This is the first of a series of 3 interviews I had with YA authors who wrote about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This is the first writer is EMMA CRAIGIE, author of What We Never Said (Short Books 2015) a YA Novel.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Emma you are a teacher and writer, how did you chose to write about FGM? Did you know about the practice before?
EMMA CRAIGIE - I had heard of FGM but I knew very little about it. I was researching a different book when I came across the students of Integrate Bristol and their campaign against FGM and I was very impressed by them and convinced by their campaign. I was also very interested in the complexity of their situation as many of the students are from communities where FGM is practiced and in a very sophisticated way they were arguing against the tradition in the context of child abuse and violence against women. They were really clear that they were not criticizing their communities’ traditions more generally, and were very clear why they were making a stand against FGM.
VALENTINA MMAKA - What was never said is a YA novel, I guess one of the first if not the first addressed to YA readers about this topic in UK. Why according to you there so little on book shelves talking about issues like FGM?
EMMA CRAIGE - Commercially FGM is a very difficult subject for publishers. Many readers instinctively recoil from the subject, which is not to say that they do not care, but they don’t want to focus on it… The crime writer Ruth Rendell’s crime novel about FGM was the worst selling of all her books. I have a very supportive publisher – they know it will be hard work to sell What Was Never Said.
VALENTINA MMAKA - In your novel you tell the story of a teen girl, Zahra, newly arrived to Bristol from Somalia, who has a small sister and who has lost an elder sister because of the cut. The day three old Somali women visit her family, she recognize one of them as the cutter, and decide to run away for a while to protect herself and her sister. There are many girls who run away from home to avoid being cut, if Zahra would have been in Somalia, do you think she would have the same courage she had in UK to take that journey far from home to save her life? Being in a foreign country helped her to take that decision?
EMMA CRAIGIE - I would think so, it has to be easier to run away in a politically stable country.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Through your novel you depict how FGM even in the diaspora is mainly a woman’s issue, in fact there’s a point in the book where Zahra’s father tells his wife that she “mustn’t hurt these girls””. From your researches how do men in the context of diaspora, perceive and are involved in perpetuating the practice?
EMMA CRAIGIE - One of the things that initially surprised me was the extent to which women who have suffered from FGM themselves continue the tradition, which must reflect the extraordinary strength of the cultural myths about the benefits of the practice. I think the character of the mother in the book shows the inner conflict, presumably often unconscious, which this perpetuation must involve. It seems to me that in the diaspora, aware of western condemnation, men have very much tried to disassociate themselves from FGM. In the novel I tried to reflect this, as you say, in the words of the father, while at the same time – through the actions (not words) - of the two taxi drivers, I tried to show how the fundamental threat of male violence lies behind the tradition.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Did you struggle, while writing this novel, to hold some judgmental critics towards the practice?
EMMA CRAIGIE - Very much so. I was very aware that the book was a novel, not a treatise, and needed to hold the attention of a teenage reader who would not want a lecture. I think it is crucial in fiction to give the reader the space to do their own thinking and judging. Ultimately that is more powerful. I did find this difficult. There were various moments when characters – particularly Yas, Zahra’s cousin – launched into speeches about the horrors of FGM which I later cut back as they sounded too much like campaign literature, and not like real dialogue.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Where do you expect this book will bring you? Will you present your book in schools when they open in September?
EMMA CRAIGIE- My first school event is next week and I’m booking events for the coming school year. I’m also about to do a talk to a society of called the Guild of Townswomen, whose members are aged between 60-90. They have been campaigning against FGM for the last two years. Although the novel is not aimed at this age group it is really encouraging to be invited to speak to such an unexpected audience.
VALENTINA MMAKA - During my artistic journey and while working on my book I met several educators in different countries telling me that talking about FGM in schools might raise new forms of discriminations, as a writer and educator yourself what do you think about this?
EMMA CRAIGIE - Yes, this is a real worry and an issue I have tried to address on my blog. My particular concern is that FGM is practiced in communities which already suffer discrimination, and it is easy to see how raising awareness of FGM could simply add to the prejudiced perception that these are violent communities. I think this makes it very important that educators are clear about the origins and spread of the practice; how it pre-dates and is not endorsed by Islam; how it is not limited to any one country / community. On the other hand I think it is crucially important that educators do not use this challenge as a reason not to raise awareness about FGM, because the girls who are at risk of FGM need us to do everything we can to protect them and the key to that is educating the next generation.
VALENTINA MMAKA - What would you say to teachers and educators to encourage them opening up on issues like FGM and early marriage within the school curriculum? Being an educator, do you believe that topics like human rights, early marriage and FGM should be mandatory part of the school curriculum in the diaspora and in FGM countries?
EMMA CRAIGIE - I definitely think that it is really important that all these issues are addressed in schools throughout the world.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Though the book has been published recently, have you already had feedback from readers?
EMMA CRAIGIE - I’ve been lucky enough to have some lovely feedback from readers and some great reviews from young readers as well as adults. I was particularly pleased by a review for the Guardian by a 16 year old journalist called June Eric-Udorie.
VALENTINA MMAKA - I’m inviting authors to address a message to publishers to be more sensitive and ready to publish diversity in books for children and YA, what’s the importance of having books which provide mirror and windows on issues which normally are not under the spotlight or if they are, they are in a stereotyped way?
EMMA CRAIGIE - This is a very big issue. I completely agree that there is a desperate need for more diversity in children’s and YA publishing. Certainly in Britain this is in a context of an industry where both publishers and published authors are disproportionately white. Myself included. I think the whole culture of the industry needs to change, with increased diversity in every area, from who gets internships upwards. In terms of the importance of books about sensitive subjects I do feel that the big publishers need to take a lead. Ironically it is so often small publishers like mine who take risks – yet small publishers are often financially very fragile and many have collapsed since the introduction of Amazon and ebooks. On a more positive note, I think there are potentially huge rewards for publishers who do take risks. My message to publishers would be: Our world is increasingly diverse and there is a massive audience of readers out there who are interested in an ever broader range of subjects from an ever broader range of writers.
I hope teachers and educators in the UK will read Emma Craigie's book and consider inviting her to talk to their students.
You can find Emma Craigie here