This week, I asked Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl some questions about her new picture book, Sleep Well, Siba and Saba. She talked about the challenges and joys of writing and the kinds of stories she wants to write about Africa. She also reveals something unexpected about her own dreams…
Congratulations on your first picture book, Sleep Well, Siba and Saba! What would you like your readers to know about you?
Thank you so much. I think one thing that I’d like readers to know is that I find writing painfully difficult, even though I write professionally (within the international NGO sector) and creatively.
What is Sleep Well, Siba and Saba about? What inspired you to write this story?
Sleep Well, Siba and Saba is in many ways about finding the beauty in the unknown, and even the unknowable. I like to think of Siba’s and Saba’s dreams in the book as special, inexplicable gifts they were given. The book is also about making space to dream–both literally and metaphorically. In a much broader context, the book is about expanding the notions of what life is like for ‘African’, in this case Ugandan, children. Often times children’s stories set in Africa focus on dearth–lack of water, lack of opportunity, lack of food. I wanted to focus on universal experiences like dreaming…. and losing things! I was inspired to write the story to create space for a broader narrative about the African/Ugandan experience. Also, I went through a stage in my life where I would dream things, and they would happen the very next day. I could not explain it and still cannot explain it. Finally, and most importantly, I was inspired to write the book so that I could capture a personally sentimental picture of Uganda that could be shared with my own children, namely my daughter, Nsaba.
What message do you hope children will glean from your story?
I think the message is simple: your dreams are powerful and they can be actualized.
You were born in the USA, worked in Uganda, and now live in South Africa. Can you tell us how these cross-cultural and multilingual experiences have shaped your outlook on life?
My experiences across continents and cultures have shaped my outlook primarily by reinforcing this notion that we are all living, breathing beings moving through this life together. Our connections are rich and often unexpected and our lives are deeply woven together. And as strange as this may sound, the frustrations that I have experienced in every single country that I have lived (with both people and place) have served to strengthen my affection for this wonderfully beautiful human experience we share. There is no perfect person, no perfect place, no perfect culture, no perfect life. We are bound together in that.
What are three things you think everyone should know about Uganda where Sleep Well, Siba and Saba is set?
Well, excuse my biases, but Uganda likely has the most delicious produce (fruits and veggies) on the planet. It is also delightfully verdant and since Ugandans love to have a good time – you will too if you visit the country!
What do you think of Sandra van Doorn’s illustrations for your book? Do you have a favorite illustration?
Sandra managed to capture my own dreams in her illustrations. That is to say, I wanted a magical feel about the book–in both sound and image. This was a dream of mine. Sandra conjured up a magical world that extended far beyond my own imagination. In short, her illustrations are remarkable. My favorite illustration is that of Siba and Saba losing their sweaters. In this one, it’s as though Sandra drew a scene out of my own life. When I saw the illustration, it felt like I was looking at a memory. Now imagine that.
We love the dreams of Siba and Saba. Can you share with us one of your dreams for the future?
I dream unabashedly of meeting Michelle Obama!
Your prose has a soothing rhythm that makes it a pleasure to read aloud. Can you tell us more about your writing style?
I find longer form writing very challenging (although I do plenty of it for work). I also don’t have very much to say, in general. When I do have something to say, I like to say it in as pithy a form as possible. For many years, I could only write poems (creatively). Given that, I think brevity and rhythm characterize my writing style.
Do you think it’s important that children have access to books that represent cultures other than their own?
Absolutely! I love the notion of books as both mirrors and windows. The window (seeing other cultures, places, experiences, etc.) is just as important as the mirror (seeing your own culture, place, experience, etc.). Imagine being five years old and having access to 10, 20, 30 different cultural experiences through literature. That level of enrichment and engagement is invaluable. Ideally a child has access to both–the window and the mirror. We need to see others and be seen.
And finally, can you give our aspiring authors any tips for their writing?
Get very clear about what you want to say (sometimes that may take years) and how you want it to make you and others feel. The ‘feel’ is the most important thing in my opinion. And then, proceed without caution.
Thank you, Nansubuga! You can buy a copy of Sleep Well, Siba and Saba here.
The second photo was taken at a Sleep Well, Siba and Saba storytime event at The Alligator’s Mouth bookshop.