I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Suzy Zail, author of I Am Change for the upcoming I Am Change book tour hosted by Aus YA Bloggers team.
To follow along with the tour, check out their tour masterpost here.
The interview is below the cut, I hope you enjoy it!
Thank you for letting me ask you some questions about your book I Am Change. I’ve literally just finished it, and my heart is hurting in both the good and the bad way.
Without further ado, here are my questions:
Q) This was an emotional, powerful, and confronting book. And knowing that while this specific story is fictional, it’s based on many true stories of girls in Uganda just makes it all the more powerful, I think. Was it hard writing it?
A) Yes, weaving heartbreak into a novel is hard, particularly when your book is inspired by real events and you’re working in collaboration with real people, some of whom are still living in hardship. That’s probably the hardest part – that the girls I met shared their heartbreak – and all I can do, through my writing, is try to spark action and effect change. I’m in regular contact with some of the girls I interviewed, but whatever I can give them never feels like enough, especially knowing what they’ve experienced, and are still at risk of experiencing – forced marriage, sexual assault, female cutting, domestic violence.
The writing itself was tough too, returning to my desk every day to live in that space, but I knew that if I was going to tell a truthful story, I couldn’t shy away from the most harrowing parts of that story. And though my heart hurt, like yours, it also sung because I got to write a character who was smart and kind and fierce, a girl who knew what she wanted and would do whatever it took. Just like so many of the girls I interviewed in Uganda.
I Am Change is a sad story but it’s also a story of hope. The girls I met in Uganda don’t need our pity. They will shape their own future, if given the tools. As Namukasa says in her beautiful forward to the book: ‘Things can change. Me and my friends will make them change. We just need some help.’
So that’s what I focused on – what I could do to give these girls a voice and a future.
Q) What was it like visiting Uganda and hearing the stories from the girls there that helped compose this book?
A) I remember my first day, I headed straight to the market to understand a little of the world I’d be inhabiting on the page. It was dusty, noisy and a clash of colours, smells and sounds. It was intoxicating. I started interviewing the next day. I’d done a lot of research about the issues affecting girls in developing countries, but to tell an authentic story I needed to meet the girls who lived those issues. I needed to know what they dreamed about when they imagined their future and what obstacles they had to overcome to achieve those dreams.
It couldn’t have been easy letting me into their lives. I asked hard questions and mined their most private and intimate moments and they forgave my ignorance and shared their heartbreak with such warmth and generosity. It was a privilege to have been entrusted with their stories and a huge a task to trap everything I’d learned in that complicated, beautiful place in the pages of a novel. I hope I have told their truth.
Q) There are some confronting situations in this book (like the genital mutilation) was it hard hearing these stories from the girls you spoke to?
A) Very hard, but I had to know the truth to tell a truthful story. That’s why I interviewed thirty girls, went to their villages, visited their huts, walked to the wells where they gathered water and visited the schools where they learned to speak English. They told me about forgoing meals to pay for textbooks and trading their bodies for school fees. They told me about the lessons their aunts taught them about their bodies and about men. I knew the power of my novel would ride on the detail, and so I asked lots of questions. I only had an hour with each girl, so I had to get straight to the most difficult parts of their story. I asked questions you’re not supposed to ask a stranger: When you got your period, what do you use to soak up the blood? How did you feel when your husband took another wife? How often did he beat you?
At first, my tendency was to ask sensitive questions and sympathise… until I realized that wasn’t actually what they needed. They wanted me to listen, so I learned to be quiet and leave space for them to fill in, space for their pain.
I knew the book I had planned to write wasn’t enough to make up for all they’d lost, but, as an author, story was the best way I knew to make people care.
Q) I’d want to punch every single person in the face who did and does those things. There were many times I wanted to jump into the book and just take all of the girls away so they’d be safe – did you feel the same upon hearing these stories?
A) Absolutely. Most days I returned to my hotel after dark, too angry to sleep, but alongside the anger also sat awe. None of the girls I interviewed had both their parents. Many were orphans, their mothers dying of diseases the witch-doctors couldn’t cure and their fathers abandoning them for second and third wives. Those who were in school lived without running water or electricity in the city’s slums, walking an hour to school on an empty stomach and they considered themselves blessed. “If you can read and write you can get a good job and you won’t be hungry,” they told me. Every bit of knowledge they could wring from their teachers was a step away from the slums.
I’d often ask the girls ‘what makes you smile?’ There was so many sad stories, I wanted to know what brought them joy. Mostly, it was books.
Q) Though she’s fictional, did Lilian get to go to university?
A) Knowing Lilian, I’m sure she’ll get there…at least if I have anything to do with it!
Q) You’ve given resources and links in the back of the book, which is wonderful. What is something else that you think people can do to help, or raise awareness for the girls in Uganda to get the educations and the freedom they deserve?
A) Apart from donating money to Help Girls Learn Uganda or other initiatives that sit girls at desks, we can continue to make noise and nurture institutions that protect and empower girls. We can speak out against gender equality, wherever we see it, and encourage others to rise up and challenge the restrictive expectations and controls placed on girls. We can protest when governments threaten to strip women of their rights and encourage each other to dream big. And we can listen to each other, especially to women whose lives are different to our own. They might speak softly and avert their eyes, because that’s what is demanded of them, but they have a lot to say.
Thank you again for giving me this opportunity!