The Power of One Voice
An Interview with Deborah Ellis
Interview by Andrea Maxworthy O'Brien
Canadian writer and political activist Deborah Ellis, whose work has been translated into 17 languages, gives her readers a realistic portrait of life for women in modern day Afghanistan under the Taliban regime in The Breadwinner Trilogy. In The Breadwinner (2001), Parvana, an eleven-year-old girl, disguises herself as a boy to earn money to feed her family after her father is arrested. Two connected novels, Parvana’s Journey (2002) and Mud City (2003), follow the plight of strong heroines Parvana and her friend Shauzia as refugees in their war torn country. Ellis has been the recipient of numerous awards including the 2000 Governor General’s Award, one of Canada's premier literary awards, for Looking for X; the 2003 Jane Addams Book Award for Parvana’s Journey; and, most recently, a Jane Addams Book Award Special Commendation for The Breadwinner Trilogy. Deborah continues to put a human face on the news in her latest book, The Heaven Shop (2004), the story of an AIDS orphan in Africa. She was one of the featured authors at the third annual International Children’s Literature Conference in Madison in the fall of 2004.
AO: The topics of your books, such as life under the Taliban and the deadly effects of AIDS in Africa, are grim, yet your books are popular with young readers. Why did you decide to research these particular topics and then write about them for children?
DE: The topics came first before the writing. I’ve been doing
antiwar work since I was 17, in one form or another, and the Taliban
takeover of Kabul in 1996 fit into what I was doing. It brought together
issues of women’s rights, foreign intervention, and war. I got
together with some women in Toronto and we started to raise money for
women in the camps. I thought that I could be useful by going over and
interviewing women about their lives over the course of this terrible
war, what [they were] like both now and in the past. But I hadn’t
planned to do a children’s book until I met the mother of a daughter
who was still back in Afghanistan masquerading as a boy in order to feed
her family. As a writer, sometimes you just get bolts of lightning through
your brain that tell you that this is really important and you need to
pay attention. I knew at that point that I’d write the book, The
AO: Were you surprised by the reception and recognition of your books, particularly The Breadwinner, both critically and by children?
DE: I don’t generally write books with the audience in mind. I write because of what interests me. Initially, I was pretty surprised that kids would want to read this. I’ve become less surprised, because my respect for children has grown over the years. Kids are really hungry to learn about what’s going on in the world. The fact that they would read a book like this on their own, not necessarily prompted by teachers, and they write to me on their own, without being prompted by teachers and parents, has raised my respect level for them tremendously. They are capable of understanding very complex things that are happening in the world and they are hungry for it as well. I don’t think we give them enough credit.
AO: In the introduction to your book Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, you write that a curfew brought on by a number of suicide bombings limited your movements during your visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, and a number of the interviews you had set up were canceled. In what ways did this book turn out differently then you had initially planned?
DE: I had initially planned to meet with a lot more children deeper into the territories, and at community centers that work with traumatized children in Palestine. That wasn't able to happen. I did get into the camps and into the occupied territories, but it was almost catch as catch can because the curfews were on and off all the time I was there. As soon as the curfew was lifted, I would go in and meet with as many people as I could. Even though I wasn’t able to meet with those specific people that I wanted to meet with, everybody that I talked to had been affected by the war. All of their statements were valid.
AO: Tell me more about the process of writing Three Wishes, your first nonfiction book for children. I’m especially interested in the choices you made as an author; the choice of your topic, the choice of nonfiction as a vehicle, the choice of children you spoke to and included, and the order in which you presented the children’s voices.
DE: The choice to go to Israel and Palestine was actually a request
from my publisher. My attention had been elsewhere and I had not really
spent much time looking at things that are going on in the Middle East.
I was even quite unfamiliar with lot of the players. I was going over
there almost with completely open eyes. I didn’t know very much
about it, which both helped and hurt. There are a lot of interviews we
left out of the book. We consciously left out interviews of children
being very rabidly against the other side, because we didn’t want
that to be the legacy that these young people left, even though we could
have put the interviews under a different name or not shown their picture.
That just wasn’t the main feeling that I got from people.
In terms of the order, I wanted to lead people on this journey from the fairly normal everyday life that is disrupted by the war, deeper and deeper into the consequences of the war, like the Israeli children who had lost their friends to a gunman, or the Palestinian boy who has his legs shot up, or the sister of the suicide bomber. We tried to leave it with the sense that the conflict is really horrible; but that’s not the whole story. The other part of the story is that there are these amazing people over there on both sides really working hard to try to bring this whole thing together.
AO: The children in Three Wishes speak about walking along a street of parked cars with the awareness a car bomb might explode at any moment. In your travels to research this book, as well as your others set in Afghanistan and Africa, was there a time when you were afraid for your own well being and safety?
DE: Many times, lots of places. I got robbed and chased in Malawi, threatened with death in the camps, and was afraid most of the time in Israel and Palestine. You can’t go into a dangerous situation and not feel afraid. I also was very conscious that I had a Canadian passport and an airline ticket out of there, so it was fear tempered with privilege. I personally find these kinds of trips very hard. But fear isn’t something that should stop us. It’s just something that helps us be aware of what other people are going through. Certainly with the parked car thing, you have to really will yourself to say it’s probably not going to happen. Let’s keep walking down the street. You hear so many people talking about it. You hear the news reports of it in Jerusalem and you think, maybe the next car is going to blow up when I walk past it. That’s something that’s certainly never far from their minds, nor from mine while I was there.
AO: When I contacted your publicist, Deb Brown, she spoke about your donation of the proceeds from your books, which have been used to fund schools, clinics, and women’s centers in Afghanistan. I was moved by your commitment. Would you talk about your decision to donate the profits from your book and what those royalties have funded?
DE: It was a very easy decision. It’s raised tons of money, which enabled us to do all kinds of really great things over there, like build schools, hire teachers, fund teacher training programs and health care centers. We’ve got a project trying to rebuild libraries in Afghanistan. The neat thing about this is that when you hire a teacher, when you give a woman a job, it not only pays her salary, but you provide education for 30-40 kids in her class, and you provide her children with a home and food. It has all of these trickle-down effects. It’s really a good way to spend money.
AO: I understand that one of the women’s centers funded by your donations was bombed and destroyed? In the face of discouraging and difficult events such as this, how do you continue to sustain yourself, as both a peace activist and writer?
DE: Hope isn’t something that you just wait for; hope is something that you actively go out and seek. As this world gets crazier and crazier, you have to sometimes look for it a lot harder than you do in easier times. Hope is an active thing. The other part of it is that I am one of the most privileged women on the face of the earth. I get to go where I want to. I can live alone if I choose. I can love whom I want to love. I can write and publish, and not be put in jail for it. These are privileges that I am very aware of, especially since so many women don’t have the right to drive or to do so many of the things they want to do. I don’t really have the right to lose hope; that would be an insult to the women who don’t have the rights that I have.
AO: What are you working on now?
DE: The next book will be a nonfiction book again, like Three Wishes, only it will be the interviews I did of the children in Malawi and Zambia, whose lives have been affected by AIDS. I find that kind of format really powerful; one can hear from the kids themselves what has happened to them in their own words. That book will be out either next spring or next fall, depending on how fast we can get it ready.
For readers who are moved to action as a result of reading her work, Deborah Ellis suggests checking into UNICEF.
Listen to an interview of Deborah Ellis: Jean Feraca, Here on Earth, Saturday, November 13, 2004
Read more about Deborah Ellis:
“Deborah Ellis.” Something about the Author, vol. 129, Gale, 2002, pp. 66-67.
Folios, Alison. "Three Wishes: Palestinian and
Israeli Children Speak” (Book Review).
School Library Journal, Oct. 2004, vol. 50, issue 10, p.161.
Rochman, Hazel. "The Heaven Shop" (Book Review).
Booklist, September 1, 2004, vol. 101, issue 1, p.120.
Books by Deborah Ellis:
Looking for X. Groundwood Books, 1999
Women of the Afghan War. Praeger Books, 2000.
The Breadwinner. Groundwood Books, 2001.
Parvana’s Journey. Groundwood Books, 2002.
A Company of Fools. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002.
Mud City. Groundwood Books, 2003.
Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak. Groundwood, 2004.
The Heaven Shop. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004.
Reprinted from the Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2005, Number
1 with permission of Andrea Maxworthy O'Brien, Deborah Ellis, and the
Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2005
Friends of the CCBC, Inc.