Arushi Raina is the author of When Morning Comes, published by Duckbill Books in May 2018. The book has recently won the 2018 Children’s Africana Book Award. It is part of Duckbill’s Not Our War series.
She is interviewed by Paro Anand, well-known author of books for children and young adults. Paro is perhaps best known for her YA novels set in Kashmir, which also explore the theme of children growing up in an atmosphere of extreme conflict.
PA: First of all, congratulations on a very gripping, very revealing book. Couldn’t stop reading it and had to tear myself away on more than one occasion.
AR: Thank you so very much.
PA: A young Indian girl, living in Canada, writing about the apartheid in 1976 South Africa. What connected you to this story?
AR: I moved to South Africa at the age of six, and lived in South Africa, off and on, till I was twenty-one. When I moved to South Africa with my family, it was 1997, and apartheid had formally ended only three years earlier. Wounds were fresh, families weren’t used to mixing on an equal footing. Mandela was the first democratically elected president. Growing up in South Africa at that time, the country’s past wasn’t forgotten. It was continually jostling with the present. The Soweto Uprising was no exception, and I actually was part of the early group of students taught it as part of the revised, post-apartheid history curriculum across South Africa.
Growing up in the country, but always, a little bit of an outsider, was what I think, made me a careful observer of its culture and history, and I hope, the story I wrote.
PA: You have so many voices – elder blacks, young black boys and girls and white adults and teenagers. Yet each one is totally authentic and believable. You have never fall into the trap of stereotypes. How did you do this?
AR: Thank you. I sincerely hope so, but I always think there’s no way to get it perfectly write. As story tellers, when we take on different voices, we have to be respectful, we have to be open to being corrected, and we can always do better. I think being overwhelmed by the complexity of South Africa’s cultural context actually helped me—I was under no illusions how difficult, how complex that characters and situation was, that there were no easy moral answers or caricatures. When you’re kind of terrified by the complexity and nuance of different voices, it makes you cautious and careful.
PA: You’ve used an interesting device by giving each character their own space. This way you have multiple protagonists, multiple heroes, instead of one central one. Is this the first time you’ve used this device and what led you to go with this?
AR: Yes, its my first time pulling of a novel of this length in multiple voices, though there have been many attempts. At one level, I think there was no other way to tell the story. In South Africa, different view points, perspectives, racial histories, live and jostle each other at every moment, every turn, every interaction. There is no stable truth. The rainbow nation concept never meant there was going to be one story for its people, but we’d have to make peace with our differences.
I also find it much more interesting to write in voices. In daily life, a lot of the conflict, the triumphs, the discoveries, are actually our misunderstandings or discoveries of other people.
I once read somewhere that one of the most common human mistakes is that we consistently underestimate the complexity, the depth of other people’s thoughts. As humans, most of us just comprehend how complex other people’s thoughts are, and fully understand where they are coming.
This means a lot of things; but it also means a lot of potential for storytelling.
PA: Did you find yourself favouring one of the characters, wanting to find that point of view more than any other? I suspect it might be Zanele.
AR: In some ways, Zanele was the muse for this story. So yes, you got me there. Interestingly, initially I always found Meena hard to write, in some ways quite passive. But, I think, she really grew and came to her own in the book.
PA: In today’s very divisive world, do you think that a story like this one is relevant even in the current scenario?
AR: I hope so. The story is about young teens coming from very different places, and, through their interactions which eachother, changing the way they see the world. That’s what we need now, I think.
PA: As a writer, do you feel there is a burden upon you to be an instrument of change? Especially as you write for younger readers?
AR: When I first started writing, I never thought so. Fiction, I thought, is not about change, its whatever the reader wants to make it.
I still believe this, but when I go to schools, and engage with students, I have also learned that it is important to be honest with them, and to remind them, that they have so much to give. That they have so much power.
PA: You’re writing about extreme violence. Yet it is for young readers, any taboos/restrictions you impose upon yourself?
AR: The main restriction I put on myself, is that it had to be real and authentic. Most of the violent scenes in the book are based on real events. When we depict violence, it has to be in the service of authenticity, and I hope I have done that. I also remember, as a teen, being exposed to the idea or depiction of violence. I think teens today are even more exposed, and the reality is, we cannot protect them. What I needed, then, was to understand it, to understand the triggers and the root causes. I hope the story gives room for the teen to make their own sense of the violence that occurred in the 1976 uprising.
PA: Anything that you really want to write about?
AR: Well I have this old spy kids – type manuscript sitting on a dusty shelf … If there are any takers? The kids have gadgets, a full blown intrigue, and everything I promise.
PA: Anything that you’d never write about?
AR: I mean I don’t see myself as the next Stephen King but there’s nothing quite like a bit of horror to spice up life … so you never know.
PA: It’s obviously important to you to have younger people know about the world that was. Why is that?
AR: I think the obvious reason is a big red banner I sometimes feel like I want to carry around, in the current political environment: PLEASE DON’T REPEAT THE TERRIBLE MISTAKES WE ALREADY MADE. WE HAVE BEEN DOWN THIS ROAD AND IT ISN’T GOING TO LOOK PRETTY.
But in all seriousness, its more than that. Our history is our legacy. We cannot understand who we are, who others are, if we don’t know where they came from. We certainly can’t help, or fix things, without understanding what we are trying to fix, and how it came to be.
PA: As a writer, what’s your method? You wait for inspiration or hunt it down? Do you work in a disciplined way or do you work as and when the mood takes you?
AR: I have bouts of discipline. The program at Vassar College (sponsored by Stephen King … I’m mentioning Stephen King a lot in this interview!) was a really great environment that allowed me to finish this novel with periodic feedback, support and time.
Most of my stories start with one image, or a voice. And then I haphazardly add bits and pieces around this image and voice and hope for the best.
PA: What’s next from your stables? Other conflicts, other uprisings or something totally different?
AR: Well I’m trying to write a story of a girl whose about to lose her family home, in the backdrop of the financial recession of 2008. And how she fights to keep it.
PA: You yourself have origins in a state wracked with conflict and divisiveness, does this inform your work in general and this book in particular?
AR: Yes, absolutely. My parents came from a generation and population that believed, intensely, in the concepts of secularism, and the tolerance and openness in the diversity of India. In protecting the rights of each and every Indian. My childhood was informed by stories of my parents trying to hide their friends who came from minorities, when some type of civil unrest occurred. My grandfather was part of a group of people who followed Gandhi, and together dropped their last names as a show of faith; in seeing all Hindus as equal.
I think my background as an Indian, and a child to parents who spent most of their adult lives in India, has made me conscious of the complexity of a place and its people. There is not one sentence I feel I can say about India which would be complete, comprehensive, or without exception.
PA: What are some of the books that you like to read?
AR: I’m a big YA fan. I recently enjoyed The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, loved The Astrologer’s Daughter by Rebecca Lim.
PA: Do you write for your readers or do you write for yourself?
AR: I write for me, first. Then, decide to share.
PA: Today, a writer is required not just to write, but also be a performer, be the best ambassador of their work, make appearances and do interactions. What do you feel about this as a trend and are you happy with this personally?
AR: I like interacting with teens. They teach me so much. At the same time, I always tell aspiring writers that the journey is not easy, that for most writers, they’re holding onto a day job, and trying to do their best to be present and interact with others, while also creating new work.
There is a lot riding on being present, on so many levels and dimensions, and I always try and go a bit easier on myself, because I’m not going to be perfect, I’m going to make mistakes, and there’s always more I could’ve done.