Jeff L. Cheatham II | Seattle Urban Book Expo
I am an advocate for Jeff.
I first met him at a writing workshop held at the Northwest African American Museum. He was one of five authors, each of whom gave great insight into the complexities of a writers journey, especially as members of the POC community. I was so inspired by the night I decided to write a piece about it and thereby our connection formed. I soon learned of his amazing non profit, the Seattle Urban Book Expo (SUBE), which emphasizes the importance of self published writers; to provide support to their craft and to engage with the community. The expo is about many things, but one thing that I found particularly empowering was representation. It is meant to feature, highlight, and uplift writers of color, to encourage their unique voices, and bring new perspectives to the conversations in Seattle. It is a goal Jeff works toward passionately.
On August 25th the third installment of the expo will be held at the Centilia Cultural Center in Beacon Hill. It comes as a result of years of lessons and growth and I got the fortunate chance to talk to Jeff about those years. On all things writing, expo creating, authorship, dreams, and the influences that sustain him.
All amazing stories and insights. Just to give you a bit of the wisdom us attendees received at Pen 2 Pad event, here are some words from Jeff.
Now, Pen 2 Pad 2.0 with Jeff L. Cheatham II.
SNAPSHOTS AND INFLUENCES
It started from his father, Archie comics, Batman, and Spiderman. And WWE wrestling. Ric Flair talking trash to a good guy; even at a young age Jeff recognized the classic human strife between good and evil and the reoccuring evidence of it in stories. But it wasn't a passion sparked by the pages of Archie and then continuously present to today. It came in snippets, significant moments like snapshots that reminded Jeff that the passion was still present, if not fully known. It simply needed some nurturing. Well, more than the vague "some" and not "simply" in the easy sense. Simply in the calling sense. He was meant to write. I found it so beautiful how words kept popping into his life, and these snapshots occurred years apart, re-emerging in the midst of seemingly disconnected seasons. All the while it was waiting patiently to be seized with purpose.
It manifested again by probably the most amazing catalyst; his daughter.
When Josilyn was about 5 or 6, she asked for a dinosaur book. Trailing the aisles of Barnes & Nobles, cover upon cover had no face like Jeff's daughter's. It was a disparity that he didn't want Josilyn to know, he wanted her to see herself in the world of stories. Books are such a gift for this, to see the traits and lessons of life that imprint into your own and the images immersed into your memory as deep as reality. But as a child of color, seeing face after porcelain face experience those adventures, lessons, and grow in those traits, where do you find yourself?
Jeff could have opted to choose any one of the hundred of books whose characters wore porcelain skin but he wanted his daughter to know her story could be bold and grand and fantastical. No limitations. No stereotypes.
So, he wrote it. It took him a year, which included a vast education into the world of children's books, enlisting the help of other writers, such as close friend PJ Medina, to hone his skills. As he put it, he "wanted to created a world [Josilyn] wants to live in" and what a more wonderful way to do so but through the powerful imagery of narratives. I realized that there is power not just in the associations formed by stories but power in the fact that there was a creative mind who chose to write these words so kids could feel empowered. Jeff has done that and has placed needed attention on supporting other writers to do the same in every genre.
And Josilyn has remained a huge aspect of both Jeff's literature as well as the development of SUBE. She has been an integral part since day one. In the first expo she "interacted with the crowd" and became a part of their mission, a strong advocate with a strong personality. Jeff had not grasped just how much his work was affecting her, but it had, and the SUBE is all the more influential for it.
THE BIRTH OF THE EXPO
One day he received an invitation to attend a book expo in Toronto, Ontario after writing his first book, The Family Jones & the Eggs of Rex. It was in that expo, walking among a hugely diverse group of writers, that the Seattle Urban Book Expo came to be. Further, it became a partnership with the blessing of Stacie Marie Robinson, head coordinator of the Toronto Urban Book Expo. She has worked with Jeff to create a bridge between the two cities and create an even greater community of writers to span miles. Talking with her is it's own form of encouragement, "always positive stuff" according to Jeff. The idea they share is to send authors from Seattle to Toronto and vice versa to form a greater network of resources and collaboration opportunities. That flourish of excitement and diversity at the Toronto expo carried with Jeff on his return to Seattle, and there he saw that nothing quite like it existed yet in the city. It wasn't the first time he noticed a disparity though.
He grew up in the Central District, in a rich and diverse community, with predominantly black owned establishments. The vibrancy was what he knew. The first deep realization of change was when he came back from California, after his college football career, to find the area much different. Those familiar shops like Jordan's Mini Mart and Catherine's Corner, landmarks really to the community, were shut down. By the unfortunate hand of gentrification the unique character of this area has dissipated greatly. He noticed that ownership in the hands of black people, which was once so normal, had become rare, like a bygone era. If focusing on writing alone, there is only one black owned bookstore in Washington State, located on Rainier Ave S in Columbia City. It's called Lem's Life Enrichment Bookstore that for over 21 years has specialized in African American literature and history, and has been a hub for community outreach. Just one. But hopefully it can become one of many.
JEFF THE AUTHOR
We talked about the challenges of running your own business, of being the writer, marketer, networker, essentially filling every role (which he is currently doing) and how taxing that can be. Such a balance makes time even more precious as it affects the creative pursuit of writing, which for Jeff, has brought him to the creation of SUBE. So is a self-published author's journey. So is an artist's journey! I am certain all can relate to that, especially if you want your work to spread and serve others. He described his current place as a "deciding point" or a fork in the road, defined by the pressing question, how to establish two different brands? One brand is CEO of a non-profit, the other, a children's book author. Though he didn't come to a perfect conclusion in our conversation, he did see that the two didn't have to be exclusive of each other. The expo is a huge passion of his, a project he values and wants to grow in Seattle, but he loves to write, so a fulfilling direction to go would be to own the identity of the self published author who runs the expo. His growth as a writer, "going to fairs, meeting different people" is an example of the very community he wants to help because he is right there with them. He also shows gratitude to every person who purchases his books, when de in person, he takes a photo with them and writes a sweet caption that expresses his appreciation.
This is the "year of exploring" for Jeff and he hopes to explore both the creative process as well as different artistic expressions. Top of the list? The "Afropunk [festival] in Johannesburg", which looks amazing as well as traveling the country to share his work with other communities. Though the intent right now is to keep the expo localized and focus on Seattle's POC literary community, his outreach as an author may include grander schemes. We'll just have to see.
STARTING A FIRE
In light of all the responsibilities and balance of authorship and managing the growth of a non-profit, Jeff is still writing from a place of passion. I described it as "creativity brewing" to which he replied "starting a fire", and it is so true, in the most non-violent way, the work Jeff is creating challenges both children and adult minds alike. When I asked if he'd be willing to share some of his manuscripts currently brewing in the creative caverns he happily agreed and laughed a little at my request, which I later realized was unnecessarily surreptitious (I sort of whispered it across the table). I saw his humbleness there and you can see it in his material too.
hi blue sky
hey kind wind
I need your help delivering
a message to my friend
He wrote this poem, in reaction to a loss he experienced when he was 7 years old. A friend, whose face he will never forget, a playmate on every weekend, drowned on a vacation trip. He did not learn this until the day of her funeral, as he walked with his grandmother to a house, whose occupants were "all dressed as though going to church". It was there that he saw the obituary with his friend's face on the page. "I'm 32 and it has never left me", he said. He realized this poem reminded him of the many young people who died too soon; Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Philando Castile. The effect of death on a child is immense and "what do you tell kids whose classmate just passed away?" Jeff asked. It is not an easily answerable question, but in his contemplation he decided to turn this poem, which was his own cathartic practice through grief, into a story that could provide support for kids who are affected by death in their own community. It is hard enough coping with death as an adult, understanding it is so often elusive, but for a child it can be particularly challenging when the language of death is beyond their comprehension. I think this book will be a great way to provide that language and healing.
THE ILLUSTRATOR'S FIRE
As important as words are to a children's book, it creates an especially great effect when there is powerful imagery to reflect it. A language of it's own, it's been an important element to Jeff to incorporate different illustrators for his projects. He has made it a point to enlist the services of a different illustrator for every book and "considers the tone [he] wants to set" and the kind of style he thinks will support the story. Then he goes on the search, reaching out through social media and acquaintances, which has resulted in some great collaborations. He has made connections from Atlanta, Georgia all the way to Tel Aviv, Israel. For Hi Blue Sky, he commissioned Johanna Puukila, based in Tel Aviv, to create the imagery for this poignant story, and she has created something quite spectacular. It is an exciting collaborative journey and with each story is an opportunity to feature a unique artist., which Jeff has done.
There is so much the Seattle Urban Book Expo is offering to the Seattle community; to it's writers, to it's artists, to the underrepresented, and the rare. It is incredibly exciting to see how it will grow, having experienced so much growth already with only three events held so far. I admire Jeff's determination and admire everyone who believes in what SUBE is doing because their mission is an exceptional one. May the community grow ever greater in Seattle.
Seattle Urban Book Expo is happening...
When: Saturday August 25th 2018
At: Centilia Cultural Center in Beacon Hill
Tell people. Bring people. Come see these people.
Thank you Jeff.
To your fulfilled life,