2020 Wakini Kuria Award for Children’s Literature: A Dialogue with Blessing Aliyu Tarfa
Blessing Tarfa is a biotechnologist and an educator. When she is not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing fiction. She admires her healthy collection of draft manuscripts.
Blessing was a participant at the YELF Creative Writing Workshop in 2018 and the KABAFEST Fiction Writing Workshop in 2019. Her featured works include “The Northern Nigerian Woman” for the Open Space Blogazine September issue in 2015 and a poem Titled “Indelible” which was published in the portfolio for the African Patrons Cup Polo Tournament Exhibition in 2015.
The trajectory of literacy and education in the country is her current concern and she wishes to contribute content to the library for young African readers.
Blessing’s Story ‘Sophie What Do You Say?’ emerged the first runner up in the 2020 Wakini Kuria Prize for Children’s Literature.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation took place between Kenya and Nigeria, via email and WhatsApp.
Edith: Thank you so much for allowing us to have this conversation. Congratulations on being the first runner-up in the 2020 Wakini Kuria Prize for Children’s Literature. What was your reaction when you heard your story, ‘Sophie What Do You Say?’ announced as one of the winning pieces?
Blessing: Thank you Edith. This win is a great awakening for me. It gave me the stamp of approval I didn’t know I desperately wanted, to be called a writer for children’s literature. I couldn’t believe it! When the shortlist was published, I shared it with my friends and I told them how awesome it already was to be shortlisted. I had played the consolation card, you know. Saying if I don’t win, that was enough. (Laughs). But oh boy, did it feel so good to win! I had intentionally gone off the grid on that day so I wouldn’t anxiously check my phone while I worked. When I came back online, I saw a mention on my Twitter and that was the news. I just burst out laughing! That laughter was me letting out a thousand hours of anxiety. It was a relief. It always feels good to win something. Especially if you have indirectly hinged your decision for your next steps to winning it. It was a relief to win!
Edith: Oh, how beautiful. I totally relate with what you are saying. Because as writers, the wins, the acknowledgements, reassure us that our works are valid, that people see us, that what we are writing is important. I can imagine your anxiety and conflict: on one hand saying, even if I don’t win, that’s fine, being shortlisted was enough, but on the other hand, really wanting the win. I am so happy for you, because ‘Sophie What Do You Say?’ is such a brilliant relevant story! Especially in this day and age. Where did this story come from?
Blessing: Thank you so much, it means a lot to me that you say that. I wanted to write about teaching the magic words but I didn’t want to invalidate anything that Sophie knows already. I wanted to show that children will only know how to say or do some things when they are presented with the situation, what they need is for us to guide them. Like Sophie knows about safety, she knows to compliment the food as delicious, and Sophie belches (laughs). The magic words should only compliment other things. The story came from my experience with teaching and learning, that it is a whole process. How to find teachable moments daily to make an impact in children.
Edith: I agree with the learning on the go method. It’s difficult to teach abstract things, but when presented with the situation, the lesson is easier learnt. I also loved how you many times over, used different scenarios to bring the point home; to show that it takes time before we finally grasp and start practicing new things. Sophie had to be reminded severally before she got it. And also, these etiquette lessons were taking place at home, rather than at school. Do you think parents have relegated discipline and molding of their children to teachers and not themselves? And do you think children learn etiquette better in the home environment or the school environment?
Blessing: First, I’d say that It’s an ongoing debate. The African mentality of discipline is quite brutal, and permit me to say, violent in most cases. So, parents and teachers have indirectly labeled themselves through their method of discipline as either the good cop or the bad cop. Often times, when discipline is delegated to one party, it is because people are resting the responsibility of “bad” cop on that person.
“When writing for children, you consider age, language skill, class, background, and previous knowledge.”
Parents are guilty of using fear tactics, which can encourage the teachers to play bad cop. The reporting system whereby parents report children’s mistakes at home and requesting that a teacher “handle” the child in school. What it does is strip parents of the responsibility of discipline, but parents really feel they can’t implement what they assume is the right style of discipline on the child themselves because they love them. Hence the good cop, but what parents do not consider is that teachers ought to discipline out of love too. And children should be made to understand why they are being disciplined. I’m against corporal punishment and all sorts.
It is really multi-layered. Discipline should not mean corporal punishment, or spanking, or beating, and there is some unlearning to be done in this regard. There shouldn’t be a parallel in the style of discipline that we tend to see, such that parents feel they can detach themselves from the responsibility entirely because it is ugly. That’s what I feel most parents are guilty of doing. The home is the first contact of discipline for children, but I believe the school is important for the holistic development including learning etiquette. As stated previously, learning some things can be abstract. But when children learn through socialization, by performing the action, they definitely learn better. Some things they experience at home, but what testifies they have learnt is if they are able to act it out or say it when presented with the same situation somewhere else, mostly the school.
It’s just that children spend longer periods of time within the school environment rather than the home these days. But etiquette might not be a thing of time, they will learn it better in the environment that is very deliberate about teaching it to them. We like to think that the school is such a place, but really the school tests etiquette because of everything else the child could encounter there, one of which is peer pressure and even the sentiments of their peers. The child will learn etiquette more where it is being deliberately imbibed.
Edith: What profound thoughts these are! Yes, the ‘bad cop’ reference reminds me of when growing up and mum would say ‘just wait till I tell your father’ and those words were scary, because with dad, I knew I would get spanked. I also remember when parents would bring their children who had erred at home, to be caned at school by the teachers. And you are absolutely right in saying there is a lot we need to unlearn when it comes to correction and discipline. A common thing parents say to justify discipline is ‘My parents almost whipped me to death back in the day, and I turned out just fine, so I don’t think there’s anything bad in caning my child.’
And in this story, we don’t see Sophie’s parents slapping or caning her to correct her behavior. They are very patient with her; they teach her, remind her, encourage her, and finally she gets it. Because like you said, the ‘environment has to be deliberate’ But more than that, I think your story is very timely, because, I am not an expert in this, but I think etiquette in children leaves a lot to be desired nowadays. In this age of entitlement, words like excuse me, please, sorry, thank you, are becoming rare, and not only with children, but even adults. This story is not just for children but also adults; I’ve seen adults loudly belching at tables, taking things without asking, slamming on doors, etc. We are worse than children, don’t you think? And somehow, because children are imitators, they copy what we do, right?
Blessing: (Laughs). Adults are such entitled brats. We know what to do but we think we can get away with it, by virtue of being all grown up and being above correction. I think it has to do with how we also learned to be corrected too. I’m at this age where I cannot be caned anymore, does it mean that I should be impolite and disrespectful? It does not, but you find that a lot of people get to a point where they can “let loose” of whatever training on etiquette they were given because they are now too old to be scolded or spoken to in a manner (they are right about the manner by the way, we should always speak kindly) and so they go ahead and misbehave. I am not excusing that people need to correct us harshly, definitely not. But whatever form the correction takes, as adults we should be able to sift out the motive. It shouldn’t be the norm. To stop it from being the norm, we must respond in a manner that shows love and security just like we would impress on children. Children are mirrors. I have an ambidextrous student who has suddenly started leaning towards using their right hand as the dominant writing hand because I am right-handed. I understand it is because I am the only person who he has prolonged periods of these types of interactions with such as writing, crafts and all other schooling activities.
I realized I never imposed what hand he should use, but sadly, one thing that doesn’t come subconsciously to me is accommodating his left hand in activities. The crime of adults is convenience, and that convenience and the benefits we get for leaving things as they are is what will stop us from unlearning, from thinking that we are not above corrections, and becoming much better people for the children around us to look up to.
Edith: Oh, your story reminds me of my sister; how as a child, dad scolded her for years for using her left hand. It was considered bad luck, I think. Thankfully, she’s a fully-fledged adult now and still uses her left hand.
Apart from the wonderful theme in your story, the craft is also excellent. There is almost a lyrical beat to it. At the beginning, we start to count the things Sophie can do, and that sets a rhythm. And the second part, when we start on the things Sophie can’t do, there is a repetition of ‘Sophie what do you say?’ In the final part, when she gets it right, there is almost an unspoken rhythm to how it is written. And of course, very short sentences, plus the story is also humorous. Did you carefully consider all these things while writing to have such a brilliant effect?
Blessing: Thank you for reading it so well. Yes, I did. I wanted it to be memorable, like a song. When I thought about it, I thought to write a story that the reader would sing without knowing they were singing till they stopped. Do you think I achieved that? I also wanted the listener to just follow the rhythm of the repetitions, to be able to chime in at a point.
Edith: Oh definitely, I really enjoyed reading it. It was a classic children’s story. Have you been writing Children’s stories for a long time? I see that you have participated in various writing workshops. Were this for adult writings, or children’s writing? And lastly what do you find is the major challenge when writing for children as opposed to writing for adults?
Blessing: I haven’t been writing children’s stories actually. I never have. What I did was try (laughs). Try really hard. All workshops I have ever attended were for adults. I’ve seen a lot of calls for submissions that vehemently add that children’s stories are not accepted. It is disheartening. It feels like what they mean is that writing for children is not considered serious writing. But it really is.
I’m part of Tanar Bookathon at the moment, an initiative to improve the availability of books at a low cost (mostly free) for readers in Nigeria. At Tanar Bookathon, we were in teams to write children’s books. I hope they get published soon. I had a time of fun writing the story with my team. I joined the bookathon because I think literacy is threatened due to the lack of affordability of books, making them hardly available for children.
When writing for children, you consider age, language skill, class, background, and previous knowledge. It’s very sensitive, because children are given life and learnings in bits, and books are guiding principles for these bits, either in the language use or the sentence structure.
Adults however, are assumed to have reached a certain apex of knowledge. Whatever you write can be understood by them, and consumed by them based on their kind of interests. That’s why I said I tried hard to write the children’s story. Children may not be curious enough to care to know the end of a story they do not like; adults have that tendency. Critic of adult’s stories gets them read, just to fuel the criticism. Children’s stories that are not engaging would not make the cut. Important stories for children are edutainment, adult stories can be that, but entertainment takes the cake. When I write as an adult, I have a tonne of experience, or maybe trauma that I can draw from, it will be relatable, it is easy because I live these things more often. For children, it is a distant memory of things I used to enjoy reading, and what I think should be read now. I also have to draw from a pool of my own unlearning of raising children, as an educator I will also think of a curriculum, but most importantly “what makes a good children’s story?” With children too, because of the attention span, you are trying to keep the suspense and the curiosity alive in such a short period. That’s a huge task, to make anything interesting yet so concise. With adult writing, you can go on forever.
Edith: I am surprised that you haven’t written children’s stories before. The Bookathon must have been really helpful, because you are a brilliant writer, and the craft is out of this world! It really is a shame what you mention about children’s stories. Very few journals and magazines have space for them. Even the Burt award that awarded young adult writers fizzled out. And yes, children’s writing is delicate in that they will leave your book midway if they get bored. But I must say with a story like ‘Sophie What Do You Say?’ no child can get bored. I imagine that you will now continue to write more in this genre. Is that so? Also, as we come to the end of the conversation. Can you tell me if you are working on anything right now?
Blessing: Thank you so much Edith! I am so encouraged to keep on pushing. So, yes, yes, I will continue to write more on this genre and improve on it! And look towards publishing them. I plan to make a whole a series about Sophie. I have written one more story in that regard and she seems like an interesting character. If I can get her to grow on my readers, like the Little Critter character, and also Arthur and DW, it would be absolutely awesome! Thank you, Edith, for having this conversation with me. I will cherish it forever!
Edith: Thank you too for speaking with me, and I can’t wait to see more of your awesome amazing works!
Edith Knight Magak is a creative writer and a 2020 Writing Fellow at African Liberty. Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Jalada Africa, Meeting of Minds UK, Jellyfish Review, among others. She lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. Find her on Twitter @oedithknight