New School Book Club: In Conversation with Author and Alumni Keisha Bush
In the Spring of 2020, we launched the New School Book Club. In a time filled with separation and uncertainty, we wanted to find a way to get our community on the same page — literally — and what way to do that than through reading?
Our most recent Book Club pick was No Heaven for Good Boys by New School Alumni Keisha Bush, MFA Creative Writing ’15. Published in January 2021, the book is based off of Bush’s personal experiences and observations while living in Senegal. It follows the story of 6-year-old Ibrahimah and the struggles he faces while living as a Talibé in Dakar. In a rave review, the New York Times called the novel “unflinching and poignant,” and, “threaded with kindness, love and even magic.”
“Bush walks that line — portraying the bad without aggrandizement and illuminating the good without sentimentality,” the review continues.
No Heaven for Good Boys provides a powerful look into the current human right crisis still happening in Senegal today. The characters in No Heaven for Good Boys will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book and will leave you wanting more, wanting to help, which is exactly the way Bush planned.
After reading the book, we had the opportunity to gather questions for Bush from our community, and she answered them over video.
“When I came back to the U.S. and decided to change careers and start writing, the Talibé, who still to this day fill my heart space, came rushing forward.”
New School Book Club: Where did the inspiration behind Ibrahimah’s character come from?
Keisha Bush: I lived in Senegal, which is based in West Africa, for four years, and while I was there I was teaching English and later landed a job with Oxfam Great Britain and around the city there were all these boys. The estimates are 50–100,000. Seeing the children, I was curious. I asked friends about it, my neighbors, and learned that they had been sent to a daara which is where young boys are sent to learn the Quran, and instead of learning the Quran, many boys were forced to beg all day.
I would see the boys as early as seven in the morning and often times as late as 11:30 in the evening. One cluster of boys I just sort of got to know, they would come and ask me for money and I would buy them bananas. So I ended up becoming their banana girl. It was super sweet, they would see me and I would have a cluster of 10, 12, 13 boys take off, run up to me and start yelling “Banan! Banan! Banan!” And I would be like “Hey! How are you?” In French mixed with Wolof. They really touched my heart, so when I came back to the U.S. and decided to change careers and start writing, eventually the Talibé, who still to this day fill my heart space, came rushing forward. The boys in the book are based off of real boys or children who are dealing with the same circumstances in the book in real life.
“I’m using fiction as a vehicle to write about a human rights crisis that’s still going on today.”
NSBC: I’m planning to start writing my debut novel, should I analyze my favorite Novels first?
KB: As a writer, especially as a fiction writer, I know how when we are writing and we’re entering a story that’s maybe different or if you’re writing the other, or writing about something you don’t know that much about, or if you’re just looking for techniques, I find that I do not read other people’s work while I’m writing. I think it’s a little too easy to basically end up copying someone. I feel like the brain is like a library catalog and whatever you put in the brain, the most recent thing you read or saw, when you’re writing and you come into a bit of a problem or you find an obstacle, the brain goes back into its catalog and finds a solution. So if you just read the latest book that just came out, a big debut, it’s very easy to sort of take from it. There’s nothing necessarily new, right, so truthfully where I tend to find my inspiration or find ideas, I actually read journalism. So I’ll read the New York Times, or the BBC, the Atlantic, and that’s where, if I got stuck with No Heaven for Good Boys, that’s where I went. So for me, it makes sense because I’m using fiction as a vehicle to write about a human rights crisis that’s still going on today, so I look a lot to nonfiction. I love reading about neuroscience, philosophy, and cultural criticism. I also like quantum physics, but I try not to let that get into my work too much.
NSBC: Were there any specific books you read/pulled from while writing No Heaven for Good Boys?
KB: In terms of writers who I am inspired by, and who were large inspirations to me while I was writing No Heaven for Good Boys, was Chinua Achebe, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Junot Díaz, Jamaica Kincaid, Mildred Taylor, and those are just some of the writers. I didn’t go to those works while I was writing No Heaven For Good Boys, but as an avid reader I’m sure those books had some sort of influence on me.
“Those children are still in Senegal living out, literally, a human rights crisis on a daily basis.”
NSBC: You chose to end it before Ibrahimah reaches his final destination, why?
KB: The simple reason for that is because the children I write about in the book, the Talibé, and the children that Ibrahimah represents, Ibrahimah is one small character, but he is representing almost 100,000 boys and gives face, name, feeling, and humanity to them. And he doesn’t make it home because those children are still in Senegal living out, literally, a human rights crisis on a daily basis. And I didn’t think it was fair to give the reader this feeling of “Fine, we went through this journey it was so hard and now the children are at home.” I think what ends up happening with readers, and what some readers have told me, is that they are thinking about the characters after they finish the book, and I was back in the U.S. for two years before I changed careers and ended up writing about the children, and I think that’s because there’s this feeling of “How can I help them?” So the ending ends the way it does to touch the reader, but also to hopefully inspire action of some sort.
NSBC: Every single character is written so well! Who was your favorite character to write? Least favorite?
KB: Okay, my characters, oh my goodness, I love them, I love my characters so much like they are real people. I think it’s really cool to be an artist and to be a writer because people accept that I see my character as real people as opposed to “Oh, Keisha has imaginary friends and she’s an adult, she has issues.” (Laughing)
Clearly my least favorite character to write was the antagonist, the teacher Marabout Ahmed. I read somewhere that your characters have a bit of you, the writer, in them, and Marabout Ahmed was so far from me that I actually did give him something of myself which is, I went to business school for undergrad. I’m a numbers person, I was an accounting major and then switched to business, but like I was really food at accounting, I really loved it. So at one point Marabout realizes he needs more children to make more money and he takes a pen, pencil, and piece of paper and really starts budgeting out what he needs to meet his income goals. So I gave that to Marabout so that I connected with him.
My favorite character, I loved the sisters so much, Binta is the smallest sister, she’s the youngest at 8-years-old and I love her, she always has a cookie in her mouth. Like to me, that was pure comedy. I love Ibrahimah, he has so much of me, we both daydream. I love the moon and looking up at the sky, and he has my, “We need to get this work done,” attitude, and that’s kind of like me too.
NSBC: What’s it like publishing a book during a global pandemic?
KB: Ah, publishing in a global pandemic. We take each day as it comes. I would not recommend waiting for a pandemic to publish your book, it just sort of happened that way, it was definitely not the dream. We try to support each other, there are online writer communities for debut writers. There’s one on Facebook I’ve found pretty helpful, it’s called Debut 2021 and every year the debut space opens up. It’s just a space that debut writers can get together to share and support each other, so that has been great. I also have a really good support network of people who are just here for me. And the New School family has just been right there, I love you all so much, Luis, John, Lori Lynn, Kelly, and Juan, the New School Family has been there.
“My advice to anyone in the program is to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.”
NSBC: What was one of the biggest things you took away from your time in the Creative Writing Program?
KB: I loved the New School Creative Writing Program, like I really love The New School. I don’t know if the whole school knows this, I know the Writing Program knows this, but I am like their poster child. I initially took courses with John Reed in the continuing education program and then after taking four classes in a row, I applied to the MFA program, got in, and literally took advantage of almost everything in the MFA program. At one point, I almost had a meltdown second year because my schedule was so packed, I was teaching, I was taking extra classes, electives. I was taking Arabic and French, and I was pushing myself with my classes.
I’m fiction, so I took a fiction workshop, but in the literature courses, I really pushed myself. So my advice to anyone in the program is to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, so if you’re a fiction writer, go take a YA literature course. I love reading poetry, so I took a poetry class. I took art criticism, at the time, there was an art criticism literature course so I took that and it was super uncomfortable but it was the best thing that I had every done and all of my classmates felt the same way, we were all super afraid in the beginning but then we were just like in love with each other and our professor by the end of the class. Then I took an experimental literature course which completely changed my writing in amazing ways and so I say, push yourself, make yourself uncomfortable, it’s school, so you’re supposed to be exploring and trying new things, because it will only support you as a writer in the end.
NSBC: Do you still keep in touch with any of your New School classmates?
KB: Yes! I do still keep in touch with my New School classmates. So, during the pandemic, I have been going through a lot, especially trying to publish my book coming out and just all of the different obstacles that have arisen due to the pandemic. So I found myself kind of floundering a little bit last summer while on lock down in Harlem, and I reached out to two former classmates to start a writing group. We meet on zoom once a month, and it’s been super, super helpful and supportive. I had another friend who I asked to join, and then he had a friend that he invited, and it turns out the other friend is also a new school alumni, he just graduated before me and my other two classmates. So we have this really cool writing group that’s four New Schoolers and one non New Schooler, and it’s just been great.
I also am in constant touch with Luis Jaramillo the director of the program, Lori Lynn Turner and John Reed, and Laura Cronk, and they have been super supportive of me over the last several years. I graduated in 2015 and, six years later, here’s my book, so you know, look to your classmates and alumni, there are some alumni who are still connected, and make sure you reach out to folks. I’m also still friends with people who weren’t even in the MFA program but they were in undergrad doing their BFA.
So, reach out to your New School fam and really foster a community with them. Don’t get caught up in feelings of, “Maybe this person doesn’t like me,” be open because you never know.
At the end of the novel, Bush shares three organizations — Maison de la Gare, Empire des Enfants, and Samu Social Senegal — that are currently on the ground in Senegal working to help Talibé boys. She also shares the article “‘There Is Enormous Suffering’: Serious Abuses Against Talibé Children in Senegal, 2017–2018.” Bush encourages readers interested in helping and learning more to check these resources out.
Keisha Bush was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. She received her MFA in creative writing from The New School, where she was a Riggio Honors Teaching Fellow and recipient of an NSPE Dean’s Scholarship. After a career in corporate finance and international development that brought her to live in Dakar, Senegal, she decided to focus full-time on her writing. She lives in East Harlem.
Stay tuned for the next New School Book Club pick coming later this Spring!