Yolanda T. Marshall: “I want Caribbean kids to feel loved and seen!”

17 minutes

Yolanda T. (T is for Tatiana) Marshall is a Toronto-based Guyanese children’s book author with an infectious personality. For her, making sure that there is real Caribbean representation in children’s literature is a mission as cultural as it is personal. Together we discuss her journey and passion for our vast Caribbean culture.

“You know, with Caribbean culture, we’re so vibrant, we’re so open, we have fun… it doesn’t mean we don’t have it tough, but we hold on to a joy or something inside us, this essence that we have and never leaves us wherever we go around the world.”

The least anyone could say is that Yolanda T. Marshall LOVES Caribbean culture. Its diversity, its vastness, its richness but most importantly, its people. At a crossroads of influences and a history marked by slavery and colonialism, there is one thing Caribbean people share – resilience. And that is what Yolanda chose to turn her attention to. A resolve nurtured by a pan-Caribbean childhood.

“I was born in Guyana, but my dad is Afro-Bajan. His father who was a Marcus Garvey follower, fled Barbados after people rebelled against the colonial state. My mum worked for the government and often travelled across South America and the Caribbean region… and I got to come along. I was introduced early on to books about Africa, so from a young age, I had a concept of who my ancestors were or what my brothers and sisters in the Caribbean looked like, their accents, etc.”

Yolanda has always had a creative mind, encouraged by her father, a jazz musician. As early as eight years old, she was a prolific lyricist and poet and learned to play the guitar, almost a family tradition.

“Most of the people on my dad’s side play the guitar. They’re all so talented. They all play an instrument. So here I am, a ten-year-old playing my grandfather’s guitar at school. I would make up songs and started poetry when I was about eight. It was my thing; I was known for that.”

In a family where artistic dispositions quite literally run through the bloodline, Yolanda knows that living her passion freely is not frowned upon while being acutely aware that sacrificing stability for a more bohemian lifestyle is not on the table – a lesson a lot of Caribbean kids learn prematurely.

“My dad comes from a Christian home, and he had to battle alone. He wanted to play his jazz when his family wanted him to be in the church! So, I grew up knowing I could be whatever I wanted to be thanks to him. But even after I published my first book, I never thought of it as a business. It was all for the love of literature. You still have bills to pay, so you have to have that stable ground under you.”

At age 14, a young Yolanda moves to Canada with her mother. In Toronto, she experiences a cultural melting pot where Caribbean cultures blend into each other, so much so that she easily felt at home. But it wouldn’t be long before she realised something fundamental was missing: representation.

“My son will never understand he is one of the lucky ones. He has always known how it feels like to be represented. He inspires most of my stories. But I have never known that. My younger sister, she’s 29, and she’s never known that either.”

The Obayifo years: the legacy of telling your story

Since embarking on her serendipitous journey, Yolanda has released seven children’s books, with one coming out in the second half of 2022. But before the author found her niche, she started her career in 2008 with a self-published poetry book that sold out the night of its launch party – Obayifo.

“Any poetry you will see from me will be in children’s books now, especially as a mum. It brings out the child in me, but Obayigo and the subsequent Messages of Dried Leaves were about my growth, my journey into adulthood. I had written hundreds of poems and didn’t want to leave them to rot on a paper somewhere.”

Beyond the artistic calling, there is already in Obayifo the budding desire to represent Caribbean culture in the public eye, to find and give a voice to people who are often left unseen as they try to merge themselves into the all-dominating white Canadian culture.

“I was around 25 when I attended the University of Toronto. I remember going to see Lorna Goodison who was launching her book at the time. She was so inspiring. She spoke about the importance of writing about our culture, of having a voice but most importantly, how telling your own story can impact the younger generations.”

A message Yolanda would never forget. As much as Obayifo is about growth, it is about embracing one’s roots. A quick search will let you know that the obayifo is a vampire-witch figure we inherited from West African folklore, otherwise known as soucouyant or old hag / old higue across Caribbean nations. The terrifying figure would change into a ball of fire and destroy cane fields or feed off the blood of newborn babies.

Obayifo is really about this old Obeah woman from my childhood. I remember her leaving food for Papa Brown, her man, who had died but mostly, I remember the neighbours being scared of her. I read a lot on the topic and realised how much colonialism alienated us from ourselves and scared us into abandoning African spirituality. I wanted to write about her because I wanted to preserve her, preserve this culture because, yes, you’re scared, but she’s so powerful!“

“So that’s what most of my literature does – preserving, celebrating. I don’t want to talk about enslavement and all this stuff.”

After Obayifo, things went quiet for Yolanda. Not for long. Rocked by the mundanity of everyday life, the author found herself juggling work and family duties. Pregnant with her first child, she is struck again with the disheartening realisation that literature catering to young Caribbean kids is nowhere to be found.

Representation is a balm for the heart

“The birth of my son inspired all of that. When I didn’t find books to represent him, I was like… I write and there are a lot of picture books that are essentially poems. My first book, Keman’s First Carnival, the story of a little black boy’s first visit to Caribana[1], is actually a short poem that I turned into a picture book, and that was that easy. My son loved it. He was one, and he’d repeat the same words as in the book ‘Mum, it’s carnival day!’ because that is what Keman would wake up and say.”

Carnival was not an innocuous choice. Caribana is one of the highest profile events that a majority of Canadian children of Caribbean descent will experience as they wave their flag, buy traditional food, dance to soca music and see the mass. It had to be relevant and festive but also an element of pride. Carnival is not this exotic, once-in-a-year festival, it is deeply ingrained into Caribbean culture with its own meaning, its own symbolic value.

“Caribana is the biggest street festival in North America and it was here in Toronto. It was the first time I thought that it was all great, but there were no books about it for my son. That’s why the first story had to be something I know that as a Canadian child, he’s gonna see it and feel like ‘Wow, we’re really running things! This is us!’”

Keman’s first carnival was also self-published. For Yolanda, it was a small thing, something she did for her son first and foremost. And yet, year after year, she would publish a new book like clockwork. A piece of black cake for Santa, Sweet sorrel stand… all explore with awe pieces of Caribbean culture that children live and breathe but rarely read about.

”Being a mother, I realised those first few years – the most important years – our children never get to see themselves in books; they normalise it with a greater negative impact on their psyche.”

“Toronto is multicultural and Caribbean people have always played a pivotal role in shaping the culture. Many hip-hop artists come from a Caribbean background and if they don’t, they might even have a Caribbean accent. But because of my childhood, I know how we’re made to feel ashamed of our accents and dialects. It’s labelled as low-class and ghetto.

Representation is lifting up Caribbean kids

And so, Yolanda invested her own money to fill this gap using IngramSparks as a home for her work. It was financially manageable for the recently divorced author who only had to pay for illustration and limited publishing fees. No fuss, no promotion, it wasn’t a career after all, and other parents could find the book on Amazon if anyone asked. Unknowingly, Yolanda had put her finger on something bigger than herself and the machine she’d just put in motion had no intention to stop, whether she liked it or not.

“That was until people started contacting me asking that get my book to this or that store.”

The author dismissed it, thinking “maybe one day”. But then parents and teachers started calling too. They wanted to know if Yolanda did school readings.

“I said no, I’m a working mum, I do not have the time. At that point, I realised all the people were really serious about this, so I agreed to check out this library which used to organise after-school readings regularly.”

It’s when Yolanda truly grasped the impact of her work. The manager, who was Caribbean as well, recognised her immediately and was more than happy to arrange a session with neighbouring schools. Needless to say, it was jam-packed!

“It was the first time I was reading for kids other than my own. I remember them looking at me and thinking it’s not every day they see a black author in real life.”

”I whipped out Sweet sorrel stand and the mood in the room shifted. ‘Sweet sorrel like the drink we have at home?’”

”They were looking at each other with anticipation, they were paying attention, they were in shock. Kids are so smart and funny. They would come with their little notepads and ask me for the sweet sorrel recipe with the exact measurements. It was indescribable.”

Since her first after-school reading, Yolanda has read for over 80,000 students. The effect is always the same. Eyes lit up with excitement, the kids feel free to proudly express their love for their tiny nations in the great Canadian expanse.

“When I read Miles away in the Caribbean, a story where the little Miles visits all 15 Caricom nations, Montserrat kids will scream ‘Hey, I’m from there!’, Jamaican kids too and so on and so forth. At the end of the session, they come to me, asking for hugs or to touch the book because they can’t believe it actually exists.”

Representation is healing long-wounded inner children

Still, the biggest surprise comes from parents, grandparents and childless adults who happen to make up a huge part of the authors’ following. If they often buy her books for their little ones or little ones around them, they do it just as much for themselves or their adult friends, healing their inner children in the process.

“Adults tag me all the time, explaining they bought my book for themselves. Parents are embracing it, they’re also very curious. During the pandemic, I held a few virtual readings and they would ask me which parts of Guyana I’m from just to make sure because they’re completely stunned.”

”I also remember this woman who told me that her Grenadian husband started crying when he read the book because he couldn’t believe it.”

Beyond the Caribbean community, Yolanda’s work ripples across cultural lines, picking the interest of curious minds.

“Parents who are not Caribbean gravitate towards it because they’re vaguely aware and have never seen it in literature. When it comes to kids, it opens the dialogue for them whether they’ve visited a Caribbean country or share cultural similarities. I always make sure to include elements of Indo-Caribbean culture in my stories because they’re often left out which gives the opportunity to Pakistani and Indian kids to feel represented too.”

Yolanda is now agented and traditionally published and getting ready to release her eighth children’s book, Christmas elves being themselves.

“I’m speeding up a hill at the moment. Working with Chalkboard Publishing has been positive. When we were working on My soca birthday party, which to me is my most Pan-Africanist book ever, I was clear I wasn’t going to water down the story and the CEO’s response was great!”

Yolanda, who works in publishing too, has clear goals – to educate others and amplify Caribbean voices. In her spare time, she writes a column – The Lit Corner – promoting other writers for The Caribbean Camera.

“At the end of the day, what I want is to preserve and celebrate our culture. I’ve run into adults who still hold a negative bias. It’s important we decolonise our minds and that’s what my books are about. There is no place to feel ashamed of what makes us, us in this generation. We’re proud and we’re not going to be silent! All I want is for Caribbean kids to feel loved and seen.”

[1] Caribana is Toronto’s Caribbean carnival taking place over the summer