Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: Michel Chikwanine discusses Graphic Novel Memoir Child Soldier

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Michel Chikwanine

Michel Chikwanine is creating positives from some of the darkest, most negative experiences imaginable. Abducted to serve as a child soldier at just five years old, Michel survived unthinkable conditions before miraculously making his way back to his family.

In order to tell his remarkable story, Michel has partnered with illustrator Claudia Dávila and writer Jessica Dee Humphreys to create the graphic novel Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls are Used in War (KidsCan Press).

While Child Soldier relates Michel's harrowing journey, its ultimate message is one of hope and perseverance, from a young man of extraordinary courage who still views himself as an ordinary person. The book offers suggestions for children and adults alike who wish to help with the sickening global phenomenon of children being recruited to fight wars. Michel's focus is on telling readers that no one is too small to make a difference.

Torontonians have the opportunity to hear Michel share his story, accompanied by Roméo Dallaire and Carlos Bustamante, on October 6, 2015 at the Toronto Reference Library for the Toronto Launch Event. Grades five and six teachers are strongly encouraged to bring their classes.

We're honoured to speak to Michel today about Child Soldier. He tells us about the sense of purpose that comes from sharing his story, how important it is for youth to be politically engaged and his many plans for the future.

Open Book:

Tell us about Child Soldier and why you decided to record your story in book form.

Michael Chikwanine:

Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, is a memoir in a graphic novel format that details my life growing up in the 1990s in the Democratic Republic of Congo, my abduction into being a child soldier, my escape and eventual path to becoming a refugee in Canada with my family. The book is also an educational resource with detailed information on the issue, including statistics and how to help at the back of the book.

I decided to record my story in book form because I felt a need to empower young people with information about child soldiers, especially now that the topic has recently been in the spotlight with Omar Khadr’s story and with the ongoing conflicts around the world. Unfortunately, while researching poverty, conflict and war for my studies and as part of my work as a public speaker, I saw a lot of misinformation within the media and from our own government when it comes to the topic of child soldiers. I felt a need to raise my voice for the many children who are caught up in conflicts they have no choice in. I truly believe that if young people are given the correct information then as a society we can start a knowledgeable discussion on what conflict and war really means and whether it’s in Canada’s best interest to engage in conflicts that might produce child soldiers.


Why did you want this to be a graphic novel, rather than just a text-based story? What was the experience of working with illustrator Claudia Dávila like for you?


I wanted to engage young people on this topic. I felt that the novel had to be accessible to all ages and especially the age range that the novel is targeted to (10 to 14). I felt that graphics would be easier to convey the message without going into too many details, and the format is accessible to many levels of readers. Working with Claudia was incredible. She’s such a talented illustrator. From our very first meeting, she truly wanted to know more about my story and understand the emotions behind every memory in order to try and convey that in the images. Claudia was very sensitive to the younger readership and managed to evoke a sense of violence rather than depict it directly.


How did you deal with the challenges of writing about such difficult experiences? Was writing a part of a healing process in any way?


Thankfully, I’ve been speaking for the past seven years to different audiences about my story and the research I do at school. So when writing this novel, I wasn’t as affected as much as I would have if it were my first time telling my story to someone. Nevertheless, I didn’t anticipate the raw emotions that come out when you’re sitting down with one person and retelling parts of your life that you thought you’d never revisit. My co-author, Jessica Dee Humpreys became an incredible friend throughout the writing process and she was always comforting when I was overcome, recalling my father or the brutality that so many people face going through war. But as with speaking, writing has become a healing process for me, and has shown me a sense of purpose to sharing my story widely.


What message do you hope to communicate to readers, especially young people? Is there anything they can do to make a difference?


I think there are many lessons to learn from my story, including courage, hope and perseverance. We all face adversity in our lives in different ways, and it was those three things that helped me get to where I am today. In addition, from a young age my dad always emphasized how important it is to always learn and acquire more knowledge. As clichéd as it sounds, knowledge is power. I want this novel to be a catalyst for all readers to learn more about the issue of children being forced into warfare, rather than just looking at the headlines. In order to make a difference in the world, I believe that we must first be as knowledgeable on the issues we are passionate about; so educating ourselves is the first step. Secondly, it’s important to be engaged politically; ask questions and be informed and involved in the voting process. I hope that young readers aspire to political office or any place of power. Politics to a lot of our generation is something of a boring topic that seems to be left for “adults,” but if you want to change the world then you have to be engaged with the decision-makers to make change happen.


What are some of your own favourite books?


As a reader, I’m not loyal to one genre of books or novels. I tend to read a lot of political books or research papers, primarily because of school. As a result, I tend to gravitate towards political biographies; Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela being one of my all time favorites. I have read quite a lot of fantasy books as well: Songs of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (I read them before the Game of Thrones popularity); The Harry Potter series. Recently, I read Ishmael Beah’s debut novel Radiance of Tomorrow and my friend recommended Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, so that’s what I’m currently reading. My all time favorite book has to be The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.


What's next for you?


At the moment, school is such an important part of my educational journey, but learning comes outside of the classroom too, so I will be travelling quite a bit. I am on book tour in October for Child Soldier, which includes Toronto, New York, Calgary and Vancouver. I’m looking forward to finishing my undergraduate degree and then continuing on to graduate school, though I am hoping to take a year off in between to travel and work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m hoping to engage Congolese youth in dialogue about how they see their country moving forward, so they can take care of their own future rather than looking for someone to come in and do it for them. And then? One day I’d like to write a novel, but for now, sharing my own story is a big part of my life’s journey.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Michel Chikwanine has experienced civil war, political upheaval and poverty, emerging as an individual wise beyond his years. Forced by these circumstances to leave his home country at the age of 11 as a refugee, Michel has since traveled to 35 African countries, witnessing firsthand the problems faced by the developing world, but also the beauty of the communities and people who live there.

Today, Michel is an accomplished motivational speaker, addressing audiences across North America, sharing the stage with such distinguished speakers as Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger, Dr. Jane Goodall, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, former U.S. vice president Al Gore, Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr., Nobel Peace Prize laureate Betty Williams, to name just to name a few. He was also a speaker on Oprah's “O Ambassadors Roots of Action” speaking tour, largely reaching students at resource-poor schools.

Michel has appeared on CBC, CTV and major daily newspapers, as he inspires people to believe in their ability to create change.

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