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.
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.
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?
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.
What 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.
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.
As 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?
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.
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 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.)