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The Beauty of Belonging

By Nguyen Hong Quyen
The Beauty of Belonging

Excerpt page from I'm From. (Photo source: Oge Mora)

UNIS Hanoi teacher and poet, Gary Gray, has recently released his debut book, titled I’m From. This picture book is a powerful message about identity and inclusion.

Growing up in Preston, the oldest black community in Nova Scotia, Canada, Gary's family and friends were always there for him. “It’s a loving community where you have breakfast at your grandma's house, lunch at your aunt and uncle's, and then dinner at your best friend’s.” Gary feels belonging in Preston.

During that affectionate childhood, he struggled to find books that he felt connected to or shared a similar experience with the black experience. “I grew up reading a lot of books that had animal characters or white characters,” he recalls. This lack of representation in literature fueled his desire to write stories that would resonate with children like him. Later on, living abroad as an international teacher, Gary was frequently asked where he was from by people he crossed paths with. This pushed him even further into his quest to discover who he was.  

Gary’s cousin, Shauntay Grant, was instrumental in Gary's journey to becoming a writer. Reading Shauntay’s books, which celebrate diversity and the black community, and participating in her writing workshops inspired Gary to create his own work. He had his first book idea in 2019. Four years later, I'm From was officially published worldwide in September 2023.

Gary chose to tell his story using poems. He explains, “Poetry is flexible. I don't have to have commas or periods everywhere. My words can be big or small. They can sound exactly like the way that I talk and think. Poetry sets me free as a writer."

I’m From is Gary's heartfelt attempt to bridge gaps, helping children and adults understand the richness of the black experience. “I want my readers to think outside of the bias-black-male-box. The black experience is complex, with both upsides and downsides. And it’s okay to have those experiences. They help us grow,” Gary sincerely shares. He wants black children to know that they are loved and that they have much to be proud of. He also hopes the book will inspire respectful curiosity in others and open conversations about different experiences and perspectives.

As a teacher who has taught in five different countries, the Canadian author sees the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion within the school community. “UNIS Hanoi does an amazing job of recruiting diverse staff members and allowing diversity and inclusion within its curriculum,” Gary remarks. In his classroom, he makes an effort to pronounce students' names correctly, reads a wide range of books that represent various backgrounds of the school population, and encourages open dialogue about identity and inclusion. His first book allows students to sit back and listen to each other's experiences, which he believes fosters empathy and respect among themselves.

Gary dedicates his very first work to the community of Preston and his grandmother who had a profound influence on who he is today. The young poet reveals, “All of the memories in I'm From are a result of her love, guidance, and wisdom." It is a tribute to her legacy and celebrates the beauty of belonging in our diverse world.

Nguyen Hong Quyen is the Communications Manager at UNIS Hanoi.

If you would like to discover Gary's journey, get a copy of his book here.

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