Aisha is a thirteen-year-old refugee living in London. Happy for the first time since leaving her war-torn home, she is devastated when her foster mother announces that a new family has been found for her and she will be moving on. Feeling rejected and abandoned, Aisha packs her bags and runs away, seeking shelter in the nearby woods.
Meanwhile, a few doors down, twelve-year-old Zak is trying to cope with his parents' divorce. Living in a near-building site while the new house is being refurbished, he feels unsettled and alone. Discovering a piece of rubble with the original builder's signature set into it, he starts researching the history behind his home - and in doing so finds a connection with a young soldier from the past, which leads him to an old air-raid shelter in the same woods.
Both children, previously unknown to each other, meet in the heart of the ancient city woodland as they come into the orbit of Elder, a strange homeless woman who lives amongst the trees - and, as helicopters hover overhead and newspapers fill with pictures of the two lost children, unexpected bonds are formed and lives changed forever...
Sita Brahmachari's new book, Red Leaves, is now published in the UK and sounds like a brilliant read. Artichoke Hearts is still one of my favourite books and I think she's a fantastic writer, so I hope you'll check out her novels.
Thanks to Sita for writing this post for me!
The heart of the story…
by Sita Brahmachari
I have a lot of layers in my books… From the layers of the artichoke in Nana’s charm in ‘Artichoke Hearts’ or the sari bedspread in ‘Jasmine Skies’ and the handmade patchwork kites in ‘Kite Spirit’… Now in my latest novel ‘Red Leaves’ the ancient homeless woman Elder wears layer upon layer of clothing that she gets from the Oxfam Clothes bank. I realise that the process of writing for me is about finding what’s at the heart or body of the story by exploring layers of characters and their journeys. The finished book is an offering to readers to peel away the layers for themselves.
There is a scene in ‘Red Leaves’ where the ancient homeless woman Elder removes some of her layers of clothing and bathes in a spring… she is so vulnerable…no bigger than a skinny twelve year old child. For me the word ‘compassion’ lies at the heart of this story in which all my characters are searching for a safe place to call home where they can be loved and respected.
Readers often ask me where I get my ideas from. I answer that they usually start not in the head but in the gut. As a child I remember having stomach aches which my doctor father and nurse mother 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… then.
I feel 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. Now that I have been writing full time for a while I can look back over my work and see that there are some themes, ideas and concerns that still need much unravelling.
The theme of home and homelessness is not new to me and indeed, in an early draft of ‘Artichoke Hearts’ I edited out a homeless girl on the South Bank who Mira passes while on an outing with her father. There are also many young street children in ‘Jasmine Skies’ and Mira’s realisation of the harshness of their lives breaks her heart. Mine too. But have not until writing ‘Red Leaves,’ made a homeless person a central character in any of my stories.
‘Red Leaves’ is set in a wood and I find that sometimes the process of writing is like entering a wood. If you let yourself wander down unknown paths characters and their stories seem to appear to you and don’t want to let you go…they keep asking you to follow them, almost demanding it. In some form or another I have carried all the characters in ‘Red Leaves’ around with me from when I began work in community theatre over twenty years ago. ‘Red Leaves’ and the characters in it have been mulling for a very long time.
‘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 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 ‘Red Leaves,’ my three young 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 are struggling to find a voice in the wider world. I was aware that by making these young characters central to my story I could give a voice to people who may often be talked about in the media but rarely get an opportunity to tell their own stories.
My own gut feeling to write ‘Red Leaves’ came while I was walking through ‘Queen’s Wood’ near where I live with my dog Billie. Earlier, I had been listening to the radio as I cleared up the breakfast pots after my children had gone off to school. What I heard in that one news bulletin was:
a story about thousands of orphaned refugee children on the march in search of a home.
a man talking about how ‘migrants should go home’
a news report about the rise in poverty and homelessness among the young, old and mentally ill in this country and the increase in the use of food banks.
Someone talking about ‘community’
I was thinking ‘If I find it so hard to understand what’s going on in the world both near and far how are young people who are listening to this barrage of news, finding a way to make sense of anything? I felt that the only way it’s possible to see a way through all the divisions and conflict would be to find a place in a story for young people affected by conflict to come together, and do what in my experience young people can do better than many adults…find an honest way to live together and form strong bonds. My instinct was to take my three young characters out of the noise and the politics of the world and into a wild city wood.
The characters I have brought together in ‘Red Leaves’ are people that I have met over the years who seemed to be saying … ‘make me part of your story. Not a bit part… but a central character.’
I began to ask myself what the news stories I had heard had in common and it seemed to me that ‘HOME’ or a lack of it was the word that united them. Wherever we come from in the world, whoever we are…. aren’t we all just looking for a safe place to call home.
As I walked through the wood I resolved that I would bring together a group of young people who may not ordinarily meet even though they may live in the same area. I knew I had to choose characters whose stories for one reason or another get me in the gut.
There is nothing I find more poignant than to see a young, old or mentally ill homeless person wandering the streets. In my story these characters are Iona (17 and homeless) and Elder (an ancient homeless woman).
I thought of 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 Somali girls from a London school the character of Aisha emerged.
As I was wandered the paths of the woods I crossed a smart looking school boy who looked sad and lost. He became my character Zak. In my head I kept hearing the journalist I had heard on the radio reporting from refugee camps in Syria and I thought… what if that journalist was Zak’s mum? After all what’s happening In the world and at home affects everyone, no matter how rich or poor.
The ancient wood in which I dreamed up ‘Red Leaves’ is a wood that was mentioned in The Domesday book and was part of the forest that used to cover the whole of the UK. It’s where sometimes the tangled roots from the past want to find their way into our time. Like many of the woods in children’s literature… it’s a place where it’s possible for things and people to be transformed… a place of where all may not be exactly what it seems.
Although Zak, Iona, Aisha and Elder are very much from our time, the story of children lost or abandoned in a wood is an ancient one that never fails to trouble me and get me in the gut… because surely it’s the most human of instincts to want to build a den… to find a safe place to call home where we can be loved for who we are.
I am so happy that the human rights organisation Amnesty International UK have scattered these words about ‘Red Leaves’ to the wind…
"We are proud to endorse Red Leaves because of its sensitive depiction of diversity and the human need for somewhere to call home. It's a novel that encourages readers' empathy, which is a big step towards understanding, tolerance and kindness - all values that help us to uphold human rights.
(Nicky Parker, Publisher at Amnesty International UK)
‘Red Leaves’ is set in autumn when many of the festivals of lights from different cultures and religions are celebrated. As skies are filled with spectacular displays of light… and people gather around fires and hearths … the message of unity and hope needs no translation.