An intimate conversation with Fem-Leader Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson about her new book ‘Identities’

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Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson is an accomplished social scientist, writer, facilitator and curator of African identity and leadership stories. She is the founder of Supporting Learning & Development Consulting Inc. (SLD Consulting Inc.), which specializes in facilitating transformative learning for leadership and development. Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson works with corporate, non-profit/social profit and public sector organizations, locally and internationally. She is also a sessional and adjunct faculty and teaches, speaks, does research and writes in the field of Leadership and Organizational Change/Development and Social Change, especially related to Africa.

Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson- (Photo courtesy of Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson/Illuminessencemag)

Yabome was born in Germany, grew up in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and completed her undergraduate and graduate studies in Canada and the United States. She holds a Masters in Human Development, another in Business Administration in Leadership and Organizational Change and a doctorate in Human and Organization Development.

March is Women’s History Month with special focus on celebrating the achievements of women from all walks of life, who strive to and continue to break ceilings. With my cup of tea at hand, this week, I dialled in to my Skype date with Fem-Leader Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson to chat about her new book ‘Identities’. As she spoke about her first book, I couldn’t help but feel like my story was being shared. Yabome’s recent collection of short stories titled ‘Identities’, evokes the diverse and lived experiences of Africans and explores everyday identity concerns of the diaspora, asking where are you from?

Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson, author of Identities- (Photo courtesy of Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson/Illuminessencemag)

You mention having your nine (9) year old daughter ask you “Mommy, when people ask me where I am from, what do I say?” Could you please tell us more about the conversation that followed? Which identity or identities does she relate with?

Yabome: It was tough to have my daughter ask me that. That was tough because the argument has been made that what I call Identity Interrogation may be limited to new/first-generation immigrants or people with accents. Here I was though, with living evidence that our second-generation children are still considered, ‘not-from-here’. And I do believe that this is true generationally only for ‘ethnic minorities’ in the West, even though all non-native Americans and Canadians are also immigrants.

So I asked my daughter what she responded and she said “here, Canada…and Sierra Leone, I guess…but I’m confused when people ask me.”  I told her she was right about being from both places and that if that’s what she thinks she didn’t need to be confused about it. I told her it was okay for her to feel like she is from both places. The other hard thing for me is that I know in Sierra Leone, she also won’t be considered fully from there. So my daughter and my sons will have to learn to be clear in themselves who they are. No one else gets to define that for them.

What is identity interrogation vs. relational correlation?

Yabome:Identity Interrogation is what I’ve called the commonplace experience of being asked biographical questions about my identity by strangers or near strangers, with no prior relationship or context. It is that experience of being singled out at a dinner table or other social gatherings or even mundane everyday encounters like in an elevator or coffee shop and being ask a series of identity questions like:

“Where are you from?” [and when you answer with the unexpected]
“Where are you really from?” or
“Where are you originally from?” [and even the follow-up],
“How do you wash your hair?”

Seemingly innocent questions. Each loaded with history, innuendos, and assumptions. I can now sense these four or five word questions before they are asked. In spite of being able to predict with precision when the question will land into the space between me and the questioner, I still feel uneasy, awkward and somewhat troubled answering these too-narrow questions out of context.

I often wonder: shall I answer the question on the surface or the implied questions they are really asking? “Who are you anyway?” “How did you come to be here?” “Why should I be talking/listening to you?” “Are you worthy of my attention?” “why are you different from the stereotype/story I hold about your social identity group?

Relational Connection on the other hand, is what I call the experience of being asked those same questions in relational context, by someone you are getting to know or have developed a rapport or deeper relationship with. Relational Connection happens in those times when I am enlivened to respond to: Where are you from? Or an invitation to “Tell me more about yourself…” What is common to these times is that the question is posed within relationship, in context of respect and genuine curiosity. Whenever I feel relational connection, it is because I know, I feel, in those interactions that I am not put in a box or judged as a strange tea to be tasted, commented on and spat out. In relational connection, you are drawn into further dialogue and mutual sharing with the
other person.

We spoke more on our experiences with identity interrogation and relational correlation. I took a sip of my tea and we jumped right into the discussion of Yabome’s first book.

Identities Cover- (Photo courtesy of Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson/Illuminessencemag)

You recently published your first book ‘Identities: A Short Story Collection’ – Could you tell us more about the book?

Yabome: Identities is a book about global African identities. It is a fiction collection but based on lived experiences – my own, as well as those of people around me with global African experiences. The demographic of peoples with African heritage as well as multicultural, multi-racial and varied backgrounds and experiences is growing. ‘Identities’ is my initial attempt to share a breadth of stories that move beyond stereotypic assumptions of ‘who is African.’ The stories in the collection touch on a variety of everyday issues facing diasporan Africans such as immigrant and refugee integration, personal vs. ascribed social standing, remittance responsibilities, traditional vs. contemporary cultural values, community belonging, the impact of the common socio-political issues facing the continent and more.

What motivated you to write this book?

Yabome: I was motivated to write this book for a few reasons.

First, I love writing and I am a storyteller.

I’m the youngest of 8 siblings and was often kicked out of rooms by my siblings as a child because I would repeat and retell everything I heard! Also, when I was younger and something happened that stuck with me for whatever reason, I would retell the story to myself and make-up multiple endings. I wrote many essays growing up that were considered ‘the best ever seen’ and won writing prizes. As I went through university though my writing became focused on academics and I forgot about the creative side. That was rekindled for me a year after I finished my doctorate when I decided to ‘get my life back’ and took only fiction books on a vacation with me. By the end of the vacation I was back to being the child who would see or hear something and all of a sudden, a story would emerge and grow in my head around it. That’s when I decided I had to start writing creatively again.

Second, I have been writing and speaking academically for the past few years and although most of my work has been in my field of Leadership and Organization Development, I started leaning into the social change aspects of my field. That’s how I ended up doing the research and talk on: Where are you from? I’ve also published a paper and done talks on African Leadership that looks beyond the political colonial/post-colonial failed leadership narrative, to the visionary leadership and social action of everyday African leaders.

I remember doing one of those talks though and thinking that it wasn’t enough that I was speaking to the 2% academic audience. My papers were well-received but I know that in their academic form, only a few that my work really matter to will ever find out about it, and even fewer still will read those papers. I decided to write about the same themes in fiction to broaden the conversation beyond academia and to speak to the general population like you and I that I believe the stories would speak to.

So many aspects of African and Black identities are politicized, I wanted a lighter way to share a variety of perspectives without getting into another political debate. I just want to tell my own stories rather than have them be told with foregone conclusions by others, riddled with assumptions and stereotypes.

Hence the short story collection rather than a novel. I wanted to tell many stories with different perspectives about my identity experiences. The book barely scratches the surface! There are so many more stories to tell so that the world can get a fuller picture of who and what is African.

Dr. Yabome Gilpin- Jackson- (Photo courtesy of Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson/Illuminessencemag)

What challenges did you encounter while writing the book & in your profession? What are the steps that you have taken in attempt to overcome those challenges?

Yabome:  I’d say I had two challenges in writing the book.

First was balancing writing with my everyday life. My life is full in a good way and I love it all. I’m a wife and mother of three. I am engaged in professional and community associations. I work a day job, teach university and sometimes do consulting projects. I’m also quite social – I love a date night with my husband or just going out to events.

Juggling a few things is just who I have always been so I’m not saying all this to leave any kind of heroine impression at all. In fact, every time I tell myself I should stop juggling so much and do less, I get quickly bored and grumpy and then I’m not fun to be around! The challenge though when I started writing is that that’s the only time I want to lock myself away for hours and just be in my head and write. That isn’t possible though with the life I live so I had to learn to write in snippets and be ok with that.

Second, was not getting discouraged and distracted. There were a few times when I thought: why am I doing this? I should be working on one of my academic papers or projects. Those were the times the gremlin that says I’m an academic writer not a creative writer showed up. That voice told me that I didn’t have any literary training so why did I think I could write anything a general audience would want to read. But I’ve never been one to give up easily when I’m sure of something and that’s where my faith kicks in. In those moments, I reminded myself why I was certain this was the right project to complete first – I’d even put my professional book I’ve been working on, on hold, to complete the short story collection, I was sure I needed to do this now. Those were the moments I would just pray…and keep writing.

Professionally, things have generally been good and I am so thankful. In earlier career, I had instances when being ‘too young’ and yet ‘too qualified’ got in the way. More recently, I have gotten to the point of being maxed-out in my position and I do feel like I am facing that ‘glass-ceiling.’ In some ways, that’s also why I have started writing, so I can keep moving. Again, I never let these things phase me and tend to pick myself up from whatever disappointment and keep moving forward.

Do you have a favourite chapter and story in the book?

Yabome:  This is such a hard question for me! It’s the wrong answer but I love all of them for different reasons! With forced choice though I’ll go with the last story in the collection – The Wedding. I think it’s a favourite because it covers historical and contemporary issues and connections between peoples of African descent. It touches on the generational impacts of Africa’s history still being felt today. It tells the story of Sierra Leone’s connection to slavery – during the trade and after abolition. It shares the joys and challenges of ‘going home’ and of an African city and country seen through the eyes of another who has only known Africa as told by Western media.

That’s why my favorite line in the story is the main character’s quick retort that: “All of what you’re experiencing are real African experiences – It’s all real, the good, the bad and the ugly.” Like a few other stories in the collection, The Wedding connects Sierra Leone and Canada, the two places (so far!) where I am most at home. And it shares the joy and life and colour of celebrations in Sierra Leone and most West African cities that I love so much.

Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson- (Photo courtesy of Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson/Illuminessencemag)

How do you define an empowered woman?

Yabome:  In my leadership class I teach students that empowerment is something only you can do for yourself. Others can encourage you, but you have to empower yourself.

For me, an empowered woman is someone who has the courage to act on what is important to her, regardless of what others/society says she should or shouldn’t do. This goes for anyone. Things are not always handed to those of us with social barriers, and in that case, being empowered requires that much more courage.

Thank you Yabome for your insight and stories. We look forward to exploring more on identities in your collection of short stories.

Click here to purchase Yabome’s new book ‘Identities’!

Connect with Yabome Gilpin-Jackson on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Email

Written By: Aminata B. Wurie

Aminata Wurie is a guest writer for Illuminessence with background in International Development Studies and Management from McGill University. She is passionate about gender and development and has exceptional leadership, communication and interpersonal skills. Aminata is currently working in Sierra Leone.

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