I’ve never been very good at doing what I’m told. When I was told that writing novels should only ever be a hobby, that having children would make it impossible to find time to write, that writing a novel was something I should never aim for, not really, I simply didn’t listen. I crept out of bed at 5 am and wrote, every day, even if I’d been up all night nursing a sick child, so tired my eyes were only half open. On those days, in fact, my writing was the best. I thought of my characters all the time and even dreamed of them. After a few months I had something to look at, some writing, words that might just one day turn into a novel.
“You should write what you know,” said people, when they realized my dream was not going to disappear. “Write your life, stick to a simple story for your first book. Write an easy story.” Again, I didn’t listen. I fell in love with a man and his country: Nigeria. The story belonged in Nigeria, and to Blessing, a twelve-year-old Nigerian girl. I listened to the voice of my then thirteen-year-old, how she used language in nonsensical ways, how she saw the world around her. Blessing, my main character, began talking to me. I wrote about politics, gender, violence, religion, humanity. I asked questions and explored in my novel things that I didn’t understand and wanted answers to: race, culture, belonging, and identity, what it is to be human, how it feels to grow up too quickly.
“Don’t visit that part of the world,” said friends, family, the foreign office, when they discovered what my story was becoming, where it belonged. “It’s too dangerous.” So I travelled. I stayed with family throughout Nigeria, and saw vibrant cities and sleepy villages, mountains, rivers, deserts, forests. I visited the Niger Delta, stood on the riverbank and watched the brightly coloured birds in the mangroves, and smelled the air, smoky, like a book unopened for a very long time. I listened to the local stories.
And now people tell me that the novel is too difficult for younger readers. Too political. Too gritty. A younger audience will find the scenes of childbirth or violence, of love and loss, too traumatic. Young people in the U.S. like an easier story that doesn’t take them out of their comfortable world. Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is too adult. The themes are too mature.
I’m simply not going to listen. And, of course, you won’t either: you know what your students are capable of, you know that challenging them always brings out the best, and you believe, like I do, that a true education demands we broaden our perspective and jump out of our comfort zones.