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Get Familiar: Zindzi Zevenbergen

Get Familiar: Zindzi Zevenbergen
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Zindzi Zevenbergen's debut 'Lennox' is a project that is endlessly heartwarming. Adorned with multicoloured illustrative works from Hedy Tjin and Brian Elstak, this paperback is an interactive experience, featuring printed text at various angles and slants makes the book something that you have to turn as you go. Perfect for reading with a child on your lap, the narrative follows Lennox’s journey as he starts to learn more about the invisible illness harboured by his father as he learns some of life's most important lessons. The book has now been nominated for Boon voor literature, so we thought it was time that we get familiar with the young writer herself and see what this ride has been like so far.

Were you surrounded by books growing up?
Definitely. My mother used to read my sister and me lots of bedtime stories. Annie M.G. Schmidt, Roald Dahl. When I was a little older, my grandmother gave me a notebook and told me to count the pages, divide it by 26 and keep track of all the library books I read, alphabetically. I wanted to make sure every letter had an even amount of titles (and yes, it bothered me that the Q, X, Y and Z were hard to fill). Looking back, that was a great way of stimulating me to read. I still have that notebook somewhere.
How did you get into literature?
I don’t feel like I did. It was not something I actively pursued anyway. I just met a bunch of great people who believed in me, supported me to give it a try and were patient enough to let me write a book whilst working full time.
Without giving away too much of the narrative, what themes does the book explore?
Lennox is a story about bravery, friendship and overcoming fears. It shows the sweet camaraderie between Lennox and his best friend Aya, the girl who lives in the same building and is always full of ideas. Lennox knows his father sometimes has to go to the Invisible Hospital, because of his invisible disease. But that’s all he knows. When Lennox and Aya find his father’s necklace at home, with the golden sickle-shaped hanger that brings him good luck, they decide to go find him and bring him the necklace. By going on this adventure to the other end of the city, Lennox slowly learns more about this invisible disease. And he learns that what’s inside is not always visible on the outside.
Lennox is a strong title, how did you come up with it?
Lennox is the name of the main character. He’s a timid eleven-year-old boy, who lives in the city with his mom, the owner of a juice bar, and dad, a limousine driver. The story is fictional, but the characters in the family are based on an existing family. They are real, just like their family history –  Lennox’s father’s side of the family has dealt with sickle cell their whole life and even lost family members because of it. Lennox’s father,  Furgen, is a close friend of Brian. That’s why we really wanted to do their story justice. In real life, Lennox is a few years younger by the way. And a lot less shy! Our working title back in 2019 was ‘ Furgen’. But when I accidentally kept referring to the project as ‘Lennox’, Brian changed the name of our WhatsApp group, and that was it. I immediately liked the name. I love the fact that ‘sickle’ and ‘Lennox’ contain the same consonant sounds: the L, the K and the S.
You collaborated with Hedy Tjin and Brian Elstak, how did the three of you meet and what was the process like working together?
Brian and I have known each other for a long time. We met in 2008 when I had just started art school. It’s so cool to see how much he has achieved as an independent visual artist since then. Paintings, drawings, art installations, graphic novels, album covers, tv commercials. In 2017 he published his first children’s book, TORI, for which he created both the story and the illustrations. In the meantime, I had switched from art school to university, finished my Masters in writing and argumentation and started working as a copywriter, which I’ve been doing for the past seven years. Brian always talked about one day doing a project together. When he got asked by Chantelle Rodgers, director of IXL Sickle Cell Awareness, to make a children’s book about sickle cell disease, a genetic blood disorder, he said he was down with doing the illustrations, and suggested me as the writer instead. 
Brian and Hedy share a studio. They’re very familiar with each other’s way of working, but this was their first time collaborating, which makes the project even more special. Hedy paints big and often socially themed murals, but she’s also known for her characteristic use of colour markers and colourful, figurative illustrations. In Lennox, there are pages with collages drawn by Brian or Hedy. But they also worked on each other's drawings and even layered illustrations on top of each other. The results are incredible.
Of course, before they could start drawing anything, they needed me to write the story first. So that’s what I did, from February 2020 until fall that year. They read every draft of every chapter and started sketching along the way. It was very surreal to slowly see my imagination come to life, at the hands of these amazing two artists.
How important is the idea of representation in literature for you?
Do you know what it is? Topics like love, friendship, heartbreak – are universal. We all know what it feels like to fall in love, to have fun with friends or to be scared to lose someone. But being able to relate to a character in a story on an even deeper and more personal level, because you recognize the specific way they look or love or live, or the medical condition they deal with can be a very powerful feeling. Very encouraging, uplifting and important. It makes you feel seen. 
If our book did that to at least one person, I would be very proud. But I must say, representation was never our motivation. We just wanted to draw attention to sickle cell disease and make an epic children’s book. For me, the motivation has always been language. I have a very strong and passionate love for language, for the beauty and the endless possibilities of written words as a form of expression. I really do. At the same time, the lack of representation of people with sickle cell disease in literature is of course what initially kickstarted this project. Sickle cell mostly affects black people, since it’s mutated to be resistant to malaria. It’s even the most common genetic blood disorder worldwide, so a lot of people can relate. But their stories remain invisible. That’s why this book needed to be made.
What work do you still think needs to be done?
In terms of representation in literature? A lot more amazing books will have to be written and are going to be written. By a lot of talented people who are now maybe dreaming of becoming a writer or are still in school or maybe not even born yet. Also, when you have the power or platform to include talented writers around you, do it. Work together. Just like Brian did when he called me. And just like our publisher De Harmonie did, who took a leap of faith by signing us. I’m really grateful they did.
What has the reception been like so far?
The response has been fantastic. The reviews in the newspapers are super positive and the reactions from readers are extremely heart-warming. Kids do their book reviews on Lennox and their parents send me pictures of it, can you imagine? There’s one lady who wrote me a special message. She told me she’d not heard of sickle cell disease before, but the story hit close to home because it reminded her of the battle her father fought against leukaemia when she was young. She could really relate to Lennox. I thought that was a beautiful compliment.
And you are entered in the Boon for literature, how does that feel and how can people support your project?
It feels amazing! What an honour to be nominated for such a big literature prize. Our main goal was to raise awareness for sickle cell, this international attention will definitely help do that. I’m really proud of what we created and I feel like this nomination is recognition for our project as a whole. Not just as a book, but rather as a work of art. Brian’s and Hedy’s illustrations go so well together and I’m really happy my story gave them the fuel to go there. Also, our graphic designer Lyanne Tonk is a genius. It was her idea to playfully put the text on the pages tilted or sideways, in the parts where the story gets a little magical and everything around Lennox starts to move. You have to twist and turn the book to read it, so you are literally moving along with his adventure. Lyanne put it together brilliantly.
The finale of the Boon is on March 24 in Belgium. A jury will decide who wins the first prize, but there’s also an audience award. You can vote until March 20. If people want to support us, this is the link: https://interactief.langzullenwelezen.be/quiz/996977_213/deBoon.html.
What is next for Zindzi Zevenbergen?
Imma keep playing with those 26 letters of the alphabet!
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