Where does the River Run Gold for Children’s Rights?
We are excited to share this guest blog from children’s author Sita Brahmachari, who has been working with us for almost 10 years. Sita’s books are highly aligned with our mission to transform lives through literature and in this post, originally published on Sita’s blog in November 2019, she reflects on how children’s rights have informed, inspired and driven her work.
In this the thirtieth anniversary year of the declaration of the Rights of The Child, I have been thinking of how central an exploration of children’s rights has been to my writing journey over the past decade or so.
My Rites of Passage stories have one thread in common, they all explore the journeys and struggles of children and young people with diverse diaspora roots as they navigate our world. It’s a search that, against the backdrop of politics today can sometimes feel like an odyssey I share with many children and YA novelists…. a seeking for commonality, empathy, fairness and humanity and doing this through the eyes and sensibility of the young.
From beginning writing my first novel for young people over a decade ago, my stories have not turned away from the larger struggles we face in the world today, like racial and religious intolerance, mental health, grief, poverty inequality, homelessness, the treatment of refugee people and environmental complacency.
I have not explored these stories through the eyes of children because I set out to tackle ‘issues’ but because in beginning of each new story I discover child characters I want to journey with… young voices whose vision and realities are struggling to be heard.
Artichoke Hearts, Jasmine Skies & Tender Earth
A lot has changed for children’s rights in the decade or so that these three stories span. It was a beautiful moment for me to discover the journey-thread for Jide Jackson, from his desperate plight in the Rwandan Genocide in ‘Artichoke Hearts‘ (2011) to his becoming a trainee doctor, re-visiting the land of his birth family in my later book ‘Tender Earth‘ (2018).
When I began writing ‘Artichoke Hearts’ the politics of the world did not intrude too deeply on the Levenson family to the extent they do in my more recent novels. Rightly or wrongly, the Levenson parents wished, and were more or less able, to shield Mira and Krish and their new baby Laila from having to learn about some of the more brutal events in world history ‘before they were ready’. But they were protecting their children from a story that their fellow classmate was facing.
In ‘Jasmine Skies‘, as Mira travels to India her activist eyes are opened and the novel that completes this book-family ‘Tender Earth’ sees Janu, a young man who runs an orphanage in Kolkata returning to a London in which the inequality, homelessness and racism are shockingly present. Laila (the baby in ‘Artichoke Hearts’) becomes the narrator in ‘Tender Earth‘ and she must navigate her story through a time in which the disruptions of the world are mirrored in her own classmates and community. She finds she cannot stand by and see hatred and discrimination grow. The racist attack that Janu experiences, or the defiling of Bubbe Dara’s husband’s grave with swastikas is tragically, no act of the imagination.
A ‘Tender Earth’ it is for Pari, the child of Iraqi refugee parents who must every day experience the racist abuse in her substandard housing conditions (written pre-Grenfell tragedy but all too poignant now). The inequalities deepen as Pari is too proud to tell her new best friend, Laila, that she is hungry at school. In writing scenes in this book I wanted to speak to Pari and say ‘it is not you who should feel ashamed.’
I am often asked where all these stories have come from… and keep coming from! It’s simple… it’s children who inspire me…and a deep wish to see their rights protected and respected. As the ghost of George Orwell says when I imagined him showing up to hear the story of a refugee child, notebook in hand; ‘Speak Amir, I came to hear you speak.’ (‘Amir and George’, Stripes. I’ll be Home for Christmas).
In ‘Red Leaves‘ Iona, a homeless girl from Scotland has been abandoned on the streets of London and her rights are really only protected through the random kindness of a Sikh family-‘The Kalsis’ who attempt to guide her and offer comfort and shelter. These children, holding diaspora journeys from Somalia, America, Scotland and London, meet in ancient woods that have historically protected them.
The rights of children…. holding courage keys to the story hive!
In writing my latest novel ‘Where The River Runs Gold‘ (Orion) I asked myself where does the river run gold for children’s rights? What kind of society can we build in which the rights of the child are truly honoured and protected. I have imagined a near future world in which environmental damage has brought forward a crisis in food production, leading to the decimation of bees, pollinators, tree and plant life….. and of course into this world children are born. Greta Thunberg is such a bright beacon in our times and, like Greta, my young characters Shifa and Themba must fight for their rights to be protected. In my story, The Emergency Ark Government has suspended the laws to deal with the immediate climate and food production crisis. As a result the children must trust in the promises of leaders.
Children and young adults today understand how deeply words are used, the truths they hold and the narratives we tell matter in helping us face our biggest challenges. In the near future world The Ark authorities know what they are doing when they close the libraries and remove the books from the majority of ‘Freedom’ children, discouraging them from painting or drawing, reading stories, questioning the status quo or imagining a different future.
But stories are powerful forces indeed and Shifa refuses to stop sewing re-wilding seeds! For Shifa and Themba access to pages they can hold is denied them and the portal to a broad education is closed. They protect their story hive because they know it holds the courage keys to their future.
In imagining the world through children’s eyes, I pause long and deep to try to see what they see, feel what they feel. Time and again the question that comes as I write is, ‘How are we protecting these children’s rights: to have a childhood, to be safe, to have a home, to be treated fairly, with equality….the right to breathe fresh air, to access nature, to play, to express themselves, to follow their faiths and cultures and have them represented, to be included, to drink clean water, to eat, to be educated, to enter the story hives of their imaginations and to look forward to a brighter and more beautiful future?’
New Release 20th August – When Secrets Set Sail
Usha is devastated when her grandmother Kali Ma passes away. Then straight-talking Imtiaz arrives – her new adoptive sister – and the two girls clash instantly. They both feel lost. That is until Kali Ma’s ghost appears…with a task for them.
Immy and Usha’s home is full of history and secrets. Many years ago it was The House of the Ayahs – for those nannies who couldn’t return to their Indian homeland – and Kali Ma made a promise she couldn’t keep. She can’t pass on to the other side until the girls fulfil it.
Today, Usha and Immy’s over-worked parents run the house as a home for refugees, but eviction threatens. The precious documents that could save them are lost. As the house slowly fills up with ghosts, that only Usha and Imtiaz can see, the girls realise they have more to save than just one grandmother’s ghost.
With help from their new friend Cosmo, Usha and Immy must set off on a quest through London, accompanied by two bickering ghosts, working together to find a series of objects that shine a magical light on their family’s past and hold the clues to securing their future.
If they can set the secrets of generations free, will they be in time to save their home?