Writing has always been a part of Conrad Grebel University College alum Nadia L. Hohn’s life. In her early years, however, turning writing into a career was just a passing thought. “I didn’t have this dream of becoming an author as a child, even though I was always writing,” she remarked. “I didn’t think my work was good enough. I had also never met an author before, nor seen one who looked like me. I had so many doubts.” Doubts of her writing talents constricted Nadia’s creative potential for many years until one day in 2010, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. This life-altering event put her true priorities into perspective. With no time to let doubt continue dictating her life, Nadia used her diagnosis as fuel to set her professional writing career ablaze. Before long, she had made the impossible a reality. 

picture of Nadia

Nadia is now an author, educator, and artivist promoting diversity within children’s literature. She has led more than 100 book presentations at school libraries, bookstores, and literary festivals worldwide. In 2021, Nadia’s book Malaika’s Costume was chosen for the TD Grade One Book giveaway, a program which distributed more than 550,000 copies of the book to Canadian first graders. A focus of Nadia’s has been to ensure that young children can see themselves in her stories. “I feel extremely proud when my stories resonate with young readers, especially when a marginalized child is finally able to see themself represented on the page,” she said. “This is why writing books featuring Black and diverse representation gives me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.”  

While Nadia discovered her confidence as a writer later in life, she had always been adamant about increasing the representation of marginalized communities. When she came to Grebel in 1998, Nadia was just one of two Black students living in the residence. Hoping to highlight the creative works of other young Black Canadians, she began a film festival called ICED IN BLACK: Canadian Black Experiences on Film. “I began ICED IN BLACK under a different name while living in my Grebel dorm in 2000,” reflected Nadia. “A year later, the film festival had become university-wide, and a year after that, it went on tour across Canada.”  

When reflecting on her time at Grebel, Nadia thought of community. “I remember the fun trips, gorgeous rooms and the delicious food. I enjoyed editing and writing for GrebelSpeaks. I also worked in the kitchen during Community Supper.” At times, Nadia experienced feelings of isolation in being one of the few Black residents in Grebel. “Being a Black woman, my identity gave me a very unique lived experience that many other residents and staff may not have encountered,” she remarked. Nadia said this “resulted in having courageous and uncomfortable conversations and action. Through them, I found allies.” Even after graduating more than twenty years ago, Grebel exists as more than a mere memory.  “I have wonderful friends that I made at Grebel.  Some of us were roommates off-campus and even though we’ve lived in different countries, we are still friends to this day.” 

After graduating in 2001 from the University of Waterloo with an Honours degree in Psychology (BA Hon.), Nadia maintained her passion for increasing opportunities for Black Canadians. Still seeing her writing as a hobby, she set her sights on becoming a teacher, believing that inspiring youth was the most impactful way for her to use her creativity to help her community. She attained her Bachelors (BEd) and Master of Education (MEd) degrees in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT) as well as writing classes at night. As an elementary school teacher, Nadia instilled values of equity, inclusion, and recognition in the next generation. However, the trajectory of Nadia’s life took a turn after her cancer diagnosis. 

“I consider that moment to be a turning point in my life,” she remarked. Ever the optimist, Nadia saw the potential for positive change in her grim situation. “My diagnoses gave me a chance to think about the two dreams I wished to pursue in life once I got better – to travel and write books that would get me published.” A major step towards this goal was starting a blog that documented her healing journey and her decision to become vegan. “I found that I loved writing each day for an audience so much that I decided to do everything in my power to make my dreams of becoming an author come true.” Once she recovered, Nadia celebrated her good health by travelling to more than 20 countries and even taught in United Arab Emirates. 

Filled with determination and a fresh outlook on her priorities, Nadia published her first book, Malaika’s Costume, in 2016. The story follows Malaika, a Black girl who lives with her grandmother in the Caribbean, while her mother lives in Canada to work and support them. When the money for Malaika’s costume doesn’t arrive, she comes up with a plan. Saddened but determined to attend, little Malaika takes charge and goes to the local tailor to make her own costume out of scrap pieces of fabric. Thanks to her own initiative, she ensures her dreams of going to the carnival came true. Malaika’s Costume is a story of a Black Canadian finding innovative ways to chase her dreams and refusing to let external circumstances dictate her future. Sound familiar? 

Nadia reading at a Grebel event

Nadia attributes some of her success as a writer to developing courage and independence during her time at Grebel. “Grebel helped me to be more self-reliant and less afraid to take chances, move into a new environment, and find community. It also gave me a chance to explore my Christian faith,” she continued. “I was given a chance to learn about different Christian faith traditions and how my peers lived them out. This eventually helped me to find a way to live out my Christian faith and reminded me to have balance in my life.” To current students living in Grebel, Nadia suggested that they “make the most of their time at Grebel by getting to know the people and community, and to get involved. I encourage Black or students of colour to find allies.”  

Even though Nadia has firmly established herself as a writer, she remains humble and views her success as an honour. “I have the privilege of sharing my stories in schools, libraries, bookstores, festivals, and conferences across Canada and in many places in the world. My stories are shared in books that travel further than I can.” In 2023, Nadia released The Antiracist Kitchen: 21 Stories (and Recipes), to which she edited and contributed, and Malaika, Carnival Queen. Her creative writing journey is far from over; 2024 and 2025 will see Nadia release her tenth and eleventh books, Patty Dreams and Getting to Grandma's House.

By Jiho Mercer

Photo Credits: Lawrence Kerr

Nadia L. Hohn is a creative writer, educator, and artivist promoting diversity within children’s literature. Nadia is author of the children’s book Malaika’s Costume which was awarded the 2021 TD Grade One Book Giveaway. Nadia has presented across the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Trinidad, Jamaica, and United Arab Emirates. She completed a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph in 2022. In 2024 and 2025, Nadia will release her tenth and eleventh books, Patty Dreams and Getting to Grandma’s House respectively. When she’s not lost in a story or concocting a tasty vegetarian dish, she is likely spending time in music and the arts, visiting family or friends, or daydreaming about her next adventure. She lives in Toronto where she teaches at an elementary school and several post-secondary institutions.  

Nadia's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.