Gillian cross recently launched her most current story 'Where I Belong' at the Oxfam bookshop on Marylebone High Street in London. A small group of guests were there to help her celebrate, listen to a reading from the story and engage in interesting conversations about the issues raised by the story.
The book addresses issues of fashion, people smuggling, kidnap and being a member of a small minority group in the
UK. Gillian's writing is clear and compelling, the reader is quickly drawn into to the story and kept there thought its pace and hints of secrecy and mystery. A compelling story for all readers ages 12+ it is both thought provoking and enjoyable.
Gillian kindly took some time to answer a few questions about the book and the launch itself for all her fans and readers of Armadillo, what follows is the interview. Your own thoughts and opinions on the story and on Gillian's comments would be most welcome.
I read somewhere that ‘Where I Belong’ is a coming of age novel, to me it seems to be a book that explores i
ssues of identity – how did you approach it in terms of research and writing? I was intrigued by what it must be like to be caught between two cultures. This was sparked off when my attention was drawn to Somalia, as I explain below, but the book didn’t take off until I started thinking about how fashion explores and expresses culture(s). The research involved extensive reading, both in books and on the Internet, talking to people – including Somalis and a fashion designer – and collecting images in a scrapbook.
The three voices in which the story is told were the key to writing it. I tried with two at first (Abdi and Freya) but it wasn’t until I found Khadija’s voice that I was able to see how the narrative could work.
Why did you d
ecide to use Somalia as your focus – is it a country that you think is of interest to your readers or was it more personal to you? I met two English teachers who urged me to write a book with a Somali background, because there was no fiction that reflected the lives of their Somali students. When I explained that I didn’t write like that and that the story had to come first, they invited me to visit their school and talk to some of the students about their experiences and about Somalia. Naturally I did some background reading beforehand and one of the things I discovered is that several Somali women have become well-known fashion models. I was immediately fascinated by the extreme contrast between their original nomadic culture and the world of high fashion.
What would you like to think your readers will take away from the story? Have you aimed it at a specific group or would you like teenagers to pick it up, read it and take on board the issues of identit
y, family and the wider issues affecting the world – drought, refugees, wealth gaps etc. It’s a story, not aimed at any particular group or trying to propagate any view of the world. But in writing about Abdi, Khadija and Freya I naturally focus on the ways in which their lives connect and contrast. Issues of identity, wealth, worldwide connections and so on - which are all things that interest me - arose naturally out of that story. I’ll be delighted if the book’s readers also find those things interesting and thought-provoking.
Did you know much about the modelling industry before writing?
Sandy is rather an extreme character with some madcap ideas but I am sure that there are many designers with their foibles! High fashion and nomadic life were both strange and unfamiliar cultures to me when I started and I enjoyed exploring both of them. I was particularly interested in fashion designers who push the boundaries and try out ground-breaking ideas.
Did you feel uncomfortable when deciding to dress Sandy and Freya in full veils? It made for slightly uncomfortable reading but at the same time helped me realise how it could feel to be so covered up. That’s exactly how I hoped readers would feel about that scene! This issue was raised at the launch and we discussed whether it would be wrong to do this in real life. The discussion illustrated what varied and complex meanings veiling has in our society.
Do you like secrets? When reading the story it feels though on almost every page there is a secret. It does make the book immensely readable. I love stories that turn on secrets and mysteries. And the older I get the more I discover that real life is often like that.
The smuggling and kidnap are so realistic. Were they very difficult to find the tone for when you were writing? I tried to write about them in a plain, straightforward way, not being over-dramatic, but not trivialising them. I particularly wanted readers to take the kidnap seriously, even though it happens in a country which is distant from most of the action so far.
How did the as
sociation with Oxfam come about? Do Oxfam work in Somalia with refugees or are they there to help with wider social problems? I have supported Oxfam for many years and always been impressed by the work they do and the way in which they work with local partner organisations. When I was researching the Somali background, I talked on the phone to some Oxfam staff who had been in Somalia, who answered some of my questions and recommended helpful and reliable websites. Here’s the link to the Oxfam account of what they do in Somalia:
What was it like to launch the book with OUP and Oxfam in London? Were people very interested in the story and your reasons for writing it or in meeting the author? It was an extremely enjoyable launch and people asked the kind of questions you’ve asked here. Some peo
ple knew quite a lot about the Somali background and one person, in particular, had an interesting anecdote about an experience where she was encouraged to wear a veil. It was good to talk with people who took the setting and the book and its characters so seriously.
As an individual do the issues in your story concern you? Are they close to your heart? Do you try, as a writer, to express personal feelings in your writing. Before I began this book, I already felt very strongly about the imbalances and conflicts in the world, but I didn’t consciously write about those feelings. I was more concerned with the topics themselves and the ways in which they impact on the characters. When I write, I always feel that I’m exploring and learning, and it was certainly true in this book.
Thank you to Gillian for taking the time to answer these questions, I urge you all to now go away and read this excellent novel, take on board what Gillian has said and encourage as many teenagers as possible to read it, think about the questions it raises and enjoy a brilliantly written and evocative story.