Monday, September 5, 2022

Q&A with Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl



Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl is the author of two recent biographies for middle graders, one of Beyoncé and one of Nelson Mandela. The books are part of the First Names series. Isdahl's other books include the children's picture book Sing to the Moon. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.


Q: How did you come to write these biographies of Nelson Mandela and Beyoncé?


A: My agent approached me with the idea after the UK publisher, David Fickling Books, had seen a travel series manuscript of mine and thought I might be a good fit. I had a call with the series editor to learn more and was sold.


I was particularly excited to take on the project (even though it was my first attempt at middle grade) because I had been living in South Africa for many years at that point and the opportunity to write about Nelson Mandela was one that I couldn’t pass up. And, I’m a Beyoncé fan!


Q: How did you research the books, and did you learn anything about each of these figures that especially surprised you?


A: I read widely – from books to online articles, etc. Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams wrote an autobiography of Destiny’s Child that was very helpful.


Another interesting data source for Beyoncé was a case study written by a professor at Harvard Business School about her self-titled album, released in 2013. It gave tremendous insight into her process. I also watched Beyoncé’s documentary and lots of online interviews.


For Mandela, I read his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, along with other texts about him (of which there are many!). I also watched movies and listened to the freedom songs from that time period, etc. I had already visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, so felt I had a grasp of that.

Also, simply by living in Johannesburg, I had good perspective about Nelson Mandela and the setting in which he lived because his legacy is reflected throughout the city and much of the book is set in Johannesburg.


For example, I had driven by some of the more infamous places highlighted in the book (e.g., the Old Fort) prior to getting the commission and without fully understanding their significance. I had also been to his house in Soweto years earlier. All of that was helpful. I felt immersed, in a way. 


In terms of surprising facts, I had no idea that Nelson Mandela was so theatrical. He really made a show of it when he was a courtroom lawyer! In keeping with his theatrical nature, he also had a terrific sense of humor. That he had such a sense of humor in such trying times was unbelievable to me. I’d imagined him to be very sober and serious given the appalling socio-political realities he lived in.


With Beyoncé, I was surprised that she was such an astute businesswoman. She has been so strategic with her music and other business ventures. And I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the strategy wasn’t simply to make more money (although I’m sure that was part of the calculus).


But she has tried to make space for women, black women in particular, and black culture, too, in the music world and beyond. I applaud her for that. She has made millions of people feel seen. 


Q: These two people might seem very different, but did you see any threads that tied the two biographies together?


A: Persistence. Nelson Mandela, even after more than two decades in prison, never gave up. It’s beyond comprehension to me that he was able to remain steadfast and stoic in those conditions.


In her own way, Beyoncé has persisted. This is clearly show by the longevity of her career. She released an album to critical acclaim just last month. And I’m hoping that the young ones reading either of the books understood that message: Never give up!


Q: What do you think the illustrations, by Nicole Miles and Tammy Taylor respectively, added to the books?


A: I think both sets of illustrations were brilliant. Tammy Taylor was able to capture that “wow” factor and Beyonce’s bravado through her illustrations. She also helped to show some of the silliness.


Nicole Miles brought levity to what can only be described as a harrowing experience. There was something about seeing the brutality of discrimination through the images that was striking, but also allowed you to look. I think for Nelson in particular, the illustrations were critical. In both cases, however, I think the illustrations elevated the text.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on two middle grade projects at the moment, and a travel series for kids that highlights 20 African countries!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think I’ve covered it all. Thanks so much!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl.

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