Interview with author Katia Novet Saint-Lot
by Janet Brown*
Globe-trotter and children's books writer Katia Novet Saint-Lot was born in Paris, France, "probably under a traveling star," as she puts it.
The daughter of a Spanish mother and a French father, Katia has always been a hungry reader and a global nomad. She has lived in many places, including London and New York, where she met her husband.
"After the birth of our first daughter, my husband's job [as a UNICEF worker] took us to Nigeria. I had traveled a lot, but Nigeria was different for me. We lived in Enugu, which was the capital of the short-lived Biafra Republic, in Igbo land. There wasn't much to do, there. Only one really bad Chinese restaurant. No movie theaters. Lots of power cuts. The phone only worked sporadically, same for Internet. Supplies were scarce. Once, there was no flour for almost two months. Another time, the whole town was without electricity for weeks. But our Kora loved it. She ran after red-headed lizards just like Amadi in the story, and she was mad that she could never catch them."
After living in Nigeria for over three years, Katia and her family moved to Hyderabad, South India, where they now live. She is the author of Amadis' Snowman (Tilbury House, 2008).
Your life has been a tapestry of living in many cultures—in France, Spain, England, the United States, Nigeria, India. How has this helped you as a writer?
This is an interesting question. How does life in general help and/or affect us as writers? I would say every experience shapes us, and what we are shows up inevitably in what we write. I could not have written Amadi’s story if I had not lived in Nigeria. On the other hand, it must be said that a life spent traveling or living in vastly different countries (even if I also find similarities from one to another) has made me slightly jaded. I’m so used to witnessing diverse ways of living, eating, dressing, even driving a car on the road (!) that it takes more and more to surprise me. I notice that particularly when we have guests. Some of the things that amaze them, I have come to view as part of my daily routine or panorama.
It’s been said that writing a picture book is as demanding as writing a poem. Each word must be precise, the use of language must be economical, and the images evocative. Longer forms of fiction can be more forgiving. Why did you choose this difficult form for Amadi’s Snowman? And would you choose it again?
I love the picture book format. I love the conversation between the art and the words on the page, how they are meant to complement each other. I think that writers who are also artists are very lucky to be able to experience this medium in its full beauty, and difficulty. Amadi came to me that way: it was a turning point in the life of a young boy, related to a particular instance, and something that needed to be resolved quickly. And yes, I have three other picture book manuscripts that I hope will find a home. Children love pictures. They love being able to suspend the flow of a story to examine an image, notice details, talk about the expression on the face of a character, the background, etc.
As a mother of two girls, why did you decide to write about a boy? Is there a “real-life” Amadi? How did you manage to enter the heart and mind of a small “Igbo man of Nigeria” and give him such complete life on the page?
There is no “real-life” Amadi, but there are lots of boys just like him. The problem of these boys dropping out of school to earn quick money in the street is very real. As for entering the heart and mind of Amadi, I think it’s the reverse. Amadi entered my own mind and started telling me his story. I just had to write it down.
The best picture books are the ones where the story and the illustrations blend into a seamless creation, which happens quite wonderfully in Amadi’s Snowman. Did you and Dimitrea Tokunbo communicate at all as your book came together or was this a lucky accident?
Dimitrea and I did not communicate at all during the illustration process. I think it depends largely on the illustrator and the editor. Some want some communication, others don’t. I was sent a scan of an early painting of Amadi, at the very beginning, and then, the dummy, which is the succession of drawings with the page breaks, and it was the only time I was able to formulate questions and concerns, again, going through the editor.
After reading about Amadi, I wanted to send picture books to him and his friends, and I’m sure that many of your readers feel the same way. How can people help to put books in the hands of children in Africa (and other places)?
I’m delighted that you’re asking that question. We will talk about sustainable library projects in Africa, during the blog tour, and we’ll even visit at least one, in Nigeria, maybe two more in other parts of the continent. I’ll be sure to post the necessary information, then.
Does Amadi continue to be a presence in your life? Do you think you might give him a sequel?
Amadi is still a presence in my life, but in a different way. He’s grown, somehow, as he started becoming a part of the lives of children who read his story and relate so strongly to him. So, I’ve let him go. At this point, I don’t think there will be a sequel, even though people keep asking me that question. But you know: never say never…
You have said on your blog that in some ways you didn’t leave Nigeria—or at least not in a way that would have given you closure. If you could relive that time in your life, how would you reconstruct your departure?
I wouldn’t only reconstruct the departure, I would try to do a lot of things differently. Arriving in Enugu with a 7 months old baby, after a life in Europe and the US was a real shock for me. I had done a lot of back-packing and budget traveling, but that was different. I was not prepared at all for… anything, really: the lack of supplies, the isolation, the mentality, the security issues. It was a lot to deal with on my own, with a small child, and my husband gone 12 to 14 hours a day, when he was not traveling. It is not easy to try and find the right balance, especially for people like me, who can very easily withdraw and spend days alone with books, a computer, writing or reading. But it was a good lesson.
Did living in Nigeria help you adjust to living in India?
Absolutely. It has been easier, because we can travel - and we have - all over India, and we haven’t had any of the security or supply issues that we had in Nigeria, but Nigeria made me realize the necessity to keep an open mind at ALL times, to try and have a more relaxed approach to things and life. People are late, say they will come and don’t show up, say they will do something, and don’t do it, say yes when they mean no, etc, etc. It still bothers me, at times, but there are days when I actually laugh about it, and most of all, it doesn’t drive me insane.
On your website, you mention “the moving bubble that I call home” which is also what your daughters call home. Although children can be more adaptable to new surroundings than adults are, what do you do to make your children’s transition from one culture to another as smooth an experience as possible?
I think that the fact that our own lives are a mixture of cultures means we don’t have to do that much, really. The French, Spanish, Haitian cultures live within us: it’s in the languages we speak, the food we eat, the music we listen to, the places we go to in the summer, etc. Then, there is the place where we land the bubble, as I say. And there also, we travel a lot. We went on a trip through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu when our little one was only 8 months and the older was 4, complete with the second class night-long train ride without which no Indian experience is complete, in my opinion. Kids are not bothered by all the needs and wants and prejudices that adults carry around, as long as the parents don’t carry these prejudices themselves, of course. The only thing I’m careful about is the preparation, when we leave a place for good. It must be very clear that we are going away for good, and we say good bye to everything and everyone, including trees, and birds, and animals, and places. That’s what I did with Kora, when we left Nigeria, four years ago, and that’s what I’ll do again, when we leave India.
What are some of the books that you have read to your daughters recently?
The little one is in a Dr Seuss phase. I think she loves the music of the rhymes, and how much fun they are. With the older one, we’ve been reading Roald Dahl, Charlotte’s Web, and a collection of French small comic books that address all sorts of issues faced by children in their everyday lives (kid doesn’t want to go to school, wants a cat or a dog, fights with brother or sister, get a bad grade, is in love, etc, etc. The series is called Max et Lili.)
Who are some of your favorite writers for children?
Ah, that’s such a difficult question. I love anything by Uma Krishnaswami, Jacqueline Woodson, and Peter Sis. Let’s see... Meg Rosoff, Kimberly Willis Holt, Christopher Paul Curtis, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Suzanne Fisher Staples, and so many more. I read Angel Blood by John Singleton, recently, and found it incredibly powerful.
What are you reading now that is not children’s literature?
I think the last one I read was a while ago, and that was Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. And a collection of essays titled Homelands, Women’s Journeys across Race, Place, and Time edited by Patricia Justine Tumang and Jenesha De Rivera. Oh, and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I have a pile waiting on my bedside with The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple, Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.
*Janet Brown is a writer, former bookseller, and PaperTigers blog contributor. She is the author of Tone Deaf in Bankok.
Posted December 2008
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