Africa in Our Lives: Karen Lynn Williams

Karen Williams is an American author of children’s literature whose Peace Corps-Malawi experience continues to shape the way she writes, parents and lives. Williams recently participated in a teacher workshop in Eau Claire, Wis. The African Studies Program caught up with her while she was in Madison.

Hometown: Chinle, AZ (I have a house in Pittsburgh, PA and I grew up in Hamden CT.)

25 June, 2015.
“Young people need and appreciate books about people like them. The need to see themselves in literature.” – Karen Williams (Photo by Catherine A. Reiland/UW-Madison).

What inspired you to join the Peace Corps?

I had always wanted to travel, and I enjoyed learning about different cultures.   The opportunity to live in another culture, learn the language and experience a life very different from what I was used to inspired me to join the Peace Corps. I would like to say that I was inspired, too, by the opportunity to help others and spread world peace, but honestly I like the idea of adventure.

How has your Peace Corps-Malawi experience shaped the lives of you and your family?

The Peace Corps-Malawi experience has not only defined my relationship with my husband, but it has defined our family life as well. My husband and I faced problems, shared burdens and joys and overcame adversity in ways that only he and I share from our time in the Peace Corps so that has strengthened our relationship.   The experience made me more aware of global concerns and more sensitive to world affairs. I think I have passed that on to my children in intentional as well as unintentional ways. Our family lived in Deschapelles, Haiti for three years because my husband and I thought they needed to see and experience the world we had known in a developing country serving in Malawi. Our oldest was only a year old when we joined the Peace Corps and our second child born there was only a year old when we returned. Of course the experience in Haiti made a huge impression on all four of our children.   We also have had 9 foreign exchange students from all over the world live with our family for a year. All the children have traveled extensively. Peter now lives in Taiwan with his wife and two children. Christopher and his wife joined the Peace Corps and served in Mozambique. Rachel participated in a semester at sea and worked as a nanny in Switzerland. Jonathan will join the Peace Corps this year and is going to serve in Paraguay. We never explicitly suggested that any of the children travel or join the Peace Corps. It turns out this is the way we live and respond to the world as a family and that began with our experience in Malawi.

What books do you remember reading as a child or young adult?

Some of my favorites included the Nancy Drew and the Cherry Ames Series, Girl of the Limberlost, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates. At one point I had the goal to read all of the biographies in the children’s section of the library in alphabetical order. I remember reading about Clara Barton and Ben Franklin. My mother gave me reading material at a young age including The Good Earth by Pearl Buck and Journey to the Interior by Van der Post. I had to go back and reread those books later in life.

What holes were you seeing in the children’s literature landscape, and how does your work address them?

To be frank, while many of my books are multicultural in nature, I did not start out to fill a hole in literature. I write about things that excite me, things I am passionate about. The books, Galimoto and When Africa Was Home grew out of my experiences in Malawi. I had been a teacher, and I knew there was a value beyond a good story in books that take place in other cultures. I was lucky to write those books when multiculturalism was becoming important in the publishing world for children’s literature. That was exciting. Unfortunately, the publishing world has not responded to the need for books by and about people from other cultures as well as they need to. Young people need and appreciate books about people like them. The need to see themselves in literature.

In addition to your own work, what are other Africa-related, must-read titles for young people?

I began to compile a list here but I think some of the best books are listed at this site for the Children’s Africana book Awards by the African Studies Association.

Besides children’s literature as a genre, what kind of material are you excited about reading?

I read across all genres, literary, fiction, non-fiction, mystery and fantasy. I recently read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I am currently reading a number of books about Indian boarding schools as research. Barbara KIngslover is a favorite author and I just finished Lots of Candles Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen.

I enjoy reading and writing poetry for adults. Mark Doty is a favorite as well as Heather Mchugh and Amy Nezhukumatathil but there are so many.

Profile produced by Meagan Doll.

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