To launch her new book Red Leaves, Sita Brahmachari took readers on a tour through Queen’s Wood, an ancient piece of woodland near her home, and explained the thinking behind the book, and her inspiration. She has kindly allowed us to reproduce her speech.
Young readers often ask me where I get my ideas to tell stories. I answer that the ideas usually start not in the head but more in the gut. As a child I remember having stomach aches which my doctor father and mother nurse were unable to find a reason for. Now I think I was probably feeling all churned up because there were things I was trying to understand about the world and express and wasn’t able to.
I believe that one the most important skills you need to be a writer is empathy. With all the beautifully crafted words in the world if you can’t make your reader feel something for your characters and stories then there is no story.
Finding a voice has been a recurrent theme in all my stories from Mira having the courage to stand up and speak at her grandmother’s funeral in Artichoke Hearts or Mira’s travelling to Kolkata to discover her heritage in Jasmine Skies. In Kite Spirit Dawn’s inability to speak when she feels under pressure leads to tragic consequences. In Brace Mouth, False Teeth Zeni feels embarrassed to speak because of her newly fitted brace and in Red Leaves, my three characters Zak, Iona and Aisha are all lost in one way or another … each of them has a troubled feeling in their gut about their own lives and what is happening in the wider world.
The gut feeling to write Red Leaves came to me while I was walking through Queen’s Wood, a piece of ancient woodland near where I live in North London. I had been listening to the radio as I cleared up the breakfast pots and my children had gone off to school.
I heard a story about thousands of orphaned refugee children on the march in search of a home.
I heard a man talking about how ‘migrants should go home’.
I heard a news report about the rise in poverty and homelessness among the young in this country and the increase in the use of food banks.
In order to write I often have to leave the house so that I can return to my desk feeling ready to let the thoughts flow. So I headed to the woods with my dog Billie, and as I walked I tried to unravel some of the things that I knew I would have to write about in my next book. I was thinking ‘If I find it so hard to understand what’s going on in the world how are young people who are listening to this barrage of news, finding a way to make sense of anything? I got to thinking about my own children going to school and how the conflicts and divisions I had been listening to on the radio were part of their lives. I felt that the only way it’s possible to see a way through all the divisions and conflict is by finding a place in a story for young people who in one way or another are affected by all this division to come together in a story. It’s for this reason that I am particularly proud that Red Leaves has been endorsed by Amnesty International UK as a book ‘that explores with sensitivity diversity, identity and the right for every human being to live in a safe home.’
The word ‘community’ is used easily by politicians…it’s an easy word to say, understanding ‘community’ is much harder.
So as I walked through the wood I started to think about who lives in my community, people I don’t know but who might be affected by some of the things I was hearing about on the news. I have brought some of them together in Red Leaves.
There is nothing I find more poignant than to see a young, old or mentally ill homeless person wandering the streets. One young girl with her dog has haunted me for a long time. In Red Leaves she becomes Iona – a seventeen year old Scottish girl who has been living on the streets of London for years.
I thought about a young Somali refugee girl I had interviewed when I was working on The Arrival a play about migration and, with the help and advice of some girls from a London school I wrote the character of Aisha
As I was walking through the woods I crossed a smart looking school boy who looked sad and lost. In my head I heard again the journalist reporting from refugee camps in Syria and I thought what if that journalist was that boy’s mum? I thought about how what is happening in the world and at home affects everyone, no matter how rich or poor.
As I walked out of the wood past the grocery store I thought of the Sikh couple I once met who told me about the religious practice of ‘Sewa’ or service to the community… in my story they become Mr and Mrs Kalsi who run the woodland store … without them the plot of Red Leaves or the little community I form in my story, could not have come together.
When I visualise the process of writing I think of entering a wood… you may think you know the wood but once you enter it you find that there are characters standing by the trees and beckoning you to follow them down their story path. This has never been truer than when I wrote Red Leaves. I turned along a path in a wood and saw an old woman carrying many bags and feeding the birds… in my story that old homeless woman becomes Elder who roams the wood dropping bread.
Sometimes one of things I find difficult in writing is finding the context in which my characters meet; with Red Leaves this was not a problem. The ancient wood in which I dreamed up the story, a wood that was mentioned in The Domesday book, that was part of the forest that used to cover the whole of the UK, was always going to be the place that drew my characters together.
The book is set in autumn when many of the festivals of lights from different cultures and religions are celebrated. Often the festivals fall around the same time. Up and down this country skies are filled with spectacular displays of light… their message needs no translation across religious or cultural difference.
So I had the characters and the place the story is set and having found: a conservation zone, shut off for a ten year period; an air raid shelter with children’s writing on the wall; and a memorial stone. I was beginning to find my plot, but I still hadn’t got to the heart of what the book was about.
I knew that my character Aisha had been fostered and a friend of mine put me in touch with a foster carer Mary Mcilroy who had looked after many children, and she said something that brought the strands of my story together: ‘The moment that always breaks my heart is when a child steps over your doorway holding nothing but an old toy.’
Mary became Liliana in my story who fosters Aisha. As soon as I met Mary I realised that I wanted to write a story about how we are fostering communities. I wanted to write a book about compassion, empathy, friendship and love among young people and old, who may seem at first to have nothing in common, though they live in the same community.
The youngest child who steps into a wood among the trust of the ancient trees will start by building a den – a home, a safe place, a shelter. You are never too young or old to build a den.
The ancient woman Elder lives in one. Is she homeless, or a wise Elder tree or part of the spirit of the ancient forest. Is she real or magical? Is it possible that by stepping into the shoes of strangers that we ourselves might be transformed? These were the questions I asked as I roamed the woods of this story. I hope you enjoy entering ‘Home Wood’ with Zak, Iona, Aisha and Elder and if you see a falling red leaf, try to catch it and examine the leaf-veins. Elder may have written your name in her golden swirly writing and who knows where that will lead you.
Red Leaves, 978-1447262985, £6.99 pbk
Artichoke Hearts, 978-0330517911, £6.99 pbk
Kite Spirit, 978-0330517928, £6.99 pbk
Jasmine Skies, 978-1447205180, £6.99 pbk
Brace Mouth False Teeth, 978-1781124000,£6.99 pbk