Just Imagine: This is your first children’s novel. What inspired you to write this now?
Onjali Q. Raúf: I’ve been travelling out to the refugee camps of Calais and Dunkirk for the past 3 years with the aim of trying to help the women and children stuck there with emergency aid: but the thought of writing a book to highlight the crises that most of the young refugee children I had seen were facing, never really occurred to me until June last year (2017), when I was forced to undergo life-saving surgery. The pain I was in for a good few months both before and after that operation, often caused me to ask myself how the hundreds of refugees I had seen – and especially the refugee women and children who my team and I had seen ill or hurt, were able bear their physical sufferings without even the most basic of comforts or medicines that I was lucky enough to have access to.
In particular, the faces of two-week old baby Raehan and his mother – whom I met in the official Calais refugee camp before its destruction – were very much in my thoughts, and whilst in recovery, I began to wonder in earnest where they were and what they were doing. That led me to wonder about what life would be like for Raehan if, and when, he did ever make it to the UK. Then one day, when I was in hospital and feeling absolutely awful after yet another blood transfusion, it suddenly popped into my head – the title! And it just wouldn’t leave me. Even the story was half there, as though ready to be written, swimming in my head. So just as soon as I was well enough to sit up and was allowed back at the computer, I emailed the idea to my agent, Silvia Molteni, who told me to go for it! And so I began to write.
I have a picture of baby Raehan on my desk: as he was the inspiration for the book, I feel honoured to have been able to dedicate it to him.
JI: Your ‘other’ work is primarily on behalf of women and girls; why did you choose to write about a young refugee boy?
OQR: Two reasons 🙂
I did think about making Ahmet’s character a girl in the first instance: but as Raehan was my inspiration, I decided to keep the character a boy.
I also knew from the start that Ahmet’s character was going to be shy, and passive (especially in the beginning) and that the narrator would be the active one – the one chasing and wondering and trying to actively discover his story and help him. So the energy, the will, the bravery, sense of adventure and action was instilled in Alexa instead.
I did also want to ensure that for readers, it doesn’t really matter that Ahmet is a boy – his story and character would be just the same as if he had been a girl – or whether or not the narrator is a girl or a boy. At least, that’s the hope!
JI: How important do you feel books like this are for children?
OQR: Very! I remember reading Black Beauty, Goodnight Mister Tom and Little Lord Fauntleroy when I was 8/9, and sobbing my heart out. I was absolutely horrified that people could be so cruel to animals or to other children. I think the day after I finished reading Black Beauty I told my mum that we had to find a horse right away and set it free (instead I was taken to visit a city farm to pet a donkey: it was the closest thing to a horse we could find)!
Books are such eye-openers – whether you’re an adult or a child. To read something that might help you learn of an issue you haven’t really thought about before, or give you a new insight into problems being faced that are different and usually far bigger than your own, can be life-changing – not just for you but the people around you. I love talking about books with the children in my world (my nephews, nieces – and the grown-ups who are still kids at heart): it’s so interesting to hear about the very different things we all take away from a single book.
I really hope this book will open up not just children’s eyes, but adults eyes too, to the courage and strength of the refugee children lucky enough to survive what they have been through.
JI: Do you have any plans for further books?
OQR: Yes – lots! (She says in hope.)
The next book I’m currently working on is about an amazingly courageous young girl surviving something quite awful happening to her mum. I also have some fairy tales ready and waiting too, and a few years ago, I wrote an action adventure trilogy for children about chocolate, which I’m going to be re-working. Of course, whether or not they’ll all make it from my head and computer screen to become real books, is another matter. It all depends if any children – both young and old – want to read them. J
JI: What do you do to relax?
OQR: Oooh…Switching off my phone and heading to one of my favourite cafes with a good book is definitely top of the list. I also love travelling to somewhere I’ve never been before; eating lots of delicious food that I didn’t have to cook myself (and anything with chocolate in it!) with friends and family; and sitting down with a large cup of tea and watching something funny at the end of the day.
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.
Onjali Q Raúf is the founder and CEO of Making Herstory, which works to end the abuse and trafficking of women and girls.