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Q&A: Michel Chikwanine on his graphic-novel memoir, Child Soldier

Michel Chikwanine Child SoldierWhen Michel Chikwanine was five years old, he snuck out against his father’s wishes to play with some other boys in his Congolese village. It was 1993, and despite the relative security in Chikwanine’s life, war was raging all around him. As the boys kicked around a ball, a band of rebel militants descended upon them, kidnapped, drugged, and tortured them, then forced them to fight for their violent cause.

Today, Chikwanine is a student at the University of Toronto and a public speaker who shares his tragic ordeal with children. This September, Kids Can Press will publish his story in the graphic novel Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls are Used in War, told in Chikwanine’s voice, with the help of Jessica Dee Humphreys, co-author of Roméo Dallaire’s They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, and illustrations by author-illustrator Claudia Dávila.

In a couple of scenes, you talk about not fully understanding the world or the things your father [an important figure in Michel’s life and the book] tells you about it. Why did you feel it was important to include this? I think most children, anywhere in the world, are asked to comprehend some very complex information that they’re simply not capable of fully understanding. I understood the severity of everything that my father told me, but I didn’t understand the context until I was much older. I think most kids reading this can relate to the boy in the story – he’s a child who doesn’t understand everything his father tells him or what’s going on around him. It was important to me that the reader sees the boy not as this foreign person, but as a child, just like them.

How do you anticipate young people will respond to the violence in the book? It is a very graphic book, but the parts I’ve shared are not in fact the worst parts of my story. The violence is lessened in the book, to frame it for 10–14-year-olds. I wanted to convey how brutal the experience is, especially to kids this age, so many of whom are playing war-simulating video games and don’t understand how war affects real people. I wanted to convey how it takes away your innocence. Many young people have been desensitized to war and violence and I wanted to personalize it for them.

Child Soldier goes beyond your story to include history about the Democratic Republic of Congo and information on the broader political context of the time. How did you manage to fit all of that in? One thing that was so important to me was ensuring there was context. This is my story, so it wasn’t hard to add my piece because it was already a part of me. Having given speeches to so many kids, from elementary to preteens, I’ve had the experience of condensing my story effectively.

In the book, when you return home from your ordeal, your father tells you not to speak of it. How does that relate to sharing your story as an adult? When I returned to my town, no one had really had the experience I did, so my dad did everything he could to protect me from others. He didn’t know how to handle it, and he didn’t want people questioning me, he wanted to protect my innocence, which for him meant internalizing it. This is why I tell my story to people – there is purpose to me talking now. I don’t look for pity, but to drive the message home that this is still happening to children around the world. Yet we can overcome a lot as human beings. My dad, perhaps unintentionally, set me on the path to drive power from within myself to overcome adversity.