Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Q&A with Beverley Naidoo

Beverley Naidoo, photo by Linda Brownlee
Beverley Naidoo is the author of the children's book Journey to Jo'burg, which first appeared in 1986 and was recently reissued. Her many other books include No Turning Back. She grew up in South Africa and is based in the UK.

Q: Journey to Jo'burg was first published in 1986 and has recently been reissued--how did this new edition come about?

A: I received an email from my editor’s assistant at HarperCollins, telling me of plans to bring out a new US edition with additional background material. This was almost two years ago, with plenty of time for development.

As in the UK, this little book has stayed in print in the USA well over 30 years. Letters and questions from its readers continue to arrive.

I was of course delighted about a new edition and happy to help with the extra content. (My deep teacher’s streak has never left me!) So the new edition now includes an Author’s Note, a brief history of apartheid, meanings of the Tswana names and a copy of the original banning letter. 

The book also has a striking new cover. I’ve loved it from the time I saw a sketch.

The jacket illustrator, Laura Freeman, positions us, the viewers, behind Naledi and Tiro. They have their arms around each other, reflecting both anxiety and courage. We see the city, as they do, in the far distance. The journey ahead is daunting but they must go on!

Q: How relevant today are the issues you addressed in the book?

A: Absolutely relevant, judging from readers’ questions and letters. What happened in South Africa under apartheid was not completely unique. Apartheid was an extreme form of the racism honed in colonial times to “justify” oppression. Its ideology was also was strongly linked to Nazi beliefs.  

Journey to Jo’burg tells a story that speaks to truths that are both specific as well as universal. The new edition retains Eric Velasquez’s marvellous illustrations, drawing on the African American experience of racism and resistance.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: Hope. In the face of intimidation and bullying, we have to believe that it’s possible to help each other, keeping kindness and humanity alive.

Q: How did you create your characters Naledi and Tiro?

A: In my Author’s Note, I write about the very personal origins of this story. Stirred by a particular childhood memory, I imagined Naledi and Tiro and the huge task ahead of them if they were going to save their baby sister.

I made Naledi older than her brother, so she takes the lead. I believe too little credit has been given to the resilience required especially of girls and women in surviving oppressive situations. Tiro is younger and quite spunky but he knows when it’s best to go along with his strong-minded older sister. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: When you interviewed me in 2017, I mentioned that I’d diverted from an “under wraps” project to work on a retelling of one of the world’s oldest Cinderella stories.

I was lured into this by a wonderful picture book editor, Sophie Hallam, and Cinderella of the Nile is now out in the world with stunning illustrations by Marjan Vafaeien. Much of 2018 passed in helping the brave little indie publisher Tiny Owl send our Cinderella on her way through storytelling events, including at the Hay and Edinburgh Festivals.

I subsequently returned to my “under wraps” project which, I hope, is now nearing completion. As with all my novels, questions around human rights lie deep at its heart. My working title is “Children of the Stone City.” As ever, my hope is that my characters and their story will, in due course, enter the hearts and minds of readers.   
Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You’ve probably guessed that I work at the pace of Tortoise in my writing. However, I reassure myself that Tortoise gets there in the end.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Beverley Naidoo.

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