Writer Spotlight: Kemi Bamgbose
With the Writer Spotlight Series, we create a positive image for Black girls to refer to, by having conversations with different writers and illustrators. This month we have been doing Q&As with many writers, to get to know more about them and their work. Here, we are showcasing all the questions we have asked Kemi, the author of When Mr Mandela Came To Town. You can find more book reviews in our current issue, available to buy here
Hello Kemi, tell us a little about yourself and your book When Mr Mandela Came To Town.
My name is Kemi Bamgbose, and I live in South London. I work in media and communications in the charity and not-for-profit sector and have done so for the last 12 years. I have always loved words–whether written, spoken or sung and so I suppose it wasn't a surprise that I would write a book but it was a big surprise to me that my first book would be a children's book! When Mr Mandela Came to Town was part of my childhood experience of taking the day off school to see President Mandela in Brixton, joining thousands of others for this historic occasion. The book is a first chapter book aimed at children aged 7 plus and includes illustrations, comprehension quiz, glossary and creative activities, making it ideal for schools.
Can you share with us your experience, seeing Nelson Mandela for
the first time?
Yes, of course! I was 11 years old and in my final year of primary school. I remember my mum and dad saying we could take the day off school to see Mr Mandela in Brixton which you will never hear from African parents! Yet my parents knew how monumental the occasion would be and didn't want us to miss out despite being so young.
I specifically remember my dad saying: 'this experience will be better than any book you will ever read'. And it couldn't be truer! Being in Brixton on that day was such an experience. There was so much joy and excitement in the air, the atmosphere was electric. The only thing I could liken it to at the time was like Notting Hill Carnival.
People of all ethnicities, backgrounds and ages gathered to see this legend. I remember we were at the front of the barriers, close to the Brixton Recreation Centre, and actually saw him as he came out of the car. It was an incredible, unforgettable moment.
What do you hope your readers will learn from this book?
I wrote the book because I wanted children today to know about this important piece of modern Black British history and to know about modern day heroes such as President Nelson Mandela- but especially in a 'local' context. Why did he come to Brixton? Why is Brixton important?
Although the book based loosely on my experience, with a lot of creative licence (I didn't get to meet him unlike Tinu Dos Santos, the main character who does) I hope it will inspire others and perhaps encourage parents to allow their children to experience enriching life moments should the occasion arise–because it can have a positive lifelong impact.
I wanted to encourage children to dream big and to be curious about the world in which they live. Tinu, the 9-year-old, main character has to watch the news every day with her family and thinks it is boring and depressing yet her parents insist they watch it so they will not be 'ignorant but well-informed' of what's happening in the world. I wanted this book to be a starting point for parents and carers to have conversations with their children about world affairs.
I also hope parents / carers / educators will use the book to explore a variety of issues, such as racism, reconciliation and forgiveness in an age- appropriate way.
I also wanted the book to be an educational tool, but in a fun and creative way. Growing up, my mum was big on comprehension books–stories with questions at the end, and I wanted to bring that back. As a result, I think this book is suitable for homes, schools and libraries.
What inspired you to write?
It may sound strange but God inspired / told me to write it! I have a Christian faith and though I write, I never had a desire to write a children's book before. However, during the second Lockdown, November to January- I was in the spare room in the house I was staying in and sitting at my desk and I heard God say I want you to write a book based on the experience you had when you were 11. He brought back memories of the day and downloaded the story to me and the additional features for the book, such as the comprehension quiz and creative activities. As I researched and wrote, I looked up the date of the visit and realised that it was going to be 25 years this July and so it really felt like the book was timely, as it would be ready in time for this anniversary.
Beyond this, I wanted to write the book to increase the pool of diverse children's literature. There is a great deal of research which has shown that there are so few books for children with main characters who are Black, Asian and ethnic minorities, and even fewer with female characters and also with those who have ethnic names. Tinu Dos Santos–the character and her family are both Nigerian and Angolan and I deliberately did this so that children would learn about these different countries, where in Africa they are from and ask questions about her name and therefore find out more about her culture.
What is your favourite part of the publishing journey?
My favourite part of the journey has been working with the illustrator to put the images together to go with the story. Seeing the story written is one thing, but seeing the images alongside it, my vision brought to life by a skilled, talented artist is just something else! The illustrations far exceeded my expectations.
How important is it for young readers to embrace Black Writers?
It is so important for readers to embrace Black Writers, not just Black children but all children because often Black writers will write from their experiences which brings variety, colour and diversity to children's literature which is so needed. We need books that represent the fullness of human experience and for children to access this, so it expands their world and understanding about other cultures and ethnicities. Their lives will be so much richer for it!
I can remember seeing a handful of books growing up by Black authors and it left a huge impression on me because I felt like I could relate even if the experiences were different- just by their mere skin tone alone, I knew that there would be some cultural similarities / relatability and it made me feel seen and valued.
Do you have any special projects coming up?
I have no special projects coming up yet- this book was a bit of a surprise to me so just making sure that I maximise opportunities to get the book out far and wide and possibly translated into different languages! Who knows, there may well be another book in the offing, but it will be awhile yet before this happens!
When Mr Mandela Came To Town | Carobee Media | Paperback & Ebook | Available here
About the Author
Kemi Bamgbose is an all-round creative based in London, England. Kemi works
in public relations and holds an undergraduate degree in English Literature & Philosophy, from the University of Birmingham. She is also an NCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalist.