Victoria Williamson has been a teacher for many years. Her debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, beautifully tells the story of twelve year old Syrian refugee Reema and her friendship with Glaswegian school bully Caylin. Here she talks about her work and her new book, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind…
I wondered if we could start by you telling us a bit about Reema and Caylin, the two main characters in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle?
When we first meet the girls, Caylin is a tough Glaswegian bully with a chip on her shoulder, who seems really mean at the start of the story. It quickly becomes apparent that she’s hiding a secret though – she’s terrified that people will find out that her mother is an alcoholic who isn’t able to take care of Caylin properly. Caylin has had to grow up too fast as a result, and is struggling to be the adult in the relationship. She’s lonely and desperate for a friend, but when she finds the family of foxes in the back garden of the block of flats, she guards them jealously, seeing Reema as a rival for their affection rather than as a potential ally.
Reema seems a far more sympathetic character at the start – empathetic and caring, and trying her best to cope with the upheaval of leaving a war-torn country she loves to move far away to a place where she doesn’t speak the language well or understand the culture at first. Reema doesn’t believe she’ll ever belong in Scotland, and she’s desperately homesick for Syria. Finding the fox family is the first good thing to happen to her in a long time, and she’s understandably wary of sharing them with a girl she sees as mean and unreliable.
Despite Reema and Caylin’s initial suspicion and mutual mistrust, their growing friendship helps them to overcome their own problems. Reema helps Caylin to lower her defences and learn to smile again, encouraging her not to give up on the running they both love. Caylin on the other hand, helps Reema find a sense of belonging and to feel like she might just be able to call this new country home after all.
How are Reema and Caylin similar? How are they different? What do you think it is that draws them together?
Despite their surfaces differences – culture, language, religion and personality, Caylin and Reema have a great deal in common.
Caylin has lost her grandparents, and with her mother’s depression turning to alcoholism, she resorts to bullying other children for money and to stealing to keep food on the table. She longs for the past when her grandparents were alive and she was part of a loving family. She keeps the memory of her grandmother, a talented athlete, alive through running, and rediscovers some of her happy memories of her grandfather by sharing them with Reema.
Reema has lost everything in the Syrian war, including her older brother Jamal, and she’s struggling to fit in and feel safe so far from home. She runs to remember too, her memories of running through the streets of Aleppo after school with Jamal are bound up in the headscarf he bought her, and she clings on tightly to this as a symbol of everything she has lost and hopes to recover.
Despite their different cultural backgrounds, both girls have suffered loss and are searching for a sense of belonging, and it is Hurriyah, the fox called ‘Freedom’ who is the metaphor for the girls’ struggles. It is the fox that initially draws them together, and helps them see their similarities. Her sense of loss over her dead mate, destroyed den and injured leg which prevents her from running and caring for her vulnerable cubs mirrors the girls’ struggles to overcome their own sad experiences. Her refrain, ‘This is not home. It hurts,’ changes into something far more hopeful at the end of the book when both Caylin and Reema realize that home isn’t a place, it’s the people you love.
Reema talks about being sick of the ‘pity and suspicion that follow us everywhere we go’ and you describe, quite harrowingly, Reema’s fear and worry every time she hears a noise or sees something strange. What research did you have to do to develop this understanding of the refugee experience and how complex it is?
The initial idea of the book came from my own teaching experience of working in a school where a large proportion of the children were seeking asylum. I also read a lot of first-hand interview accounts of children who described their experiences to journalists, other teachers, social workers and support workers. The children all had their own difficult stories to tell, sometimes triggered by something they saw or heard – even just a simple everyday occurrence in the playground could be upsetting. Some children didn’t share their stories verbally, but might draw a picture to illustrate something disturbing they’d seen that they didn’t feel able to put into words.
I think the most important thing to understand about Reema’s story is that it’s hers and hers alone. Every refugee’s experience is different, and although there might be common threads running through their stories – for example adjusting to a different language and culture, leaving family and friends behind – there is no single ‘refugee experience’. This is, as you say, what makes it so complex, and why it’s so important to give refugees a platform in real life to share their own stories. I’m currently putting a proposal together with a social work lecturer at Stirling University to seek funding for a project to run a series of creative writing classes for young refugees in order to help them share their experiences. We’re hoping to help them present an anthology of their work at one of the future Refugee Festival Scotland events, so fingers crossed we get the budget for that!
People’s misconceptions about the Muslim religion feature heavily in the story, and are at times quite difficult to read. I wondered if part of wanting to write this story was to dispel some myths about the Muslim faith?
As a teacher who has seen a large increase in the number of refugee and asylum-seeking children in Glasgow schools over the years, I felt that the story of a refugee child with a strong religious background making friends with a Glaswegian girl was an important and relevant one to tell. In some ways, given my own cultural background and the fact that I am neither Muslim nor Syrian, it would have been easier for me to have told the story only from Caylin’s point of view. However, I felt that it was vital to give Reema an equal voice in this book. If the story had been written purely from Caylin’s point of view, Reema would have been instantly ‘othered’ – seen only as a ‘foreign’ friend who advanced Caylin’s storyline without playing the lead role in her own.
This problem of seeing people who have a different religion or cultural background as the ‘other’ is a major problem not just in children’s fiction, but in real life, especially when it comes to the Muslim faith. I definitely wanted to dispel some of the myths that certain popular media outlets peddle about Islam and its followers. This isn’t just a problem for people coming to this country, but for British children who have grown up here. Last year I attended the Aye Write! Festival in Glasgow where I heard Sayeeda Warsi speak about her book, The Enemy Within, about growing up as a Muslim in Britain. She very kindly hosted me in the House of Lords when I next visited London, and it was very interesting to hear her discuss her childhood experiences and how Islam was often misrepresented, and how that led people to think of Muslims as not quite as ‘British’ as Christians or other groups. I hope that giving Reema her own voice in the book succeeded in showing how her Muslim faith was not just an everyday part of her life, but one that was entirely compatible with her new home in Scotland, despite the prejudices of a minority of her neighbours.
I found myself instantly on Caylin’s side and felt sympathy and respect for her, despite her challenging behaviour and demeanour. How did you balance this? Was she a difficult character to write?
Caylin was a bit tricky! Her character had to walk the tightrope between being mean enough that it made sense that the other children didn’t like her, but not so unsympathetic that the reader disliked her. It was important to show near the start of the story that she had good reasons for the way she behaved, and this helped get the reader on her side. It was also important that the reader understood why Reema was initially suspicious of her, while at the same time rooting for the two girls to become friends.
I think this is why a dual-narrative can be very useful in showing not just two characters’ very different points of view, but also the way they view each other. This can help the reader see the snap judgements we make and the misconceptions that occur when we don’t know people’s full story and rely purely on first impressions and lazy stereotypes. Fiction can help children sees the world through the eyes of the ‘other’, and in developing their empathy this way, they come to realise that we have far more in common than our surface difference might initially suggest.
There are lots of Scottish words and phrases throughout the story, which I really enjoyed, like when Caylin describes her bedroom as being ‘in a right guddle’. How important is the Scottish setting to the story? Do you think the story would have been as impactful if it was set somewhere else?
Authors draw heavily on their own childhood experiences when writing children’s books, and I’m no exception! The setting, Drumhill, is recognisable as the real life Drumchapel, an area of Glasgow where my own grandparents lived. I think using a local setting that an author is familiar with really helps bring a story to life, because when it comes to contemporary fiction, we’re so much more invested in describing places we can picture from our own childhood than a random town or city we’ve picked for the sake of convenience, or to appeal to a wider audience. It also helps us write more believable characters, as we can be sure then of getting the local dialect correct! I had lots of fun writing Caylin’s dialogue, using words that I not only grew up hearing, but that I still use myself. An American friend recently pointed out that despite my protests to the contrary, I actually do use the word ‘wee’ for ‘little’ in emails to her!
I could have set this book in any large city in Britain, and it wouldn’t have made much difference to Reema’s character and storyline, but I think it would’ve had a negative impact on Caylin’s if I had. If I hadn’t been able to draw on my own childhood memories of my grandparent’s house by the local swing park, running to the ice cream van, fishing in the canal with nets, and feeding the squirrels in nearby Dawsholm Park, Caylin’s own happy memories which balance the negative experiences in her life would have been much more bland and generic as a result.
There’s some beautiful, lyrical poetry interspersed throughout the story. Did you always know that you wanted to tell some of the story through poetry? What do you think poetry allows you to do in these instances?
I’ve always loved poetry – I think this is my mother’s fault! As a child she was always quoting poetry at me. When I dragged my feet on the way to school she’d quote, ‘“Will you walk a little faster ?” said a whiting to a snail’ from Alice in Wonderland’s Mock Turtle Song. Crunching through the leaves on October walks she’d run through the whole of To Autumn by Keats, and on dark, stormy nights when the wind was howling she’d recite Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners – ‘“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door; And his horse in the silence champed the grasses Of the forest’s ferny floor.’ Even now this is still one of my favourite poems.
I wanted each of the characters in the story to have a unique voice. Caylin tells the story using Glaswegian words and phrases, while Reema’s language is more formal – unlike English, there are no contractions in Arabic, which is why she thinks and speaks without them. I wanted something different for Hurriyah the fox though, which is why I chose poetry as her narrative medium. It allows her to express herself in a way that is both lyrical and more in tune with nature, while at the same time keeping the reader at a distance from her, never quite getting past her wild strangeness and into her head the way they would if her thoughts had been written in prose.
How do you think your career as a teacher influenced this story?
Growing up, most of the main characters who went off on exciting adventures in the books I read were white British and American boys. That early template of who the usual ‘hero’ of a story could be influenced my own early writing greatly. It wasn’t until years later that I noticed that all of the lead characters I’d written in my first attempts at stories and novels were middle class white boys too. Even my animal stories featured ninety percent male characters, with a few minor female characters thrown in to make up the numbers.
It wasn’t until I started teaching that I realised that this lack of representation was a problem. Teaching in Cameroon and Malawi in Africa, I found that children struggled to identify with the characters in the novels donated from abroad, who went to ‘proms’ and ate ice cream and had sleepovers and set off fireworks on Bonfire Night. When I managed to source some children’s books written by local authors for the library, the children’s interest in reading increased dramatically, and I realised how important it was for children to see characters like themselves in novel. My experience of teaching children from many different backgrounds helped me understand how important it was for me to write inclusive stories where all children can see reflections of themselves in heroic roles.
I know that you have a new book out in September called The Boy with the Butterfly Mind. Can you tell us a bit about this and what inspired this story?
This book was also influenced by my own teaching experience, both of working with children with additional support needs, and teaching many children who were struggling to adjust to family breakup and to new stepfamilies. The Boy with the Butterfly Mind tells the story of eleven-year-old Jamie, who has ADHD, and who has problems fitting in to his stepfamily when his mother sends him to live in Scotland with his father while she moves to America with her new partner. His stepsister, Elin, doesn’t want messy, chaotic, but kind and charming Jamie around. She’s desperate to get her own original ‘perfect’ family back together, and having Jamie come to stay disrupts her plan so badly she is forced to resort to desperate measures to ensure her fairytale ending for her family comes true. Elin’s self-declared war doesn’t work out so well for either of them, and they find they’re more alike than they want to admit, discovering along the way that just like families, ‘happy-ever-afters’ come in all shapes and sizes.
How is The Boy with the Butterfly Mind similar to The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle? How is it different?
Like The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind is also dual narrative. Like Caylin and Reema, Jamie and Elin have their own narrative style that sets them apart: Jamie narrates in first person present tense, reflecting his ADHD-influenced focus on the present, while Elin narrates in the first person past tense, reflecting her more introspective and methodical nature. The two novels share protagonists who at first seem like they have nothing in common, and have to overcome misconceptions and prejudice in order to become friends.
They differs in that both Elin and Jamie were born in Britain, and even though Jamie is from the south of England, the problems he faces fitting in to his new school in Glasgow are to do with people’s lack of understanding of his ADHD rather than the cultural and language barriers that Reema faces. Lack of resources to provide the right learning environment for children with additional support needs is something that many teachers are currently struggling with due to budgets cuts, as is finding the time and resources for the pastoral care that children adjusting to blended families might need. Unlike Caylin and Reema, whose friendship develops gradually and naturally, Elin is determined to keep Jamie at arm’s length until her own attempts to sabotage things blow up so badly they threaten to ruin everything for her too. Her own extreme actions force her to realise that mental health issues are not something abnormal that only ‘bad’ boys like Jamie suffer from, but something that everyone can experience due to adverse circumstances.
Finally, I wondered if you could suggest five top tips for teachers to develop creative story writing within their classrooms?
1) Don’t get too prescriptive about asking children to write ‘original’ stories! Most of my early stories were fanfiction retellings my favourite TV shows, films and books, and this was great practise for learning how to use words and structure a plot, without having to worry about creating new characters and storylines at the same time. Give children as much opportunity to choose what they write as possible, without always having to fit in with a particular theme or topic suggested by the curriculum. A story takes a lot of time and work to get right, and if children aren’t fully invested in the world they’re creating and the characters who live there, then it’s much harder to resist the temptation to give up when the going gets tough.
2) Don’t be afraid to let children experiment with storytelling methods other than prose. Some children are more naturally at home with graphic novels, oral storytelling, drama and poetry than prose writing, so make sure each child has an opportunity to tell their stories in the way that really motivates them.
3) Diary writing is a very effective way to practise writing, but it’s important that children are encouraged to write down their thought and feelings about the things they experience rather than just a bland, ‘Monday – had P.E.’, ‘Tuesday – had fish fingers for lunch’ catalogue of events. If children learn to express their own feelings on paper, it helps them describe the thoughts and feelings of the characters they create in a more realistic way. One trick while they’re writing a character’s thoughts is to ask them, ‘Is that how you would feel if that happened to you? Why/why not? Are you different to that character, or would you react in the same way?’
4) Children often struggle to come up with ideas when they’re given a blank page to fill. It helps if they have a notebook to write down anything that interests or excites them through the school year: an idea that was suggested from watching a film or reading a book, a name for a character that sounds interesting, a picture they like, a dream they had – anything that helps to create a spark for storytelling.
5) Lastly, the key to successful creative writing is reading. An author who doesn’t love reading books is practically unheard of! Encourage children to read as often and as widely as possible – however pressed for time your class is, including reading-for-pleasure sessions into the weekly routine is one of the most important things you can do to help children develop a love of reading. If your school or classroom has a library, even if it’s just a shelf of books, give children turns of being responsible for looking after and arranging the books. If they can be involved in selecting any new books for the school, even better!