Author Gavin Weston was kind enough to chat with me about his remarkable novel Harmattan.
How long did it take you to write Harmattan?
On and off, almost six years.
How did you get into the mind of an 11-year-old Nigerian girl to portray her thoughts so believably?
I undertook a great deal of research, did a lot of checking in with my own daughter (who was 13 when I started writing the book) and basically tried hard to ‘inhabit’ my character Haoua. It was an emotionally draining process!
I cried and feared for our hero so many times during the story. What was your mood like during those times?
Given that most of the novel is based on fact (i.e. lots of true stories rolled into one) I was often angry when I was writing – or numb, or sad, or bewildered that such things are still possible in this day and age. But Haoua is, I think, a spirited, optimistic and somewhat defiant character, and that bolstered me (and her) through the process.
Did the characters keep you awake at night during the writing process?
I dreamed about the Boureima family often, like they were my own. I know these characters well. One or two scenes are based on my own dreams.
Is Harmattan based on any of your own experiences?
Just about everything in the book actually happened, but not all to one person. Some of the stories are based on my own experiences, others are from research. The road trip is based on a combination of a long car journey I did in Niger and one a friend did in Zambia. (He was a technician in a college there and did a favor for a friend.)
Have you allowed your children to read the story and what were their thoughts?
I have one daughter and one son. They’re both young adults now, and yes, they’ve both read the book and are very supportive (and embarrassingly proud) of me, as I am of them. The Irish father in the book has twin daughters who are based on my nieces, Katie and Hope.
Were you tempted to give the story a happy ending?
Not really, although the ending allows a certain amount of interpretation, I think. Realism was absolutely crucial for me, and the story kind of led me to that point. It was kind of like putting a puzzle together, because when I started writing the book I didn’t know that Haoua was going to end up in that situation. Lots of people have asked me to write a sequel, and a friend asked me to write an alternative ending wherein Haoua is adopted and goes to live in LA with a lovely family who give her a pony and a pink bicycle, but that was never going to happen. The last section of the book is a hard read, but it isn’t gratuitous. I’m not into that.
Were you able to locate your sponsored child; the inspiration for the story?
Sadly, no. We did try. It’s very common for young girls to be taken hundreds of miles away from their home villages. Many of them never see their families again. And of course, child marriage marks the end of their education, so the whole process is cyclical, extremely detrimental to families and communities and the cause of more poverty…which in turn often leads to child marriage! However, it seems that more and more young women and child mothers are breaking free from such servitude and starting afresh. This can only happen if support mechanisms are in place to help them, which is why it is crucial to help raise awareness and provide projects such as those that FORWARD UK have set up in Tanzania and elsewhere.
What do you think you would say to her if you found her?
Wow! That’s a tricky one! Ramatou would be 22 now. Possibly she’d be the mother of several children. What would I say…? What did I really offer her other than a few trinkets and letters and the chance to experience a few brief years of school? I think I’d say sorry. Sorry, because the little bit of cash I provided as part of the sponsorship scheme couldn’t protect her childhood. It’s not that I’m opposed to such schemes, but I do believe that NGOs have a duty of care towards all children with whom they engage. I’m not sure how we can fully protect such girls against child marriage, especially where poverty is rife, but we simply must find a way. Currently it’s estimated that 25,000 such marriages occur every day!
What do you hope readers would gain from reading Harmattan?
I hope that readers will find it to be a good read. (I wish I could say that I hope readers will enjoy it, and I do wish for that, but somehow it doesn’t seem appropriate.) I hope that those who did not previously realize that child marriage is a contemporary problem, a 21st Century problem, a real problem, will take action and add their voices to the growing international demand to end child marriage forever. And, I have to be honest I hope that readers will want to read more of my work.
Gavin Weston is a visual artist and writer who lives in his native Ireland and is a former aid worker in West Africa. He is also an ambassador for the organization Forward UK a foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development.
Gavin is currently working on his second novel Tin Town. You can follow him at @WestonOfTinTown on Twitter or visit his website at http://www.gavinwestonbooks.com