The Griot Writers Continue to Shine - Nia Centre for the Arts

The Griot Writers Continue to Shine

By Nia Centre, p
Posted on March 9, 2023

Black writers have been pushing the boundaries of Canadian literature for decades now. From poets like George Elliot Clarke, figures like Dionne Brand and Esi Edugyan and contemporary talents like Francesca Ekwuyasi and Andre Alexis : we have always used literature as a way to share our stories and imagine new worlds.

In 2021, we launched Black Pen: an intensive creative writing program for emerging writers, in partnership with Penguin Random House Canada. The program gave 6 writers the opportunity to dive into the canon of Black CanLit, unpack myths and assumptions about literary structures and engage in dialogue with each other. The group of writers included : Saherla Osman, Onyka Gairey, Kais Padamshi, Yvvana Yeboah Duku, Omi Rodney and Adeola Egbeyemi , who collaborated to build this incredible piece of work.

Griot writers at work in their sessions with facilitator Whitney French

Black Pen was envisioned and created with multidisciplinary artist and writer Whitney French. With years of facilitation under her belt, French was able to guide the writers through their exploration process. In addition, guest facilitators like Tea Mutonji and Lue Palmer brought unique perspectives on the craft and much needed representation. For writer Onyka Gairey, the weekly sessions were an opportunity for self-discovery and playing with the identity of being a writer, and what it means to be a writer. “Whitney is an incredible mentor and deserves all her flowers” says Onyka. “Her facilitation has a way of making everyone feel comfortable but also brave. She encourages curiosity and care in both writing and critique”.

Onyka found the program through social media. Unsure of if they had enough experience or confidence for a program like this one, they didn’t apply until the last minute. “I’m so glad I changed my mind” they say, recalling those early emotions. Onyka’s stories Raintown Comin’ Down and Stone Fruit blend science fiction, mythology and fables with Black culture and experiences. Of the experience, Onyka recounts “I’m proud of myself for having the courage to finish my stories and share them on that scale. ” 

Onyka Gairey

The entire process of Black Pen culminated in each writer submitting their work to a chapbook called Griot: Six Writers Sojourn into the Dark. Published by Penguin Random House, the chapbook was distributed to independent bookstores across Canada, and is currently available as an E-book on Apple Books. The chapbook launched during Black Futures Month 2022, and due to covid restrictions: the launch was held online. The power of writing was alive and well on the zoom call, where dozens of creatives, friends and family logged on to celebrate the achievements of these talented young people.

For writer Saherla Osman, the journey to the Black Pen program began with her family. “I found out about the program through my sister - she was involved in a photography program with the Nia Centre at the time and told me to apply to this.” Still, Osman had to overcome the familiar feeling of procrastination and self doubt. “I told my writer friends that if I had enough energy to fill out an application on the very last day, then I would do it.” Coming into the sessions and working collectively with other writers was also a new experience for her. “ I was really nervous at first, since I'm introverted, to get to know everyone apart from the program. But Whitney  brought this bright energy that kept me motivated to write and to participate.” 

Through the weekly sessions, Osman was able to step out of her comfort zone and create works that pushed at the boundaries of her imagination. “I am really proud that I got to be vulnerable in my poetry piece ‘Five’ because I had actually written it during a time that I really struggled with being vocal about how I felt - it shows a part of me and my life that I hadn't shared with many people. Whereas my short story ‘Nus and Ogona’ was the complete opposite. It shows a more whimsical  and youthful side of my writing. So I am really proud that I shared two sides of the spectrum in terms of what I am able to write”.

For both Onyka and Saherla, the response from their families was the most cherished part of the experience. “My family is actually my biggest support and while they may not have understood why I was always scribbling on random pieces of paper, seeing the physical book for Griot really put it into perspective for them what I had been working on”. Similarly, for Onyka, the book created an opportunity for families to gather and celebrate their talented child. “I have lots of family in Toronto and everyone was very supportive,” they tell us. “It was a race to get ‘Griot’ off of the shelves. Pretty sure my Dad, Grandfather and Uncle all went to Another Story Bookshop on the same day.” 

'Griot' on display at Another Story Bookshop in Parkdale, Toronto

Community organizations can be the first place that many young people go to connect with each other and explore their interests. For artists, community spaces are often the first place that they get to experiment with their crafts and find supportive guides and mentors along their journey. Since they both timidly entered the Black Pen program, both Onyka and Saherla have gone on to achieve incredible things, along a very similar path. 

Since their story was published, Onyka has racked up an impressive amount of work as a writer in children's television. After completing the BIPOC TV & Film’s Kids Tv writing program in 2022, they have found themselves in more than a few writing rooms. Recently, they got their first credit as script coordinator on a kids tv show called Mixed Up. Currently, Onyka works as the Project Management Coordinator of The Black Academy’s Skills Development Program where just this year, they attended the live taping of the Legacy Awards. Still, Onyka’s writing remains at the top of mind and they are working towards finishing a novel soon. 

Saherla Osman

“Since the book was published,” says Saherla “I was selected to be apart of BIPOC TV & Film's Kids TV Writing Incubator, where I have been learning how to write tv for kids, write scripts and now I am working with a wonderful mentor on my own preschool kids show idea. I also got to be a part of writing for What Matters Most at the AGO and creating  the  poem ‘Twice Removed’ from a polaroid  that really spoke to me from the exhibit. This was really a surreal moment, as I often visit the AGO but never really dreamed I would get to work with them on a project that showcased Black life so authentically.” 

We’re incredibly proud of the journey that these young, talented people are on. If you want to share in the magic, you can download Griot: Six Writers Sojourn into the Dark as a no-cost ebook on Apple Books and Google Play Store

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