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Graphic novel 'LUKUMI,' from Kalamazoo-based artist, centers on relationships between Black women

cover of LUKUMI by Maya James, depicting three faces drawn in bright colors
Sophia Saliby
/
WKAR-MSU

The new graphic novella LUKUMI follows the relationship between two Black women and what happens when tragedy pulls them apart.

Kalamazoo-based artist Maya James both wrote and illustrated the book.

She has also had her works exhibited during Artprize 2018 in Grand Rapids.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with James about the book and her inspiration behind the story.

Interview Highlights

On the title of the graphic novella

Lukumi is a Yoruba phrase. The translation that I can think of best would be "original people," kind of like the Anishinaabe word in Anishinaabemowin meaning like the "original people," or "The People of the Three Fires." So, lukumi is kind of, to me, a word that's a call to action to Black people, all over the nation, to remember our roots and where we came from.

On the dedication at the beginning of the book

That passage is basically acknowledging the two groups of people that we need to bring together in order to end misogynoir, and in my opinion, that's the women and women of color in our communities, extending their hands to each other. And it's also the fathers making sure that they are not participating in the misogynoir.

On her art style

If you look at my style, it's kind of like, I have a realism to it, but there's also like a surrealism to it. And I really like magical fiction or like magical realism, and the idea that our world can be fantastical while also being all of the harsh and difficult and maybe unforgiving ways that it is.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: The new graphic novella, LUKUMI, A Story For My Father follows the relationship between two Black women and what happens when tragedy pulls them apart.

Kalamazoo-based artist Maya James both wrote and illustrated the book.

She has also had her works exhibited during Artprize 2018 in Grand Rapids.

Maya joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Maya James: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Saliby: Can you tell me about what the title of your book means just to start?

James: Lukumi is a Yoruba phrase. The translation that I can think of best would be "original people," kind of like the Anishinaabe word in Anishinaabemowin meaning like the "original people," or "The People of the Three Fires."

Lukumi is kind of, to me, a word that's a call to action to Black people, all over the nation, to remember our roots and where we came from.

So, lukumi is kind of, to me, a word that's a call to action to Black people, all over the nation, to remember our roots and where we came from.

Saliby: The book is subtitled as "a story for my father." I'd like you to read the passage that opens the book, and then maybe talk a little bit about that dedication.

James:

A Dedication:

To Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Mella McCormick, & all the women who love & believe my truth; to all the powerful young black + mixed girls who will pick up where we left off:

Thank You.

The story is for my father. And his father.

...And his father, and for the fathers after that.
For the generations and generations of my ancestors that never knew their faith, and for my Baba, Ifabayoa Adesanya Awoyade Kefentse, who gave me the space to find mine, unshook by the trauma Maafa, the colonial trans-Atlantic genocide, has inflicted to divide our community.

Back Lives Matter.

That passage is basically acknowledging the two groups of people that we need to bring together in order to end misogynoir, and in my opinion, that's the women and women of color in our communities, extending their hands to each other.

And it's also the fathers making sure that they are not participating in the misogynoir, in the misogyny that affects their youth and their femme youth and youth of color.

Saliby: This is your first graphic novella. You've painted murals. You've done other types of visual art as well as performed spoken poetry. What about this story was important to tell in this medium of a book?

James: So, the call for entries with Maamoul Press, which is the publisher, and they did an excellent job, was doing original stories that come from people's identities and cultures.

And for me, I felt like at that time, especially in 2018, I was struggling to gain the trust and celebrate and empower other women of color in my community, while also being respectful of their boundaries and making sure that I can also respect myself as a woman of color.

I want to see strong relationships between women of color, but I also want to see the acknowledgement of violence against us without it being the entire story.

And I think that friendships between women of color aren't often portrayed in media, so I wanted to make sure that I used this opportunity to create a visual story that connects to women of color, specifically, a woman of color who's light-skinned and a woman of color who's dark-skinned to portray the things that I want to see in the world. So, I want to see strong relationships between women of color, but I also want to see the acknowledgement of violence against us without it being the entire story.

So, I wanted to make sure that when I was creating LUKUMI, that I was creating a story about the things that I wasn't seeing in media, and also the things that I wish could happen between me and other women of color, especially in our friendships and relationships. And that is, if we don't get the time to forgive each other, and we don't see each other again, knowing that we love each other and knowing that we do forgive each other.

Saliby: And just as a last question, can you talk about how your art style has informed the drawings on each page of your book?

To kind of describe it for listeners, they're sketch-like and not to say they're unrefined, but they're full of detail. You can see where you've drawn each character and setting, and there are some panels that are full of color, a lot of bright, vibrant color.

James: If you look at my style, it's kind of like, I have a realism to it, but there's also like a surrealism to it. And I really like magical fiction or like magical realism, and the idea that our world can be fantastical while also being all of the harsh and difficult and maybe unforgiving ways that it is.

I think when I look at myself in the mirror, when I look at other people, I see this magical bright vibrance that really brings out the beauty in things even when things are difficult for me and people that I love.

Because I think, from my eyes, everything kind of looks like my style. I think when I look at myself in the mirror, when I look at other people, I see this magical bright vibrance that really brings out the beauty in things even when things are difficult for me and people that I love.

Saliby: Maya James is a Kalamazoo-based artist. Her new graphic novella is LUKUMI, A Story For My Father. Thank you for joining me.

James: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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