A girl from my kindergarten was at home one evening playing with Plasticene. Her mother stopped her, saying, 'Don't do that, you’ll smear the table.' The girl looked up. 'Smear!’ she said, ‘that's the name of that foreign girl in my class!’ The girl she was talking about was me and my name is in fact, Samira, a very common girl’s name in the Arab world but unheard of in 1960s suburban Harrow where I grew up.
Not only was I one of the very few children in my kindergarten (and later my primary school) who had a ‘funny foreign name’, I was one of just a handful who was not white British and the only one who was mixed race. The sight of me getting on the bus with my white mum always sparked curiosity. Old ladies would ask – is she actually your mum? Where are you really from? I was a rarity, a curiosity and in those far off days they thought it was fine to stare at me and demand to know my life story.
When I told them my dad was from Sudan, I might as well have said he was from the moon. Maybe that’s what sparked the idea for my first book Quicksilver in which three children discover that they really do have a parent who comes from another planet! I have to say that the problems I experienced because I was mixed race were almost equalled by the horror on people’s faces when they found out that my mother was a divorced single parent. What was the world coming to?
At the time I didn’t really question these reactions and of course, although I was an avid reader I never read any books with characters in them who looked like me – except in the Ladybird book of ‘People from Many Lands’ and to be honest, none of them looked much like me either. So now that I am an adult and a writer, it seems natural to me to write about characters who happen not to be white, not because I feel I ought to shoehorn them in to the story but because their lives and experiences are integral to the plot.
It was the author F.Scott Fitzgerald who said ‘Plot is character, character is plot,’ so it is who my characters are that shape their stories and make them interesting to me and I hope, to my readers. The idea for my new book If You Were Me ( published by Chicken House in April ) sprang from an article I read about a young Afghan interpreter who had worked with the foreign troops in Afghanistan. When the troops pulled out he found himself on a Taliban death list and he and his family were forced to flee Kabul and seek asylum in the UK. I tried to imagine how traumatic it would be for a family like that to leave their homeland with nothing but the clothes on their backs and to arrive in a strange country where they knew no –one.
Then I began to picture what it would be like for them if their hopes and dreams of a new life were dashed by fresh dangers which they had never envisaged. In If You Were Me, that is what happens to 14 year old Aliya and her family. When the Taliban threaten her brother Behrouz, a former army interpreter, they flee to Britain. Soon after their arrival Behrouz is badly injured in an explosion in what appears to be a terrorist bomb factory. When his fingerprints are found all over the detonators he is accused of being the bomb maker for a shadowy terror group and Aliya is forced to fight the power of the press and the forces of prejudice to prove that the brother she loves is innocent. To her horror the police suspect that she too has been radicalised and that she may be working for the same terror group.
So, if my characters were not Afghan asylum seekers newly arrived in Britain I would have had no story. Interestingly I began devising this plot over two years ago, long before the radicalisation of young teenagers was making daily headlines. I hope that this book will give its readers pause for thought. I hope it will make them think about the speed with which we judge people and how often we forget that behind the headlines there are real people with real stories, which may turn out to be very different from the ones we imagine.
I love visiting schools to talk about my books and meeting children from all around the world (with names from all around the world), British children who are not white, children of mixed heritage and children whose families don’t conform to the 1960s template of one mum, one dad and assorted offspring. I hope that some of them will discover aspects of my characters’ lives that mirror their own and that others will get engrossed in the plots and find they are reading about children whose lives and backgrounds differ radically from their own.
Among the rich and varied population of modern Britain there are thousands of fascinating, humbling, funny, thrilling and heart breaking stories to be told, some of which I hope to weave into future books that young adults of all races and backgrounds will enjoy.
If You Were Me
by Sam Hepburn out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)