Books & Christmas with Rosanne Hawke

Rosanne Hawke writes hard-hitting yet compassionate novels about young people in difficult, often dire, situations. Her most recent novel for young adults is The Truth About Peacock Blue (Allen & Unwin), about a young girl accused of blasphemy. It’s an inordinately powerful and topical story, which is also well balanced.Truth about Peacock Blue

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books, Rosanne.

Thanks for asking me.

Where are you based and how involved are you in the YA and children’s lit world?

I live in the mid north of South Australia near Kapunda. Besides writing I’m involved with YA & Children’s Lit by visiting schools, teaching Writing for Children and Writing for YA at Tabor Adelaide (an independent tertiary institution), by belonging to Ekidnas (SA’s Children’s and YA book creators support group) and SCWBI.

Why did you live in Pakistan and what do you love about the country and its people?

We lived in the Middle East for ten years and about seven of those years in Pakistan. We went as aid workers with a Christian mission agency, and I taught ESL and trained teachers to teach English in a school set up for under privileged girls in a mountain area. We lived in Khyber Puktunkhwa (formerly the NW Frontier) in a town called Abbottabad. The scenery was beautiful and we took our children for their summer holidays to places like Swat, Chitral and Kaghan. The mountains are majestic and we saw snow for the first time.

Hawke, Roseanne on Karakorum Hwy

We found the Pakistani people to be very hospitable and family orientated. In a positive sense family members support each other and work together. Children are taught that what is best for all is best for one. Once during the Gulf War when we were confined to the school compound a poor family brought us curry they had cooked. We found that the less people had the more they shared.

As someone who has lived in Pakistan and knows firsthand about people from different cultures and faiths, what do you see as a way forward to peace between peoples?

Peace between people groups grows from knowledge, understanding and learning to care for each other. This occurs when we make a friend with someone from a culture different from our own. As soon as we become friends (i.e. know them, their fears, sorrows and joys) it is impossible to think of that person as ‘other’ or to demonise them. My daughter Lenore says it all starts with a smile. I suggest that people who are frightened of certain refugee groups do not have a friend from that group. Another thing I have noticed is that people who are secure in their own identity and culture are able to embrace other different identities and cultures.

What inspired you to write The Truth About Peacock Blue?Asia Bibi

I wrote The Truth about Peacock Blue (TTAPB) because of a news article I read online about a fourteen-year-old girl accused of blasphemy. Also I had been following the story of Asia Bibi, a mother of five accused of blasphemy and on death row in Pakistan. First I wrote a short story called ‘Only a School Girl’ for the UNICEF anthology, Reaching Out: Stories of Hope edited by Mariah Kennedy (2013). This was Aster’s story and the agent/publisher suggested I write it as a novel.

Where does the title come from?

The main character, Aster likes peacocks and peacock blue is her favourite colour so she used this as her Facebook profile name instead of her real name.

The main character, Aster, has a new teacher who seems to hate her. Where does this hatred come from?

By the end Aster does feel the teacher hated her. In reality the teacher is so intent on converting Aster that she loses focus of Aster as a person. A loving person wouldn’t try to coerce another to convert. The teacher’s brother put pressure on her also. Plus she has a belief that anyone who is not Muslim is kafir (a pagan or unbeliever ) and needs to change.

What are Aster’s links with Australia?

Aster has a cousin in Adelaide called Maryam Yusef who is in first year uni. Maryam sets up a blog and petition to help Aster. This is an integral part of the story as Aster doesn’t know that the world is interested in her, but Maryam tells the world about Peacock Blue. We also hear what a lot of people think about freedom of speech and religion, and human rights.

MockingbirdWhat is the importance of To Kill a Mockingbird in the novel?

This is Aster’s English text. The English teacher chose it because as a work of art it did more to change racist views in America than any other book. The novel has similar events to Aster’s story and it is a novel/movie most readers would be familiar with.

How have you linked Malala’s story into the book?

I think Malala is a hero. In TTAPB a guard wanted to demoralise Aster by showing her an article of Malala being shot by the Taliban etc. But it did the opposite for Aster: Malala inspired her. After reading about Malala, Aster grew stronger, made a calendar and decided to keep hoping.Malala

Aster is a Christian girl who is imprisoned for blasphemy (along with Muslims and others) in line with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. What do we need to know about the plight of Christians and other minority groups in countries like Pakistan and Syria? Why is this happening, why don’t we hear about it in the news and how can we help?

At the moment Christians are the most persecuted religion. At one time it was Muslims or Hindus; mostly it has been Jews (thinking of WW2). The journalist in TTAPB likens extremists, who have closed minds, to the Klu Klux Klan, a group who believed in white supremacy, and who took steps to remove non-whites from their communities. Some extremist groups will remove people they see as sub-people because they are not Muslim. The Christians had a period in history called the inquisition which acted in a similar way, fueled by power and corruption. I’m sure most Christians were horrified by the inquisition as most Muslims are today by extremists groups who use violence. Our own indigenous people were persecuted too.

We can help persecuted religious minorities through groups such as Open Doors, Barnabas Fund. Agencies like World Vision are also helping minority groups during their humanitarian work. Amnesty also keeps an eye on such issues as well as human rights injustices.

Why don’t we hear about it? We heard about Paris. And we heard about the twin towers. But many more are killed in Africa and other places that we don’t hear about because they are not ‘western’ and the media may not feel we’ll be interested, and so won’t run the story. Maybe there are no journalists where some atrocities happen. Some governments may ban journalists so they can run their country without interference. SBS tries to give a balanced view of world news. Groups like Barnabas give online updates on persecuted minorities.

SorayaAs well as child imprisonment, The Truth About Peacock Blue also challenges the imprisonment of asylum seeker children in Australia. How do you or your characters think this could be resolved?

I was appalled when I returned to Australia from Pakistan and found children in detention centres. I didn’t see Pakistan doing that to asylum seekers. It’s why I wrote Soraya the Storyteller to try to make sense of it for myself. Again the way to resolve it is by making friends. I have met intelligent and nice people who say negative things about a cultural group and I believe it is born of fear. In TTAPB Maryam believes children shouldn’t be in detention, and families should be housed in communities until they can be assessed. Assessment shouldn’t take four or five years as it did with a family I met in a detention centre. They need assessors who understand certain cultural groups.    

What else have you written?Mountain Wolf

TTAPB is my 24th book and I have written picture books, junior novels and other YA novels. Kerenza: A New Australian is about a Cornish immigrant family settling in the Mallee farmlands in 1911. Mustara is about a boy Taj and his camel, released this week in Paperback. The Keeper series are three adventurous and thrilling books about Joel Billings who lives by the sea on Yorke Peninsula. Shahana; Through My Eyes shows orphans living in a war zone in Kashmir. Marrying Ameera and Mountain Wolf (15 plus) deal with forced marriage and trafficking.

What awards have your books won?

This year I won the Nance Donkin award for my work. Last year my YA novel about grief with Cornish themes, The Messenger Bird, won the Cornish Holyer an Gof award for YA literature and the inaugural Ann Trevenen Jenkin Cup. In 2012 Taj and the Great Camel Trek won the Adelaide Festival Award for Children’s Literature. My younger readers’ fantasy, Across the Creek, won the Holyer an Gof award for children’s literature in 2005. Others have been shortlisted, commended or Notable.Messenger Bird

What are you writing at the moment?

I am working on an historical fantasy set during seventeenth century Moghul India which is now northern Pakistan. It will be released as two books: Daughter of Nomads and The Leopard Princess in June & October 2016. It is something quite different for me, a breakout novel, UQP says. Next year I’m writing a companion to Kelsey with a male protagonist for 2017, and my YA Borderland series will be released during 2016-2017 as four totally rewritten and re-titled separate novels (including a new work) by Rhiza Press.

What have you enjoyed reading?

I’ve enjoyed many books this year; these are some of the children’s titles.

My Gallipoli by Ruth Starke & Robert Hannaford

Withering by the Sea by Judith Rossell

The Simple Things by Bill Condon

The Wishbird by Garielle Wang

Figgy in the World by Tamsin Janu

Christmas is coming. How do you plan to celebrate and what books would you like as Christmas presents?

This year our family will all gather at my brother and sister-in-law’s new house and garden in the mid-north of SA. I’d like my own copy of My Gallipoli and The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna, something magical or mythical with beautiful writing and engaging plot.

Thanks for your thoughtful answers and all the best with your books, Rosanne.

Thank you for your kind support.

Kelsey(Kelsey and the Quest of the Porcelain Doll was my best novel for younger readers for Australian Book Review in 2014 and I reviewed it here for Boomerang Books.)

I Am Malala

I Am MalalaIf the author being the youngest Nobel Peace Prize nominee—and winner—isn’t impetus enough to warrant seeing what this memoir is about, nothing arguably is.

Famous for advocating for education for all—male and female, all around the world—and for surviving a roadside assassination attempt by the Taliban, who were unimpressed with her efforts, Malala Yousafzai is a force to be reckoned with. I mean force to be reckoned with the most complimentary way.

Intelligent, articulate, ambitious, and yet still the girl next door who fights with her siblings and who is anything but a morning person, the Nobel Peace Prize co-winner (she shares the 2014 spoils with Kailash Satyarthi), is at once recognisably ordinary and elusively ethereal.

By that I mean she’s like every girl you’ve ever met and like no girl, and her ability to punch through inequality and prejudice without fear is admirable. I can’t help but think Malala and someone like Emma Watson, who recently delivered a knock-out speech to the United Nations assembly inviting men to help address inequality, have something extra the rest of us don’t. When Malala and Watson speak, the world truly listens.

It really needs to be noted that while Malala is incredible, such incredibleness doesn’t spring, fully formed, from nowhere. What’s clear from reading the book is that she has some pretty incredible parents. Though poorly educated herself, her mother is the family’s sage bedrock—and in recent times she’s even begun to learn to read and write and to learn English. Through hard graft and against the grain, her father started and ran a school to enable education for all. In some ways Malala has learnt from the debilitating effects a lack of education has meant for her mother and has picked up her father’s message and is running with it.

Malala’s father is famous for saying that Malala used to be known as his daughter; now he’s known as her father—and he’s proud of it. He also told media the way he came to have such a talented, world-changing daughter was that he hadn’t clipped her wings. At one stage in the book he tells her not to worry: ‘I will protect your freedom,’ he says. ‘Carry on with your dreams.’

Such statements blow my mind for their humble simplicity and matter-of-factness. As many have stated (and I’m paraphrasing here), a girl with a book and a pen is much more dangerous than a man with a semi-automatic weapon. The fact that the Taliban called for—and attempted—schoolgirl Malala’s execution is testament to that.

I’m normally pretty cynical of memoirs written while someone’s still in the throes of pimply puberty. But Malala’s memoir is perhaps one exception to that rule. Her efforts have been so groundbreaking so young, and her story is so compelling and important to empower and inspire everyone to pursue education around the world, there’s plenty that warrants being written down.

The book opens with the day of the shooting. Malala has overslept through a combination of being a night owl and because she stayed up late studying. She rushes to school to sit an exam—one on which she finds out months later, during her rehabilitation, she achieved a perfect score.

On her way home, the school bus she’s travelling in with her friend is stopped by a gunman. He asks the passengers: ‘Who is Malala?’ While none apparently spoke her name, some eyes flitted to her to gauge her response and essentially gave her away. The book’s ‘I am Malala’ title is ostensibly a clear, proud, fearless response to that question.

Malala was shot point blank (and some other girls were injured too), but miraculously survived (as did the others). She was airlifted to receive state-of-the-art medical treatment in Birmingham in the UK, where she still resides today. It’s too dangerous for her to return to Pakistan, and her Nobel Peace Prize recipiency that we’re celebrating and marvelling at has probably compounded that danger—the news was reportedly met with some negativity by the Taliban in Pakistan.

But the book doesn’t focus solely on the shooting—Malala notes that she understands why people focus on it, but for her it’s a speed bump in her activism efforts and much less interesting than everything else going on. The book instead concentrates more on her early years in Pakistan, her school life, her friendships, her family life, and her present-day life in the UK, all the while providing insight into the wider cultural and political issues in which she—and her desire for education—got swept up.

Malala is what one family friend describes as pakha jenai (or ‘wise beyond her years’) and someone you’d nominate in your high school yearbook as the girl most likely to change the world. (Coincidentally, the morning of the shooting her father had been joking that when Malala was president, her brother, with whom she regularly has sibling-rivalry fights, could be her secretary.)

What’s striking about Malala is her nuanced understanding of the world, its injustices, and her pragmatic, straight-to-the-point logical solutions. She understands, and articulates, this stuff better than I do—and I’m roughly twice her age.

And, although she and her family have suffered immensely and unnecessarily through foolish, misguided efforts to prevent girls obtaining an education (seriously, why anyone would want to prevent anyone from being educated is inane and abhorrent), she’s ultimately having the last laugh (or whatever the appropriate term is here). Malala writes: ‘The Taliban shot me to silence me. Instead, the whole world [is] listening to my message now.’

The Australian I Am Malala edition cleverly comes with discussion questions at the end and downloadable teacher resources tailored to the Australian Curriculum, making it ideal as a set text. But, truly, it’s one for all ages and that shouldn’t need being part of the curriculum to inspire us to pick it up—this is a book we should be championing (along with education) for all.