Jamila Rowser returns with a beautiful new autobiographical comic that explores friendship, racism, and identity as she experienced it in her Kindergarten friendship with a girl named Keisha. Illustrated by Trinidad Escobar, Ode to Keisha is a black and white story filled with the colorful emotions of a budding friendship between two 5-year-old girls living in the Netherlands. Originally published by Amsterdam’s Versal for their VERSO/ subscription box, Ode to Keisha is now available to pre-order via Black Josei Press shop.
What inspired you to revisit your time with Keisha?
This is a memory I think about from time to time. I think because I’ve recognized for a long time how impactful it was for me as a child, and it’s one of my earliest memories.
But to revisit this memory about Keisha in this way is due to my friend Marly Pierre-Louis. She’s a writer and editor and invited me to submit a piece for Versal’s “VERSO /” subscription box. Versal is an Amsterdam-based press community-centered publishing and curation. This subscription box includes curated contributions of writing, poetry, and visual art. Each season of VERSO / has a unifying theme, and this year’s was “Redaction / Annotation.”
It was inspired by author Christina Sharpe; in her text “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” she writes:
“Redaction and annotation toward seeing and reading otherwise; toward reading and seeing something in excess of what is caught in the frame…”
I was excited to participate in VERSO /, especially because it felt like it would be a good writing experience. To write something based on a theme that would challenge me in a good way. When I agreed to do this, I planned to write an essay. Which I did at first. But going through the editing process with Marly, I couldn’t ignore that feeling that it would be better as a comic. I proposed the change to Marly and she was thrilled with it. They also agreed that I could publish it through Black Josei Press after it was sold in VERSO /.
Ode to Keisha is my first autobiographical comic and I was, and am still, a bit nervous about something so personal to be out in the world. With this in mind, I knew I wanted to work with Trinidad Escobar as an illustrator on this comic. Being a big fan of her comics, and working with her as Black Josei Press prepares to (soon) publish Arrive in My Hands, a collection of her erotic comics, I knew she’d really “take care” of this very personal story. It was a really wonderful experience creating Ode to Keisha with Trinidad.
Is Keisha still part of your life? If so, how does she feel about this ode? If not, how do you think she would feel to read this graphic memoir?
She isn’t sadly. I lost contact with her when I moved. Being that I was a “military brat” I expected my friends would move every few years. I’m not sure what she would think if she read this. We were so young there’s a chance she may not even remember me. But even so, I hope it makes her happy to hear what an impression her presence was to little me.
You mention in the story that you felt very protective of her. In what ways did your protectiveness of Keisha manifest?
I tried to make her feel welcome in the school and make sure she knew she had a friend in me and didn’t feel alone. I would also warn her about racist things I saw or experienced in class. I don’t even think I really understood what racism was back then, but I knew there were some things I needed to warn her about because she was Black like me.
What do you hope your readers will take away from this story?
I hope they consider the different ways children see and understand and racism or any kind of discrimination at such a young age. The various ways it affects their relationships and identity. And particularly, how its impact may not even have been fully realized until much later in life.
A special pre-order sale of Ode to Keisha will run until September 30, where readers can purchase a print and digital copy bundle for only $10. Digital copies will be available on the day of purchase, and print copies will be mailed out in early October. Take a look at some of the pages of Ode to Keisa here.