The Shelf Care Interview: Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Penguin Young Readers.

In honor of Graphic Novels in Libraries Month, we’re presenting a series of special Shelf Care Interviews. Today, we’re kicking off the month’s festivities (which include webinars, panels, our July issue, and an issue supplement; watch our website for updates) with this episode starring Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. Their graphic novel, When Stars Are Scattered, published by Dial, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers, hit shelves in April.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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SARAH HUNTER: Thank you very much for being here, Victoria and Omar, I’m really excited to talk to you.

VICTORIA JAMIESON: Me too. Thanks for having us.

OMAR MOHAMED: Thank you so much.

Okay, so Victoria, you typically write and illustrate on your own. And Omar, it sounds like from the back matter of the book that you weren’t originally planning to turn this into a graphic novel for kids. Can you talk about how this project came about? How did it change, if at all, throughout the process?

JAMIESON:  Yeah, Omar, do you want to start with your story? You were planning on writing a book before I met you, well before I met you.

MOHAMED: Since I came to America, I always thought of writing a book and sharing my story with the rest of the world. And the main reason I wanted to do [it] always was: I wanted to be the voice for the voiceless. And the voiceless are those refugees who are still in the refugee camp, and I had written about a rough draft of my personal story saved on my computer, and I always was looking for coauthor or publisher, something of that sort. And then I met with Victoria Jamieson.

JAMIESON: Yeah, and I sort of came to the project; I had been volunteering in Portland, Oregon, where I was living, with a local resettlement agency, which just sort of involves meeting new people who are coming to the U.S., and I was paired with a woman from Somalia and her four-year-old daughter. I just did simple things with my son, like, we showed them how to ride the bus and get to various appointments. And I was just learning so much about the refugee experience and I was meeting so many people with just amazing, heartbreaking stories, and so I was already sort of thinking, well, what could I do as a graphic novelist? How could I put my background to use? And then, I moved to Pennsylvania, I came to Omar’s place of work, which is Church World Service, which is a resettlement agency that helps new refugees kind of learn English and find jobs. And one of his coworkers introduced us and she said, “Omar is writing a story, he’s looking for a coauthor, maybe you should talk?” And so we sat down to talk about just what a project together might look like.

Omar, I’m curious if working with Victoria changed how you saw your project, the way you originally envisioned it?

MOHAMED: Yes, this was something new to me because I wasn’t into becoming author or writing books or graphic novels or that, so it wasn’t something on my [mind]. I had a dream about it, but I thought it was hard, this and that, but when I met with Victoria and she told me she writes children’s books, graphic novel of the sort. And she showed me her previous books and that stuff. And then, at that time, I trusted her. And we just work together from there. And the outcome was beyond my imagination. So it was way better than I had hoped.

JAMIESON: Same for me, too.

So collaboration is a really unique and interesting experience for all creators who work together. And Victoria, I was thinking when I was reading this book about the sort of especially unique circumstances of illustrating somebody else’s life story. What were some of the challenges of drawing Omar’s memories?

JAMIESON: I think the biggest challenge is that I was so honored to be part of it. And it’s such a sacred task to interpret someone’s life story when it’s not my life story. They’re not my memories. So that was the most important thing for me: just to make sure that I was being as close to Omar’s story and personal life as I could be. That I wasn’t taking any liberties as an author, which I did sometimes, and we had to, like, bring it in. And then we talked about what actually happened. So I had to kind of learn along the way that this isn’t my story. It’s not a place for my opinion. It was really a place to sit back and listen really closely and just relay the information as quickly as I could.

I’m thinking about your style, specifically, because you have a pretty distinct style in all of your work. Did you feel like it was challenging to mesh your personal style with a different person’s story? Or did it come together kind of organically?

JAMIESON: I think the visual part came together fairly organically just because I don’t really have a choice as to how my art comes out. And I think maybe that was a challenge. And I know Omar had thought about writing the story as his book for adults. Maybe that goes back to your first question, how does the project change? I only write for kids. I couldn’t write an adult memoir; that wasn’t something I could do. I’m always interested in kids and specifically 11-12 year-olds, that middle-grade audience, and that’s why I was interested in telling a story of what it’s like to be a kid in a refugee camp. I didn’t struggle that much with editing my style with a story because that’s what I was interested in: what’s it like living in a refugee camp?

So, Omar, can you tell me a little bit about your experience on the other side of this, having your memories translated into pictures from an illustrator? Was there anything that you felt particularly strongly needed to be in Victoria’s artwork?

MOHAMED: In the beginning, because me now knowing what I know—and also seeing the book now how it came out—I feel sometimes bad for Victoria Jamieson because I get to make her to do a lot of work! I just go and she asked me, I told her, “No, this way is this, and that, and this, and that.” Sometimes I think, “Can we do this so I give you less work?” And for me, I had zero experience. I only knew what I knew. It was my personal story about that refugee camp of all this time, but she’s the one doing the artwork. And some of the things that I really wanted to share was those who had influence in my life, like my foster mom, and Susana Martinez, the social worker who helped me and Hassan my friends, also others. I didn’t want this story only to be me because there’s millions stories from refugees, from villages, but we have a lot of common things in our stories like struggle, fleeing from our home countries. So I wanted to show other people’s story within my story. So that’s something I really wanted to be included in the book, both in the story side and also in artwork side.

So again, Omar, this is your life story. And obviously, there is so much that I’m assuming got left out of this. How did you approach paring down your experiences into a story that would fit in the allotted pages that you have? And was there anything that was particularly difficult for you to leave out?

MOHAMED: Yeah, because for example, [in] the book, as you may read or so, we try to start from our childhood and then skip some, to when I was about 13 and 14, then we came to our conclusion. There were a lot that left because, for example, we didn’t include what happened to my three sisters before we flee from Somalia. And there’s also other good friends with also different stories, not only Jeri and Ali, but you couldn’t mention each one of them on the book. Also, we didn’t say much about Fatuma, which was my stepmom. We only mentioned her, we don’t mention about her husband or her kids, what happened to them, something of that sort. So, I think, with the help of Victoria, we were able to highlight what was most important and I think we did that.

Did you end up combining some characters into the group of friends that you had in the camp? I feel like I read that in the author’s note in the back.

MOHAMED: Yeah, there was some characters that were real but Victoria came up with most of the ideas about like Maryam and Nimo, although they were similar stories that have been exempted. And coincidentally, they were still (both names) girls that were my friends. And it was something that was commonly in that refugee camp, that much of the story of Maryam, of the story of Nimo, of the story of Ali and Jeri, so yes.

So, can you tell me a little bit more about your collaborative process on the book? Obviously, Omar, you came with a full-fledged story and Victoria, you came with your own background and style and art. What was it like working together to make what we all read now?

MOHAMED: It was really hard for Victoria. For me, in the beginning, I gave her the rough draft as written before. So she has to go over, through all that. And that rough draft was meant for authors. And then the next step wasI had two full time jobs, too, at that timemeeting with Victoria. We used to always have communication, text message, Facebook, even she comes to my, when I’m at work or weekends, even at home or my house, where she asks me follow-up questions after she emails me and I answer all the questions. And then we meet where we specifically go over any detailed question that Victoria may have, too. Then she comes with her artwork where we go over together and say this is how it was, like this writing, this, this, and that. So, it was really time-consuming for her, but for me, it wasn’t that way.

JAMIESON: Well, like you said, you had two full time jobs going. I’m so grateful; it’s still time that he had to take out, and [with] a family at home, too. So yeah, we had meetings. And then when it came to doing the artwork, I did most of the work at home, and then we would meet every so often and I’d bring new pages to show him. I think during that time, Omar, was when I would text you like 10 times a day. That was one of the hard parts: making sure all the art was correct to that time frame when Omar and Hassan lived in the camps, because Dadaab has changed so much in the year since they left. So, I’d be doing the marketplace from pictures online, and I’d have to make sure that they matched what it was like when they were actually living there, not what it looks like today.

I think that you touched on this a little bit, Omar, in the back matter to the book, but I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit to what you hope readers take away from When Stars Are Scattered?

MOHAMED: I hope readers [know], first of all, it was more about education of where, I really wanted people to know who those refugees are. Because we only see about refugees, villages, coming to America, going to Canada, so I really wanted people to know who those refugees that you always hear from the news, that we always hear from our elected officials, who those refugees are. That is one thing I wanted to be able to educate about. And I wanted people to know and understand that those refugees didn’t choose to be refugees and no human being wants to be a refugee. The last thing I ever wanted for myself was to grow up in a refugee camp where nothing was available to me; no resources, nothing was available to me. So that’s one thing I really wanted people to know and understand about who those refugees are. Also, the other thing people wanted to learn is that one kind thing that you do for human beings, it may have a huge change on his entire life. For example, if Susana Martinez, the social worker with the UNHCR who helped me with the school uniform, looks at the small kind [thing], I was able to go finish my high school and now speak with you in English that I’ve learned back home and also when I came to America. So you don’t know one small thing that you do for another human being, the influence it may have on them. It may be small from your side, but it may change his or her entire life. So never never think one small kind act doesn’t mean anything to you. It may mean a lot to them. So that’s some of the things that I really wanted people to take from this book.

JAMIESON: And, for me, one of the things I hope [is] that after people and kids read the book, they’ll check out Refugee Strong. That was one of my biggest hopes for the book: that they’ll see the important work that Omar is doing now, going back to Dadaab, and bringing school supplies to kids who are going to school there. And yeah, I think that was one of my big hopes. When I first started volunteering, it was kind of because I felt like the refugee crisis was far away and there was nothing I could do here in America. But there’s lots you could do in America, I realized. You can volunteer in your community, you can do fundraising. Where Omar works, they always have drives for laptops or backpacks to help new arrivals to the United States kind of get accustomed. That’s my other hope: that kids will realize there’s a lot they can do personally to help.

That’s wonderful. Okay, we are coming up on our last question: can you please tell me about a time that libraries or librarians helped you in any way?

JAMIESON: I’ll start because I’m very excited by this question. I was very excited to see it on your list because I spent, I’d say, like three quarters of my childhood in the library. We were just always at the library—all the time. We were there so often that my mom eventually got hired to work there. Like she didn’t have a degree in library science. She was like, you’re here all the time anyway, why don’t you just work here? So, so much of my childhood was just wrapped up in the public library and doing summer reading programs. And when we got into middle school and high school, my mom learned all the gossip around town from the library. Like, kids would come in on Saturday and she’s like, I hear so and so is dating so and so. How do you know that? So, libraries have always been such a big part of my life. I can’t imagine life without them.

MOHAMED: For me, even at my time, there was only one library in that refugee camp, and nothing was there actually. So we used to go and read the newspapers from local newspapers. But when they came to the U.S., that is actually the place I live most of the time, especially my four year in college, I always loved their caring. Also, whenever I was struggling sometimes, I never knew how to get a membership. And once you’ve got [one], tons of stuff comes from the library and they were very friendly and wonderful. I also didn’t have internet, I didn’t have computer, I had nothing, I just came to America, so that is where I used to go all the time to read books and also do something, like look up something from computers, also online to use the Internet, from the libraries. Imagine: now Dadaab is only one small library, actually nothing. So there’s also some of the stuff that I will, my goal is to have also how I can improve Refugee Strong libraries in those refugee camps to maybe at least have one library in every refugee camp instead of having one for three different camps.

Thank you so much, Omar and Victoria, for joining us today. This has been a lovely conversation.

JAMIESON: Can I say real quick our colorist was Iman Geddy and she was fantastic, such a wonderful colorist.

Yeah, colorists don’t get a lot of attention, but they do some really heavy lifting for graphic novels, so thank you for mentioning her. Thanks also to our sponsor, Penguin Young Readers, for making this interview possible! And, we’ll see you next time.

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