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An interview with author Beverley Naidoo, by Annie Everall for Carousel magazine

Buy Cinderella of the Nile

Beverley Naidoo, author of Cinderella of the Nile, signing books at Hay Book Festival 2018

Carousel magazine, a guide to the best children’s books around, had an amazing interview with author Beverley Naidoo! They discussed her upbringing in South Africa, the books that inspired her, and her book Cinderella of the Nile. Read it below!

Beverley Naidoo’s background is a fascinating one. Growing up in South Africa she went to a Catholic convent school and looking back felt that she lived in a ‘European bubble’. When she wanted to join the Johannesburg public library, it never occurred to her then that this privilege was only accessible to her because she was white and was listed as European in the RACE column on her birth certificate. She feels her school didn’t educate her, just schooled her. The Sharpeville Massacre happened in her final year at school but she wasn’t aware of it at all and the story One Day Lily, One Day in Out of Bounds was based on her school.

It was when she went to university and began to interact with black and white students, who were part of a political friendship group, that she feels her education really began and her European bubble was burst. She attended a lecture by Helen Joseph, whose five-year house arrest ban had just ended, but who was immediately re-banned the day after. This made her realise that silencing people’s voices was a tactic of oppression, preventing freedom to listen, to hear and to think and it was in this context she became an activist. For Beverley, writing is about a voice and once she began to see, she began to read and remembers the impact of reading Down Second Avenue by Es’kia Mphahlele and Tell Freedom by Peter Abrahams (o/p) both about growing up and suffering discrimination in South Africa. She found books like these challenged her thinking and perception and said “My journey as a writer began as a reader.” It was her realisation of the impact of colonialism that was part of her lesson for writing Burn My Heart.

We talked about the culture shock of coming to live in the UK. Her brother was still imprisoned in South Africa. She had been released and her parents persuaded her to come to the UK to study. Her intentions were to go back to South Africa but she wasn’t allowed. She went to York University to read English and Education and said that reading books such as Roaring Boys by Edward Blishen (o/p) and The African Child by Camara Laye (o/p) made her realise that education could be about culture and class, and was different from the schooling that she had experienced. After finishing her PGCE, she planned to teach in a school in Nigeria, but ended up meeting her husband and deciding to stay and teach in London. At that time, children from the Caribbean were coming to the UK, having been uprooted, many leaving family at home and, although bright, were often put into the remedial class at school. These experiences fed into her writing of The Other Side of Truth and Web of Lies telling the story of Sade and Ferne’s journey from South Africa to live in England. Their story resonates with the situation that many unaccompanied child refugees face now and Beverley’s books have themes that are still so relevant for today’s children and schools.

It was quite a few years later that she began to write. She has joined an anti-apartheid group, with a number of teachers in it and the subject came up of what was published about South Africa. It led to a campaign to raise awareness, a conference for teachers and librarians and the publication of Censoring Reality: An examination of books on South Africa, available as a download from Beverley’s website

Following this the group felt they needed to focus on fiction, because, “Fiction speaks to the heart and if you reach the heart with a good story, the head will follow.” Beverley had the idea for a story and when she told the group about it, she was persuaded to write it up and Journey to Jo’burg was born. It was the first time anyone had written about apartheid and it won The Other Award, although it was banned in South Africa for many years. When she was told she had won the Carnegie Medal for The Other Side of Truth, she didn’t believe it, but remembers it being magical and opening doors for her. It meant a great deal to her because it was chosen by librarians and was the first book to win it that had African characters in it.

In Cinderella of the Nile, Pharaoh is depicted as black to redress the way Beverley Naidoo saw Egyptians portrayed in her childhood

We talked about the publishing situation and she wondered if in the culture of celebrity and sales-driven marketing, whether people like her would have been published today. She feels strongly that we need more BAME authors. Children need greater cultural access through the books they read and to hear a greater range of diverse voices. I asked her if she thought that the conclusions she came to in her 1992 published research study Through Whose Eyes — Exploring Racism: reader, text and context (o/p) would be different today. She believes that the importance of the teaching style, the teacher and the context of the classroom is as crucial now as it was then. Children need the experiences of reading books that take them into new worlds and cultures. They need to free their minds, to challenge themselves in their reading and to broaden their ideas and perspectives, because this enriches their lives. As well as her children’s picture books, folk tales and fiction, she has also written plays and a powerful adult non-fiction biography Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett which traces the life and impact of the first white man to die in detention in a South African jail.

Her glorious new picture book, Cinderella of the Nile, has been illustrated by Iranian illustrator Marjan Vafaeian. Beverley said that working with Tiny Owl, an independent publisher, had been a wonderful experience as she had felt much closer to the whole process. She was interested in the Egyptian Cinderella legend of Rhodopis, wanting to explore the history of the girl before her capture into slavery and to imagine what it would have been like. She also wanted to explore what a wise, older slave could pass on to a girl to help her understand her situation and felt that the Oak and the Reed fable was perfect. She feels Aesop’s fables and his wisdom are constantly cautionary, often with the underpinning message of keeping your head down and survival. It is a universal question, how do you manage to survive with your dignity and humanity intact when you are oppressed and your life is a daily struggle? The fact that people do is a testament to them and and she wanted that to come across through the story, She also felt it was important to have a black pharaoh as so many of the books she read as a child depicted Egypt as European and she wanted in her own way to redress this. It’s a captivating and different retelling of the Cinderella story and Marjan Vafaeian’s exquisite illustrations work perfectly with the text and demonstrate the close integration of the words and pictures to tell the story. The context of the book and the power of story is beautifully explained in Beverley’s introduction and the whole thing is a joy to read and to share.

Her top tips for would-be writers are read as widely as possible, keep a notebook and always believe in the power of words. When children read her books, she hopes they are encouraged to think, to imagine for themselves and to make their own journeys of the mind. I asked her what she was currently working on. She told me it was still under wraps, that she was on a new journey and challenging herself, so watch this space! She believes, “Stories are windows to other worlds. A good story doesn’t tell you what to think. But if I can hook you in, maybe you’ll find yourself compelled to think, feel, imagine…and to begin a new journey of your own.” Interviewing Beverley was a pleasure. I came away armed with a list of books that I wanted to read, the feeling that I had travelled with her on a journey, and the knowledge that the many voices of her story had touched me deeply.

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Posted in Authors, News & Reviews