NAOMI KISSIEDU-GREEN: Creating narratives
When Naomi Kissiedu-Green couldn’t find children's books that featured kids who looked like her own, she decided to create them.
Kissiedu-Green is the author ‘The Colourful Life!’, a book series featuring multi-racial families that explores anything from the arrival of new siblings, to identity, and adoption.
MEET NAOMI KISSIEDU-GREEN.
THE PIN. Can you tell us a bit about your own upbringing?
NAOMI KISSIEDU-GREEN. I am first generation British-African, born to working-class Ghanaian parents who migrated to London in the 60’s. I am the second oldest of four siblings with an older sister, younger brother and younger sister. My dad would maintain our links with our cultural homeland by taking us children on separate trips back to Ghana to visit the extended family members.
My parents unfortunately never taught us to speak their tribal language, even though our cousins spoke it and teased us about it. My parents said it was too difficult as they each spoke a different dialect.
Both my parents loved exposing us to different cultures. My dad used to bring food back from his work colleagues who were Indian so we got to eat lots of different varieties of foods. We would attend a lot of African parties and looking back now, I see how blessed we were to have such a community.
My parents divorced when I was 10 which was very hard for us all. My mother suffered from schizophrenia which I wasn't aware of until I was in my teens! As a result, my dad had full custody of all of us. We were still very close to our mother and would see her often while she lived in London. Some years later my mother decided to return to Ghana after 30 years of not visiting. Whilst she was living there my mother got ill and passed away suddenly. At this time I had immigrated to Australia. The trip back to Ghana for her funeral was very difficult but I was thankful to have a wonderful, close family who supported one another.
Did cultural tradition from your Ghanian background feed into your British upbringing?
N. My families upbringing was very much African. We ate Ghanaian food - fufu, plantains, yam, Kenkay and jollof rice that both my parents would cook. Our dinners weren't always western style foods like cereal for breakfast... we would have African food, like rice for breakfast instead, and we would often use our hands to eat.
I've always identified myself as African-British and been proud of being African. Despite this, as a teenager, I really didn't enjoy being made to wear African clothes but took solace in the fact that I wouldn't be the only one forced to wear it. I wear African fabrics more now but in a modern style (as do my children), and I attempt to cook my own westernised version of African foods. I enjoy sharing my culture with my children and others. I used to listen to African music - the highlife and hiplife when we were growing up, but not so much anymore. I think that it's time to revisit it.
Another important part of our African culture was respect of ones elders. While we loved both our parents it came with a normal child’s fear of not living up to, what we saw as, higher expectations. As a sign of respect we call other Africans ‘aunty or uncle’ whether they were relatives or not. So many aunties and uncles, so so many!
Our upbringing on some levels could be quite strict and we always did as we were told. We were never allowed to sleepover at other friends houses like other kids our age unless it was another African family. There were certain views about how African children should behave. Even to this day I would NEVER swear/curse to my dad or drink alcohol in front of him (not that he would mind the drinking). These values are also what I want to instil in my children.
When did you first become aware of race and ethnicity?
N. I think I have always realised I was black! But it never mattered to me so much until I was questioned about it. Things like ‘why my skin was so dirty?’. This came from a small girl my younger sister used to play with but asked out of curiosity rather than malice. I had to explain why my skin colour was black in front of my sister (who was around four at the time). Looking back, I wonder if that was her first encounter of race and ethnicity.
I spent most of my early childhood within a black community (mostly African) but attended a mostly white school. As a result of being a minority in the school, I would surround myself with other black people or other ethnic groups. Unbeknownst to us, this created an issue and we were called into the principal's office. He told us in not so many words, that our group of black girls were intimidating people and that we needed to separate our group and start to mix (eight of us).
Or perhaps it's when I turned up for work experience at 15. While it had already been pre-confirmed, when I got to the place of business (a Jewish hair salon) the owner looked extremely shocked and obviously disappointed to see me. Up to that point, our only interaction had been over the phone (apparently, I don't sound black). He told me the job was no longer available. Of course, I didn't believe him and was extremely hurt to think that my ethnicity was the cause of his change of mind. I decided to see what would happen if my one of my best friends (who was a white Jewish girl) called up for the same position a day later. When she turned up they offered her the job. She called me (I was waiting around the corner) and we both walked in and confronted him. In the end, I did my work experience with an African woman who worked for the government.
How has your move to Australia changed the way you view yourself or your relationship?
N. When I moved to Australia I realised there wasn't much exposure to multicultural relationships - it was not the norm for a lot of people. My now-husband and I would always get stared at and sometimes stopped in the street to be told how good we looked together….it was positive but very strange.
I grew up in London - one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. I was surrounded by different cultures and even in my own family, this was the norm rather than the exception. When moving to Australia I realised there was a new normal. I appeared to be a minority especially in the affluent areas, where I would constantly be asked, “where are you from?” I would reply, “London”. They would then say “no, where are you really from?” I would reply that I was born and raised in London. Then I understood. They didn’t really want to know where I was born, they wanted to know what my cultural ethnicity is.
What I have experienced is that in Australia my skin colour defines my ethnicity and that British is mostly thought of as white. Any variation on that isn’t understood.
I feel that I had a lot more conversation about myself and my family on race issues since moving to Australia.
Aside from being an author, you also modelled and worked on Project Runway Australia. What has been your experience of diversity in the modelling industry in Australia, compared to other countries?
N. When I started modelling in Australia it was very challenging. There weren't many models of colour or of different ethnicities in the industry. There would always be the one ‘token ethnic model’ and you'd never see more than one model of colour or ethnicity modelling in a show. This is far from the case in London. The models featured and represented were so diverse.
When I would go to castings in Australia, I was always told I was too EXOTIC... and I would be told that when the ‘Americans’ come over, then I will have more jobs opportunities.
When I did book a job it would always be an issue, even though they knew what I looked like, the makeup artist would never have my skin shade. They would use bronzer on me as a foundation! This was so frustrating to me that I would have to call them out on it. I started to bring my own foundation so I could look half decent for the job. Another issue was my hair, they never knew what to do with it, so most of the time I would style it myself (doing their job) or I would wear my hair in a weave to blend into their idea of beauty.
Booking Project Runway was actually an amazing experience. I will never forget it. But I knew that as a person of colour I wouldn't go far in the Australian market, and I would only be typecast. I didn't take the industry seriously, so it was just fun for me. But for many of the girls that I worked with that wanted to stand a chance, they left to work overseas (USA) and many of them have been very successful. Australia still isn't quite ready to represent another standard of beauty. Just look at the negativity a few months back when a big brand put a black model on their front cover and then they were attacked on social media for doing so.
Do people openly question and express curiosity about your interracial relationship? Do you welcome the curiosity?
N. Multicultural families/relationships are still in the minority in Australia, so people are still curious. Most of the time when I'm being questioned about my interracial relationship it’s innocent and they might not know any different. Sometimes before they have begun to ask me their question I can read their thoughts – their faces.
I feel I need to be open to questions. I think sometimes we have to help educate people - be the teacher, help them increase their understanding and awareness of people from other mixed cultures or backgrounds so they can be accepting. In order to do this, we need to start representing and reflecting the society we live in, especially in Australia! We need to start presenting a different idea of what families look like!
Have you had to employ coping mechanisms for the questions people throw at you, your family unit, and your kids?
N. I have told my children that if people ask them personal questions and they don't feel like answering it then that's ok, but it's nice to share with people about who you are and how proud they are of their mixed heritage (which they are).
I personally feel that if the questions are innocent and there isn't some sort of racial negativity behind it, then I am happy to have a conversation. Otherwise, if I feel it’s inappropriate and I will ask why they have asked me such a question. Or I would throw the question back at them to see how they feel and see how they would react/respond. I try not to let others opinions or ignorance affect my family! It's all about the environment we make for our children, the things we will teach them, the love and support and, of course, the open communication we will have with them. I want them to embrace their two cultures. Yes, like ALL children there will be challenging times ahead, but if they understand who they are and where they are from they will be fine.
What was the tipping point for deciding to write kids books that feature multiracial families?
N. My journey into the workplace in Australia took me into childcare, where my eyes were opened, even more. I was asked questions like, “because you're black, do you see me as black when you look at me?” or “Are you an aboriginal off the TV?”
I made the decision to start taking some sort of action...so I began sending emails to the child care centres to increase resources that were more inclusive. I started putting educational books about different families addressing race, into playgroups as well as dolls of colour which I had to source overseas.
I felt like ‘why did I need to purchase resources like dolls and books overseas in order to represent an Australian family like mine’? If I couldn’t find what I was looking for in Australia then It was my responsibility to rewrite the story.
My beautiful children shouldn’t have their hair touched, shouldn’t be wondering why people look at them strangely, shouldn’t be wondering why they’re asked where they’re from when they were born Australian.
I decided to write a book about my family's experience of diversity and acceptance in a kid-friendly way, featuring a multicultural family (my family). I called the series “The colourful life”
How do you navigate race and ethnicity with your kids?
N. My children are still young (six, five and two) but my husband and I try to talk to them as well as use books which depict people of various races and backgrounds.
Our children are already well travelled, having visited and lived in a number of countries and continents, opening their eyes to various cultures and backgrounds. They are aware that not all people look the same; we talk about skin tone, eye colour as well as a hairstyles and facial features. All of this has helped them understand that a ‘normal’ environment includes people of different races.
We recently had diversity week at my son's school where we dressed up in our African clothes. We met with people of different cultures and we sampled some of their traditional cuisine.
My husband and I have made sure to teach our children that a person’s culture and traditions are important and although they may do things differently from the way we might, we still must respect them. That we are ALL human. And we are ALL important.
We try to help our children understand how to choose to express themselves against all of these assumptions and expectations they might face from people around them.
They might have their identity questioned, people saying things like, - you know, you don't look black, or you don't look white, or act….in a way that they expect certain ethnicities to act. No matter what they do or how confident they are with themselves, there will always be someone trying to tell them who they think they are and should be...and I want them to be WHOEVER they want to be.
Do you have more book plans?
N. I have just published my latest book - Same but different Too. It is about a multi-heritage family just like mine. It centres around Lee (a friend of Kobi - my son), who is adopted and has two dads. The book explores different types of families and provides the reader with some examples of how families can be different, while also having some things in common. Lee and his classmates learn to accept that families can be the same, but different, and every family deserves respect.
I want to start focusing more on representing ethnic/multiracial images in my books but talking about everyday life. My next book idea is about how we are constantly moving house/countries and I want it to address topics about making new friends from all over the world and embracing everyone.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
NAOMI KISSIEDU-GREEN. You only have one skin so live in it, embrace it, and love it!! ❤