Terry Farish Reflects On What Good Intercultural Author Collaboration Looks Like

Author Terry Farish reflects on the collaboration process for A Feast for Joseph with writing partner OD Bonny and gets insights from other authors and illustrators who have also collaborated on children's books.

Terry Farish and OD Bonny, co-authors of A Feast for Joseph

Poet Matthew Rohrer said about collaboration, “if we were more honest about our listening and our observing, we’d admit that what we’re doing much of the time is collaborating.” Maybe I have been collaborating all my life because I was a reader, and the flow of novels became a part of my way of seeing, understanding, and later, writing.

I met OD Bonny in Portland, Maine, when I was recording oral histories of the South Sudanese community; OD was a really talented artist of traditional Acholi music and Afrobeat. But it wasn’t until years later that we decided to collaborate to write a picture book. We began writing a story about a small boy who resettles in the U.S. OD had moved from Maine to Omaha, Nebraska, so we texted story ideas. OD was a musician. Could we make a story with music?

OD was the child of Sudanese refugees who fled to Uganda. He grew up there, in the Kyangwali Refugee Camp. He was one of the many little kids pounding awals, the traditional Acholi drum made from a dried pumpkin, while mothers cooked at night. If he didn’t have an awal, he pounded tin cans. His dad was a drummer. There was always music.

I was nothing like OD. I was from a family of stonemasons, dressmakers, and soldiers. My great grandparents emigrated from Kenmare, Ireland, during the time of the potato famine. I grew up on potatoes. Most things I write, though, are about finding ways people might come together. I became fascinated with the process of collaboration.

Farish and Bonny: A Feast for Joseph

In the beginning, I had two characters: the South Sudanese boy and the Dominican girl upstairs. I was interested in their relationship as a way to build the story. OD centered the story around Joseph needing to honor his Acholi people. I brought my skill in building story. OD brought the Acholi heart. He brought language.

A picture book is like a poem, and in that way, every word has to work for the story. For instance, OD added the word Joseph’s grandmother would use for the legal document she needed so she could travel to the U.S.: the Arabic word waraga. “It just means paper,” OD said. “We just say we need the waraga.” Word by word, as the scenes built, the story gained that specificity of language, sometimes with words in Arabic, Luo, or Swahili, the vernacular of the camp. As the story grew, Joseph took kwon and dek ngor, traditional Acholi food, to school for lunch.

I love language, and I was loving this collaborative process. When our book, A Feast for Joseph, was finished, I began talking to some other writers for children who had cowritten books. What I found were vastly different kinds of collaborations, with different guiding practices.

Wildman, Armstrong, Davis, and Grillo: Privilege Revealed

Stephanie Wildman is the author of the picture book Brave in the Water and also of a scholarly text, Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America. Wildman, a white professor, wrote the latter in collaboration with Margalynne Armstrong, Adrienne D. Davis, and Trina Grillo, all professors of color. She offered a caution in cowriting across race:

“While my intentions are good, good intentions are not always enough to ensure that reinscription —even if unwittingly—of white privilege does not occur.” She said that collaboration across racial lines based on trust deepened their thinking in the book. “I really like the collaborative process,” Wildman said. “I think the end product is better for the collaborative effect.”

Latham and Waters: Can I Touch Your Hair?

Charles Waters and Irene Latham are coauthors of Can I Touch Your Hair?, the first of many of their books, including the forthcoming African Town, a YA novel in verse. Latham also cowrote The Cat Man of Aleppo with Karim Shamsi-Basha.

Latham describes herself as an introvert who finds her creative spirit living by the woods in rural Alabama. Waters, who lives in New York City, describes “a vat” of endless mass consumption of information that he works to tune out. He was shaped by making mistakes and learning from them, “learning to not be around people who wouldn’t take accountability for their own mistakes and learning to let that go.”

Latham and Waters both talk about the importance of recognizing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and believe equity arises from that. Latham says she is the big idea person, and Waters is very detail-oriented.

“What I have more trouble with,” Latham says, “is allowing the other person space to bring their ideas to the project. Sometimes I need to back off and give time and silence.” In African Town, it would be difficult to claim that one character was Waters’s and one character was Latham’s. When writing the story, “We got on a marathon phone call with our Google Doc open and just kept hammering away,” Latham said.

Faruqi and Shovan: A Place at the Table

Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan cowrote the middle grade novel A Place at the Table, about how friendship grows between a Pakistani girl and a Jewish girl. Shovan is Jewish and Faruqi is Pakistani American. Shovan brought emphasis to the writers’ own friendship. “Saadia and I made an agreement early on in the writing process: our friendship comes first,” she said. Faruqi and Shovan each write the first-person voice of characters Sara and Elizabeth.

Shovan described a scene that was hard to get just right, because the coauthors struggled with how friends would handle a situation of calling out racism. It’s a scene when Elizabeth and Sara are cooking. Elizabeth says, “We’re the perfect [kitchen] partners. I’m sugar. You’re spice.” Sara responds, “Why am I spice? That’s kind of racist.”

“Why is that racist? I only took sugar because I like to bake.” Elizabeth wonders why Sara is so defensive? Later Sara says, “It’s like I can’t cook without someone pointing out — you pointing out — that I’m exotic. I’m different. And you’re my friend.”

Shovan and Faruqi inhabit their characters. Neither the writers nor their characters pull away, but they seek to show what cross-cultural friendship can look like.

Hood and Sornhiran: Titan and the Wild Boars

A nonfiction picture book that offers a very different kind of cowriting model is Susan Hood’s and Pathana Sornhiran’s Titan and the Wild Boars: The True Cave Rescue of the Thai Soccer Team. Hood was born in Brooklyn, now lives in a small town in coastal Connecticut, and loves sailing in the Atlantic. Sornhiran, a journalist born in Bangkok who studied in London, was at the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand on June 23, 2018, reporting on the soccer team of 12 boys and their coach who were trapped inside.

“Pathana was reporting outside the cave,” Hood said. “For me, she was a crucial connection to what was happening on-site. I was trying to keep abreast of the worldwide reports about the different rescue plans, but they changed almost every day. So what was printed or aired on top-notch news sites was quickly obsolete…or just wrong. Pathana provided on-the-ground research, helped me sort through inaccurate translations, fact-checked the text and the art, and most importantly, conveyed the heart of the story, making sure it reflected a Thai sensibility. It was a joy to work with her in every way!”

Jaggar and Becker: Sprouting Wings

For 10 years, Louisa Jaggar researched the life of James Herman Banning as part of The Greatest Story Never Told, a nonprofit she cofounded to tell the stories of minority and women STEM heroes. With cowriter Shari Becker, she wrote Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States. They established from the first that Louisa, as the historical researcher, would have the final say. Nevertheless, there were issues to sort out. How did they work out differences?

“You talk and you talk and you talk and you talk and you talk some more,” Becker said. “We just hashed out everything. The beauty is that once you are on the same page, you don’t need to hash all this stuff out again. You move forward with deeper understanding for your writing partner.”

“We really work collaboratively,” Jaggar said. “We didn’t break up the text to write.” They met, or they stayed hours on the phone, and worked out scenes until they got them right. An early scene about getting from one place to another took too long to unfold for a picture book biography. Together they worked and cut the travel time to three images: “Going-to-town days meant crackers, peppermint, and pieces of licorice.”

Author/illustrator Ann Sibley O’Brien

Ann Sibley O’Brien is bilingual and bicultural, having grown up the daughter of white medical missionaries in South Korea. She speaks as a writer and illustrator of 36 multicultural books, an anti-racist educator, and a researcher on how picture books can enhance intercultural relationships

“When you decide to collaborate, you’re shifting your lens,” O’Brien said. “It’s not about you. Decisions have to be from the non-dominant culture. But, the story is its own thing.” Meaning, both collaborators, using their own strengths, have to be a friend to the story. “A white writer can’t give up their power as a storyteller and writer as they put away their power as a white person speaking English.”

O’Brien illustrated Moon Watchers by Reza Jalali and served as a writing advisor. She said, “Reza had defined the story. It was his home, his family. My voice was no longer the dominant one.” For A Path of Stars, which O’Brien wrote and illustrated, Vaensa and Peng Kem served as cultural advisors. If O’Brien had it to do again, she said, “I’d turn the volume way down on my ideas. If I’d spoken Khmer, the story I heard from them would be a different story. I would ask Vaensa and Peng, ‘What do you think should happen next?’ If I were writing today, we would be cowriters.”

Final Thoughts on Collaboration

Collaboration also asks a lot of us. It calls on white writers to be aware of when we are centering ourselves in a story that is not our story. It calls on us to be tolerant of our own confusion. It calls on us to contribute from our strengths for the sake of the book. It calls on us to be aware of when we need to be silent, wait, and learn.

This article itself is a collaboration. You’ve just read many voices that I brought together to explore the process. I couldn’t have written this article without them. We writers want to learn, and writing is one way in which we do. A deeper way to mine the questions that our books seek to answer might be for writers to collaborate across the many gaps that divide us.

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