Talking with . . .

Cristina Kessler

All of Cristina Kessler's books are listed in our Bibliography of Peace Corps Writers.

An interview by John Coyne
Cristina Kessler was, it seems, a Volunteer forever. She served in Honduras, from 1973 to ’75, then Kenya 1975 and ’76, then she went to the Seychelles from 1976 to ’78. Today she lives in Bamako, Mali where her husband, also an RPCV, is the CARE director.
     We caught up with her — well, actually, Cristina caught up with us, having heard about our newsletter and now website from her friend Suzi Bouveron (Gabon 1991–93) who is a Peace Corps trainer in Bamako.
     Since then, we have been corresponding via e-mail. Cristina is one of a handful of RPCVs who have written children’s books. And for Cristina, that has been quite a few.
     For those RPCVs interested in writing books for children, I asked Cristina a few questions on how she went about it.
  Do you have an agent?
  Yes I do have an agent, but I didn’t for my first three books. Having an agent has definitely improved my writing life, but, like I said, I sold three books without an agent.
Tell about the publishing of your first book.
My first kid’s book, One Night: A Story from the Desert, was published by Philomel, the children’s division of Penguin/Putnam. I went through the regular submission process, and was lucky to be published.
     I also went to the Chautauqua Children’s Writer conference put on by Highlights for Children. This really did get my career rolling because I met my mentor there, who is my editor at Philomel, and a lot of other important and inspirational people. I’d highly recommend doing something like that.
  In your children books, how did you get the illustrator? Did you
arrange this, or the publisher?
  The publisher always selects the artist unless you are good enough to illustrate your own work. I have had input on refusing an illustrator, and in most cases I provide a lot of material (photos, porcupine quills, that sort of thing) to the artist so that they can be sure to be culturally correct in their rendering of African life.
Why do you write children’s books?

I have a personal writing agenda which is to get the good news out about Africa. So often people only hear about drought, chaos and war in Africa, while there are a lot of good things going on. One Night celebrates the Tuareg culture of Niger, All the King’s Animals tells a little-known African conservation success story, and Konte Chameleon, Fine, Fine, Fine! re-tells a folk tale from West Africa about why the chameleon never hurries.
     My newest book, No Condition Is Permanent, is the first time I have written something that questions an aspect of African life — female circumcision, while simultaneously celebrating rural African life. It’s crucial to me that all my books portray the beauty and reality of life in Africa. I write only about the places I know firsthand. The two books coming out this year are set in Sudan and Swaziland. My Great-grandmother's Gourd is about storing water in baobab trees, and combining new technology with traditional practices. Jubela is about rhino poaching and is based on a true story from Swaziland.
Tell us a little about No Condition Is Permanent.
I lived in Makeni, Sierra Leone from 1981 to 1983. Makeni is the 3rd largest town in the country, but rarely had electricity, never had running water, and always had snakes. Cobras, puff adders, two-headed asps and mambas, in the house or around it.
     Most of the events in this book are based on my experiences there. We traveled a lot around the country, for recreation and for visiting projects my husband was in charge of for CARE. Mekeni is where I started my writing career, with a little portable typewriter facing the wall, and a journal that was with me constantly. Many of the events in the book, like encountering the snake woman in the market, snakes in the house, and horrendous bus rides come straight from the pages of my journals.
     Our favorite spot in Sierra Leone was a beach where we would camp, close to a village like Bukama. The name Bukama is made-up, but the scenes and descriptions of village life are real. Khadi’s physical appearance is based on a beautiful young woman I met up-country, who was the main dancer for her village celebrating the opening of a bridge. Khadi’s personality is based on the many Sierra Leonean women friends I have, who were forever kind, fun-loving in difficult conditions, and ready to dance at the drop of a hat.
     The Secret Society is still a very important element of culture in Sierra Leone. Our home in Makeni backed up to the bush and was close to a Secret Society power spot, so they often danced by, singing, swaying, entranced looking. On one occasion, a Sierra Leonean friend saw me watching them pass. She told me, “They see you they go circumcise you!” I hit the floor faster than plaster falling off a ceiling during an earthquake.
     Our last year in Sierra Leone was a big initiation/circumcision year. There were drums and dancing and decorated beautiful young women everywhere, strutting their stuff. All those descriptions in the books come from my journals.
Why did you write this book about circumcision?
I felt I was walking a fine line writing the book. I don’t have the right to expose Sande traditions, and that was easy to avoid since I don’t know anything that’s not common knowledge. Female genital mutilation is part of the common knowledge. As a PCV in Kenya in 1975-76, I ran an orphanage. 99% of the women looking for children to adopt or foster were unmarried, sterile women, all victims of botched circumcisions. Not only have they dealt with the agony of the process, but also the robbing of their lives, for no one will marry a sterile woman. I decided back then that someday I would do something to try and help prevent more generations of sterile women. There are currently lots of African women saying, “Not my daughters,” and that’s how circumcision will die. I’m here to encourage these women, and back-up their efforts anyway I can.
Have you thought about writing about your own Peace Corps
experience in a non-fiction account?
Not really as the theme of a book. I am working on a book that is a collection of Third World vignettes that will include some Peace Corps experiences.
How would you suggest people get started writing children’s books?
My advice is to get started, and be patient. The competition out there is immense, so whatever a new writer writes it has to stand out from all the rest. The old adage of "write what you know" is particularly important if you are going to do cross-cultural books. I only write about places I have lived in or spent a long amount of time in. If you have a book come out that is culturally incorrect then it will probably be your last book. Bottom line though is just go for it. Just start writing and work on it until it's the best it can be. When you do send it out, make sure that you follow the standard manuscript format so you look like a pro.
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