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Shaik, Bolden, Velasquez, Hudson, Nagara

PEN World Voices Festival 2018: “What Shall We Tell the Children?” (excerpt)

On Saturday, the day before the festival ended, I attended the panel sponsored by the PEN Children’s Committee, which grew out of a discussion from one of our meetings last fall: As authors and as caregivers and teachers, what do we tell the children about the current political situation? ...

With PEN Children’s Committee co-chair Fatima Shaik moderating, the panel consisted of contributors to a new volume of poetry, essays, and art for children coming out from Random House this September, We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, edited by Just Us Books’ co-founders Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson. The four panelists were editor Wade Hudson, writer Tonya Bolden, and visual artists Innosanto Nagara and Eric Velasquez. (Another writer with a poem in the collection, Zetta Elliott, spoke on a different panel the night before.)

Rather than begin with opening statements, Shaik posed the first question: What are kids hearing about the current situation? What should they know and not know? The panelists spoke from their perspectives as children growing up Black in Louisiana and South Carolina in the 1950s (Hudson and Bolden, respectively), needing to know about their oppressive circumstances in order to survive; as Puerto Rican in Harlem in the 1960s, awakening to the truth and to the possibility of making change (Velasquez); and in Indonesia in the 1970s, with parents who spoke out openly against that country’s military dictatorship (Nagara). The panelists agreed that one tells children different things at different ages, but Nagara observed the same kind of fear and trauma among schoolchildren after the 2016 election that he remembered from his childhood in Indonesia — children crying in the classroom and worried about what will happen to their parents. As a parent of school-aged children as well as an activist, Nagara said that we cannot promise children that everything will be OK, but we can give them the tools to cope. Bolden recalled growing up in South Carolina, at a time when the country wasn’t a safe place either, but she also remembers the good times of working together with family and community, cooking dinner or doing laundry, and cited family and community bonds in the past as a way people coped with fear and oppression.

Wade Hudson urged parents to spend time with their children rather than preaching at them from on high or disengaging altogether.

Shaik then asked: How much should children be disturbed? The panelists agreed that there is too much vulgarity in our society and that acceptance of vulgarity allowed a TV reality show host with a limited vocabulary and a history of immoral behavior to win the election. Bolden pointed out that vulgarity comes from not having language and critical thinking skills. (After listening to the panel, I went home and removed nearly all the curse words from my work-in-progress, because my characters have developed those skills.) Hudson urged parents to spend time with their children rather than preaching at them from on high or disengaging altogether. The panelists then discussed some of the constraints to spending time with children, notably the fact that so many parents work multiple jobs to survive. Bolden remembered the “children’s table” of earlier times, which prevented children from being exposed to too many adult subjects before they were ready to handle them. Hudson responded that well-chosen books are a good way of introducing unfamiliar or difficult topics in an age-appropriate manner.

The next question focused on illustration and how illustrators show social justice. Velasquez talked about bringing dignity to his characters, using illustrations from his picture book biography of Cuban-born scholar Arturo Schomburg and how he arrived in New York City with his head high and his posture perfect, ready to conquer the world. Nagara said he considers his audience and how his images would appear to a variety of readers — those who share the culture and those who may be coming to it for the first time. He, like Zetta Elliott the day before, discussed Rudine Sims’s concept of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.

Shaik then asked: Do you tell Black children the same thing you tell white children? Bolden, who mainly writes nonfiction, said “there’s only one story, the truth.” Hudson said that it’s important to have conversations with children after they read a book.

Panelists display the advance copy of We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices.

Since many of the panelists have written or illustrated books about people who challenge authority, Shaik wondered how to teach respect for authority when the police brutalize people of color. Velasquez said that one cannot be a silent bystander, just like one cannot be a silent bystander to schoolyard bullying. Bolden’s parents taught her to obey illegitimate authority for self-protection. She cited Martin Luther King, Jr. as someone who challenged authority in a respectful manner. Nagara learned early on to “respect people and challenge authority, but to keep safe as well.” His most recent book, The Wedding Portrait, explores the right and wrong contexts to challenge authority. “It’s all about context,” he said.

The final moderator question had to do with censorship, a topic of great importance to the Children’s Committee and to PEN in general. The panelists spoke mainly about the internet and social media, but Nagara pointed out that TV brought inappropriate messages to children long before the internet. Velasquez urged adults to model the behavior they wanted to see in children, including not spending family time looking at the smartphone. Hudson said that rather than blame electronic media, we need to look at how we got to where we are in terms of the breakdown of other social institutions.

The audience members also had questions. One father asked the panelists how to handle family members who did not see the world in the same way, who dehumanized people who were different. Bolden nostalgically mentioned the children’s table. Nagara pointed out that different perspectives and problematic perspectives are part of life; children shouldn’t be shielded completely because they may be hearing the same things in the schoolyard. Hudson compared the racist uncle to the alcoholic uncle. I found this to be a useful comparison, and so did the person who asked the question.

A second parent asked how to talk to young children about privilege. Bolden urged families to work with those who don’t have privilege. Nagara reminded the audience that these aren’t on-off conversations but ones that continue throughout childhood and adolescence. Shaik pointed out that “we are all privileged in some ways but not privileged in others.” Have children think about times when they haven’t been good at something or have been excluded. Velasquez reminded us of the importance of books and stories.

The final question wrapped around to the first: How do we have these conversations without instilling fear in children? Nagara said that if we don’t have the conversations, children will hear from somewhere else. And they will be likely to end up more fearful than ever. Bolden recommended informational books as a way of showing children and adults who faced and conquered fear. Hudson and Nagara cited two resources, the Teaching Tolerance website and Raising Race Conscious Children.

Most of the 40 audience members were parents and educators, and they very much appreciated this advice from authors and illustrators who recalled their own childhoods in politically perilous times and who had the experience of being parents and grandparents themselves. The “What Do We Tell the Children?” panel was a bit different from most World Voices panels in that, rather than discussing freedom of expression and today’s political events, it offered practical advice and resources for parenting in a challenging (and rapidly changing) era of our country’s history.

Photo by Meg Lemke Moderator Fatima Shaik PEN World Voices Festival 2018
Louisiana Historical Association panelists Leathem, Rhodes, Dorris, Shaik

Creoles without Borders: Uncovering New, Hidden Narratives with Archival Research, Genealogical Evidence, and Living Communities

The paradigms which have characterized New Orleans research are being reconfigured today through the use of new methods that connect the Creole past with the present, leading to fresh perspectives and the discovery of hidden narratives.

Contemporary researchers are telling stories beyond race and color by the use of private collections, archival materials viewed in new ways, through genealogical proof, and living research communities. With racial segregation eliminated as the theoretical underpinning of scholarship, the result is an international and multiethnic approach to Creole New Orleans leading researchers to uncover stories of interconnected communities and families.

The Creoles without Borders panel includes:
Fatima Shaik, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication and Media Culture at Saint Peter’s University, who will discuss the integration of America’s darker brothers into the 19th century community of the Société d’Economie et d’Assistance Mutuelle. They include Southern Europeans, West Indians, Native Americans, and Jews.

Ronald Dorris, Ph.D., Xavier University, Professor of English, African American and Diasporic Studies and author, who will give a narrative history of his family located in three river parishes of Louisiana since the 18th century, their lives on plantations, their members purchased at auction, their connections to place and one another -- and his journey of research to find them.

Elizabeth M. Rhodes, Ed.D., retired, Assistant Professor, Southeastern Louisiana State University, will describe the sustenance of legacies from the French and Spanish colonial periods of Louisiana through living and learning communities, focusing on the evolution of the LA Creole Research Association.

Along with many international writers, I'll read from my new book at two of four sets: 7, 7:30, 8, 8:30. A reception will follow.
Speaker: Tennessee Williams Festival 2016

People and Places: A Reading of New Fiction
Sunday, November 22 @ 11:00 am

Fatima Shaik has written a love letter to the entertaining, unpredictable, and flawed characters who populated New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina in What Went Missing and What Got Found, a lyrical short story collection with undertones of the blues.......... A man decides he’ll save his failing New York restaurant by traveling to Cuba to reclaim a legendary chicken recipe stolen from his family by Fidel Castro in Phillippe Diederich’s debut novel Sofrito (pictured)..... In her novel, Almost Crimson, Dasha Kelly portrays a young woman’s struggle to break free from the grips of codependency and poverty to find confidence and success in her career and her personal life...... Multidisciplinary writer and artist Vanessa Garcia’s novel White Light is the story of an artist torn between the need to mourn her father and the chance to break into the art world.

National Council of Social Studies: The Story of New Orleans
The Writer and Community November 13, 2015

Louisiana Book Festival October 31 2015 Reading and signing

Launch of What Went Missing and What Got Found

Homefest Community Books, New Orleans, La. July 2015

Signing at the Essence Festival July 2015

PEN World Voices Festival 2015

Moderator Fatima Shaik with Baba Wagué Dikité, Marilyn Nelson, Nnedi Okorafor
May 6, 2016 Nuyorican Poets Cafe VIDEO

New Jersey Communication Association Annual Conference

panel on diversity April 11, 2015
Saint Peter's University MacMahon Student Center

@ Culture Rapide
African-American Genealogy Panel November 22, 2014
Presentation at the New Orleans Public Library, LA Creole Research Association October 20, 2014


January 15, 2014
Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities
938 Lafayette St.
New Orleans, La. 70113

Nancy Dixon Editor, N.O. Lit
New Orleans Literature Scholar CW Cannon,
Contributor Fatima Shaik,
Brian Boyles from LEH, and more..





Author and Noble Prize-winner Toni Morrison recently addressed the 2011 conference of the international literary and human rights organization PEN in New York City about the importance of books in the electronic age of Twitter, Google, Facebook and other brand name shortcuts to information. She said that literature is “character building,” “suitable for high-minded leisure activity” and a process that “cultivates the powers of the imagination, integral to citizenship.”

She was motivating a room of writers who were about to begin a Working Day for PEN, discussing contemporary issues and the writer’s role, including a panel in the afternoon about New Orleans. For a moment, I wondered just how much more rhetoric the city needed compared to dollars and jobs.

But as I heard Morrison encourage writers to escape the “electronic spectacle” of entertainment that creates a “community, shaped by fear and unquenchable desire” I realized that her message about literature – actually literacy – should be taken to heart by everyone.


Working Day: New Orleans
When: Thursday, April 28
Where: St. Patrick's Old Cathedral School, 233 Mott St., New York City
What time: 2–5 p.m.

Introductory notes: Sarah Broom, Richard Campanella, Fatima Shaik, and Billy Sothern; curated by Nathaniel Rich

*Open to PEN Members, Festival authors, heads of cultural agencies, and press. RSVP to by April 22. Limited space. Please register early.*
New Orleans has long been a city from which writers have sought inspiration. Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Kate Chopin, Truman Capote, Walker Percy, and Richard Ford are among those who have lived and worked there. What is the role of the writer—if any—in New Orleans today? Does the writer have any kind of civic duty to uphold following a tragedy like Katrina, and if so, what is it? In this session we will hope to draft plans for a public program that PEN will help to coordinate in New Orleans during the coming year.

When: Sunday, May 1, 2011
Where: The Kitchen, 512 W. 19th St., New York City
What time: 3:30–5 p.m.
With Sarah Broom, Richard Campanella, Nicholas Lemann, Fatima Shaik, and Billy Sothern; moderated by Nathaniel Rich
Tickets: $10. Call (212) 255-5793 ext. 11 or visit

Co-sponsored by The Kitchen



Humanities Center LEH New Orleans

Reissue of The Mayor of New Orleans: Just Talking Jazz,
reading to New Orleans Literature classes Oct. 20, 2011


"Two Centuries of Writing: The Literature of the Free
Colored Community and Their Descendants in New Orleans."
A panel with Caryn Cossé Bell, Jari Honora and Fatima Shaik, July 23, 2011 at 4 p.m.