Seeing myself in places other than the mirror

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Bianca Flanders is not just a seasoned theatre and film actress. She isn’t just a screenwriter and a voice artist either, she is also an incredible children’s book author. Her children’s book series, Pumpkin/Pampoen, is one pumpkin seed richer. First it was Pumpkin finds her queen / Prinses Pampoenpit. The second one was Pumpkin finds her kindness / Pampoenpit se groen gevoel, and now Pumpkin finds her beat / Pampoenpit kry ’n beat joins the bunch. The last one is especially exciting, as every book comes with a QR code that parents can scan which will give them and their kids access to a 10-minute long musical experience. Flanders does not promise that the latest book will put your kids to sleep, but she does promise that it will make them happy, dance, shake and feel seen. And that is all that counts.

Pumpkin is brave, spontaneous, fun, funny and kind. Everything one would wish for one’s child to be. I am in conversation with Flanders about her book series and we get to be reminded of everything that makes Pumpkin so special.

Bianca Flanders and Veronique Jephthas

Bianca, I want to start by saying congratulations on your third pumpkin seed that you’re planting in the ground. I have no doubt that this one will grow as bold as the first two. Did the success and great reception of Pumpkin finds her queen and Pumpkin finds her kindness put extra pressure on you during the process of creating Pumpkin finds her beat?

Thank you so much, and actually not really! They all feel like they come from the same family, so every new book just feels like a new family member ... and the family is growing. I actually enjoy it, because with each new book come new characters and ideas, and in that way Pumpkin’s world grows. I’d probably feel a lot more pressure if I wrote another children’s book or perhaps attempted a novel.

Something that few people know is that you’re a qualified teacher. At your book launch, on June 22nd, you spoke about the joy you experience with Pumpkin and how happy she makes the learners, especially when you visit the schools. As a writer, what brought you the most joy during the writing process, besides the end product, of any of the three books?

It’s interesting, because the thing that brought me the most joy was also the thing that I struggled with the most, and that was figuring out a way to bring music to text. Really trying to figure out how to direct the way something is read. How do I make something like reading, which is quite private and that we tend to do alone, more interactive? When I finally found a way to do it, I was thrilled! I also get so much joy from just writing Pumpkin’s character. I love that she’s warm and funny and spicy and kind, but also flawed and struggles with real emotions. That brings me joy.

In Pumpkin finds her queen and Pumpkin finds her kindness the main themes are predominantly those of identity and self-love. What was the turning point that made you decide that with Pumpkin finds her beat you want to move away from that theme, and what shifted your focus to the joy of the brown child, and more importantly, the sharing of that joy?

It’s interesting, because if you go to a bookshop and look at books with brown or black lead characters, more often than not the story is about identity. Or learning how to love yourself. And those things are so important and a real reflection of our struggles as people of colour, the fact that we need to actively learn how to love ourselves, and unlearn centuries of damaging and painful messaging. But as important as our pain and struggles are, I would dare to say that our joy is just as important, if not more so. I want brown and black kids to know that we can also have adventures, and we can also have magic. We are so much more than our struggles. It’s important for kids also just to have fun!

Pumpkin’s world is colourful and alive in English and Afrikaans. What was it like working hand in hand with a translator and trusting an illustrator with the vision of your story?

I feel very lucky, because I have such a great team. Zinelda really understands the vision for the Pumpkin illustrations (magical realism) and Jaco Jacobs is an incredibly successful author himself, so to be honest, after two books there isn’t much I have to do. I just have a look at the drafts and give my notes. And most of the time my notes are just small details. So to answer your question: It's an absolute pleasure and I trust them implicitly.

We all know the definition of representation, but what does it mean to you?

Representation for me means seeing myself in places other than the mirror. It’s seeing people that look like me on the page, on the screen, hearing them on the radio. Representation, for me, is seeing and hearing a world that I am familiar with, outside of my own family.

Besides internal factors, what were the external factors that pushed you to start writing and creating the Pumpkin book series? Is there something secondary to the primary issues of representation and identity?

I see myself as a storyteller, and for me, writing was another medium to tell stories. I’m obsessed with reading and have always had the desire to write a book one day. A few years ago I had a gap in my work schedule and thought that it was a good time to try. When I die I want to be like a wrung-out cloth. I want to be able to say to God that I have used every gift he’s given me, ek is nou klaa. I felt like I wasn’t using all of my gifts, and writing was an attempt at rectifying some of that.

What book or TV show/movie can you relate your first experience of being seen to?

Ooh, that’s sadly hard to answer. As a Christian English-speaking brown woman I remember reading Kelly Eve Koopman’s memoir that was published just a few years ago, and that was the first time I could relate deeply to what I was reading. I felt the same way when I read Ougat. It’s interesting for me, because language is also part of our identity. And I’m seeing way more brown people on screen, which is fantastic! But I have yet to see my very specific demographic on screen. Even with acting I work predominantly in my second language, Afrikaans.

At your launch you mentioned that reading broadens your vocabulary, and that the more words you have in your vocabulary, the better you can express yourself. You also mentioned that it creates empathy. Do you keep that in mind when creating, or do you think it is something reading nurtures on its own?

I think it’s just a by-product of reading. When I write, I do think about themes that I want to engage with, but I try not to get too bogged down with those kinds of details. I kind of just want to write a really good and engaging story. If I was writing for film or television, or perhaps a play, I would write very differently. I do try to make sure that the kind of vocabulary I use is age appropriate. And I always try to use fun non-word words where possible. Lots of silly sounds and expressive plosives.

Bianca and Dean Balie

What is next for Pumpkin? And tell us more about the tour you’re about to embark on with the actor and musician Dean Balie?

I have so many plans for Pampoenpit! We’re doing a play of the second book, Pampoenpit se groen gevoel, and it will tour Curro schools in Cape Town, Joburg and KZN. The play has puppets and music, and a beautiful set designed by Juanita Ferreira, and it will be directed by Nico Scheepers. We’re performing 50 shows in a month and each student that watches the show will also receive a grade-specific worksheet relating to the book. We’ve also designed teachers’ guides. I’d love for the books to become a regular feature in classrooms all over South Africa. We plan on doing public shows too, so keep an eye! I’m also looking at ways to expand Pumpkin as a character, perhaps across mediums. We’re hoping to officially launch the online Pumpkin store a bit later this year. So many plans! That’s all I’ll say for now. I get nervous about saying too much too early!

You emphasised the importance of story during the panel discussion at your launch and you spoke about how story is the driving force behind music, books, movies and so much more. Story helps us to understand one another. How do you balance the responsibility that accompanies creating such an important story?

That’s something I think about carefully. I want to make sure that I can stand by all my creative decisions, so I try to be an audience member as well. I try to see how something might be read, or how a certain part might make someone feel. I also know that not every story is for everyone, and that’s fine. I just try to make sure that what I write leaves the kids I write for feeling better about themselves, and happier, and inspired or seen.

My favourite out of the whole series is Pumpkin finds her queen. If someone were to wake me up at 3 am and ask me what my favourite line in the book is, I would shout, “Pampoenpit is besonders. Sy’s anders as die res. Pampoenpit weet dit nog nie, maar sy is ’n prinses.” Now I won’t ask you which your favourite book is, but I am going to ask you what your favourite line is.

Ooh! That's so hard. Can I choose two? My first one is also from Prinses Pampoenpit and it goes, “That flower is MAGIC. She’s TALL and BRAVE and PROUD. She knows there’s NO ONE like her. She stands out in the crowd.” I love that bit. And then also this bit from Pumpkin finds her kindness when Ouma says, “Pumpkin Pie, I know you’re sad. You feel your heart might break. But there’s nothing wrong with sadness. It shows your heart’s awake.” Pampoenpit is also just so oulik for me. She makes me want to cry. But in a good way.

Who is your favourite children’s book writer?

Roald Dahl. His writing is absolute magic and everything I believe storytelling should be for children.

Which five books do you feel every child should read?

In no particular order …

  1. Matilda
  2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  3. Winnie the Pooh
  4. The Harry Potter series (I know that’s cheating a bit)
  5. Alice in Wonderland.

What do you hope young children and parents walk away with after reading Pumpkin?

I want them to leave feeling joyful and kinder and seen. Mostly seen.

See also:

"Ek wou die boek skryf wat ek nie as kind gehad het nie" – ’n onderhoud met Bianca Flanders

In gesprek met Veronique Jephtas oor My kroon se krank by die Suidoosterfees

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