In ‘A Feast For Joseph,’ Set In Portland, Maine, A Boy Yearns For His Community
The picture book captures the longing a boy feels for his family and culture that he left behind in a Ugandan refugee camp.
A new picture book set in Portland, Maine tells the story of a family adjusting to their new life after moving to New England from East Africa. “A Feast For Joseph” focuses on a young boy who misses the food and energy of the refugee camp he and his mom left behind.
OD Bonny, a musician currently based in Nebraska and Terry Farish, an author and reporter at InDepthNH, wrote the book after Bonny wrote companion music for Farish’s 2012 novel, “The Good Braider.”
“And he was just a great friend to me when that book came out and he lent his music to it,” Farish said. “And we've stayed friends all these years.”
Joseph, the book’s main character, is partially based on Bonny’s experience moving to the United States after growing up in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda. Bonny and Joseph are also both Acholi, a tribe of people from Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda. In the book, Joseph, like Bonny in real life, misses his family, the food and the music in Kyangwali.
He and Farish spoke with NHPR Morning Edition host Rick Ganley about their collaboration and how Bonny’s experience settling in the U.S. inspired their book.
OD Bonny: I loved the refugee camp because that's where I grew up. I had so many friends and family. That was one of the biggest parts that I missed the most. I was leaving my family and the memories that I had growing up. But I was also excited coming to the country because America is a big deal in Africa. If anyone hears the name America, they're like, "Yup, that's where I want to go."
That was challenging because when I finally got to America, I was like, "Yikes, this is not what I thought. This is not what I envisioned growing up in Africa." Because I thought life was going to be so easy. I was going to get here and get along with so many people and be able to make friends so easily. Well, I was wrong.
It took me quite some time to make friends. Even the sports my friends played at the time when I came to this country was so different. The language was different, and even up to now, believe it or not, I'm still learning American English. There's some words that I can't pronounce. But that was the opposite of what I thought it was going to be.
Rick Ganley: Terry, can you tell us how you two became collaborators on this book?
Terry Farish: Well, it was just a great fortune for me to be able to collaborate with OD. We first met when I wrote an earlier book called "The Good Braider." And OD is a musician, and he wrote a rap song about Viola, who is a character in “The Good Braider.” He called it The Girl From Juba. And it had these lines, "Just a young girl who wanted to be free/ But because of the war, freedom was a dream."
And he was just a great friend to me when that book came out and he lent his music to it. And we've stayed friends all these years.
Rick Ganley: I don't know which one of you came up with the idea to make this a children's book, or if it was always the idea. Was that the concept from the beginning?
Terry Farish: It was always an idea. I write books for children, and OD was just about to become a father. And it seemed very natural that now we could collaborate both with this understanding of how powerful stories are for kids. And then when you have your own, that changes your life forever. So I think it always was a children's book.
I had written a previous book called "Joseph's Big Ride," so we had a character. But when I began to work with OD, the character completely transformed into a boy who, of course, was raised in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement where OD was raised. And of course, he loved Acholi food and Acholi music. So with OD, we completely transformed this boy to be like the pride of his culture. And that's a lot of what the book is about.
And I think that maybe a lot of children who come to this country are yearning, not for all things, but their yearning for things that they left behind. And one of the things that Joseph yearns for is his grandmother who didn't travel with them. And we found that a lot of things that we were writing about also seemed true for the pandemic. A lot of children were separated from their grandparents across oceans, but also in the pandemic for health reasons. So this yearning, especially for a grandmother, is something that so many young children tell me about refugees and immigrants. So we were playing with that idea, too, of longing and of pride in one's culture.
And what Joseph does in "A Feast For Joseph" is he wants to cook and he wants his mom to cook, and he wants to bring people to come to his house. He wants to have the sense of community, that hum of life and cooking and music, all the things that he identifies with. He wants to bring them to his home in America. And that's his quest. And he does it. In some ways it doesn't get everything, but he has a first sense of belonging, I think.
Rick Ganley: Can you tell me what it meant as you became a father? What it meant to the process of writing the book and how it maybe changed your perspective?
OD Bonny: Well, a few things happened as [I was] writing this story, and I knew that not a lot of children's storybooks have, you know, African food in their story. So one of the things that I really, really looked forward to was having that in this book because I knew once my child came out, he's going to need something like this. So this is one of the books that I think my son can learn from.
So that did really shape me thinking forward as, "OK, you're going to become a dad. What do you want your kid to learn, especially from your culture? Because now he's going to grow up in a country where it's so far removed from what you would teach him if you are back home.”
And so that really did help me, you know, throw in some of this African culture, music and tradition in the book.
Closing music is "Awali Music," courtesy of OD Bonny.