Author Jumana Rahman talks about creating her new baby board book, Bhorta Bhorta Baby!
Send the DM! What’s the worst that could happen?
The worst possible situation. I’ll be rejected, but I’ll learn.
What’s the best possible situation? I could have a publisher take on my little story and give it a life of its own.
I sent the DM.
But before all that, where it really started was the nights on end being awake next to a toddler. Some of those more troublesome nights meant extra belly rubs or an extra story as my little baby boy dozed off to sleep. At the same time, I was also dreaming up the words to explain how I felt about my son in these long moments awake with him.
I tried to sum up in sentences what he means to me in rhyming couplets and close rhyme. Some scribbles would be funny, some would be bilingual, and some pieces would make the cut to be a part of his annual birthday poem and video I would draft just in time for May 26th.
One particular night, I wrote a poem called ‘Bhorta Bhorta Baby’.
Being an immigrant in the West and brought up in a traditional Bangladeshi household, I grew up in a setting where my identity was never unknown to me, even though I landed in Canada at age three. We ate Bengali food, dressed in Bengali clothes anytime a family get-together called for it, and spoke the language at home. Even though my Bangla always came out with a Canadian accent, the effort was there. I later married a man who carried Bangla so much more naturally than me. Somehow expressing myself got easier with him.
When we eventually had our son. I made a conscious effort to speak in Bangla and teach him about our rich culture. Food, music, language and fashion… Those were the obvious tenets I could pass along. Elements of comfort, elements of home.
Starting solids became an adventure of discovering food. “What sorts of veggies and proteins can I mash down to make eating exciting for my little one?”, I wondered. I was making some variation of Bhorta all the time.
Essentially, Bhorta is the word for “mash”. It’s a food-waste curbing, pantry staple favourite for every Bengali family. Made of potatoes, beans, fish, eggplant, lentils, or egg, it’s massaged into a mash with mustard oil, spice and aromatics. Bhorta, along with so many Bengali dishes are a treat for the senses. But no matter what I made, with blood, sweat or tears, white rice was my baby’s preference anyway!
The poem itself flew right out of me one night. Penned on the notepad app of my phone, I was so excited to share my piece with my husband, Muhammad, in the morning.
Bhorta Bhorta Baby was a short, bouncy, set of rhymes that danced along a bumping rhythm. It used super simple language and onomatopoeia. I was proud and thought it deserved sharing.
My husband adored it. My sister was floored. My son babbled along with it too.
Though it was far from the first poem or piece of creative writing I’d ever done, somehow Bhorta Bhorta Baby called out to me and demanded to be shared. Much like the dish itself. Can’t eat bhorta alone!
My family encouraged me to seek out a publisher. At the same time, I started seeking out for a Bengali artist who could illustrate the board book of my dreams. I considered collage artists, felt work and textile artists, and finally decided that simple digital illustration was the way to go– but in a way that would be bright, layered and rich.
I came across Maryam’s work under the Instagram handle @VividByMaryam. I was immediately taken by her commitment to her style, and the way her passion for our shared Bengali culture came through in every digital stroke of her pencil. The textures were gritty, the colours sparked excitement, and the content of her art was so close to home. I reached out.
I sent her an Instagram DM and asked if she was open to commissions. A particular illustration she had on her website of a fried egg, and another of olive oil bottles, made the connection in my mind. Little did we know that a year and half later, our relationship would be a partnership over looking at design references, discussing line art, and carefully planning each spread.
Maryam welcomed my doodles and descriptions of the fuzzy images I had in mind. Only she could have deciphered and designed a book as beautiful and warm as the pages of BhortaBhorta Baby! I’m forever indebted to her dedication to the project, to ensure every character and every detail was drawn with love.
At the same time, I connected with Rumana of Bok BokBooks, via a DM. At the time, I was only seeking advice on whether the poem was even worthy of publishing, either by self-publishing or sending it in as a submission to a publishing house. We jumped on a call and started sharing. I think my high energy rubbed off on her, and the content made her smile. Before we knew it she had decided to take on the poem as a 2023 project, to be published under the Bok Bok Books roster. What I admire so much about Rumana is her drive to bring bilingual books and resources to Bangladeshi children in a meaningful way, rooted in our culture. Her determination to seek out the highest quality of print work as well as compiling our powerhouse team of art director, Clare Baggley and PR by Dannie Price, had me awestruck. I was so moved that these talented individuals had banded together over my silly little poem.
We spent months pouring ourselves into the final cut. Each word was carefully placed. Each expression on our illustrated baby’s face, revised again and again.
By November 2023, I had finally received my copy of Bhorta Bhorta Baby! The surreal emotion of tangibly holding my dream in my hands was unforgettable.
To celebrate the book and our work together, we have hosted readings and craft workshops in nurseries and schools, hosted an event at Discover Story Centre in London, and have met so many little ones, ready to mash and squish their own bhorta, to the beat of our poem.
Countless smiles later, Bhorta Bhorta Baby! is available to the world.
Jumana Rahman can be found on Instagram @jumanarahmanauthor
Copies of the book can be bought here: https://www.bokbokbooks.co.uk/product/bhorta-bhorta-baby