Author Interview: Jane Kurtz on the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation, Memories of the Sun: Stories of Africa and America

Jane Kurtz was born in Portland, Oregon, largely raised in Maji, Ethiopia, and in fourth grade went to boarding school in Addis Ababa. She is the author of numerous books for children and educator resources. She returned to the United States for college and, among other adventures, lived through the 1997 Red River flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Jane now makes her home in Kansas and is a visiting faculty member at the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Learn more about Jane. Read a 2005 Cynsations author update with Jane.

You’ve published a lovely range of books for young readers, but today, let’s talk about your work related to Africa. Could you tell us about your ties Africa, why it resonates in your life and tales?

My childhood memories are anchored in East Africa. Ethiopia to be exact–although I also have powerful sensory connections with Egypt and the Sudan.

After World War II, Emperor Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia to find that a whole generation of educated Ethiopians had been killed during the Italian occupation. Until that moment, Ethiopia had fought off a series of invaders, from Ahmed Gran in 1543 to the Italian army defeated by King Menelik in 1896.

As the only African country that wasn’t colonized during the so-called “scramble for Africa,” it was once considered a beacon of hope for the continent. Now the emperor invited outsiders in–to invent a national airlines (Ethiopian Airlines), to give business advice, and to plant schools and hospitals. My parents packed up their four-year-old, two-year-old (me), and one-year-old girls and headed for the continent of Africa where they ended up working for 22 years. We visited the U.S. twice when I was a girl, but I never lived there until I came to Illinois for college.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about those years in Ethiopia because I just finished a new book that will come out in spring 2007: Jane Kurtz and You, part of a new series called The Author and You (Libraries Unlimited). In it, I wrote, “A two-year-old is stuck in the world of things, busy figuring out what can be done with them. She stacks 4-6 objects, scribbles with crayons, walks backwards, rolls a large ball, can turn the pages of a book. A two-year-old doesn’t ask, ‘Why are we moving to Ethiopia? Will we stay there forever? Does that mean we’re going to become Ethiopians?’ Those questions came later.”

Once in Ethiopia, my mother wrote to her mother every week. “Janie is still a character and the Dennis the Menace of the family, though she’s becoming a bit more dignified now at the advanced age of three,” she soon noted. Before too long, other letters record that I was “storming along” through books, loving learning to read.

In those years, I didn’t know much about the rest of Africa, except for Egypt where I spent a few weeks that seared themselves into my brain. My parents and younger siblings went to Kenya on vacation, but they left us in boarding school in Addis Ababa. As an adult, though, I’ve connected with teachers in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Botswana, Senegal, South Africa, and Ghana. I’ve also had lots of fascinating conversations with Ethiopians and other Africans who now have years of life in the United States tucked under their belts.

I’d like to focus on your work with other writers, both in the States and in Africa. But first could you offer a few related highlights from your own back-list titles?

I’d love to. My books set in Africa are these: Fire on the Mountain, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1994); Pulling the Lion’s Tail, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Simon & Schuster, 1995); Only a Pigeon, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1997); Trouble, illustrated by Durga Bernhard (Harcourt, 1997); The Storyteller’s Beads (Harcourt, 1998); Water Hole Waiting, illustrated by Lee Christiansen (Greenwillow, 2002); and Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot (Pleasant Company, 2003).

My books that are set in the United States with characters who’ve lived in Africa are: Faraway Home, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Harcourt, 2000); Jakarta Missing (Greenwillow, 2001); and In the Small, Small Night, illustrated by Rachel Isadora (Greenwillow, 2005). The Feverbird’s Claw (Greenwillow, 2004) is a fantasy novel that draws heavily on my experiences in Ethiopia. And I edited an anthology with short stories in three categories: Africa, Americans in Africa, and Africans in America.

You’re the anthologist behind a groundbreaking collection, Memories of the Sun: Stories of Africa and America (Greenwillow, 2003). What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I was invited to write a short story for an anthology about war [Shattered: Stories of Children and War (Knopf, 2002)]. The editor of that book, Jennifer Armstrong, was the one who suggested I consider editing a collection of short stories about Africa.

At first I resisted because I’d never done that before and because I didn’t want to take time from my own fiction writing. But the idea kept poking at me. I so often spoke in schools or at conferences where teachers talked about the common misconception that Africa is a country–not an enormous and diverse continent. People told me that schools need resources showing the reality of life in Africa today; that kids need to see more of Africa than the grim bits that make their way into newspapers and TV reports; that many middle schools include Africa in the curriculum and want to make that continent alive and interesting for their students. But they don’t have resources that can be brought in quickly and easily to help raise questions and offer insights.

I thought a short story collection written by Africans and Americans, reflecting their experiences, could have power. So I proposed the anthology to my editor at Greenwillow Books and argued that the time was right for it. Not only would social studies teachers use it, I said, but also English teachers who were interested in tapping short stories as a resource to help their students’ writing and reading comprehension skills. The answer was yes. If I would take a low advance, they would take the risk to publish the book.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

My editor and I were determined to find writers on the African continent. I reached out to International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). An IBBY member in South Africa put the word out via newsletter, and I began to get e-mail submissions from writers in Africa. I also sent letters to authors here in the United States. Many of them turned me down, but a few said yes. I was particularly interested in variety–I wanted stories from all over the continent–North, South, East, West–and I wanted funny stories and joyous stories as well as poignant and sad ones.

It took years. I got more submissions from South Africa than from any other place. North Africa proved prickly hard. An email announcement to members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators finally led me to two authors. Elsa Marston, whose husband is Lebanese and whose life had taken her to North Africa, contributed a short story. Lindsey Clark was a Peace Corps volunteer working in Morocco and writing evocative letters to friends and family. Her poem in Memories of Sun is her first book publication.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Some of the decisions were extremely difficult. Many submissions were from people writing in English as a second or third language. I had to do painful editor things– ask writers for multiple revisions, give suggestions that didn’t always work.

Sometimes I loved a story that my Greenwillow editor didn’t. Some stories that writers poured heart, emotion, and tricks of the writing trade into still ultimately didn’t end up in the anthology.

Monica Arac de Nyeko from Uganda wrote about what the experience was like for her: “‘October Sunrise’ was my first internationally published short story. I did not think it was going to get accepted for publication because the layers and layers of advice you read on the Internet about writing sometimes leave you so bleak and pessimistic about the whole writing and publishing experience that I am sure a few people decide they might not as well submit anything to be considered for publication.

“I finally did submit my story to be considered for the anthology, but so did a couple of my writing friends in Kampala. So you can imagine that when mine was the only accepted story, I felt I was in a bit of a difficult position with my friends who obviously imagined that a rejection slip for them meant that their writing must have been a little short.

“Before I thought of submitting ‘October Sunrise’ for Memories of Sun, I shared a draft of the story at our readers’ and writers’ club at the Uganda Women Writer’s Association (FEMRITE) during the Monday evening readings.

“I was scandalized when one of the club members said ‘the story squatted on the page and did not shift much.’ This was a time of learning what the other side of writing is after the story has been written and needs to get into print. That was also my first encounter with real criticism and the stark realization that, once a story was out there, there was nothing much you could do to avoid its being abused, misunderstood or being liked for all the reasons you did not intend, which therefore meant you should stop thinking about each story like your newborn baby because then you got terribly hurt when someone said your baby was squatting on a page and not shifting much. My friend has a name for that; ‘letting go’ she calls it.”

What advice do you have for budding anthologists? How strong is the market and why?

I’m tempted to be flip, and say don’t do it. Putting together the anthology was a finger-bending amount of work. To my delight the reviews were strong–three of them starred–and several organizations singled it out as a best book of the year.

But when I look at my bi-yearly accounting statements from HarperCollins, I’m always shocked that sales seem paltry. It’s a hard time for books that should have a strong support from teachers and librarians, who wake each morning to grim budget realities. No wonder publishers are feeling leery of books whose market might be mainly schools and libraries.

But I did learn a lot by putting on an editor’s hat, and I’m proud of the stories and their authors. I hear from readers who say I opened their eyes to Africa, and I remember my original dreams for this book and feel a surge of satisfaction that we actually did it.

To me it’s extremely important to hear voices from all over this earth, and short story collections are a perfect venue for that, especially if someone can show me ways to really get the books into the hands of readers.

As someone connected to both lands, why is it so critical that African and Africa-related literature be read by Americans?

A few weeks ago, I was on a bus in the state of Washington, eavesdropping on a conversation between two women. One was an adventure backpacker.

The other asked, “What about Africa?”

I leaned forward a little, listening.

“I’ve never had any interest,” the backpacker replied. “You’d never know when you were going to run into something terrifying.”

This woman had traveled in many of the world’s remote spots, but she thought of Africa as a place where she wouldn’t be able to find adventure without encountering horror around every corner. Anyone who has been in Africa knows that’s ludicrous. There’s heartbreak–and also beauty, hospitality, warmth, and joyous life force that pulses through people and communities.

So what to do? I had some experience myself, as a child, with feeling invisible. People have a powerful drive to be seen. And art is one way people are able to open their own or other people’s eyes. I’m sure that’s why so many readers told other readers about Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2003) and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossein (Riverhead Trade, 2003).

This reading shouldn’t be motivated by duty. It’s a pleasure to encounter a book or story that pulls us deeply into another person’s life.

I don’t demand that people pick up their backpacks go to Africa. Surely reading a story ought to be a risk most of us could take.

It’s important…because we have life-giving things to take from Africa and life-giving things to give. Everywhere I’ve traveled on that continent, educators, parents, and others have asked me, “How can we develop a reading culture in this country?”

When I was asked that question as part of a radio interview in Uganda, I thought about libraries. I thought about book publishing in the United States. I thought about books in classrooms. These are treasures we barely notice we have, but the knowledge of how to set such things up is something teachers and librarians (and other readers and writers) in the U.S. and Canada and Europe could be sharing with readers and writers the world over.

What are the challenges in making that happen?

Language is always one tough-cookie barrier and challenge, but the worldwide community of readers is pretty well-versed in English these days, so lots more communication is possible than people sometimes think.

I originally assumed that 9-11 would be a big spur to Americans to want to understand the rest of the world. Even if our only motivation is to feel safer, I thought, we’ll take steps away from our cozy isolation. Of course I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I still don’t really understand it, except maybe people are huddling and clinging ever more tightly to what they know.

Other sad realities? AIDS and war are disrupting traditional life in most African countries. I’ve heard from many people–including my friend Kofi from Ghana, whose stories form the core of In the Small Small Night–that stories are getting lost because children no longer sit at the feet of their grandparents and other storytellers. Many Africans want to get those stories written down.

Have you seen those challenges rise or fall over time, and in either case, why?

To me the world has become a little like Fruit Basket Upset, with apples oranges pears and bananas all plopped down next to each other. That makes connection easier–or it should. But we have to stretch. We can’t be so scared.

We have to recognize the truths that are at the heart of my novel, The Storytellers Beads: humans are unlimited in their ability to devise ways to say, “I don’t know you; you’re the stranger; and you probably do lots of weird and dangerous things.”

When life tumbles us together with people who make us wary, we’re often astonished. Africans who’ve spent decades–or longer–living in the United States and Canada and Europe are a huge resource for connection and so are all the Americans who love to travel even though their feet have to get up close and personal with the grungy floors of airports.

You’re involved in the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation (EBCEF). Could you clue us into what the foundation is all about and your role in it?

A big new opportunity all over Africa is tied to the community of readers and writers and teachers. In Ethiopia, for instance, there’s very little need to convince families of the importance of education or books. Villagers even in remote areas ask for schools. When some very basic rural schools were asked what they wanted, they said libraries. Little kids run up to tourists traveling outside of the capital and ask for pens. It isn’t a matter of planting motivation. It’s a matter of responding.

I would despair if I thought the only answer was to motivate the whole country to care more and reach out more, but librarians? Teachers? Professional writers of children’s books? Illustrators? That’s a community I believe in. So the resources encourage me: more ability to create books than has ever existed in the world before. More people interested in reading around the world than ever before. More people who see education as the answer and want us to help them get started. More people here thinking about the legacy they are going to leave the world.

EBCEF is a good example of what I’m talking about. Its founder, Yohannes Gebregeorgis, came to the United States as a political refugee. He’d been exposed to literature through the Peace Corps teachers in his village in Ethiopia, and held a book for the first time when he was 19. He says it changed his life forever.

At one point during his escape from Ethiopia to the Sudan, while scavenging for food and a way to stay alive, he considered Henri Charrière of Papillon, the prisoner of Devil’s Island.

Individuals can make a difference in this world, he thought. If he survived, he’d be one who would.

In 1996, Yohannes wrote an e-mail to me. He was introducing my books to Ethiopian American children in the Bay Area. But what about children in Ethiopia, many of them playing in muddy streets, wrapping plastic bags for balls, or selling packs of tissue 10 hours a day? He told me he wanted to start making books available for Ethiopian children. “I know you have great love for the country you grew up in,” he wrote, “and I want to ask you if you can join me in making this idea a reality.”

Right! I thought. What are two people like you and me going to do? But I committed to any tiny step that we could figure out.

Not until 2002 were we able to pull anything off. That year we published the first color picture book for Ethiopian children, a retelling of a folk tale in English and Amharic, Silly Mammo [scroll for information].

I was ready to pop the celebratory corks. Yohannes quit his job, took his life savings, and moved back to Ethiopia. That spring, in the bottom floor of the house he was renting, he opened the first free children’s library in Addis Ababa, a city of five million people. The staff recorded 40,000 visits from children the first year.

Two years later, Yohannes opened a rural reading room and started a donkey mobile library in the provincial capital near where he grew up. This year, the original library will have 60,000 visits from readers.

Yohannes’s plan is to open ten to twelve school libraries, five in government schools and the rest working with two NGOs, one that focuses on girls’ education and one that works with street children and the other poorest of the poor.

People say, “Wow. You’re doing something heroic.” All I did was say to myself, this is someone who needs to be supported. I didn’t think that opportunity would come around again in my lifetime, and I committed myself to telling the story and doing what I could.

Up until now we’ve been an all volunteer organization in the U.S. I’m the president of the board of directors. I talk about EBCEF everywhere I speak and have been astonished by the response.

Almost everything we’ve done has been supported through grassroots efforts: a small grant from Global Fund for Children, another from Presbyterian Women, donations from individuals, adoption groups, Ethiopian American organizations, churches, schools, and reading councils. Kansas Reading Association gathered about 25,000 children’s books in the last couple of years and raised the money to ship them. School children have made books to share with children in Ethiopia. Booksellers donate their time to sell copies of Silly Mammo and other books. The company that created the American Girl dolls donated hundreds of cartons of books from their Girls of Many Lands series, when it went out of print–including my book, Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot (Pleasant Company, 2003).

What’s the latest news with EBCEF?

This summer we brought Yohannes to the U.S. for the first time in three years to do planning with us and meet with supporters. A small group of us sat down together in San Francisco with a friend of mine, Richard Male, who has consulted with nonprofits for 35 years. He convinced us that our problems were not unusual–that most nonprofits started by idealistic committed volunteers eventually have to take steps to get bigger. Otherwise everyone burns out. With his encouragement, we decided to take some bold steps: hire a part-time employee here in the U.S., pay Yohannes full-time, raise money as if we believed that someday we could provide books on libraries for most of the children in Ethiopia.

Half the time I’m scared to death. Half the time I’m hopeful and excited. We’ve already brought on a couple of new board members and talked to new funders. Room to Read, a nonprofit in San Francisco, has given us a $20,000 challenge grant to publish new books in local languages. A Kansas Rotary club wants to start getting Rotarians involved in supporting EBCEF. Almost every week I get e-mails from people wondering what they can do to help.

How can we support EBCEF’s efforts?

I’m hoping there will be more groups that will raise money for us. A little money goes a long way. Schools have donated $83.00, for example–the money needed to keep Shola Children’s Library open for one day. Organizations have given $250, enough to buy local language books for one school library. We’re looking for a sponsor for this year’s Golden Kuraz award, given to the best children’s book published in Ethiopia. For big thinkers, $5000 will publish that many copies of a new book in an Ethiopian local language and English. One businessman gave $10,000 to cover the library’s rent. A teacher donated $4000 to help ship a new container of books to Ethiopia.

Writers and illustrators can donate the rights of their out-of-print books. (I did that with Pulling the Lions Tail, which will soon have a new English Amharic addition with illustrations by an Ethiopian illustrator.) Obviously some books are more suited to an Ethiopian audience than others. We want someone to gather art pieces and do an art auction for us. We’d like to pair Ethiopian illustrators with American writers and vice versa, even though we can’t pay much. People can donate design time, as illustrator Janie Bynum did with Silly Mammo. We’d like people to write articles for newsletters and magazines. Authors who speak schools might consider adding some PowerPoint slides about literacy around the world and letting schools know about EBCEF.

We need translators. We need teachers and librarians who will go to Ethiopia and share what they know about reading and books there. We need people with good ideas to raise the $20,000 match of operating money for the Room to Read grant. We need people to speak to their local civic groups and churches and tell our story.

As I’ve discovered, the main thing is to take a step. Go to our website: Buy a copy of Silly Mammo or Saba or Only a Pigeon via Downhome Books (follow the used book links, even though these books are new). Read a book set in Ethiopia. Be curious. Design a web link to us. Tell a friend about us. Stay hopeful and brave. And treasure the books and libraries in your life.

Cynsational Notes

In her quest to share more writing voices, Jane passes on these thoughts…

From Maretha Maartens, contributor to Memories of the Sun

“Being asked to submit a story about life in South Africa, was like being offered a tray of strawberries. Always when I think about strawberries, I smell them. I see them in my mind’s eye: plump, red, tantalizing, irresistible. No cream, no ice cream, no colorants, just sun-ripened strawberries. The analogy between strawberries and writing about South Africa (and Africa)? I love them both.

“To me both strawberries and Africa should be served without sweetened cream or artificial flavorants. Strawberries have an exquisite flavor; so has Africa. I can never get enough of either. Nobody has ever commissioned me to design a full page advertisement for fresh strawberries. But Jane Kurtz actually invited African authors to submit stories about Africa. Hours later I was smelling strawberries and writing the first paragraph of ‘The Homecoming.’

“As I was working on ‘The Homecoming,’ I wrote about things I know, things I use myself (like aloe juice to make mosquito bites stop itching or as a cure for old people’s venous ulcers), things I hear and touch and…eat. No T.V. documentary has ever inspired or done anything for my creative writing. Climbing mountains, swimming with dolphins and sipping terrible, horrible yeast beer in a shebeen in a Cape shanty town do that magic thing for me.

“So, in the recent past, did staying with four rural women in a mud house in Malawi. The gentlest of them was in the final stages of AIDS. She died three weeks after our wonderful time together. Making music on gong rocks (perfectly placed hollow rocks on which the San people make percussion music for trance dances), going deep, deep down into the earth with mineworkers, listening to the sounds of silence in the vast Karoo and being with real people…those are the triggers to writing.

“Africa makes me glad, sad, mad, scared and all the emotions in between. That’s why I want to live and walk and write and die in Africa.”

from Uko Bendi Udo, contributor to Memories of the Sun

“‘Soldiers of the Stone’ gave me the opportunity, through fiction, to introduce a troubled African teenager to a troubled American teenager. Their tense and potentially deadly interaction results in the realization by both that they share a lot in common. As an African writer resident in the U.S., I hope, through my writings, to introduce the human family to each other. Through such encounters I believe that stereotypes and idiosyncrasies can only crumble and understanding flourish.

“I write and read ceaselessly. I write mostly in my head, and when I’m ready, I put it all down on paper in long hand. I read ceaselessly because when I’m not reading a book I’m busy reading life. Yes, life. I like to people-watch and interact with the immediate culture around me.

“I’m now a proud papa of two precocious kids. Papahood is the toughest job you’ll ever love. I’ve curtailed my traveling and I have to steal time to write. However, through the writing and publishing of ‘Soldiers of the Stone,’ an old adage was reinforced: It’s the quality, not the quantity. Sorry, I have to go. Aniedo, my son, is playing engineer on my stereo!”