What Does Happiness Mean to You? with Kate Lentz and Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

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Photo of author Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, a Black woman with flowing curly hair, wearing a crown and yellow floral print dress; the book Layla's Happiness, with a young Black girl on the cover wearing a yellow floral print shift and blowing on a dandelion. Rhody Radio logo banner at the bottom of the image, featuring the text "Rhody Radio" and an illustration of the state of Rhode Island wearing headphones.

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Speaker 1: [00:00:00] This episode of Rhody Radio is brought to you by free online library card applications. Did you know that Rhode Island library cards expire every three years to ensure that your account information is up to date. If your library card is expiring soon, you can renew it easily online. Don't have a library card? You can apply for a library card online too. Visit oslri.org to renew or apply for a library card today.

Nicolette Baffoni: You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island library radio online.

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Nicolette: I'm Nicolette Baffoni, from the Office of Library and Information Services. Happiness to me is sharing a meal with people I love, especially for the holidays. Coming up this week on Christmas Eve, I'll join my family for my favorite meal of the year. The Feast of the Seven Fishes. We'll eat calamari, baccalà, shrimps, scallops, and smelts. Well, no one will eat those except for my father. Happiness is going to the library with an empty tote bag, browsing the shelves until I find so many books that I'd like to read that my bag is too heavy to carry comfortably.

When I get home, I'll read the first few pages of each book and decide which ones I'll actually read. Happiness is also automatic renewals, which mean that when I inevitably don't read most of the books I've borrowed, and then also forget to return them on time, I don't automatically owe late fines on 10 books that I haven't read. Happiness is the zen flow state I get when I'm doing a jigsaw puzzle. I think it's been 10 minutes and it turns out to be an hour.

It's finding the piece [00:02:00] that I've been looking for for ages and I've become convinced doesn't exist and watching the puzzle come together. Of course, putting the last piece in with a triumphant sense of ceremony. Happiness is the music of Abba, the smell of the tomato plants in my father's garden, the taste of hot melted cheese, the glowing lights of my Christmas tree, the feeling of putting my fingers through the holes of a crochet blanket.

Happiness is walking outside on a brisk but not cold day when my cheeks get rosy and the leaves are changing and crunchy underfoot, in the park near my house, through city streets, or on a hiking trail through the woods alone or together with friends. In today's episode, we'll ask the question, what does happiness mean to you? The Rhody Radio team was inspired by the book Layla's Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, which was the Rhode Island Center for the Book selection for the Rhode Island great reads book at the National Book Festival this past September.

Please enjoy the interview between Kate Lentz, director of the Rhode Island Center for the Book and Mariahadessa, where they explore her inspiration for the book and discuss what happiness means to her. Interspersed throughout the episode, the Rhody Radio team will also share what happiness means to us. First, here's Rhode Island senator, Jack Reed, reading a brief excerpt from the book.

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Jack Reed: Hi, I'm Senator Jack Reed, and it's my pleasure and privilege to be able to read Layla's Happiness.

My name is Layla. I'm seven years old. Layla means night beauty and I love the night. [00:04:00] The dark sky is pretty. It's a color of dark purple plums, and the full moon, well, it's my favorite. It sits in the sky like a wish flower's sister. If I could reach the moon, I'd blow on it and wish to play the trumpet well, without ever having to practice. I think happiness is climbing a tree or wearing purple or eating spaghetti without a fork.

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Lauren Walker: Hi, this is Lauren Walker. I'm the Assistant Director of the Coventry Public Library and a member of the Rhody Radio editorial board. Happiness to me is watching all of the Star Wars movies in chronological order with my husband every December. We started this tradition a few years ago because The Force Awakens was coming out in December, so we prepared by watching all of the preceding films in order of episode starting with Phantom Menace and ending with Return of the Jedi.

We ended up continuing this annually and now, of course, we watch all the way through Rise of Skywalker. Happiness is waking up in the morning surrounded by my peacefully sleeping dog and two cats, even though when they're awake, they don't really get along. I have a mini schnauzer named Max, a 14-year-old cat named Layla, and a one year old tripod kitty named Juno. None of them really get along and they usually just try to avoid each other.

Every morning I wake up with Max on one side, Juno on the other, and Layla sprawled across me. I like knowing that at some point while I was sleeping, they all decided to forgo their conflicts and lay down within a foot of each other for the sake of cuddles. Happiness is [00:06:00] making and eating pineapple upside-down cake on my birthday. My mamie, which is French for grandmother, always used to make pineapple upside-down cake for me and my cousins on our birthdays.

It's probably my favorite food in the world. I love both making it, carrying on the family tradition, and eating it. Happiness is traveling somewhere new and experiencing the culture. I love to travel. Even if I'm just taking a day trip to some place I haven't been before, it's exciting to see, do, and eat things that I haven't before. Happiness is loving my job. Not to be corny, but I love being a librarian and I also have great co-workers. It's just really nice to be able to get up in the morning and go to a job that I actually look forward to. There are a lot of other things that make me happy, but those are a few of my favorites.

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Kate Lentz: My name is Kate Lentz, and I'm the director of the Rhode Island Center for the Book. The Rhode Island Center for the Book is honored to participate in the Library of Congress Read Around the States initiative with Senator Jack Reed. The Rhode Island Center for the Book is the Rhode Island affiliate of the Library of Congress. We work together with the Library of Congress to promote books, reading, libraries, and literacy throughout our state.

Thank you to Senator Jack Reed, our country's library champion for joining us in this program. Senator Reed chose to read Layla's Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie and we are thrilled to announce that Layla's Happiness is the 2021 Rhode Island Great Reads book, and it will represent our state at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. in September. It's a perfect pick. It is a joyous book full of sunshine. [00:08:00] I'm beyond excited to be here with Mariahadessa at the South Providence Library here in Rhode Island.

Mariahadessa is a PhD student at Brown University here in Providence and her adult works include Strut, Dear Continuum: Letters to a Poet Crafting Liberation, and Karma's Footsteps. Mariahadessa is the subject of the short film I Leave My Colors Everywhere. She creates cinepoems with her husband and self-care posters and healing herb potions with her daughters. The award-winning Layla's Happiness is her first picture book. Congrats on all the success of Layla's Happiness, Mariahadessa-

Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie: Thank you.

Kate: -I'm just so excited.

Mariahadessa: Thank you so much.

Kate: You chose this location, the beautiful South Providence library for our conversation today. Can you tell us why you chose the library?

Mariahadessa: Our daughter goes to school here, she goes to school a couple of blocks away and so we're familiar with the neighborhood. My husband told me you have to come to this library. You're going to love it. We came here, and I fell in love with it and with Miss Trejo, who is a children's librarian here. This was kind of a natural fit. We actually did a school visit here, but via technology, because of the pandemic. This is a really comfortable place for me.

Kate: Libraries mean a lot to you. Did you visit the library growing up and with your daughters?

Mariahadessa: Oh, yes, the library was a place that I think saved my sanity. If I have any sanity left it's because of the library. I used to take my daughters to the Jamaica library, the central library branch when they were little and we would spend hours in there. We would get lost in just enjoying books and in the programs and in the summer, they do a lot of work. They have all sorts of things. There's the summer reading and all those. It was a place where I could go and still immerse [00:10:00] myself in books and keep learning while my daughters were learning. That's something that I absolutely-- I cherish that.

There's another library in New York called the Langston Hughes Library. We do amazing cultural work there. Libraries have really helped me. We just got familiar with our local library here in Providence, which is Mount Pleasant, and very lovely people there too. I'm excited to get to know the libraries as things open up.

Kate: That's so great. As a poet, what led you to write a picture book?

Mariahadessa: Having daughters and wanting them to see themselves in books. I started writing children's books in 2005, 2006, around the time my first daughter Serene was born. It was really an attempt. We were living in Belgium and it was hard to find any books with Black children in them. When we moved back to New York, I still had a hard time in stores actually. The library is different, but in stores, I would not see the books I wanted on shelves.

Since I was a writer, and I'm a writer, I thought I need to write the book. Whatever it is I want to see, I'll write it. I started there. I actually used to take what I was working on to the librarian at the central library to get feedback on it. I remember the first thing I took there, she was like, "This has potential, but you got to work on the rhyme scheme. You need to--" I was trying to do Dr. Seuss. She was like, "Not so much, but keep working on it."

That was really nurturing, so I kept writing. This book, Layla, I found the initial draft, the initial writing of it, I think it was 2012. I met Claudia, my publisher, and Enchanted Lion Books [00:12:00] because my husband met her at a party and he's like, "My wife writes children's books." That was-- I don't even know when, but from 2012, the book came out in 2019. Claudia and I went to contract somewhere in between there, like 2015. A long, long journey. I like to say that Layla in the book, she says she's seven years old. She really was seven years old.

Kate: At the time.

Mariahadessa: 2012 to 2019, she's really seven years old. I know, it's crazy.

Kate: That's amazing. Can you tell us a little bit about the main character Layla, how did she come about? What does her name mean? Why did you choose it? Tell us more about that character.

Mariahadessa: I love Layla.

Kate: Who doesn't love Layla?

Mariahadessa: I don't know. Layla, I think she's a combination of a lot of different people. Kids who I would see just out at community gardens because I used to spend a lot of time at community gardens, wanting to garden, wanting to learn about herbs and plants. Then also I did some volunteer teaching there with little babies. That was something that I think inspired Layla, and then my own daughters, I think, parts of them. My husband has said that Layla is me.

I don't climb trees, so that's one thing. I think it's a combination of a lot of things that make people who I've seen around me happy. I think that's where she comes from. Her name, I have a fabulous friend in Oakland whose name is Layla. She's a dancer, a mother, and an educator. Ever since I met that friend, the name Layla has been in my head. I played around with the spelling of Layla, which means night beauty in Arabic. I've been [00:14:00] in love with that name. I think I was looking for an opportunity to use it for someone as exuberant as my friend Layla is. Layla Jenkins Perez, shout out to Layla.

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Kate: What would you like readers to take away from this book?

Mariahadessa: I think I want us to remember that simple joys are really important. Sometimes even I get caught up and think, "Well, if I could do this, or if I could do this to my house, that would make me happy." It's simple things like being together to have a meal makes me happy, being in a library, talking to a person, talking to friends over a cup of tea. Very small things can make us happy.

I think it's important to remember what those things are and to nurture the presence of those things in your life. Tune in to whatever those things are. I think that spirit of happiness, but also gratitude. I don't know. I'm not saying that's explicit in the book, but I think remembering to be thankful for those small things that make us happy is important too.

Kate: Important now especially.

Mariahadessa: Oh my gosh.

Kate: We're going to end with what is happiness for you and what makes you happy about living in Rhode Island?

Mariahadessa: Happiness for me, definitely my family, definitely my family. I think somehow the pandemic has just made me pivot a lot more on these people who we can all drive each other crazy, but they bring absolute joy to me, and I'm so thankful for them. Quiet also, all the way on [00:16:00] the other end, quiet makes me extremely happy. Really, I love just being quiet and writing. Dancing makes me really happy. See how it's all contradiction. Dancing to extremely loud music makes me really happy as well.

Rhode Island, one of the things I love is that, coming from New York, the pace of life is so different here. It's so different. Our quality of life is different. We have more time to spend with each other. That's a huge thing for me. That's something that really makes me happy. My friends here make me happy. I have a small group of people who quickly became friends and finding community is amazing in any place. People have been very kind to us here, very generous.

That really adds to my sense of joy. Then there's the forest. You have all these beautiful green spaces, which I love walking through, and we take a lot of walks. Then there's the beach, which is like, oh my gosh. I love the beach and the beach is a place where I feel like I get the best of everything. The beach, that's-- What is that? Number four? My goodness. Then number five, I like the bookstores, places where you can just--

I have a couple of bookstores I love and those places make me extremely happy. I don't want to say some and leave some out. There are some really wonderful independent bookstores that, really, they're nurturing and they've been very supportive of Layla's Happiness. Those are some of the things that make me happy. I know there are probably more even.

Kate: That's great. Thank you so much for joining us. I want to hug you because we can hug now! Congratulations!

Mariahadessa: Thank you. What an honor. Thank you so much.

Kate: Thank you.

Mariahadessa: [00:18:00] Thank you and thank all your colleagues and the board and everything. This was a huge surprise.

Kate: I'm so glad because we're so thrilled. We can't wait to share Layla's Happiness with all of Rhode Island.

Mariahadessa: Thank you.

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Dave: Hi, my name is Dave, and happiness to me is the smell of freshly baked bread, the feel of a brand new library book, fallen leaves crunching under my feet on an autumn hike, a home filled with foster pets, and being together with my family.

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Nicolette: Thanks so much for listening today. Visit the link in the show notes to see the video recording of Jack Reed's reading and Kate and Mariahadessa's interview at the Library of Congress website. We invite you to reflect on what happiness means to you and we would love to hear from you if you want to share. You can tweet us @RhodyRadio or email us at rhodyradioonline@gmail.com Happy Holidays from the Rhody Radio team. We'll see you back here next year.

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