Deborah Ellis: Reading to Survive: Children, War, and Books

“We all need courage.”

Your roving reporter here! Last night, Deborah Ellis spoke at the Brighouse branch of the Richmond Public Library. She spoke about why she wrote the books she did and the children and women she met during her journeys. There were over fifty attendees. Much of the talk was on the factual background of the stories she wrote – the facts that drove her to write about how children survive in terrible conditions, and the courage and determination they display.

She started by explaining the story of how she came to write The Breadwinner series. Afghanistan has a long and turbulent history which the western world sometimes completely ignores, and sometimes pays close attention to. During the 1990s, Soviet Russia more or less ruled Afghanistan, and the Taliban started fighting back. (Afghanistan was in the news a lot at this time.) The Soviets, meanwhile, were going bankrupt, so they pulled out, leaving a very nasty power vacuum. (Afghanistan was likewise dropped by the western media.) Obviously, somebody had to step in. And a lot of people tried. There was a vicious civil war (vicious because all civil wars are vicious, and doubly so because when the varied groups that conquered Afghanistan – or tried to – throughout history eventually left/were driven out, they tended to leave their arms behind them. Er, figurative arms. In this case, Soviet Russia left a lot of weapons behind, which were seized by various factions that sought to impose their rule on the others. Okay, Deborah Ellis didn’t say all that. If it is wrong, it is my fault and not hers). During this nasty war during which a lot of people died, the Taliban offered law, authority, and peace. All really good things!

In 1996, the Taliban moved from the south (which was very poor) to Kabul, a city that Ellis described as like Vancouver – lots of things going on, varied interests, very city-like, much more liberal than other areas of the country, and clamped down. Women were thrown out of their jobs, booted from universities, and girls were sent home from school. Offenders were beaten in the streets or hauled to the soccer stadium. This part is very Roman, or Hunger Games-y to my mind: the soccer stadium was made into a centre for torture and public executions.

Around this time, Afghanistan resurfaced as an item of interest to the western media, and Deborah Ellis heard all of this. She wanted to meet these women, “to find how they survived that… how they stayed sane.” So she traveled.

“And I started to hear amazing stories about children’s courage.”

Many Afghani households were headed by women, since the men were dead/imprisoned/otherwise absent. However, these women were not allowed to leave their homes. If there was no son or close male relative, these families went hungry. Sometimes starved. Their “homes became living tombs” for these women, who were trapped inside, “waiting to die.” She heard stories of girls who chopped off their hair and passed as boys, going into the streets to earn money and support their families.

“I wanted to share that kind of courage with kids in Canada.”

In Canada, she added, we don’t live under a regime like the Taliban, but we still have kids who live in hunger, in poverty, in danger, who are bullied or in unsafe situations. So she wrote The Breadwinner, about two girls who disguise themselves as boys, and how they keep themselves going despite the danger they are in. The Breadwinner was followed by three sequels: Parvana’s Journey, about one of the girls traversing Afghanistan to find the missing members of her family; Mud City, about the other girl, who tries to leave Afghanistan in hope of a better life; and My Name is Parvana, in which Parvana is found in a bombed-out schoolroom by the US military. When she refuses to speak she is arrested and interrogated. The story is about how and why she came to be where she is, and of why she refuses to speak.

Aside from fiction, Ellis has published several books in which she interviews children. Off to War interviews the children of Canadian military families whose parent(s) have come back from duty in Iraq, and the impact this has on the children. A companion book, Children of War, interview Iraqi refugee children, whose lives have been much more directly affected by Canadian involvement in Iraq. She has also written Kids of Kabul, which is fairly self-explanatory, and We Want You to Know. In and near Norfolk County, Ontario, bullying and suicide attempts had risen dramatically; Ellis interviewed children on all sides: the bullied, the bystanders, the bullies, asking them among other questions about their experiences and what they wished the adults in their lives had done differently.

For Three Wishes, she traveled to Israel and Palestine, which she says is one of her favourite parts of the world. In her interviews with children there, “one of the things that became very clear is that we are all afraid of the monsters under the bed… Until we look under the bed, we know there’s a monster. When we look under the bed… a pair of socks. We need the courage to look under the bed.” To her surprise, she found that Palestinian and Israeli children almost never meet. So they are rarely able to judge for themselves; their sole source for information about the other, often, is the media.

That trip became the source for another story, this one fiction. The fact behind the story is the practice of Israeli soldiers of taking over Palestinian families’ home (the family lives in one room during this invasion) in order to spy on the neighbours. Ellis said she just couldn’t wrap her head around this. So she wrote The Cat in the Wall – “that’s how I tried to make sense of a very very difficult situation.”

She spoke about No Safe Place, a work of fiction which came out of interviews with children all around the world who for one reason or another have left home, and who find themselves constantly in danger. In No Safe Place, her three protagonists end up in Calais, France. In real life, “Calais is also home to many migrants who have nowhere else to go.” One way migrants try to travel is by holding on to the backs of trucks. The truck drivers are wise to this, though, and try to shake them off by swerving across the road. A migrant who falls is likely to break an arm, and with no passport or money to see a doctor, this may mean a lifetime of pain. A new industry in Calais is human smuggling, typically into England.

I am a Taxi and Sacred Leaf are set in Bolivia and feature a child who is forced into the cocaine trade. The real-life facts that inspired this story: cocaine is made from the coca leaf, which has some wonderful properties, including the ability to reduce altitude sickness. However, humans have reduced the leaf to an extremely dangerous, illegal, profitable drug. “One of the biggest exploiters of children around the world is the illegal drug trade.” Drug dealers/makers in Bolivia look in the cities for children who have run away. They offer these children a job, and take them out to the jungle, where they are forced to dig a huge pit. Coca leaves and harsh chemicals are put into the pit. One of the many stages in turning leaves into cocaine involves the physical and chemical breakdown of the leaf. The children (barefoot) are made to stomp, day after day, in the pit. Outside of the pit are men with guns, who may feed the children, or may not. Eventually, the chemicals eat away at the children’s unprotected feet. When they can no longer work, the drug dealers take the children back to the city and dump them. Maybe they are paid, maybe not.

Another tragedy for these children is that “glue is cheaper than food in many parts of the world.” It is easier for children to buy and sniff glue, which temporarily takes away their pain and hunger, than it is to buy and eat food.

Ellis loved writing No Ordinary Day because it meant she got to visit India. Leprosy, “one of the earliest recorded diseases,” plays a major role in this story. Leprosy, fyi, attacks the extremities first. Fingers and toes lose their ability to move. Noses and ears rot. Worse, lepers lose the ability to feel pain, so they don’t notice injuries. A leper might step on broken glass and never notice, and because she doesn’t notice the open wound it becomes infected (maybe she steps in a puddle, or in feces). Many lepers die from blood poisoning because they can’t tell that they are injured.

“Leprosy drives me crazy. Because w have a cure… The things that makes me nuts is if we have people who still suffer form leprosy, and we have a cure, the logical thing to do” is to get the cure to anyone and everyone who has leprosy. But we don’t do it. Because the people who suffer from leprosy are on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and people don’t care.

The passion that drives Ellis’s work was evident. “We need to get everybody clean water, medical care, education…”

Moon at Nine is based on a true story. Set in the 1980s, Iran’s bloody ten-year war with Iraq had just ended, and the government had “time to turn its attention to internal enemies.” Such as two highly intelligent girls at school who have just fallen in love. In a country where homosexuality is punished by death.

The way I try to understand the world is through writing.” When I write  book, I try to figure out what is going on, and why, and what we can do to make things better.

There was a question period. One student asked about the dangers of Ellis’s travels. She passed over them lightly (yes, but I’m here [and still alive]), in part, I suspect, because of the young children in the audience, and also because her work is about the children and women who live in those situations; as Ellis pointed out, she was only visiting, she had a passport and money, she could leave. The people she interviewed didn’t have that option.

“I move in the world of women and children, which is a very welcoming world, all over the world.”

Words on research: “As much as possible.” You never know what will be important, and going into unstable situations means sometimes her plans have been entirely thrown off course.

On travelling: “I get to eat amazing food all around the world.”

Recommended writers: Jean Little, “one of the best writers we’ve ever produced in Canada.”

On writing: “The more you write, the more the ideas flow from your head down your arm to the paper.” (Ellis encouraged the many young writers who spoke to her afterwards. Most were elementary-school aged, a few from high school, and some from college. Also a lot of parents and some grandparents.)

I waited until the clusters of students who wanted autographs, photos, and/or a few minutes of conversation with an author they clearly very much admired were through, to ask how she chooses between conducting interviews and writing fiction. She said she wished she had a better answer. “If I can’t understand it well enough to do a story, I do non-fiction. Except the last time I was in Israel and Palestine it was the opposite.”