In our regular Spotlight On series, we talk to a member of the Writing NSW community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements, and inspirations.
This April we spoke to Jemima Shafei-Ongu soon to be published author and President of the CBCA NSW Canterbury-Bankstown-Inner West sub-branch (CBCA NSW CBIW), that’s “See-byu” to you. Isaac Wilcox, our Administration and Digital Services Officer, caught up with Jemima to talk Kids and YA publishing, psychology and just biting the bullet.
You’re a founding member of CBCA Canterbury-Bankstown-Inner West. Can you tell us a bit about what your aims are?
I’d love to. Our areas are so rich with diversity and creativity, I wanted to be part of setting up a local CBCA NSW sub-branch that reflected this diversity.
We are keen to increase connections between our community and Australian literature for young people, especially literature that raises up the voices of First Nations and diverse creators and readers. We would also love to cultivate a sense of empowerment within our diverse community of young readers, through their engagement with literature.
Starting up a sub-branch locally would also give people in the area better access to the opportunities (such as programs and networking) offered by the CBCA NSW Branch and a more accessible way to connect with the organisation
We want to uphold exemplary principles of what it means to be inclusive and to do the work required to help us rise to that challenge. We know that this might mean, for example, taking the time to create our own diversity and inclusion policy, and embody inclusion in all our efforts. It will take time – we are all learners – but we have a passionate core group of children’s literature lovers who are kind and creative and committed. We welcome you to join us! Email us here: email@example.com
What drew you to start the sub-branch?
Let me backtrack for a minute, if I may. Fifteen years ago, I was a primary school teacher working and residing in South Western Sydney, desperate to enculturate my children (both students and biological) in rich literature events and a range of artistic programs, but access was often exclusive. People didn’t come out ‘that far’ (not sure what it was far from- Sydney city perhaps), opportunities weren’t extended there, and assumptions were made about what people cared about and had to offer. It felt like a kind of ‘demographic discrimination’. The area is bursting with diverse and dynamic creativity, and I’m glad to say that there is a much greater platform for creative expression and access to the arts than there used to be (just check out Lost in Books, Casula Powerhouse and Fairfield City Museum and Gallery, to name a few amazing cultural spaces). There isn’t a CBCA NSW sub-branch there yet, and I would encourage anyone passionate about seeing this happen (and willing to put the time in), to start one up in that area. (I’ll be rooting for you!)
When we moved out of South West Sydney, my children were older and I began taking writing more seriously (about 6 years ago), and truly, I just kept waiting for a CBCA NSW sub-branch to ‘emerge’ closer to home (Inner West, then later Canterbury/Bankstown). A couple of years ago, I was attending a webinar with Georgie Donaghey from Creative Kids Tales who suggested the benefits and possibilities of starting a local sub-branch. That same week, a writing friend who’d just become secretary of her local CBCA NSW subbranch suggested I ‘just start one’. It had never occurred to me before that week, and I didn’t know how to go about it. I made a call to the CBCA NSW Branch to enquire about the possibility of a subbranch starting up locally. I was encouraged to glean interest for anyone who might like to see one start up local to these areas (which I did via a number of social media channels). A few months later, a group of enthusiastic creatives including authors and an illustrator met online a few times, suggesting we include both areas! By late 2021, we became an official sub-branch of the CBCA NSW.
(I’ve also learnt that sub-branches don’t just ‘emerge’, they require hard work, and a lot of time volunteered to establish, and to build local relationships with community. Collaboration is everything).
You’ve also got a book coming out, Aslan and Big Bad Benny, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Squee, yes! Aslan and Big Bad Benny is about a little boy who learns what it means to be brave.
It’s based on the true story of my (now bearded adolescent!) nephew and how fear gets in the way of doing what matters most to him – playing with his cousins. Like many collectivist families, the cousins spend their weekends playing at each other’s houses, until one ‘big bad Benny’ changes everything for Aslan.
The story for ages 5+ uses sound psychological principles to address anxiety and is one of the first picture books to use multiple Acceptance and Commitment Therapy techniques in a narrative.
All my work features casual diversity. Aslan happens to be a ‘third culture kid’ from Australia with a Turkish background.
Aslan and Big Bad Benny is being illustrated by the amazing Jade Goodwin and will be published by Penguin Random House. It is due for release in mid-2023.
How do you find your work as a psychologist (Phew, you’ve a lot of strings to that bow!) influences your work as a writer, or vice versa?
Haha, I actually feel like I have several bows!
I think my work as a psychologist and as a school counsellor over the years hugely influences my work as a writer. Ultimately, in my psychological work I aim to cultivate unconditional regard for my clients and am driven to support people to live their best life. This has led me to honourable places of bearing witness to incredible human pain and suffering, but also to remarkable resilience, courage and strength. I hope to cultivate the same unconditional regard for my characters, to bring about an understanding of shared human experiences in my readers. I hope that my readers either feel validated and empowered by seeing themselves in my stories; or feel curious about their own assumptions and experiences, to better understand the world of my characters, and feel more connected to them.
My own picture books and stories are influenced by personal experiences that lie outside my work. Of course, having the training, along with the lived experience that I do, often gives me unique insight into certain situations and people (and a reason to overthink everything – but that could just be me – regardless of my training).
I also believe all humans have a need for love, play, freedom, belonging, agency and survival – these themes are often reflected in my work (but not always at the same time).
Did you have any favourite books as a young person?
Maybe because it’s one of my earliest memories of a book, but I loved Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The idea of being ‘king of all the wild things’ and dancing a wild rumpus with them, (especially if I’d gotten into trouble), was wonderful. I also remember loving the Mr Men series. I identified very strongly with Mr Noisy (much to my shy mother’s dismay). It was before the Little Miss series (and clearly, before the critical thinking I have now) was developed.
Are there any kids or YA books that you’ve found inspiring in the recent months? Or are there any titles or authors we should be reading right now?
Hmmm, that’s a difficult question because there are some amazing things happening in the world of children’s writing in Australia right now. I personally really love the emerging books with casual diversity used by ‘own voice’ authors, and where the protagonist(s) – and not just peripheral characters – are diverse.
Rather than suggest titles or authors we should be reading, I’d like to offer readers (parents and teachers included) to consider whether we’re reading mirror books or window books. If we’re predominantly reading mirror books, we need to recognise how this might be reinforcing our world view of who’s voice is valid – particularly if the protagonists in the stories, are from the same background as the people who hold positions of power and influence in our society (such as principals, politicians, and other leaders).
We need to be mindful of what we read and intentional about including window books in our reading lists. When we do read window books, we also need to consider whether the authors and illustrators speak in the voice of lived experience with their protagonist.
This doesn’t mean that other books are of less value. It does mean, however, that we will be exposed to a more balanced representation of the diverse society (and world) in which we live; and in turn will create a stronger sense of connection with one another; for a more cohesive and compassionate society.
As well as being a writer, Jemima Shafei-Ongu is a registered psychologist, school counsellor and teacher. She is passionate about being an agent of social change, by replacing fear with understanding through her writing, and in her psychology practice. She writes picture books with themes predominantly focussing on wellbeing and diversity. As a woman of colour, she is passionate about increasing representation, both in authorship of children’s literature, and in character representation. Through her involvement in newly establishing a local CBCA NSW sub-branch, she wishes to work together with local children’s literature lovers who want to empower their diverse community through rich literature.
Her first picture book, Aslan and Big Bad Benny, has been contracted by Penguin Random House and is due to be published in mid-2023. Her second picture book, A Lemon for Safiya, is currently under consideration by a publisher.