Winner of the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award for radical fiction, Gill Lewis books often probe at social and ethical issues. Her latest book, A Story Like the Wind, poignantly recounts the story of a refugee boy escaping an impossible situation in his homeland. A powerful treatise on the importance of stories, music and art in our lives, A Story Like the Wind is an emotionally sophisticated, engaging but highly accessible story illustrated throughout by Jo Weaver.
The book has been endorsed by Amnesty International, an organisation the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals works with on the Amnesty CILIP Honour for a book from the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals which seeks to recognise a book from each shortlist which illuminates, upholds or celebrates human rights.
Jake Hope recently met with Gill to find out more about A Story Like the Wind.
JH: ‘They are only memories; moments of light locked into his synapses and pockets of time spilling away to the stars.’
There’s a beautiful blend of poetry and science around this depiction of memory, how key is the idea and past to Rami and the others in the boat?
GL: We are made up not only from our DNA, but from stories. Some of these are the big stories that have shaped the world around us, but many are the smaller stories of our own lives; the people and places that have influenced us. Some of these stories are passed through generations; some are the shared moments with friends and family. Stories make us who we are. They give us our identity. How do you hold onto your identity, onto these memoires when you are torn away from home? In the story, Rami tries to hold onto these memories, and it is through his music that he manages to do so.
There is a sense of community and camaraderie on board the boat, how did you go about building this up and how important is this to the idea of the story as a whole?
Initially the passengers are strangers to each other, all frightened and alone. As Rami shares his music, they begin to share their stories with each other and in doing so, give each other comfort and hope. Jo Weaver’s wonderful illustrations show the sense of community has been built up through the story.
The image of the boat on the ocean seers itself onto the minds of readers and instantly brings to mind all manner of images of refugees from the popular presses, how much research was involved in crafting the novel and were there any stories that particularly stayed with you?
Several years ago, I heard a Mongolian folk-tale Suke and the White Stallion, a story about the power of music to overcome oppression. It is also a story about the origin of the violin. I didn’t know how to tell the story until I saw a news-story about a young Syrian man playing his violin at a border control. The image was a powerful one, showing how music can cross physical and political boundaries and also boundaries of prejudice and fear. Music and stories allow us to connect with each other, and share our common humanity. Not long after the publication of A Story Like the Wind I discovered that the young Syrian I has seen in the news-story had made it to safety in Germany and is continuing his musical studies. He has an album My Journey of which the proceeds are being donated to the Red Cross.
‘My name is Rami and I am still alive’. In spite of the a lot of the sadness of the story, there it is also a tremendously humane and life-affirming story. The writing deftly suggests tragedy and trauma without ever being gratuitous, was this a difficult balance to achieve?
Writing about the refugee crisis is a huge challenge, to achieve the balance of reality and yet offer hope. It is important not to shy away from difficult subjects yet bear in mind the age of readership for some of the dark themes. In the story we realise that each of the passengers has witnessed and experienced traumatic events but I hope I have managed to balance this with an offering of hope and a vision for the future.
Whilst being timely and topical, there’s a fable-like quality to the story. Was it very deliberate to make the experiences feel universal?
Yes. I love folk tales and how they have been passed down through history, often through oral story telling. Folk-tales and fairy-tales have universal themes that speak to us all, no matter what culture or religion. The fable in A Story Like the Wind tells of the origin of the violin from the Mongolian horse head fiddle, and how the horse head fiddle carried stories and music along the spice routes and silk roads, and eventually became the violin and cellos that first appeared in Europe. The stories of our global connections go back thousands of years and show how stories and music bring us together now as they did in our past. The passengers in the boat recognise their own stories within the story Rami tells, and it gives them hope for the future and for freedom. There is some comfort from knowing that stories about overcoming oppression can be hundreds, possibly thousands of years old, and what people have fought against in the past can be fought against again.
‘The soldiers forbade us to play more music. Perhaps they knew its power.’ The role of the arts and stories are massively important as mechanisms for change in the character life. How important do you think they are and what contributions can they make to our everyday lives?
Stories and the arts are incredibly powerful for telling universal truths and for shining a light on the darker side of humanity. In many countries today musicians and artists are restricted from creating and sharing their art as it threatens the authority of those in power. During the Second World War, the Nazis classified any art they deemed ‘unpatriotic’ as degenerate art. They didn’t want art to reveal the truth of the horrors and reality of war. We need art now more than ever, in all its forms, from books, to art and sculpture, to music and films to satirical cartoons to speak out for us all, for justice and freedom. I was honoured that Amnesty International endorsed the book, as the charity supports artists and writers around the world whose voices can’t be heard.
Rami’s story about Suke and the wild foal is heart-breaking but ultimately is uplifting. A lot of your novels have explored quite dark issues but shine moments of hope into these. Is hope necessary in fiction for children and young people?
My stories do explore some dark issues, and I try not to shy away from the bare truths and realities. I think children see many worrying stories in the media and need access to a way to understand these issues and have an opportunity to discuss them. Fiction is unique in providing this, and a offering a narrative to understand from another person’s perspective. For me, hope is a vital part of story telling, because stories become our maps and guides. They are there to shine a light in the darkness, to offer hope when there may little to be found.
You won the ‘Little Rebels’ award for radical children’s books with ‘The Scarlet Ibis’, what did winning the award mean to you and has this altered any of your approaches to books and to your writing?
Winning the Little Rebels Award was a huge honour. The award recognises children’s fiction which promotes social justice or social equality, challenges stereotypes or is informed by anti-discriminatory concerns. So, I was very chuffed to be considered a little rebel. I think my books have always had a central theme of justice for both human rights and animal rights. However, the award has brought to my attention the need for more diverse books so that children can have books as mirrors to their own worlds as well as windows to others’ experiences. The award also champions the need for the voices of more BAME authors to be heard to offer a greater variety, richness and depth of stories in the world of children’s publishing.
Jo Weaver’s illustrations create an incredible sense of place and emotion on the story. Can you tell us a little about the process of how these were created? Did you and Jo have any interaction over stories, characters or moments in the stories?
Jo Weaver’s charcoal landscapes and her characters and animals are indeed wonderful and add another layer of depth and understanding to the story. I was lucky to meet Jo and hear about her approach to the illustrations. The art director at Oxford University Press designed the layouts and spreads for Jo to create her artwork to fit within the pages. Then Jo created her vision of the book. I think it’s wonderful to see another person’s interpretation of your words and Jo manages to capture the moments of isolation on the sea, to the warm memories of home and the stunning sweeping landscapes and horses of the Steppe mountains in Mongolia.
What would you hope readers take away from reading ‘A Story like the Wind?’
I hope that the book enables the reader to empathise with those people fleeing war and conflict, and to understand the human stories behind the headlines we see in the media.
Many thanks to Gill Lewis for this interview. A Story like the Wind is published by Oxford University Press and is out now.