Wild Authors: Sita Brahmachari

This month we look at Sita Brahmachari’s novel Where the River Runs Gold (Waterstones, July 2019), which takes place in an everyland, according to the author. But Sita told me that Meteore mountain – meaning “between earth and sky” – was inspired by Meteora in Greece, and that the Kairos Lands also take their name from Greek mythology.

About the Book

Shifa and her brother Themba live in Kairos City with their father Nabil. The few live in luxury, while millions like them crowd together in compounds, surviving on meagre rations, governed by Freedom Fields – the organization that looks after you, as long as you opt in.

The bees have long disappeared; instead, children must labor on farms, pollinating crops so that the nation can eat. But Nabil remembers before, and he knows that the soul needs to be nourished as much as the body so, despite the risk, he teaches his children how to grow flowers on a secret piece of land hidden beneath the train tracks.

The farm Shifa and Themba are sent to is hard and cruel. Themba won’t survive there, and Shifa comes up with a plan to break them out. But they have no idea where they are; their only guide is a map drawn from the ramblings of a stranger.

The journey ahead is fraught with danger, but Shifa is strong and knows to listen to her instincts – to let hope guide them home. The freedom of a nation depends on it.

Chat with the author

Chatting with Sita about this novel (and she writes other children and young adult/teen novels that are environmentally based!) was a pure delight. I thank her so much for her time and in-depth discussion.

You seem to be a prolific children’s and young adult author, and your previous stories include a series following young teen Mira Levenson, as well as a dozen other novels that cover real issues that teenagers face when they grow up. Can you talk about your favorite experiences writing these novels?

Young people inspire me. As part of the process of writing, I always include a research period or time when I share the ideas and a few chapters of whatever I’m writing with potential readers. When talking about the inclusion of a wide range of characters from very different backgrounds in my story Red Leaves, a young woman with cerebral palsy, using a wheelchair, came to me and asked me to include “someone like me” in one of my stories as a central character. The next year was spent holding writing groups with this young woman to find a story she was proud of. The character that emerged from this interaction was Kezia, in Tender Earth. Similarly, consulting with a group of students from Somali Refugee backgrounds allowed me to build the character of Aisha in the same story. It was such a magical moment when that group of young women came to the book launch (set in an ancient wood in North London) and read from the story.

When you immerse yourself in a world, things in the real world are constantly chiming with your stories. When I wrote Kite Spirit, in which owls are featured, I started seeing owls everywhere, even on an early morning run through a city park. It’s as if, in reaching for a story, the real world keeps offering you gems to keep you inspired. For me, writing is like a constant treasure hunt of the imagination. I think if you open yourself to tune into the times you live in, then let your imagination roam, stories grow in you.

Where the River Runs Gold is a story set in the future. Is the location fictional, and if not, where does the story take place? What is the age group of the children in the book?

It’s set in the near future. It’s up to readers to decide how far in the future.

Shifa and Themba are eleven – the age at which children are sent away to farms until they’re sixteen. I tend to write inter-generational stories that can be read on different levels, so I have late teen characters too, who are hardened to the system. The book is also populated by Freedom Fields recruits and adult workers propping up or resisting the system, and an ancient old woman who is hidden away on the farm.

The future I evoke is one I hope never comes to be. Horrifically, though, there is nothing that is happening to the characters in my story that is not happening to children and young people somewhere in the world today. Right at this moment, there are children pollinating crops by hand because of the loss of bee population, or harvesting cotton for the textile industry because it is less “damaged” by small fingers. Devastating storms are hitting countries all over the world. If climate change is “over there,” it is also “over here.” This is why leaders of nations who want to operate unilaterally deny climate change and refuse to accept the benefits of alternative forms of energy, even in the face of unprecedented flooding and disasters in their own countries. I work in a refugee centre in London, and so many of the people from all over the world speak of their lands being devastated by climate change, pollution, or corruption as they are denied access to land to grow food for themselves.

The story is set in an everyland! But Meteore mountain (meaning “between earth and sky”) is inspired by Meteora in Greece – a place that ignited my imagination long ago. The Kairos Lands also take their name from Greek mythology. There are two portals of time in operation: chronological and Kairos Time. In Kairos Time, all possibilities for change, re-wilding, and the regeneration of nature still remain open – and in that time, as in ours, it is the young people who are saying enough is enough and change must come.

In the story, children labor on farms, pollinating crops so that the nation can eat. What has happened to the bees?

I can’t tell you exactly because it would be a plot spoiler! But there are clues based on what’s happening in our world today. Worldwide, there is a crisis in the decline of bee populations, pollinators, and insect life. It is frightening to see how fast this decline is taking place. Chris Packham and campaigners at the People’s Walk for Wildlife have been highlighting this in their manifesto presented to UK parliament by young people in 2018. Just recently I read that in the UK alone, “Around a third of bee and hoverfly species across the country have experienced population crashes since the 1980s, raising concerns about food production and biodiversity.” (Independent, March 2019)

What’s happened to the bees is that their habitats have shrunk and been destroyed. Farming methods and mass use of pesticides causing infection and hive disruption appear to have caused their extinction. I started to look at food production and the way in which societies are structured, and I asked: What would a future world look like without bees? We would survive, but our diets would be so depleted, the colors of our world dimmed, and the beauty of natural habitats and the wild flowers and trees would all be depleted. In the tradition of dystopian fiction, I have pushed this bleak picture further and asked: How would the world work without bees? A few Paragons in the Kairos Lands have bee drones, but they are a poor substitute for wild bees. Food production and the sharing of food resources is a big theme in the story. It asks: Who is benefiting from clinging on to old methods?  Shifa and Themba are often hungry in the story – and, as is the case with so many children are in our times, they are forced to seek the charity of food banks.

But in our times, the giant Wallace Bee, thought to be extinct, has been discovered in the jungle in Indonesia! Sometimes, as they say, truth really is stranger than fiction.

The class divide in the story is strong, with a few rich people living in luxury and the rest of the population crowded in compounds, just barely surviving. Freedom and escape rest on the children, Shifa and Themba. Do you foresee this story empowering the younger generation, and how so?

I’m sad to say that everything I’ve written in the story is happening to a child somewhere in the world. I wanted to bring home to the reader that the plight of Shifa and Themba in the story is our plights too. Most children in The Kairos Lands work for Freedom Fields Corporation. Only the children of Paragons are spared from being sent away to pollinate the crops at the age of eleven. There is another group of people, too, who are deeply invested in defending the natural world. These people are ones that the state labels Outlanders, but they prefer to be named Foragers. They believe there is another way to live based on sharing resources rather than the few hoarding them all for themselves. When I set out to write the story, the fire twisting in my gut (which is a real spur to all the stories I’ve written) was driven by an outrage about economic inequality and unequal access to opportunity. Subjects I’ve explored before in my stories but never in an environmental context. In my notebook, I was scribbling facts like:

  • 260 million children are in employment around the world. 11% of the world’s children are denied an education because they are working. (UNICEF)
  • 26 humans own the same as 50% of humans on the planet. A 1% tax rise on these 26 humans would be enough to give all children in the world an education.  (Oxfam 2019)

I’m an ambassador for Amnesty International. November of this year marks 30 years of the universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child. In writing Where the River Runs Gold, I wanted to explore how intertwined environmental rights and the universal rights of the child are. So many of Themba and Shifa’s rights are taken from them in the course of the story. They are brave and true and have to fight hard to hold onto them, but they should never have been placed in such extremis and danger.

I hope that the story will empower young people to learn what their universal rights are and to add their voices to human rights organizations, like Amnesty, who is fighting to uphold those rights.

Sobering facts. Do you think that climate and other ecological changes in the world are on youth’s minds now, and what is the best way to address this in storytelling?

I was proud when my own daughter attended the school strikes for action on climate change recently. It’s taken me two years to write this book, and even in that time, I have been so heartened and inspired to see how young campaigners like the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg have stood up to the powers-that-be and engaged in international mobilization, inspiring young people in countries around the world. This, coupled with Sir David Attenborough’s timely intervention at the World Economic Forum – highlighting how small the window of opportunity is before the damage we are doing to our planet becomes irreversible – has spoken loud and clear to young people. The question is: How do young people get their voices heard, and what influence can they have on governments? In my story, there is an emergency government and no opportunity to vote. I wish young people could have the vote younger so they could have their voices heard through governments as well as activism.

I attended The People’s Walk for Wildlife last year with my fellow author and environmental campaigner for #authorsforoceans Gill Lewis. There, I met an inspiring young activist, Mya-Rose Craig (also known as “Birdgirl“), who called for greater involvement of all young people from diverse backgrounds in the protection of our wildlife. She spoke of what can be done personally and how influence can play a role locally, nationally and globally.

I hope that the imagery, characters, and the world I have built will stay with young readers long after they have read the story, and that they will lead them to question further. In living with Shifa and Themba in Where the River Runs Gold, I hope readers will care deeply for them and their struggles, and be outraged by the fact that young people are forced to pay the greatest price as a result of lack of action in protecting our planet. I hope that readers’ deep feelings for the characters and their struggles might lend support to young environmental campaigners so that young people never have to face what Shifa and Themba do.

What stories with ecological/dystopian themes did you read growing up that made you think? And did they help to inspire your novel?

We are living in an increasingly fractured world at a time when our planet, rivers, oceans, woodlands, plants, birds, bees, and insect life are being threatened, and air is being polluted, by the way we live. We are globally connected thanks to the advancement of technology, but its use is as yet unregulated. As we’ve seen in recent global environmental activism by young people, this power can be mobilized for good.

Stories, too, can carry a powerful force; the imagery and characters can lodge in readers’ minds and stay with them for a lifetime, influencing them in myriad ways. Sometimes, when it seems impossible to untangle the complexities of the ways humans behave and organize themselves, it can be enlightening to step outside of our time, as I have in Where The River Runs Gold.

When I was growing up, I read 1984 by George Orwell and it had a profound impact on me; back then, it was a near-future novel for me! Many of the predictions about the Big Brother state and surveillance proved to be true. The surveillance state also features in Where The River Runs Gold in the form of Opticare surveillance. I also read Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’ Brien, which has recently been made into a film. In that setting, too, ecological disaster has taken place and young people must find a way to survive and create new models of living. I am a huge lover of wildlife poetry and wild landscapes, and lived in the Lake District as a child. One of my favorite times of year was spring, when the grassy banks were covered in primroses, violets, lady’s fingers and soldier’s buttons. It’s no coincidence that Shifa is a collector of wildflowers and determined to re-wild her environment.

Poetry has continued to be an inspiration;  two poems were pasted to my wall as I wrote this novel. One was Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “Binsey Poplars,” where he laments the felling and loss of his favorite trees. To think of living in a city with no trees is too awful, and the idea of it led me to create a movement among Foragers, who painted Graffitrees on the walls of the city in protest. The second poem was “Shut Out” by Christina Rossetti, in which great tall walls were built to stop the children having access to a garden and all the beauty that it contained. The narrator of the poem is sitting on the outside of the gates, longing to be allowed in. Shifa and Themba, in my story, know that waiting is not an option.

Something that Margaret Atwood said resonated with me when I was writing: “There’s a difference between describing and evoking something. You can describe something and be quite clinical about it. To evoke it, you call it up in the reader.”

What else are you working on now?

I’m working on my second stand-alone book for Orion Children’s Books. I’ve started scribbling and doodling in my notebook. It shares a watery theme. But instead of tracking forward in time, my contemporary characters will be led back into history to discover hidden stories and characters whose voices I feel really need to be heard today.

You do such incredible work and have offered our readers a lot of good information. Thanks so much, Sita!

Quote from Amnesty Secretary General, Kumi Naidoo:

Climate change is a human rights issue precisely because of the impact it’s having on people. It compounds and magnifies existing inequalities, and it is children who will grow up to see its increasingly frightening effects. The fact that most governments have barely lifted a finger in response to our mutually assured destruction amounts to one of the greatest inter-generational human rights violations in history. Children are often told they are “tomorrow’s leaders.” But if they wait until “tomorrow” there may not be a future in which to lead.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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