the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other authors

Welcome to Jessica Norrie, author of The Magic Carpet

I became aware of Jessica Norrie and her novels through membership of a Facebook Group called Book Connectors. As the name suggests, it’s a place to connect, particularly targeted to authors and book bloggers. It was with real interest that I was drawn to Jessica’s novel The Magic Carpet. There are certain commonalities in our experiences as authors (we were both formerly teachers) and in the subject of our novels. Jessica’s novel The Magic Carpet covers the experiences of five families with children attending Year Three in an outer London school during the start of the academic year 2016. This Much Huxley Knows is set in the suburbs of London during the autumn term of the same year and is written from the viewpoint of a seven-year-old boy in Year Two.

Following email exchanges, I invited Jessica to The Writer is a Lonely Hunter in order to find out more about her experiencesI extend a warm welcome to Jessica and invite her to answer the following questions that occurred to me while reading The Magic Carpet. 

  • Although The Magic Carpet focuses on particular families during a specific time period, did you write this novel with universal truths in mind?

Towards the end of my teaching career, I felt the need to distil thirty years, thousands of individuals, situations and conversations into something coherent, otherwise they’d all continue buzzing round my head and I wouldn’t feel free to concentrate on anything else. As everyone knows, all human children and adults combine their similarities in different ways that make them into individuals but with common interests. I wanted to see if I could get at that. 

  • There is a large cast of characters in The Magic Carpet and the use of multiple viewpoints. How did you plan and write the novel to offer perspectives from so many different community members?

A 7-year-old said one day “If we only write in capital letters, you can’t tell us off for not using them.” That says so much about how children’s minds explore ideas, and what’s good and bad about learning to write. In the book I gave Mandeep the idea, and a grandmother who’s probably dyslexic but never diagnosed and helps with his homework after school, then I filled out the family, added neighbours, worked my way along the street… Actually five families reflect a fraction of what teachers encounter daily. Whenever I was struggling with the multiple POVs I reminded myself I was usually bombarded with thirty at once. It was just a question of keeping order. 

  • As the title of your novel suggests, traditional stories and personal histories are central to the writing. How important do you think traditional tales are to learning and development as a child and throughout life?

I was an exceptionally lucky child because with a bookseller father I had a huge variety of brilliant children’s books. But especially to children from homes without books, traditional tales are essential. They overlap across cultures and they’re stepping-stones to other reading. They help order good from bad too although I think nowadays we’d be rightly wary of handsome princes who break in and kiss us in bed or cripple us in tiny glass shoes. Traditional stories are also versatile to teach with and happy teachers make for happy learners! As opposed to fronted adverbials which are vicious spells cast by bad fairies.

  • James Kelman was accused of cultural appropriation in using an eleven-year-old boy from Ghana to narrate Pigeon English, a novel about gang culture on a south London estate. What are your views on cultural appropriation? 

Pigeon English is a fantastic novel, partly based I understand on Damilola Taylor. Anyone from any background is free to take that story or any other and write it their own way – Edna O’Brian did with Girl, encountering the same accusations. Opinions have hardened in recent years and I wouldn’t dare write The Magic Carpet now. Not because I think I shouldn’t, but because I’m terrified of trolls who expect everyone else to accept their opinion but don’t compromise or listen themselves. That’s not to say that evidenced criticism for poor research, or for perpetuating stereotypes and tropes isn’t absolutely valid and welcome. 

You can’t set a realistic novel in London with only one ethnicity. It’s obvious to anyone who’s lived in diverse streets and learnt in diverse schools. By coincidence, Guy Gunaratne published his excellent In Our Mad and Furious City while I was finishing TMC. It also has five London narrators from different backgrounds. Does he have more right to do that because he’s BAME? He writes Irish, Afro-Caribbean, Muslim yet he’s not any of those. As a white woman, do I have more right than a man to write about domestic violence against women? Was I fair to set it in an Asian heritage household? Sadly, domestic violence exists in all cultures. Fortunately so do good stories and writers. 

If opportunities to write and publish were historically fairer, this debate wouldn’t arise and everyone could develop empathy and imagination by writing and reading whatever they’re drawn to. Until very recently opportunities for writers from any kind of minority have been so limited that it’s logical now to justify ring fencing their life experiences and histories for them. But in the long term if all writers only write about what they know best it will limit everyone.   

Hmm – I’m a bit conflicted on this!

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A week at Bidibidi

Now that I’m feeling more confident in my role as a VSO volunteer with Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) at Bidibidi refugee settlement, Uganda, it’s about time I introduced the team. My colleagues include two exceptional practitioners who have substantial experience in teacher education. They are national volunteers, Zachary Alio and Josephine Lubwama. Both have come out of retirement and have given up the comfort of their family homes to support the children of refugees from South Sudan and national families living in the far north west of Uganda. We work under the guidance of our team leader, Christine Abala who offers brilliant direction and support. Christine has a background in social work so she is very well placed to advise on the needs of vulnerable children.

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Josephine, Christine and Zachary

I am so impressed with the work my colleagues are doing in training, mentoring and supporting refugees and and local Ugandans to act as caregivers to young children attending ECCE centres. The caregivers are fluent in English and the local language of Lugbara or Bari which is the name for a group of South Sudanese dialects. The caregivers are educated to the standard required for students entering teacher training, but few have formal teaching qualifications. Therefore, the support offered by Josephine and Zachary is essential to ensure the safety, learning, play and wellbeing of children from 3–6 years enrolled at the seven centres in Zone 3, Bidibidi. You can read more about the settlement here.

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Josephine training the caregivers

The caregivers attended refresher training delivered by Josephine this week. The session  involved planning of learning according to the National Early Childhood Development Framework. I loved the way Josephine offered training – it was full of empathy, passion and humour. Such a shame I couldn’t stay for the whole day, but I had learning to deliver as well.

My role at Bidibidi relates to psychosocial wellbeing. UNHCR uses the term mental health and psychosocial support to describe “any type of local or outside support that aims to protect or promote psychosocial wellbeing or prevent or treat mental disorders.” As I am working with young children, I started my programme of activities by delivering an introduction to the psychosocial support parents can offer their children in the home. This involved a two-hour session at each of the seven centres. I was ferried around the settlement by motorbike on some days, by a four-wheel drive vehicle on others. It was great fun working with the parents and the turn out at some villages was over one hundred and twenty people. (I shall never again have anxiety about addressing large groups!)

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Temporary roof repairs meant everyone could sit in the shade.

Delivery of the training I had planned was challenging because everything I said needed to be interpreted by volunteers into the local language and Bari. I had to do a lot of thinking on my feet when the interpreter’s grasp of English was more limited than I had expected. Although the flip chart displays I had prepared included illustrations, the language was too advanced, so I had to adjust my talk to avoid use of technical language, complex sentence constructions and colloquialisms. The other problem with using flip chart paper was the wind. Most of the venues were church buildings with thatched roofs and half walls. I had to chase after one of my sheets when I gust took it! Everyone laughed, thank goodness.

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