Sita Brahmachari was born in Derby in 1966 to an Indian father from Kolkata, India and an English mother from the Lake District. She has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Arts Education. She was recently appointed the 12th writer in residence for Booktrust.
Sita's debut novel 'Artichoke Hearts' (Macmillan, 2011) won the Waterstone's Prize 2011 and was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal. In 2014 it was selected by The Guardian as one of the top 50 books in cultural diversity since 1950's.
Sita has a distinguished career in theatre, both in theatre education and as a dramaturge. She started at The Royal Court Theatre, where her work with ethnic groups led to coverage in The Guardian and Times Educational Supplement, before going on to become Education Director for Talawa Theatre Company, (Britain’s first Black Theatre Company) and Head of Script Development for the Black and Asian Women Writers’ Project.
Sita's second novel, 'Jasmine Skies', was published in 2012 and was also nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Her critically acclaimed novel, 'Kite Spirit' published in May 2013 was nominated for the UKLA Book Award. Her fourth novel, 'Red Leaves', published in September 2014, was endorsed by Amnesty International UK as a book to enhance understanding of human rights.
In this interview she talks to Noga Applebaum about her writing
Your first book, Artichoke Hearts, is based on your own family, but is not autobiographical. Did this ever create a tension for you (or your subjects) between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’?
No, actually the process was very interesting. I was walking outside a secondary school with my mother-in-law, Rosie, who is the inspiration for Nana Josie in the book. At the time she was very frail and dying of cancer. Some children from the school came and took up the pavement and they knocked her over. I was in a very protective mode so I shouted after them to come back, though my mother in law said not to make a fuss. In my experience, teenagers can be great when you talk to them, and these boys did come back and apologised, and they walked her to the front door. She asked them questions about their studies, and by the time we arrived to the house they were all good friends. I made her a cup of tea and her hands were shaking, and she said to me, 'You know, when I was young and beautiful, I really didn't have stories to tell and now that I'm old and ill, I'm absolutely invisible to young people'. I said to her, I'd like to write a story about an extraordinary granny, and she said 'Yes, do, I always thought I should have been more famous'. She was a very flamboyant character.
Initially I thought I'd write a story that has elements of my family's story - the hospice for example is the one in which Rosie stayed and I went back there to talk to people. There are also elements in the characters that are based on my children, but the time scale is very different. When Rosie died, for example, Maya, my eldest, was only six years old. I wanted to write a story where the children were more conscious of the passing, and my children were still little. I also wanted to place the spirit of their grandmother in the story so they can experience it. When she died my youngest daughter was a baby, and I wasn't working, so I had these precious times with Rosie, and our relationship was extraordinary towards the end. I wondered how to write about such a sad thing in a life affirming way but I felt I had it in me to do it.
After she died I started writing essentially for my own kids, I wanted them to know her at a later stage, like a gift. However, I couldn't picture them at the age of twelve or thirteen so this was an act of the imagination. So the story is inspired by real people, and also draws on my experience in community theatre, but it is also imagined.
When I finished the story I gave it to my husband, with no intention to publish, and he said had to send it to a publisher. Other members of the family also thought that it had the spirit of Rosie even though it was fictionalised, so they also encouraged me. It was like magic, like a charm - it was taken out straight away by an agent and then by a publisher. Later my husband had the artichoke charm made for me. So the story is an act of the imagination inspired by something in the real world that was profound for me.
The American edition of Artichoke Hearts is entitled Mira in the Present Tense – why was it changed? And was its reception in the US different to here?
'Mira in the Present Tense'corresponds with the scene where Mira says to her friend, ‘I can't write in the past tense, I can only write in the present tense'. For me, the time when I was with my mother-in-law was all about the present, and I think kids also live in the present. They took that line, because they felt 'Artichoke Hearts' was too abstract and 'adult' and they wanted to target the children's market more directly. I don't actually like this title, but they are a great publishing house and they asked me to trust them. In the UK it is difficult to get mainstream reviews for children's books unless you are already established, and I was amazed to see a review of Mira in the Present Tense in the New York Times. It says something about the way we view children's literature in this country as somehow less important. 'Mira in the Present Tense' and 'Jasmine Skies' both do very well in the US as part of this 'stream' of multicultural stories like My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula Freedman.
Unlike the common trope in children’s literature, where adults are either absent or are depicted negatively, your books all feature loving parents and helpful teachers as prominent characters. What makes you want to write ‘against the grain’?
It's really important to me, and maybe it's my maternal instinct, that my readers feel held in the stories. Even if I deal with difficult issues, I want them to feel safe, like having a place to come home to. I depict close family ties, and young people I talk to really like this aspect in my books. It may not be trendy, but they do still like to be supported. However, some of these characters are adults who many children may have not met before, like Elder in 'Red Leaves' who has mental health issues, or Pat Print who in my head is gay, and it is important for me to introduce such adults. Even Nana Josie has a mouth on her, she isn't an 'obvious' adult.
Also, in my head I write for every generation in the stories, I do imagine Nana Josie, Jack, or Elder reading my story. What I find slightly irritating is the separation, as if we are living in another society from children, or as if we were never children. Some adults even find it quite insulting if I ask them to read my books. I feel that when you read these books as an adult there is usually a character you can tap into who might not be a child character, and when you are reading as a child, you may not necessarily understand all the references relating to the adult characters.
So, are you writing a 'dual address' deliberately?
Elderly people also feature in all your books - from Nana Josie in 'Artichoke Hearts', to Jack and Agnes in 'Kite Spirit', and Elder in 'Red Leaves'. What attracts you to these characters and what is their significance in your work?
I think that there is this thing between youth and age which is fascinating. My Barrington Stoke novel 'Brace Mouth False Teeth' is about a girl with a brace who is sent to do work experience in an old age home and she meets this old lady called Alice who has dementia and who believes she is wearing the wrong false teeth - and in fact she is. By living through this story, Zeni, my character, learns about athe old people. It's a short story, but it is a theme in all my books. When you are young you can't imagine your own mortality and a real connection to the stories an old person tells is a leap of the imagination for a young person, and it can transport them back in time. There is something about excavating the past that interests young people, and the connection between young and old is poignant.
Young and old people also share a powerlessness…
This is absolutely what I wrote in 'Brace Mouth False Teeth'. But in that space of powerlessness comes freedom of imagination where you are not rooted in mundane things. It allows you to go places in your memories, and that interests me. Many young people tell me that they have a special connection with old people like their grandparents, and they are interested in sitting with them to find out about who they are, to discover their roots.
Your young characters also vary in age – Mira is 12 in the first book and 14 in the second, Kite in your third novel is 16 as is Iona, one of the characters in your recent novel – do you feel that your target audience also changed as your career progressed?
Not really. 'Kite Spirit' is interesting, because on the back it says 11+ and I would have pitched it slightly higher, for Year 8 or 9. I think the publisher felt that the story is warm and 'held' by family enough to allow an 11 year old to read it. I do like to describe the variety of ages that my readers encounter in their life - younger and older siblings. In' Kite Spirit' the character is older because I wanted to tell a story about suicide and I wasn't completely comfortable writing within the age range of the audience of 'Artichoke Hearts' and 'Jasmine Skies'. It is aimed for GCSE level.
Do you feel that your publisher 'branded' you in a way, as writing for a certain age group, which is why Kite Spirit says 11+ on?
I wanted a different cover for this book to be honest, but when I went to the Tower Hamlets Book Awards, a group of Year 6 and 7 students picked it as their favourite book, and they all read it, so maybe the publisher was right. Maybe they feel that my previous books establish a certain trust that Kite Spirit taps into. As a writer, I feel that there are emotional content in this book that a younger reader may not get. Kite is 18 by the end of the book after all. Younger readers are intrigued by the romance for example, but they don't really realise that it isn't that somebody else helps Kite go through her journey, but rather that she chooses the relationship later on. The nuances is what they don't get. I do enjoy writing for the Year 6-7 age range though, because they still read and they are not yet as 'socialised' in terms of being fed stereotypes, so it allows me to open spaces up.
All your novels engage with the past and often include revealed secrets and a sense of loss or regret. Why is writing about the past important to you as a writer for young people, and what would you like your readers to take away from your books in this context?
All books come from something that triggers us emotionally. My dad died, and his connection to India and our family history was at the forefront in my mind. My aunty was coming to stay with us in the Lake District and she was a dancer, and of course Priya is a dancer in 'Jasmine Skies'. My mum told me how the aunty told her that when she first married my dad the family hated her and felt she took him away, but that now that she has visited she feels close to my mum and will always keep her in her heart. And this theme of family connection is prevalent in all my books.
After my father's death I went to India with my mother, and the plan was to scatter his ashes there, but my mother changed her mind at the last minute. We went to India anyway, and it was a very emotionally charged visit, and the little girl inside me was still looking at the relationships and wondering, now that my father is gone, what are we to his family? All my books are about these big questions, and these secrets that people keep in their hearts.
When I did the educational programme for the RSC's 'Midnight’s Children' I went with the show, talking to people about their memories of partition - not just of the Indian Bangladeshi Pakistani partition, but also partition experienced in their own neighbourhoods. I created an installation from these interviews, called The Pickles of History, and all these stories went into pickle jars and travelled with the show. Interviewing these old people was fascinating - some may not have remembered what they had for breakfast, but when they spoke of the past it was like an awakening.
As part of this project I also interviewed my father, and he told me how he delivered a baby in a railway station in Calcutta, the mother was sixteen, and when he placed the baby on her chest he realised there was no breath. He took the baby to the orphanage and he still wonders what happened to that boy. This story became the inspiration for Janu's character in 'Jasmine Skies'. When I asked my dad why he never told us that story up till then, he said it was too painful. I'm fascinated by the stories people don't tell, in the secrets and the pain. It's about consequences to actions, but also about compassion for mistakes people make on their journey. Interestingly, after I spoke to my father, my mother showed me fantastic photographs taken by my uncle who served in the British army in India, and I used these in the 'Midnight's Children' exhibition. He was obviously interested in the culture but on the back he had written the vilest racist things. Where I stand in terms of my identity is that I have an understanding of the secrets and complexities, the light and shade of both cultures. Internalising the other is part of the process of being of mixed-heritage, and most of my characters are mixed-race.
Dreams and visions are also a recurrent theme in your work. Can you explain why you use this literary device, and whether it has deeper meaning for you as a writer?
I studied literature at university. One of the writers I love is Virginia Wolfe and I love the fluidity in her writing. It's not a convention in my stories, but where I go in my head. I tend to drift off into dreamland. I was a very quiet child and I used to live in my own head, and Mira (Artichoke Hearts) is a bit like that. I think it's a space that many children go into. I even used to see ghosts! That sense of the positioning of dream world, real world and the afterlife is interesting to me. My dad used to talk about reincarnation and I was fed by that. You don't realise until you write a few books that something becomes part of your identity as a writer. It allows me to get to the potent bit of self that you really want to get at when you are writing.
In 'Jasmine Skies' there is a scene when Mira is in a derelict house and she sees the ghost of her grandmother. I have read this section in schools and three hundred tough kids burst into tears. It must be something about the way I read it. The scene is about me wanting to see my dad again. After he died, bizarrely I used to see owls everywhere, and of course this fed into 'Kite Spirit' when dawn comes back as an owl.
In 'Artichoke Hearts', creative writing is presented as self-revealing and therapeutic – Jidé for example deals with his lost identity as a survivor from Rwanda. Is this what it means to you?
I think it certainly has a function of helping me understand some of the questions that I always had about the world, and it also a way of tapping into the whole of the self. I've always felt that through life you have a series of presentations of yourself and it's only in writing that I feel like I've got something to give my children of my core self. I don't think anyone can read these books and not think ‘Sita is in there’, but not as a dogma, more like a voice.
Before I started writing, I had done a vast number of educational projects which took me away from my family and I went to see a career coach and she said 'it's time for you to stop serving other people's projects and start serving your own'. At the time I thought it was quite harsh, but now I feel there is something very complete about my creative life, I'm lucky. But it is because of my background and experience that I constantly try to find creative ways of telling the story.
Grace Manning, a young artist, did the 'Kite Spirit' exhibition for the pop-up festival this year, and she is now creating a box with the drawings on like Nana Josie's coffin, and in it will be pegs with artefacts like an artichoke or a leaf wreath, and I'll take it to schools with me and ask students to take things out of the box but also to place their own imaginary things inside as part of my creative writing workshop. I give a lot of thought into how I talk to young people not just about my books but how they could also tap into that creative side of themselves.
Your books are multicultural in the sense that they feature characters from different backgrounds as well as ones with mixed cultural and ethnic backgrounds. When 'Artichoke Hearts' was published, this was quite rare in children’s books. Do you feel that this is still the case or has anything changed?
I didn't realise that it was rare, because I worked in multicultural theatre, so that was my reality. Mixed race kids inhabit my world; I live in London. And even in the countryside where people say there isn't much diversity, if you look at history in a different way, everybody will find that they have a migrant culture in their background - which is what Kite's father finds in Kite Spirit - he has German ancestry. In some ways 'Artichoke Heart' is the least multicultural of my books, which is quite funny because it is on the recent 50 Best Culturally Diverse Children's Books list chosen by the Guardian. The list was compiled before 'Red Leaves' was published.
I think there’s a lot more awareness these days in children's literature, but it has a long way to go. The good thing about the Guardian's list is that it wasn't a celebration of black and Asian writers but of diverse voices. It gives authors a licence to step into other people's shoes. When you walk into a school and meet your readers, if you present them with characters who don't represent them or are not even vaguely like them, then you are not doing your job. You don't have to come from a particular culture or have a specific experience in order to write about it.
Is there any specific writer that you particularly noticed or admired in this context?
Bali Rai has obviously been writing for a long time, and I think Miriam Halamy is very good, and also Samira Osman and Candy Gourlay. There are also people emerging who I think probably write about who they are, rather than have a multicultural agenda. This is how I write my books - even 'Kite Spirit' is fed from my mother asking after 'Jasmine Skies' 'don't you want to hear my story?' and so is based in the Lake District where she came from.
The cover of this novel shows a mixed race child, which Kite the main character isn't. Do you think you are pigeon-holed as a 'diversity writer'?
I guess so…
In your own writing, you seem to move in your own interpretation of or relation to multiculturalism. In 'Artichoke Hearts', Mira is a symbol of the ‘melting pot’ – she has mixed heritage, but her and her family are assimilated (there is no reference for example for anything Jewish). In 'Red Leaves', the impression is more of a cultural mosaic as different cultures live side by side, but maintain their uniqueness (Aisha as very clear and distinctive cultural and religious attributes) – did you notice the shift?
I'm really reflecting on both these things during my career - my personal experience is of assimilation, but my experience working in community is not necessarily of assimilation and I also relate to that. A few years ago I did a play called Lyrical MC which stands for MCing as in music but also for multiculturalism. It was a reworking of the Tempest with a group of kids from a housing estate. It was basically them talking about being from their various backgrounds in UK schools and how these two things married. I wrote it like a symphony and it was conducted like an orchestra. I wanted to return to this in 'Red Leaves'. Books are less ephemeral than theatre, and with everything that's been going on in the UK, UKIP etc., I wanted to write something that would persist. 'Red Leaves' is a culmination of 25 years working in the community. There are different models of multiculturalism, and things keep shifting. My dad was assimilated, but still kept in touch with his culture, and this is a theme in all my stories and I probably wouldn't have been given that voice if I didn't experience this combination of models.
'Red Leaves' feels more ‘political’ than your previous books, do you write with an intentional political agenda? What came first here, the characters or the ideas?
I walk my dog in Queens Wood where the story is set, and I was just listening to the radio to a woman reporting from Syria, and I thought what it would be like to be her child, and in the background the whole UKIP business was troubling me, so I felt I had to write a story that addresses this. The main thing is that I wanted to write a story which basically did something to negate this generic negative talk about immigrants, I wanted to shed a little light on a very small local community living next to each other and say this is how it is but this is how it could be, because children are more open than adults. There are other moments that contribute to a story - the plaque in the woods that gifts them to all the people of London forever, a homeless girl I passed in the street, my interest in the Sikh concept of Sewa and daily giving which different religions do share, and an air raid shelter I know - and once I started making all these connections, the story itself needed to be led by character because that's the only way in. The character of Elder for example was based on an old lady in the Lake District that I remember from childhood, and Aisha was a girl I knew ages ago and her face stuck in my mind.
You do a lot of research...
Yes, I'm probably the slowest writing children's author. When I finally got my own office space, my daughter said 'I hope you will come out of this room'... A book is something that stays so I don't want to get anything wrong. I also feel responsible for my characters. I feel as if they are real people, friends of my kids.
All your books include boys as romantic interests. In your recent book, 'Red Leaves' you depart from this as you write also from a point of view of a boy, Zak. Why now, and how did you find this experience?
My books look like girl orientated books and I really wanted boys to read 'Red Leave' too. Zack is a really nice boy character. Boys do buy 'Red Leaves' and I'm pleased, because I don't really write just for girls, but for everyone. T I didn't really find the experience hard - I like boys, and it's really just a matter of stepping into someone else's shoes as I already mentioned. Zack was less of a challenge than Aisha - he's more like me really than she is. With her I felt more the weight of the social dialogue - if you are a working class Muslim girl from Tower Hamlets and you pick up my book, you may say 'she sounds Hindu, what does she know?' so it was very important to get Aisha right and I have credited in the acknowledgments the girls who helped me understand what it's like to be someone with Aisha's background.
'Red Leaves' is also the first novel where the relationship doesn’t end in a romance. Why do Zak and Aisha not get together?
That's an interesting question. Partly because I felt it may skew the story at the end and make it more about 'will it happen, could it happen' and some readers may be turned off by that. The girls that helped me for example, for them and their families such a romance would be a big 'no-no'. This is where the real world and my own sense of these character's future clash. In my head there was love there, but whether it may develop is not clear. The book is really about complicating the picture presented by the media - reality is more like a Rubik’s Cube, or a cultural mosaic, and very rarely it comes to total harmony. It is worth working towards these moments.
Creative expression is central to all your young characters – Mira writes and sings, Kite is a circus performer and Garth sculpts, Iona paints and Aisha sings – what draws you to such characters and what is the significance of their different modes of expression?
It’s a quality that I was searching for as a child - the ability to express beyond words, and I didn't find it until quite late. For me all these vehicles for expressing yourself are outlets for the self, ways for finding your voice and your place in the world. Laila in my next book for example is a dancer and a philosopher - so it's also about asking questions about the world in any medium you choose. I think creative expression is undervalued in the current education system, so it's my personal agenda I guess. It should be more encouraged.
Mira Levenson is the protagonist of two of your books, are you planning to return to this character in further sequels?
I am and I'm not. The book I'm writing now focuses on Mira's sister Laila who is now 12, because Mira is too old. When I go to schools, there is always a clamour - readers want a sequel, so Mira is still there, but the story is told through Laila's eyes, and it is about being the youngest in the family.
What are you working on now?
Apart from the book about Laila, I'm also writing a poetic text, possibly aimed at a younger audience, which is set in Orkney. It will be a novella with images and I spoke to the artist Jane Ray and hope to work on it together with her. It’s a reworking of a selkie story.
I'm also writing a lot of articles about Red Leaves, because its subject matter is very current. I'm also writing a story in a collection about children's rights published by Walker Books in 2016 and endorsed by Amnesty and it's about Mia who is a child carer. I've also been asked to write another title for Barrington Stoke. Long may it last!
Thank you Sita Brahmachari for talking to Just Imagine
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