Elizabeth Laird is a much loved author of everything from picture books to young adult novels, and has been shortlisted for the Carnegie medal six times. She has travelled and lived all over the world, and the inspiration this has provided shines through in her books, not least in her newest novel Dindy and the Elephant. Set in India in 1947 just before the the Indian Independence Act came into place, Dindy and her younger brother Pog live in the middle of a tea plantation with their parents. Whilst Laird claims that generally her characters come to her at the beginning of a story, and then she ‘starts to put flesh on the original idea,’ she acknowledges that in this instance not only her travels but her own family history inspired the novel.
“My great great grandfather was a tea planter in India, or at least,he had a tea plantation’ she explains. ‘The deed of sale said that there were four elephants, and I was so excited a a child to think my grandfather had elephants - it’s always stayed with me.”
This childhood intrigue, combined with Laird’s travels and talking to new members of her own family who came from Indian families, led to her feeling connected very connected to India. So when she returned in 2014 with her husband she insisted they visit a tea garden, which was very much unchanged by the passing of time:
“They’ve made these Bungalows from the olden days into tourist resorts so you can actually go and stay in a 1920’s bungalow. It’s very much still as it was, with the tea gardens all around, and I got a real feeling of what it would have been like to be a family of a British Tea planter.”
Despite the age of the bungalows, Laird was determined to set the novel in 1947 as she wanted to address the issues of British Colonialism.
“I wanted to show the point where the British people who had had such dreadful racists and colonialist attitudes had to start facing up the fact that India wasn’t like they’d always thought, - they'd created it in their own image but it wasn’t like that.”
This is done with a delicate touch in Dindy and the Elephant, where Dindy, fluent in the native language of Malayalam and friends with the servants, is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her mother’s racist and derogatory views. Her younger brother Pog shows how insidious this racism can be as he parrots their mother’s views without thought, only to be challenged by native children later in the story. ‘He just recites what he’s heard, as children do. They can come out with some outrageous things,’ says Laird, who believes that these are still views that we have to address in England today. She argues that whilst we might all witness such blatant racism as shown in her novel, many modern children may have heard similar views from relatives alive during the 1940s, that still continues into our foreign policy today:
“1947 was a moment that the British had to reassess who they were and what they were doing in different parts of the world. It’s still colonial. We are the worlds’ police and still go to other countries and tell them what to do - it’s still deep in the British psyche.”
This conflict is seen in the elephant of the title. Laird believes that the elephant is representative of India, not least because elephants and their mahouts are still important there today. ‘The elephant stands for India, and its mystery and its difference,’ says Laird, ‘so Dindy is confronting and elephant, but she’s also confronting India itself.’ Like they must learn and respect the behaviours of the elephant, the Dindy and Pog must learn a new perspective on the country where they live as guests.
Laird would argue that fiction for children can go a long way to addressing these issues of understanding for the next generation. “We should pay a bit more attention to the real world and what’s going on around us.” However like many of her fellow authors, she doesn’t want to be thought of as the ‘issues’ writer. She believes that picking an issue and writing about it is “The kiss of death - how boring! I just write stories. But where there are huge themes, they actually do make good stories.”
This is strikingly apparent in her other novels, not least The Garbage King, which follows the life of street children in Addis Ababa. Laird lived there with her husband - the location also features in The Fastest Boy in the World - and whilst there got to know some street children well, paying them to ‘guard’ her car, giving them rides, and eventually seeing where they lived and listening to their stories. When she returned a few years later “after the revolutions, the famines and all the ghastly things, I found some of those boys. They’ve done very well. One was a tour guide and another was a lorry driver, and they took me out for lunch.”
Listening to their stories inspired not only The Garbage King, but a whole new project that Laird hopes can be used in schools today. In 1996, she went back to Ethiopia for the British Council and the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, undertaking 5 journeys to the remotest corners of Ethiopia to gather stories from indigenous storytellers from different regions, ethnicities and languages. Her adult book The Lure of the Honeybird details these journeys, but the stories themselves can be found on ethiopianfolktales.com and ethopianenglishreaders.com. Lair hopes that both teachers and children will explore the stories and resources that are also available on the sites. “We’re trying to promote the stories for schools, with exercises, here and in Ethiopia, as we make them more accessible - this is the first time some of these stories have been written down.”
With such authentic experience behind her writing and projects, Laird’s stories always ring true. But many readers have started to challenge writers like Laird who opt to explore cultures that are not their own - is this ever an issue that worries her?
“That’s a hugely important question and one I wrestle with all the time. The first time I attempted it was with Kiss the Dust, which is a novel about Kurdish refugees. I lived in Iraq when I was first married and went to Kazakhstan, and witnessed the terrible sights of women and children being cleared from the mountain villages and taken into camps on the plains. It was very disturbing, my husband started writing a modern history of the Kurds, our house was always filled with Kurdish people and I got to know their stories. I listened and wove them into my book. Afterwards I was terrified - this was what politically correct people do not do. Then someone mentioned that there was a kurdish writer using my name,’ She laughs. ‘I felt quite emboldened by that. But I’m always waiting for the tap on the shoulder and someone to ask ‘who do you think you are?’”
But she argues that more of these stories are needed. She has never, through personal preference, written about a location that she hasn’t visited, due to being unable to get ‘that tingling feeling of excitement and the thrill of the story,’ and likes to draw on her own experiences for her novels. She is also keen to recommend Beverly Naidoo, Jamila Gavin and Gill Lewis for their stories set around the world.
Books like hers, slowing changing perceptions and individual children escaping poverty like those Laird met, are part of the small steps that lead toward progress and hope. Hope, Laird believes, is hugely important in children’s fiction and one she is determined to include in her writing. ’I’m old fashioned, and I don’t approve of depressing children - I don't approve of books which just make children feel despair. It’s actually quite easy to make a child despair, and it’s demotivating. It’s horribly important - I’m an optimistic person myself.’
Thank you Elizabeth Laird for taking time to talk to Just Imagine.