Right from the beginning of City of Saints & Thieves, I was taken with Tina: stealthy, smart, courageous and determined. We need more characters like her. How did you go about creating her?
I knew I wanted to set the book in modern, urban Africa, someplace like Nairobi, Kenya (where I lived for three years). I started with the idea of a Robin Hood type character – if Robin Hood was an orphaned teenage refugee girl in Africa. And then I thought, to survive alone in a place like Nairobi (or Sangui City, as it turned out) you’d have to be really tough, savvy, and street wise. Tina’s character developed from there – what would make her like that? What would have had to happen to her to toughen her up? How would she have survived? And under all that, what would her hidden weaknesses be? Her back-story all evolved from figuring out the answers to these questions. And that history helped shape her character traits and strengths and flaws.
You have spent some working for NGOs in Africa. Can you speak about your experiences and how it helped shape this book?
For about three years I was based in Kenya, but spent most of my time travelling around Africa for work. My job was to interview refugees who were under consideration for resettlement to countries like the US. Basically, I listened to their stories and made legal arguments for why they should be considered refugees. I would start interviews by telling people, “I need you to tell me about all the bad things that have happened to you that made you have to leave your country, starting at the beginning.” (I kept it light and fun like that. J) It was fascinating work, but as you might imagine, it could be mentally and physically draining. I calculated at some point and estimate that I probably listened to around 4,000 stories. So a lot of the refugee-related parts of the book come from there – no one story in particular, but the basic bones of what might cause someone to flee Eastern Congo, and what it might be like to live as a refugee.
What do you think most people would be surprised to learn about life in modern day Africa?
So much! That it’s not all wild animals and child-like people in tribal dress. Or on the other hand, that it’s not all famine and corruption and wars. I know the most about Nairobi, where I lived, and the thing is, there are so many cool things happening in IT and entrepreneurship and social justice and art. Lots of it way beyond what’s happening in the West. I mean, yes, there are animals and very strong cultural identities, and conflict as well, but you can also find all the latest gadgets; and extremely passionate social justice warriors; and smart, creative ways of getting around things like not having a reliable power grid or municipal infrastructure (solar-powered communal toilets that make fertilizer, for example).
The cities tend to be very young, with a lot of people coming from the rural areas for work or school, so there’s all this energy and vitality. I think Westerners like to think of “Africa” as this monolithic place stuck in time, and yes, there are places where people continue to live like they have for centuries, but Africa is huge, and incredibly diverse. And it’s not like people aren’t connected to the modern world. Often you see that people take the useful bits of modern life and adapt them to their current situations. In Kenya at least, everyone has a cell phone. Doesn’t matter how far out you live, whether you herd goats for a living, you’ve got one. Even if the only way to charge it is to pay the guy at the one-room kiosk in the middle of pasture land who has a solar panel a few cents. Like many places in the world, it’s both very global and very local at the same time.
There’s a line in the book that particularly struck me. It’s when Mr Greyhill, an American businessman now living in Sangui City, Kenya, says to Tina, a Congolese refugee: ‘It’s funny. We hardly ever get to choose where our souls find their homes.’ Can you talk about what he means there?
I think that people are often surprised to find themselves attached to a place they weren’t intending on loving, or even liking. Mr. Greyhill didn’t go to East Africa because he liked the scenery; he went there to make money off it. But Sangui City and the region got under his skin and he found himself more comfortable there than back in the US. I think it’s one of those things that can happen with anyone who reluctantly moves into an entirely different culture. You hear about the same thing from the opposite perspective. Immigrants who come to the UK or the US don’t necessarily want to be there – “home” is where they came from; moving away is a way to make money – but over time it becomes more and more difficult to go back and feel comfortable as well. Mr. Greyhill is one of the lucky ones who realizes that he really does feel more at home in Sangui, and that he loves it and may never leave, even if he’s one of the “bad guys” who are taking advantage of the region and profiting off of it at the expense of the locals. He justifies his work, saying that if it wasn’t him doing it, it would be someone worse. It’s a rather colonialist mentality, extremely flawed, but you feel a twinge of sympathy for him, which is pretty much exactly who Mr. Greyhill is.
After the murder of Tina’s mother, Tina needed to look after her younger sister and take care of herself. She also fled the Congo with her mother at a young age because of how dangerous their life became. Despite this very difficult life, Tina has a good head on her shoulders and a strong moral compass. How have her circumstances shaped who she is?
Even though Tina lost her mother at a very young age, she still looks back to her as a sort of moral guide. She’s constantly thinking back to when her mother was alive, using what she said and did to help Tina make her “rules” for survival. This looking back, in a way, counterbalances everything Tina’s learning with the Goonda gang. At the same time, dwelling so much on the past leads to Tina’s obsession with getting revenge. Which then again, has to be tempered by her very here-and-now need to take care of her sister. (People are complicated, right?) A big part of the story, though, is that very Young-Adultish theme of figuring out who you are – understanding where you came from, what part of you is like your parents and what part is all you. She’s learning throughout the story who she is and who she wants to be.
Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from City of Saints & Thieves?
First and foremost, I hope they’re entertained! We love stories because they suck us in and keep us wanting to know more. We want to know what happens, and at the end of the day, I really believe in the power of being swept away in a story. And telling a compelling story is hard! For me to really love something, there has to be that element of mystery and suspense that keeps you turning pages. So I hope I’ve accomplished at least that. And then, of course, I hope that those people who weren’t familiar with this world and these subjects come away having seen something new, something interesting, a story they wouldn’t have otherwise known. And I would hope that they’re glad to now know it. Especially when it comes to global social justice and politics these days, understanding people and cultures and situations that don’t reflect just our own (Western) perspective is so crucial. And I would hope that they would see refugees as not just faceless masses, victims of violence and war, but as real individual people with so many more facets and identities. Tina wouldn’t call herself a refugee first; she’d call herself a thief, a sister, a daughter. That’s who she’d want to be seen as, just like anyone else.
1. Can you share the inspiration behind Room Empty? What compelled you to put Dani’s story to paper?
Room Empty came to me whilst listening to a self-development video on You Tube – I love self-help! I regularly listen to life coaches on YouTube and one session in particular inspired me. The coach focused on looking at what was in our ROOM. Everyone has a room, it’s the internal space where we keep emotional secrets hidden. It was such an arresting and visual image, I could not resist having a quick look at what was in mine. There are many skeletons in the cupboards of my family – mental illness, addiction, pain and death have all played walk-on parts – so it did not take me long to realise it was packed pretty full, and how difficult it is to detach oneself from such a place. It was from there that I started to think about everyone else’s rooms, specifically Dani, the protagonist in Room Empty. What was locked behind her door, and could she escape from it in order to be happy?
2. Room Empty deals with drug addiction, anorexia , rehabilitation and traumas. Mental health is currently a big topic in the UK and readers are calling for books dealing with these issues head on. Why do you think it’s so important that young adult literature talk about this?
As in so many areas of human development, literature and stories often lead the way. A well-told, moving narrative can get inside the human condition, showcasing inner truths about what it is to be human. In ROOM EMPTY, I invite readers to meet characters who are struggling with addiction and mental health, confronting their inner truths at full speed. Similarly, I think it is no exaggeration to say that for centuries we as a society have treated those with mental ill health in a shameful and barbaric way. There is so much more that can be done to get people the kind of help they need without feeling ashamed. If ROOM EMPTY gives just one reader a glimpse into the life of someone struggling with mental illness and helps opens their heart up a little, then it will have done well.
3. What do you hope readers will get out of Room Empty?
Apart from a story that grips and moves and makes the reader think, I hope readers will stop and examine themselves, their belief systems and decide to question reality a little more vigorously. I hope readers will identify with Dani and come to understand that however bright and shiny any family looks to an outsider, inside nearly all are people struggling, dealing and coping. Ultimately I hope the reader will feel they are not alone; you can find hope and love even in the darkest and scariest of empty rooms.