Friday, 20 November 2015

Large Fears

Myles Johnson, author of the self-published children's book, Large Fears - a book for queer black boys and anyone else who's ever been scared - talks to Catriona Troth about phobias, dreams and intersectionality


Hi, Myles. Could you start by telling our readers about Large Fears?

Large Fears is a children's book I wrote centered around Jeremiah Nebula, the black boy that loves pink. It began as a kind of reconciliation with phobias and traumas I acquired while being a young black queer boy in the world. I wanted to create something that turned the ugly things that I faced as a child into something beautiful and inspiring.

This is a very personal book for you. Tell us something about what it means to you.

To sort of expand on it, it really is me having a conversation with my childhood and with every child that feels ostracized. Since creating this book and coinciding projects, I've felt like the dark things that I have gone through in my childhood and early adulthood have been for a purpose now that I am able to see how many people resonate with the story.

You also run workshops for children based around the book. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

The Large Fears Workshop is a workshop we conceptualized around helping children, and adults, conquer and discuss their fears. We used art projects and literature to help kids describe their fears, used concepts of community to help discuss ways to conquer their fears and ultimately reach their dreams. The idea is to help kids know through honesty, art, community, and belief there is not a fear large enough to stop them from their dream.
Reading from Large Fears at a workshop
©Devin Johnson / http://www.overdosedondope.com/photography/

The book's hero, Jeremiah Nebula, is described as a 'queer black boy.' Can you steer me, as a cis/het woman, through the rights and wrongs of the use of the word 'queer'?

Queer is a reclaimed word by the LGBTQ community that essentially ecompasses sexualities and gender expressions that deviate from the normative cishet expectation. The reason I used the term for Jeremiah Nebula is because I wanted to avoid sexualizing a child. Whereas "gay" and "homosexual" bring up ideas of romance and sex, queer is describing gender expression.

How did your partnership with the illustrator, Kendrick Daye, come about? At what stage did he come into the project? Is he involved in the workshops too?

Yes, Kendrick Daye isn't your regular illustrator that draws for the book and disappears. He's a true partner in this whole experience. He was there from the birth of the project until this very day, helping me grow the book, the products, and the workshop. I could never imagine being on this journey without him. Besides everything else, Kendrick is my best friend. He's my big brother. In a lot of way, he's the love of my life. He talks me off ledges and affirms my identity. He's a huge reason this book exists because his friendship helped me realize there was love and acceptance outside your family in the outside world.

It's a brave choice to self-publish any book - more so, I think, for a children's author. How much was it a positive choice for you, and how much a response to frustration with the trade publishing world?

It didn't feel very brave. I never saw a book like what I was writing on shelves. Beyond just the fact that he is black and queer, but the fact that text is lengthier for a children's book and the art is a kind of a homage to street culture and pop art. It was a risky creation in so many ways, but every time I got scared, I reminded myself that I created something about conquering your large fears, so succumbing to my large fears in any stage of this book would make me feel like an imposter. Now, that the book has genuine fans, those people make it much easier to be brave and keep pushing even through the difficult elements of getting this book out there. The fact that even one child has read this book has made anything I could complain about, worth it.

You crowd-funded the project through Kickstarter. That was clearly a successful move. What do you think were the keys to that success?

The key to success with getting money for any creative project, I believe, is creating something people want to see. It just so happened that what I desperately wanted to create was something that people wanted to see and were willing to skip a coffee break for. I know how hard people work for their money, so for someone to give it to me and my dream is the most humbling experience of my life, honestly. And I think everything I am doing when it comes to this book and beyond is so that person that gave me five dollars feels like it was money well spent, or better yet, money well invested.

Apart from the workshops, which we've already discussed, how have you approached marketing the book since it was published? What have been the positives and negatives of going it alone, with no publisher to either back or constrain you?

We've luckily had diverse press coverage, so that is definitely an element of marketing. From Saint Heron and Afropunk to NPR and NBC to BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, this book resonates with a lot of corners of culture which I think gives this book a quality of importance and "coolness" that you can't storyboard or predict, the public does that.

Aside from that, we've made sure the Large Fears world and Jeremiah Nebula are tangible on social media. We wanted it to feel less like just a product, and more of a world and your ticket to this world was a story. We created shirts that read "Black Boys Love Pink" accompanied with a stylized photoshoot that is an extension of the Large Fears brand, but it has had the ability to have a life of its own as a movement and a more adult "sub-brand", if you will. Also, we created short holiday-themed stories and memes with Jeremiah Nebula's mom entitled, "Mama Nebula Says". 

We made these things as a thank you to the people who support us, love Large Fears, and want to engage with Jeremiah Nebula. We also created these things as a marketing technique to make it so the Large Fears world feels like it living, evolving, and ready to be engaged with. 

The biggest obstacle about not having a publisher is being everything at once. We're not just the creators, we're the salespeople, the PR, the marketing department, the social media strategist, and accountants.

You have a separate Twitter feed for Jeremiah Nebula (@largefears). Is that aimed specifically at your young audience? Do they interact with you on there?

It is aimed at the younger audience, as well as people that prefer to just interact with the Large Fears and Jeremiah Nebula, and not necessarily myself and Kendrick. And yes, we get the cutest mentions and pictures from the young ones and adults!

This is a book for children, but it is hard not to see it in a larger context. Marlon James's recent Man Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, attacks the intolerance and hypocrisy of Jamaican society towards gay men. And there are grave concerns regarding the safety of gay men in many African countries. Do you think there are particular challenges to being both gay and black, even in outwardly more tolerant societies?

The intersection of being queer and black is a difficult one. You're carrying two oppressions and that is difficult. And yes, economically, politically, and socially, I can be oppressed by not only the cishet community, but the white community. That is a lot to put up with, but amazingly, I've been carrying the oppression for so long that I've come numb to how heavy it is, so even when asked about it like now, it's hard for me to articulate my strife because I've become so accustomed to ignoring my pain. But yes, even in progressive cultures, this intersection oppresses me.

What is your greatest hope for the book and for the audience it addresses?

My greatest hope for the audience it addresses is for a true liberation of possibility and wonder to happen inside of them. My greatest hope for this book is that it surpasses any hope that my tiny brain could ever conjure up.

Finally, I believe the book is not currently available in Europe. Any plans to launch it internationally?

We're working with a fantastic literary agent, so hopefully upon landing a publishing deal, we'll be have to offer this book internationally.

Thank you, Myles! We look forward to that. In the meantime, for those readers in the US, here's where to buy the book and those cool t-shirts:  http://largefears.com/store/

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