The Story Behind Our Finalists
As part of their coverage of this year's NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, The Sapling recently asked the authors of the young adult fiction finalists to explain the story behind their stories. This includes the thoughts of our two finalists Lani Wendt Young for Afakasi Woman and Sherryl Jordan for Wynter's Thief!
The birth of Afakasi Woman, by Lani Wendt Young
I was an English teacher in Samoa for several years. The main challenge I faced was figuring out how to nurture a love for reading in my students – when usually all we had were books written by white people, set in white-dominated places, in a world where white people did all the thinking/talking/acting/feeling, and the rest of us were either the villain, the help, or absent. That was the same classroom and library that I had grown up in, an avid reader but always looking, hoping to find stories with ‘me’ in them.
There was a short story component in the senior English curriculum and I watched my students dutifully make their way through the approved literature—classic stories which were beautifully written and allowed them the opportunity to study ‘the human condition’ via a white person’s lens. Yes, they were reading about ‘universal’ themes and issues, but I asked myself, did it always have to be so damn boring? And just for once, couldn’t we read a story about the ‘human condition’—where people like us got to be the universal ‘humans’?
I’ll always remember the day I read excerpts to them from Samoan author Sia Figiel’s book, Girl in the Moon Circle. It was like I had flicked on a light switch. Lit a fire in the room. There was rapt attention, uproarious laughter, taut silence during the painful moments, outraged mutterings of ‘Oi sole, le mafaufau!, and unified headshakes of sympathy for the wronged characters. The class discussion afterwards was the most vibrant and lively I’d ever seen in my time as a teacher thus far. Even my most reluctant of readers was excited to read more. The student writing that came from those discussions was thought-provoking and powerful, as they engaged with a range of universal themes and questions—through a lens that positioned them as the center, instead of the marginalised other. Everyone should have that experience.
Each of the stories in Afakasi Woman was written with that day in mind. I come from an oral storytelling tradition so many of the stories are best read aloud. Communal laughter, grief and anger is often the best way to navigate difficult things. In these stories you will find our humour and the barbed wit of our sarcasm, even when dealing with racism and discrimination because sometimes, laughter is all we have to counter it. There’s sadness and trauma, loss and struggle. The devastation of a tsunami. Young people coping with sexual harassment, pregnancy, abuse and messed-up families (because yes, we have those too!). Stories about the weight of societal expectations, culture that can be both a heavy burden on your shoulders and also an ie toga to parry stones…to keep you warm'*. Stories of identity, class and colourism.
Stories inspired by my students and my own teenagers. Stories written for the girl I used to be and the woman that I am now.
(* 'Be Nobody’s Darling', Alice Walker.)
The story behind Wynter's Thief, by Sherryl Jordan
Many threads sparked the inspiration for Wynter’s Thief: lifelong interests, research done for previous books, and events in my own life. Initially the idea came from a passage in a book on Medieval times, which told how thieves – if they escaped the gallows – were branded on the face with the letter T. That snippet of history intrigued and disturbed me. Not only would the brand have been an agonising punishment, it was a permanent visual stigma that guaranteed the thief would forever be discriminated against, blacklisted, and denied employment. Even if he had wanted to change, he was trapped inescapably in a life of crime. I wondered what existence would be like for such a thief – and Fox leapt into my imagination.
For four years he stayed, his story intriguing me, waiting to be written. When the time came to write it, I realised he had a friend – Wynter, a gifted water diviner accused of witchcraft. Their story came to me quickly, and within days I had the entire plot. But there was a difficulty: Fox and Wynter both demanded to tell the story in their own words. Several times I wrote the opening chapters, sometimes in Wynter’s voice, sometimes in Fox’s. Each way worked, to a point, then the words became blocked, confused. I tried writing in the third person, telling the story myself; that didn’t work, either. In the end, tired of arguing with Wynter and Fox, and weary of starting the story repeatedly, trying to decide who would tell it best, I gave them alternate chapters. After that the story swiftly wrote itself. It was as if Wynter and Fox were racing off to battle injustice and prejudice, eager to carve out a brave new life for themselves – and I simply followed along, recording it all.
Their battles were real; medieval prejudice and superstition were deadly. Millions of innocent people were executed for witchcraft or heresy over the flimsiest evidence, their only crime being that they were different. This is a theme in many of my novels. Medieval judges were often narrow-minded priests opposed to anything not sanctioned by the Church, and their cruel trials and verdicts were fatally ignorant. However, I discovered one great lawyer and judge who lived in the 13th Century: Ivo of Kermartin. Unique in his time, he was brilliant, eloquent, and humble, a renowned advocate for the poor and those without a voice. He was so just and merciful that he was later declared a saint; today he is the patron saint of lawyers. St Ivo’s life story captivated me, and the judge in Wynter’s Thief is based on him.
In my own life, I attended hearings in Youth Court several times, and witnessed the compassion and wisdom of judges who cared deeply for the troubled youth who came before them, graciously giving them second chances, and offering opportunities to change. Those judges, too, inspired the judge in the story.
Through all of Wynter’s Thief runs my love of medieval times, of village life deeply influenced by the seasons, by seed-time and harvest, summer and winter, rain and sun. And always there is the struggle of ordinary people who fought intolerance and discrimination, and the appalling ignorance of medieval law, in order to become the extraordinary men and women they were born to be.