We interviewed author Akim Aliu to chat about his recent graphic novel “Dreamer,” written with Greg Anderson Elysée and illustrated by Karen De la Vega, as part of a series honoring Black History Month. “Dreamer” tells the incredible story of Akim’s journey to becoming a professional hockey player while experiencing systemic racism along the way. It’s a story that will inspire you to pursue your dreams no matter the circumstances.
What inspired you to start a graphic novel on your personal experience growing up Black as a professional hockey player?
It came at a certain point in my career when I felt I was being selfish and only caring about my progression through the game of hockey and moving towards top levels. In my mind, I thought, “What am I doing for the next generation, in order to pave a smoother path for them so they don’t have to go through what I went through?” My inspiration all comes from wanting all kids from different genders and backgrounds to enjoy this game without the fear of discrimination and lack of access. I want kids to know that I went through a rough, dark road, but anything is possible as long as you believe in your dreams.
What did you most enjoy about writing “Dreamer”?
It was a very difficult story to tell. I had to relive a lot of the things that happened to me—not just in hockey, but in life as a whole—and thinking of what my parents went through to get us to where we are today was extremely difficult. I think the solace I take from it is that we overcame those obstacles. And Dreamer also has stories that show when you are willing to open your heart and truly get to know someone, you will feel differently about that person than just judging them based on their race.
Why was it important to you not to shy away from the many complexities of racism that came with living in Nigeria, Ukraine, and Canada, and when entering into the world of hockey? Not just for yourself, but for your family.
The only way we can address issues of racism and discrimination in hockey, but more broadly in society, is speaking truth to power. I think when people see what people of color have gone through for hundreds of years, that will make them empathize with the situation.
How important was transparency for you as you were writing?
With no transparency, there is no real and authentic message. One of the issues we have today is that people sugarcoat the real issues. I’ve prided myself on always calling out things that are wrong and a lot of the times I’ve gotten in trouble for it. But in my heart, I know I am doing the right thing and others will benefit in the future.
The illustrations in this memoir show readers the frustrations, pain (mental and physical), and overall emotional highs and lows you experienced as a kid to an adult. How did you collaborate with illustrator Karen De La Vega to help visualize your story?
Karen was incredible in bringing out the raw emotion in what I felt in that moment. When I first saw her illustrations, I had a déjà vu moment. I believe the emotions felt through the illustrations is one of the most important pieces of this book.
Was there anything that surprised you as you were writing your memoir? (Maybe a moment in your life that you were not expecting to include that you were reminded of as you were writing your book?)
The moment with my grandfather was difficult to discuss because of how close we are now, but at the same time I think it teaches a lesson that’s really important and people need to know about.
What do you wish young readers will take away after reading “Dreamer”?
My only hope is that kids understand anything is achievable if you put your heart and mind to it. You may face many trials and tribulations, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Never set a ceiling on your dreams and allow someone to tell you that you can’t do it. Success is the best revenge.