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Years after resettling in Maine, former refugee co-writes picture book based on his experiences

A children's book cover features a young boy holding a basket of vegetables
Ari Snider
Maine Public
Illustrator Ken Daley brought Joseph to life. A recurring visual theme in the book is the contrast between Joseph's life in East Africa and his new home in the US.

OD Bonny and his family arrived in Maine in 2004 as refugees, after fleeing their home in South Sudan. This fall, Bonny is celebrating the release of a picture book he co-wrote with Maine author Terry Farish that draws heavily on Bonny’s own culture and life story. “A Feast for Joseph,” illustrated by Ken Daley and published by Groundwood Books, was released this month.

The book tells the story of Joseph, who, like Bonny, is a member of the Acholi ethnic group from South Sudan and Uganda. Before coming to the U.S., Joseph and his family pass through the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda, where, in real life, Bonny lived with his family after fleeing South Sudan.

Once in the U.S., Joseph deals with loneliness and homesickness as he longs for the community, music and food he left behind — and finds that celebrating his culture is one way to bring people together in his new home.

Joseph first appeared in “Joseph’s Big Ride,” a children’s book that Farish wrote on her own. But Farish said Joseph’s character evolved significantly as Bonny helped craft a background rooted in Acholi culture.

“Each time OD and I worked on the story, Joseph transformed into a boy very proud of [his] culture,” Farish said. “Joseph loves the food, music, his family, most of all his grandmother who is still in Uganda. He wants to bring people in the U.S. together to also love his Acholi food.”

Farish said the process of co-writing with Bonny was transformative, adding “the book is richer and deeper for the collaboration.” She said they wanted to tell a story of resilience, “not just for kids who have survived war, but for kids who haven't so they could understand kids a little who are unlike themselves.”

A page from a children's book shows a girl holding a pot of stew and a boy holding a plate of flatbread.
Ari Snider
Joseph's friend Whoosh, left, helps him adjust to his new home in the US. Illustration by Ken Daley.

Reporter Ari Snider spoke with Bonny, who now lives in Omaha, Nebraska, about the significance of writing a story so similar to his own life.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Snider: How did you get the idea to write a book?

Bonny: This idea started when I first worked with Terry Farish. She wrote a novel for young adults called “The Good Braider.” And it's about this girl that came from South Sudan. And so I wrote a soundtrack to that book. And then after a little while, she actually got in touch with me. And she told me that she was having this idea to write a children's story book. And then little by little, we started developing the idea. And one of my things was to push the book to be multicultural. Not just to have it 100% in English. I threw a few Arabic words in there, and some words from my language, Luo [spoken by the Acholi people]. Some Swahili words too.

The main reason why I wanted to do that is because I was about to have a son at that time. I'm like, “What do I want to teach my son when he's growing up in the West, where he's not going to have like the same knowledge as I had when I was in South Sudan and in Uganda, growing up in Africa?”

Could you elaborate a bit on the significance of including words from other languages in the books, as well as references to specific Acholi foods and musical instruments? 

The food really has to do with me not being able to get the kind of food that I used to eat back in Africa. So I kind of missed that a lot and I know for sure my son will never have the same kind of food. Like I said, growing up in the West, I really want my son to have as much African influence as possible, and I feel like that’s one of the reasons why I really pushed it into the book.

Same with the music, even the awal [a percussion gourd mentioned in the book], that instrument is specific to the Acholi tribe. As a musician, I really want my son not just to learn the modern types of instruments, but also to know, and if possible even play, the African and the Acholi instruments, because it's so different.

How much of the character Joseph is based on your own experiences? Because there are a lot of parallels.

I remember we [Bonny and Farish] were talking a few weeks before our final edits. And she was like, “What if we have Joseph come from the Kyangwali refugee camp?” And all of a sudden the light just came on — looking at the book is like literally a reflection of me growing up. Joseph came here when he was way younger than I was, but I can see him clearly going through what I went through.

And so what does that feel like for you as an author to look at this character who goes through a lot of the experiences that you have lived through?

It feels great. I feel almost like this book was written by a different author about me, you know what I mean? Like an author wrote a book about me growing up in Africa and coming to America at a young age and learning all of this. I can't come up with a word that can describe that feeling, to be honest, but it's a great feeling. And it's not just about me. I know a lot of children that come from different parts of the world, seeking refuge in the Western world, not only here in the U.S. but everywhere. And I feel like this book touches a little bit on their lives as well. So it's not just about me, it's just this general feeling about almost any child that leaves their home country and is seeking refuge in different places.

Have you read the book to your son yet?

Yes. My two-year-old still doesn’t fully understand the story, obviously, behind the book, but I do read it to him. And Whoosh [Joseph’s friend in the book] is his favorite character. So when I say "Whoosh” in the book he loves that, he laughs so loud. But he obviously doesn't understand the story behind this book yet, but I'm sure as he gets older, he will start to pick up on it.

The back cover of a children's book, with the sentence "Cooked up right, food can foster a community," written across it.
Ari Snider
Bonny said it was a remarkable feeling to write a book that mirrors his own life story so closely. Illustration by Ken Daley.