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Q&A with Patti McIntosh, Producer – My Life as a Girl, So Far

What is My Life as a Girl, So Far about?

My Life as a Girl, So Far tells the story a young rest-avek girl and her freedom from servitude through creativity, art and friendship.

It is imagined as theatrical production in three acts — awakening, liberation and freedom – and uses artwork to depict scenes from the rest-avek girl’s life: her life in the home in which she serves and her life in the city where she passes almost invisibly except for a group of children (and one girl especially) who see herand are planning and making something …

What inspired My Life as a Girl, So Far?

My Life as a Girl, So Far is the coming together of two stories. I had been working on different arts-focused projects in Haiti since 2011 – and had been travelling back-and-forth to Haiti on the development of stories around the fictional Maison des arts in Port-au-Prince.

During my travels, I was introduced to the rest-avek issue – the issue of child trafficking and slavery — and decided to try to bring the two stories together in a way that highlights the transformative power of the arts in social change. And also do a story that celebrates those that are willing to speak out.

Why do this project? No doubt it is a complicated and sensitive issue to explore but I think the “why” ties back to the importance of the lesson of temoignage in Ollie’s Field Journal: the importance of speaking out and bearing witness to the injustice one has seen.

After three more traditional storybooks, why did you decide to do wordless picture book?

This approach was inspired by the IBBY Silent Books Exhibit that toured several Canadian libraries in 2015. The exhibit featured over 100 wordless picture books from around the world and provided great insight into the “universal language of images and art.”

It was a real light-bulb experience to see stories told without words.

The approach addresses a challenge that is often in international projects – multiple languages and language barriers – especially when it comes to production or exhibition. My Life as a Girl, So Far was developed in three languages (Kreyol, French and English) – and wordless, with the real emphasis on pictures to tell the story, provides greater flexibility and reach for the story.

Wordless, hopefully, also gives us experience of the girl: her isolation and illiteracy and the importance of the visual in her ability to interpret the world. (Of course, the radio helped a lot in the end!)

Finally – and hopefully — this approach provides the sense that her story is something to be felt and not explained.

Why this creative approach? What was process and influence?

In both international projects that Tara and I have done – The Remarkable Maria and Ollie’s Field Journal — there were elements of collaboration that were essential to the telling of story.

With The Remarkable Maria, it was the integration of the work from the children’s art workshop in Paramaribo, Suriname. With Ollie’s Field Journal, it was the integration of pictures from the children’s photography workshop as well as the footprint stamps from the babies and very young children being treated at the Médecins Sans Frontières field hospital in Zinder, Niger.

The process for developing My Life as a Girl, So Far was a long one! The process included research, conversations and interviews on the rest-avek issue – as well as spending time in/with Haiti’s amazing arts and crafts communities.

After the research was substantially done, the story was set up – and the series of paintings was mapped out. From there, we — and the project — went back to Haiti, the project was work-shopped with artists and children in Jacmel — and elements (backgrounds, characters, elephants, spiders …) were created.

The characters and the backgrounds were produced by seven young artists in a series of workshops at FOSAJ — Foyer d’orientation et de soutien aux artistes jacmeliens – in Jacmel. We had worked with these young artists before and knew the collaboration would be perfect.

The little drawings were created in a workshop with four girls and one boy, ages 5-13, from the neighbourhood around FOSAJ. They were asked to create drawings depicting the theme “my life as a girl, so far” – and voilà.

(The original artwork and paintings – and a “behind the scenes” from the workshops can be found on our website.)

You also see the tremendous influence of Fondation A. Maurice A. Sixto. During his lifetime, Maurice A. Sixto was leader a in advocating for rest-avek children and he created radio stories that transformed attitudes – and inspired conversations about children’s rights that still resonate today.

In My Life as a Girl, So Far, the radio as the catalyst for liberation. This is an homage to M. Sixto’s radio programs and M. Sixto’s ability (and willingness) to mock the willful obliviousness of the bourgeoisie to the impact of their behaviour.

In My Life as a Girl, So Far the family is listening to a radio broadcast from the Maison des arts – which the girl overhears — and yet are so self-involved and that they doesn’t even recognize themselves in the problem presented in the broadcast.

Interestingly, this is our second book with radio as a key plot element. Radio was also a big part of The Remarkable Maria. Like in Suriname, radio is a very important medium in Haiti: it is relatively cheap to produce, it is accessible to the population through relatively cheap transistor radios – and leaps over barriers of literacy to provide information and entertainment.

(We look forward to the development of the My Life as a Girl, So Far children’s radio podcast which features storytelling and journalism.)

Where did the idea of the elephant originate?

Elephants seemed to be a recurring theme in the development of story — and also seemed to emerge as an appropriate symbol for the rest-avek issue.

  • The rest-avek issue happens – to a large degree — behind closed doors.  So there is symbolism of pulling this elephant into the street.
  • Children’s rights, the rights of girls, the rest-avek issue seem to be the “elephant in the room” with challenges in bringing the issue to forefront or into the open.
  • Of course, elephants are big – and a person’s description of the elephant, the issue, depends on their vantage point. Is this an economic issue? A social issue? A human rights issue? A domestic or international issue? It seems like it is all those things.
  • And there is that saying “how do you eat an elephant … one spoonful at a time” which speaks to how to address a big problem: one child at time, one attitude at a time – and then it becomes a movement. This seems to be the approach – and hope – of many working in Haiti.

Visually, I was inspired by the Katelyne Alexis’ small elephant sculpture at the Atis Rezistans in Port-au-Prince. The elephant was constructed from discarded tubing. It was so clever, I wrote home about it … many times.

I also thought about how in Les Misérables, Napoleon’s Elephant of the Bastille is used as a shelter for the little revolutionary boy Gavoche.

And finally, I thought of the elephant as a pull toy. You often see little boys in Haiti playing with small pull toys they have made out of bottles and other materials. From a child’s perspective, I thought it would be amusing to see an elephant like a giant pull-toy with children bursting out to form the barricade of art. Admittedly, that is the imagery of the Trojan Horse and not an elephant but…

And the spiders that surround the Maison des arts — and follow the elephant?

The spiders are an homage to the early 20th century Haitian novelist and activist Marie Vieux-Chaurvet. Vieux-Chaurvet was deeply committed to writing about the world around her and issues of social justice.

Every week she hosted a writers’ salon in her Port-au-Prince home. The group of writers who met called themselves Les araignées du soir (the spiders of the night). The title reflected the hope that through their solidarity and through their stories they could “weave a protective web around themselves and keep out predatory pests.”

So this inspired the spiders surrounding the Maison de art – as well as the spiders following the children and elephant into the street: the spiders are joyful little protectors, in resistance.