, teachers and parents about their vision for a better word, and what they might collectively be able to do, to bring that vision closer.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, and we hope your book makes a huge impact, inspiring discussion and change.