Today I’m very pleased to be able to bring you a guest post by Victoria Williamson (@strangelymagic), début author of The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, a moving and vibrant story about a young refugee from Syria starting a new life in Scotland.
Victoria’s day job is as a primary school teacher in Glasgow but when we got chatting I wanted to know how she ended up becoming an author (as well!) and what books had influenced her on her journey to publishing her first novel. Here’s what she had to say:
“Nearly every writer starts out as an avid reader, often at a young age, and I was no exception. Recently I came across an old story I wrote when I was seven, a fan fiction retelling of the story of Peter Pan, with my best friend and I both cast in the lead role (to forestall one of our many arguments about who should be in charge). It began:
Once upon a time there was two girls. They were both twins. They lived in Neverland. They decided they wanted to be boys so they dressed up like boys and they both got the name Peter Pan.
The story went on to describe our adventures battling skeletons in the Marsh of Monsters, sword fighting with Captain Hook and defeating the terrible Marsh Monster, and it got me thinking: Why did I believe when I was seven that if I wanted to do any of these things in a story, I had to be a boy?
Looking back now, the answer is obvious. From an early age I was addicted to adventure stories, and devoured the Enid Blyton books, the Tintin and Asterix comics, the entire Three Investigators series, and all of the Hardy Boys books. As a teenager I moved on to fantasy and science fiction – The Hobbit, The Dragonlance Chronicles and the Tripods trilogy. What did all of these books have in common? They all featured boys who went off and had adventures with their male friends. Even in The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and Narnia stories which featured both girls and boys, the boys were very clearly the leaders of the gang. George tries to join in the adventures on equal terms by pretending to be a boy, but it’s clearly Julian who calls the shots despite her best efforts. And worse, Susan gets kicked out of Narnia in The Last Battle for daring to like such girly things as lipstick, nylons and parties.
The message from all of the books I read as a child was clear: boys are the ones who get to be heroes and go off on exciting adventures, and sometimes they let girls come too as long as they know their place and don’t either try to take charge, or worse, admit to liking ‘girly’ things.
It’s not that there were no female characters worth reading about when I was growing up, but I just couldn’t get into books that were aimed primarily at girls in the same way. There was always something missing for me. Nancy Drew didn’t have a proper gang like The Three Investigators or an equal partner like The Hardy Boys. And the adventures the girls in the Mallory Towers and Chalet School books went on seemed a bit tame and humdrum compared to the dramatic and dangerous situations the boys always seemed to be getting themselves into.
All of this early reading experience influenced my writing, though I didn’t know it at the time. The first novel I ever wrote as a teenager was a sprawling trilogy of hundreds of thousands of words and dozens of animal characters, of which only a handful of minor ones, I realised only years later, were female. The next few fantasy books I wrote had white male protagonists, and it wasn’t until I became a primary school teacher that I realised this lack of representation in children’s fiction was problematic for the pupils I was teaching.
One year I was teaching a class of six year olds in an area of Glasgow with high numbers of families seeking asylum. That term we’d been reading Harry Potter, and had spent our art lessons turning the class into Hogwarts, complete with a Diagon Alley word wall, a number train, feather-quill pencils and house points for good behaviour. Late one Friday afternoon, the children were enjoying some free play time with the cloaks, broomsticks and cauldrons I’d bought second-hand on Ebay. There weren’t quite enough to go round, and before I could intervene, an argument over the last wizard cloak broke out between a girl from the local Glasgow estate, and a boy recently arrived from Sudan.
“You can’t be Harry Potter!” the little boy yelled, clinging onto the cloak, “you’re a girl!”
“You can’t be Harry Potter either!” the girl shot straight back, holding onto the cloak just as tightly, “you’re black!”
That was definitely an epiphany moment for me.
Over the next few years I began experimenting with the characters in my own novels, first with female protagonists, then with characters from many different cultural backgrounds. I’d spent a number of years teaching in Cameroon, Malawi and China, and am ashamed to admit that up until that point, it hadn’t occurred to me include these children in my stories before – such is the power of early experience of representation in our own fantasy lives.
My travels also taught me to read more widely, and for the first time I discovered the novels of Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, the plays of Athol Fugaard, the short stories of Lu Xun and the beautiful writing of Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner was one of the books I read before starting The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, and along with The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar, it helped me shape Reema’s character, despite the fact that I’ve not yet visited the Middle East.
The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle is my attempt to write the kind of book I wanted to read as a child but didn’t yet know it: a book about a meeting of cultures, a plot driven by the friendship between two girls, a shared secret leading to an adventure, and a female-centred animal story that forms the glue holding Caylin and Reema together.
There’s so much more diversity in the world of children’s fiction now than when I was growing up, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the brilliant books featuring characters from many different backgrounds that have been published in recent years, as well as hopefully writing a few of my own.”
My thanks go to Victoria for her post today. I’d urge you to get hold of a copy of The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle as it’s a good read on so many levels – topical, though-provoking, inspiring, and sharply written with a lovely ear for language.