Francie Latour: “Auntie Luce’s Talking Paintings”

Francie Latour is a writer and editor whose work explores issues of race, culture and identity. She coordinates a diversity initiative at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; she is also co-founder and co-director of Wee The People, a social justice project for kids based in Boston.

Last year, I spoke with Francie and Wee The People co-founder Tanya Nixon-Silberg about this project and how children’s books are a part of their programs. This month, I interviewed Francie about her beautiful debut picture book, AUNTIE LUCE’S TALKING PAINTINGS, illustrated by Ken Daley (Groundwood Books, 2018).

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Francie Latour and a young reader at the Jamaica Plain Branch of the Boston Public Library

Alison Goldberg: I’m curious about the chance encounter, mentioned in your bio, that led to Luce Turnier painting your portrait and that also inspired this book. Can you share some of this backstory?

Francie Latour: Yes, Luce Turnier was a huge, huge inspiration for this book. I met her when I was 21 and living in Paris. My mother, who was visiting me, and I were invited to meet Luce by a good friend of my mother’s, the late Mimi Barthélémy — a storyteller, actress, and amazing Haitian artist in her own right. Luce was living in a suburb just outside of Paris. We visited with her, and then I went back a second time on my own. It was when I went back that she painted my portrait, totally unexpectedly. This was about two years before her death.

I knew that I was meeting one of Haiti’s greatest artists, and I was awestruck by her. At the same time, growing up I had lived an extremely sheltered life. Like a good Haitian daughter, I followed all the rules. My mission in life was to get into an Ivy League school to please my parents. So I didn’t fully appreciate what it meant for Luce to be who she was, as a woman, as a Haitian woman, as a Haitian woman painter. I didn’t understand all the courageous choices she had to make, all the expectations of Haitian society she had to reject, in order to live as authentically as she did.

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From Luce Turnier’s painting of Francie Latour, 1992

AG: What drew you to write a children’s book?

FL: My path to writing a children’s book was a little strange. Back in January 2010, I wrote an essay following the earthquake in Haiti for the Boston Globe, where I worked for a number of years. It was written in the form of short, fragmented diary entries.

A children’s book agent, Rubin Pfeffer, read that essay and asked to meet with me. He asked me if I would try writing a children’s book. I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud in response. I didn’t think I was capable of writing a children’s book, or any book. As a journalist, I was trained to write about what has already happened in reality. It was really hard to think about creating something purely fictional. I think that’s a big reason why so much of this book draws on things I experienced in real life. And even then it was such a challenge! But interestingly, like the original story in the Globe, the book incorporates feelings of cultural pride as well as feelings of outsider-ness, as someone who was born here but feels pulled back to this place where my family is from.

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AG: Auntie Luce says, “To paint Haiti takes the darkest colors and the brightest ones, and all the colors in between.” I love the way your book achieves this through text and image. The vibrancy of the landscape, flowers, and food immerse the senses, while at the same time, the conversation between the child and Auntie Luce explores painful history too. This story has so many layers. Was it challenging to touch on all that you wanted in picture book form?

FL: Wow, thank you! Now that the process is over, if I could go back and start again, yes, there would be a LOT more I would want to say in the book, or represent in the book. But at the time I was writing it, again, the biggest challenge was finding and building a story that somebody would actually want to read.

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AG: Early in the story, the child talks to Auntie Luce’s paintings and says, “The paintings always talk back” echoed in the title too. I found this to be a powerful statement about what we can learn by interacting with art. There are many moments when the paintings tell the “birth stories” you describe in the author’s note. How do you think about art’s role in teaching us about culture and identity?

FL: That’s a great question. I grew up with a lot of Haitian art and music in my house. As a child you can’t understand the impact that that has. But now I can see that these influences sent a really powerful message: Our stories are beautiful, and important, and they are worth telling. So even while I was going through that phase kids of immigrants sometimes go through — rejecting Haitian culture because it was different, getting dragged to cultural events and complaining, etc — those messages were always there. They were still going. And they were strengthening me against a world that devalues Blackness and denigrates Haitianness specifically. I’m so grateful for that, and it’s a big reason why, as a mother, I have a lot of art and books and music that celebrate African diasporic cultures in my house. And also why I now find myself dragging my kids to events that celebrate Blackness and Haitianness.

Right now, the cultures and identities of all people of color are under incredible attack. Telling our stories — through art, through writing, through dance, and so on — is vital to countering those attacks and affirming our humanity.

Auntie Luce cover

AG: What are some of your favorite picture books?

FL: Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López; Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago and illustrated by Rafael Yockteng; Miss Crandall’s School For Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper; Yesterday I Had The Blues by Jeron Ashford Frame, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie; Take A Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee! by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Keith Mallett; and Milo’s Museum by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Purple Wong.

AG: When Auntie Luce says, “The truth is a hard thing to untangle” I think about your work with Wee The People, engaging children in conversations about activism and social justice. Did that work influence the writing of this story? How would you like to see this book used in communities and classrooms?

FL: I wrote Auntie Luce a few years before co-founding Wee The People. But there is a social justice lens to the book for sure. I think that lens comes from this disconnect that a lot of Haitians feel between what we know about Haiti’s past and present, and the stereotypes and ignorance so many Americans have about Haiti. Most Americans don’t know about the Haitian Revolution — an event of huge global significance in which enslaved people defeated French and Spanish and British armies, destroying the ideology of white Western superiority. Most Americans don’t know that without the Haitian Revolution, there would have been no Louisiana Purchase. Without the Louisiana Purchase, obviously, America as we know it doesn’t exist. Most Americans don’t know that as a cost of winning the revolution, Haiti was forced to pay billions in indemnity payments to France for France’s “lost property” — meaning Haitians’ own bodies. Can you imagine if a young, war-ravaged United States under George Washington had had to fork over billions just to keep England from invading them? When Americans think of Haiti, they think of poverty. But they aren’t able to connect that poverty to centuries of US and European policies that doomed Haiti from its birth as a free country.

AG: What’s next for you?

FL: I think this is where I’m supposed to say, “Another children’s book, Alison!” — and I am thinking about one, but I also need to get over that hump again of feeling like an impostor. I don’t think of myself as a children’s book author. I think of myself as an overwhelmed, frazzled mom with three kids who had this fluke thing happen.

In the meantime, we have some book tour stops in Washington DC, Miami and Toronto coming up. That’s pretty exciting!

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Francie Latour reading at Porter Square Books

AG: Is there anything else you would like to include?

FL: Yes! Everyone needs to know the artist and illustrator of this book, Ken Daley. He’s not only insanely talented but also a pretty dope human being. It’s a unique kind of challenge as a painter to illustrate a book that’s about painting, where the colors themselves are a big part of telling the story. I remember getting Ken’s first sketches and thinking wow, this is gonna be really cool. And then one day at work, I got them in full color and I started jumping up and down. I showed them to EVERYBODY. I was and am so grateful for the chance to collaborate with him.

Thank you, Francie!

To learn more about Francie Latour and her upcoming events, visit https://www.francielatour.com.