Thursday, November 17, 2022

Q&A with Beverley Naidoo


Photo by Linda Brownlee



Beverley Naidoo is the author of the new middle grade novel Children of the Stone City. Her many other books include Journey to Jo'burg. She grew up in South Africa and is based in the UK.


Q: What inspired you to write Children of the Stone City, and how did you create your characters Adam and Leila?


A: Twenty-two years ago, the British Council took me for the first time to the Middle East where I met young Palestinian readers in the Occupied Territories and, the following year, in Jordan. The intensity of their curiosity and engagement was striking as I read from my work and spoke about my background, growing up as a white child in South Africa.


Moreover, some of their questions were deeply philosophical and had no simple answers. I’d never been asked anything quite like them before. How do you answer a question such as: “Is Justice sleeping or is it a dream? If Justice is sleeping, who will wake Justice up?” Whatever I answered that day, my reply would have been extremely inadequate.


The question, however, remained in my head. It was there when I was writing my 1950s colonial Kenya novel Burn My Heart (2007) and during the next seven years as I researched and wrote Death of an Idealist (2012) about my cousin’s son Neil Aggett.


A young medical doctor and volunteer trade unionist, he had died in the hands of apartheid security police but, contrary to all the evidence, his 1982 inquest absolved his interrogators. (The biography’s publication brought Neil’s family, friends, and comrades together. Their campaign for the truth finally led to a new inquest. In March 2022, some 40 years later, the new judge declared that Neil had been killed by the security police. Of his immediate family, only his sister lived to hear the acknowledgment.)


Were these two books, fiction and nonfiction, part of my own attempt to wake Justice up by searching out truth, whether in colonial Kenya or South Africa? With them behind me - as well as a retelling of wise old Aesop’s Fables (2011) - I began my first notebook for what would become Children of the Stone City in March 2013.


Those early pages are crammed with notes on books and talks by Palestinian and Jewish writers/musicians/lawyers. Within the notes are threads relating to music, lost countryside, dispossession, intergenerational stories, archaeology and a hand-drawn map of the old city of Jerusalem.


Towards the end of this first notebook is a draft family tree – an early attempt to imagine a brother (already named “Adam”) and sister with ancestry going back a couple of generations, linked to dates and events. It seems that I was already beginning to think about possible characters with a history.


There are also notes here on a discussion I attended in London in December 2014, following a disturbing film about Palestinian children who had experienced military detention. A couple of pages later, there’s a quote from an Israeli lawyer who represented children accused of stone throwing and acts of defiance against the occupation: “I want my twins to live in a decent world.”

At this stage, I hadn’t yet begun to “universalise” the story - with my characters as “Permitteds” and “Nons” - but she was one of several courageous human rights lawyers defending children.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, “Themes of equality, human rights, and justice prompt readers to reflect on how they can improve the world. A timely, powerful, relevant story.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I was delighted to read that the Kirkus reviewer recognised these core themes and felt the novel “timely, powerful, relevant.” During its apartheid era, South Africa produced a good number of writers creating “witness literature” which, in Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer’s words, is “a genre of circumstance or time and place.” In her view, a writer’s highest calling is to bear witness, creatively, to the evils of conflict and injustice.


In Children of the Stone City, I have chosen to write allegorically about a society of “Permitteds” and “Nons,” hoping that readers will make wider connections. I see these two categories here in the UK and believe they exist in many societies around the world, in different forms and with different intensities.


We continue to live in a deeply unequal world where many people’s lives are extremely precarious. For my Non children in the Stone City, the inequality and injustice are starkly clear. They are also clear for those Permitteds who recognise that without justice for everyone, there can be no peace.  


Q: How did you create the fictional Stone City in which the novel is set?


A: In my files, I have a “Draft plot 21.5.2016.” It’s convoluted and messy but contains some vivid images from a recent visit to East Jerusalem and the West Bank where, again, I had spoken with young people, mostly in schools and at a literature festival.


In preparing for this visit - and with a fictional world and characters emerging in my head - I had a mental list of places I wanted to see and people with whom I wanted to talk. Among them were young teens who had experienced detention. The haunted look in their eyes is not something you want to see in any young person.


That visit also included an unscheduled, but educative, experience of being stopped by soldiers while in a car with my Palestinian translator and the chair of The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Palestine.


It was dark when we three grey-haired ladies were forced to turn around from a checkpoint that suddenly popped up on our main road. We had no option but to leave the main road and drive in the direction signalled by one of the soldiers. It was a rough unmarked road, presumably leading to a village somewhere in the hills.


We were indeed fortunate that a good Samaritan became aware of our plight and offered to lead us over bumpy back roads - and, at one point, a field - until he returned us to the main road. He had gone out of his way to help us.


For that hour, at least, I was able to share my companions’ experience of being treated as “Nons.” When I had tried to show my British passport at the checkpoint, a soldier had dismissed me with a contemptuous flick of his hand.


Maybe it was this experience, delivered by someone young enough to be a grandson, that planted the germ of the idea of universalising my characters into “Permitteds” - those who have permits - and “Nons” who don’t. How easily people with power, whoever or wherever they are, can begin to abuse that power.


Back home, I began the opening chapters of a first draft. However, a few months later, I diverted to write Cinderella of the Nile, illustrated by Marjan Vafaeian. I couldn’t resist the offer to work with a wonderful editor, Sophie Hallam, and publisher Tiny Owl. Maybe I also recognised that some distance would benefit my novel and test its strength. I have never forgotten advice given to me by Nadine Gordimer: “Take your time.”  


In 2018, I returned to my novel. If anything, I felt Adam, Leila, and Zak were even more strongly rooted in the Stone City of my imagination and I wanted to know how they were going to survive.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Only very vaguely. I had an idea about some of the challenges the children might face, and I also knew that I wanted to express Adam’s thoughts and feelings through poems that let us glimpse something of his internal life.


It wasn’t enough to indicate that he breathed freedom through playing his violin. I couldn’t whisk away the obstacles that would continue for young Nons in that system of domination and I also wanted to reflect Permitteds who said “No… Not in my name!” So, my challenge was to create a credible source of hope for a dreamer like Adam, leaving questions - not dissimilar to those that inspired the novel - to Leila.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: At the moment, I’m a bit like Robert Frost when “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” I sense two possible paths and need to decide which one to travel down!


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A beautiful pencil portrait of Nelson Mandela sits perched behind me, on our piano. It was handed to me by a young boy at the literature festival I mentioned earlier. A little portrait of Gandhi sits on a nearby bookshelf as well as a collection of postcards of South African women by the artist Sue Williamson. These are just some of the images around me where I work.


Perhaps the one that most often catches my eye is on my desk, beside my screen. Colourful birds rise in a flock above a quote from Desmond Tutu: Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.


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

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