Beverley Naidoo is a well known and respected author, one who writes from the heart about South Africa. Children of the Stone City is her latest novel and we were so pleased to be able to send her a few questions. Read on for her Q&A!
Children of the Stone City is a hard hitting look at inequality- how do you balance the truth with the fiction for the intended age of your reader?
The challenge is that inequality doesn’t discriminate according to age. It doesn’t soften its effects on children. A young person may even feel the inequality and injustice more intensely than an adult who, for pragmatic reasons, has learned to suppress their feelings. Indeed, this is what Adam and Leila’s dad has been endeavouring to teach them: “Use your head as well as your heart to stop an explosion.” Zak’s parents desperately wish their son to be less volatile and more like Adam. They fear for him as a ‘Non’ in their society ruled by ‘Permitteds’.
Thinking about the age of my characters helps me pitch my language. Most importantly, I need to reveal sources of hope. I have a card on my desk with Desmond Tutu’s saying: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” It prefaces Children of the Stone City.
Your books are often heart-wrenching yet sensitive- do you go through this vast range of emotions as you are writing the tale?
I do! If I can’t imagine and feel what my characters are going through, something is wrong and I’m missing their truth.
South Africa is an important part of your own story and features heavily in your books- what are your favourites places in South Africa?
My very favourite place is a valley through which Naledi and Tiro walk on their Journey to Jo’burg. This valley, with many orange farms as well as bushveld, lies beneath a section of the Magaliesberg mountain range. Human habitation here dates back 2 million years. You sense ancient history in the huge ochre rocks and steep, deep crevices. For me, it’s a place rich in childhood memories on a dilapidated farm that my dad had been visiting since his own childhood. You can get glimpses of it in ‘The Dare’, my story set in 1948 (in Out of Bounds with wonderful foreword by Archbishop Tutu). As a white child, I could run freely picking fruit from the orange trees, unlike Naledi and Tiro or the brave boy worker who hides them. But as that young child, I didn’t stop to question why I was permitted to enjoy this freedom while black children seemed confined to opening farm gates for the cars of white folk.
How much research/reading do you do before you begin writing?
A lot! Reading and research are part of my process in writing when exploring beyond my own experience. I love this stage of expanding my knowledge and wanting to understand more, especially about different perspectives. I also love doing workshops with young people that reveal layers of emotions, thoughts, and ideas. Over the years, I’ve learned so much working with marvellous educators using drama techniques which help reveal as much from body-language and silence, as from what is spoken (some images on my website). I also read widely in my exploratory stage, with no fixed idea of what may emerge. My first notebook for the novel that became Children of the Stone City goes back to March 2013! It has notes on books, discussions, ideas or whatever I felt I might want to recall. I published a couple of books for younger children between 2013 and now, but somewhere in the back of my head the ‘story pot’ for my Stone City children was slowly brewing.
Do you adhere to a strict writing plan or do you write as inspiration hits?
From my previous answer, you may have the impression of an old African tortoise who spends a lot of time foraging… and that’s probably fairly accurate until I’m ready to make a start. From this point on, as I focus on developing characters and plot, I’m more able to plan although it’s never rigid. In my first 2013 notebook for Children of the Stone City, I’m intrigued to see that I had a go at a family tree. So even at this early messy, unformed stage, I had begun to consider a possible family history for a central character called Adam who is a dreamer and who has a younger sister. I can also see that music was already woven into my consciousness!
Authors get responses to their books, both good and bad, but was there anything that has stuck with you from readers?
On the negative side, there was an American mum who wrote jubilantly that she’d managed to get Journey to Jo’burg removed from her child’s school. If we had been face-to-face and she were open to discussion, I would have said how, in my view, Naledi and Tiro show the triumph of love and hope despite the oppressive society in which they live. Receiving this letter was, however, a reminder of how young people may be trapped in enclosed societies that fear voices from outside the laager.
Fortunately, most responses across the years have been positive. Often there are questions prompted by curiosity and the desire to know more. It’s lovely to sense young minds on a journey. I’ve never forgotten the letter from a boy in a
Glasgow primary school, which he headed with a large cheerful ‘Merry Christmas’ and ended with “O dabo!” (‘Goodbye’ in Yoruba):
“Thank you for writing The Other Side of Truth. We read it in class every day and we thought it was incredible. Sometimes when I got home, I looked at my globe for Nigeria and its capital Lagos… I shouldn’t really tell you this but our teacher had to stop reading to and hold in tears.”
A year or so later, when I was in Glasgow, I arranged to visit the school to meet this teacher who shared his emotions with his pupils. I found myself in a fabulous classroom full of Amazonian trees with children reading Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea. How much we authors owe to dedicated teachers, librarians, and parents who open doors through books!
Another letter that prompted me to visit a school, this time in London, was from a boy of about 11 in response to The Other Side of Truth’s sequel Web of Lies. Sade’s younger brother, Femi, is its central character and under pressure to join a gang. The letter made me wonder whether the writer was being similarly pressured:
“The similarities between the lives of Femi and myself left me wondering. Wondering how two people can be so similar, wondering how you know so much about what young boys are going through and wondering where you got your inspiration? Thank you for making me understand a little more about myself and for understanding that it’s not easy (something that adults far too often forget).”
I sensed a teacher may have helped him with his letter. But if the novel had opened a safe space in which to talk with a teacher, the book was indeed making its journey.
The responses I receive gradually join my archives at Seven Stories in Newcastle. Thanks to PhD researcher Helen King, I’ve been reminded of some early responses to Journey to Jo’burg. They include poems such as the following from a Y7 student:
If half my face was black
and half my face was
white, and all my body was
coloured, what would be my
Would the powerful faces of
the government see my body
as less privileged than
my face? Or my left eye to be a
criminal and my right to be a saint?
– Helen King, ‘Books that change your way of thinking’, 27.10.2020 www.changingchildhoods.com
If my readers set off on their own journeys of questions, what more can I ask for as an author?
Children of the Stone City by Beverley Naidoo is published by HarperCollins and is available now.
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation.