Gavin Weston – Harmattan – Q&A
Gavin Weston is the author of Harmattan (Myrmidon Books Ltd, Aug 2011), a novel about a young girl growing up in a remote village in the Republic of Niger. Addressing subjects including child marriage, civil strife, and a mother’s serious illness, Harmattan thoughtfully illustrates the complicated cultural issues many girls in developing regions face. Gavin Weston is a visual artist, writer and spent time as an aid worker in West Africa. Harmattan is based both on his first hand experiences of Niger and its people and his continued involvement as an aid sponsor. We caught up with Gavin to ask a few questions about this powerful book. Thank you so much, Gavin for your work on this critical issue and for sharing these perspectives with us!
EMC: What drew you to explore the subject of child marriage?
Weston: Despite having lived and worked in Niger, I knew very little about child marriage, really. I was in my twenties when I worked with Africare, and the focus of my life was very different. I knew that child marriage went on, but I had no idea of the enormity of the problem. Many years later, when I was back in Ireland and my own kids were growing up, I thought that it would be a good idea to sponsor a child and found a UK based NGO, which had a child sponsorship scheme operative in Niger.
Maintaining a link with that part of the world was important to me and, to be honest, I thought that it would be a good thing for my own children; important in terms of their understanding about global disparities. I signed up, and over the next six years my ‘sponsored daughter’ (as Ramatou referred to herself) attended school and wrote to us regularly, while my son and daughter took great delight in writing back and sending photographs, books and other little gifts. Ramatou’s framed photograph sat on a shelf in our kitchen (alongside family portraits) and she was a very real part of my children’s lives. Then, alarmingly, just before her twelfth birthday, we received a letter from the NGO informing us that Ramatou had been removed from the programme because her family had married her off.
Despite attempts to find out what happened and where exactly she was, we were unsuccessful. We never heard from her again. My own daughter was thirteen and my son was eleven. I had assumed that all children on such schemes were protected from such horrors. Sadly that is still not the case. And often child marriage goes hand in hand with FGM [female genital mutilation], which can, of course, lead to fistula problems and other unfathomable miseries.
I suggested to my daughter that she write about Ramatou’s plight for a school project, as a means of highlighting the issue of child marriage, but soon found myself researching the subject too. At that time information was hard to come by, but eventually I began to find true stories from all over Africa – and other parts of the world – and the book kind of started to write itself.
It struck me that the ‘voices’ of these innocent girls were rarely heard, and certainly mute in the ‘developed’ world. Authenticity was important to me; I’m sure that my text is riddled with inaccuracies, but I doubt that I would have even attempted to write such a book had I not lived in Niger for a time.
I recently came across a quote by Toni Morrison: She said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I suppose that’s how I felt at the time. Incidentally, Ramatou’s photograph still sits on that shelf.
EMC: Is your main character based on someone specific or is she a compilation of girls?
Weston: I’ve mentioned Ramatou (to whom Harmattan is dedicated) but my protagonist – the spirited Haoua – is really a compilation of many girls whose stories I read about. In a way she represents Africa and all other nations that are still enslaved in one way or another – by greed, corruption, misogyny, dubious ‘traditions’, whatever.
EMC: This is obviously a work from the heart. How do you start writing? something like this?
Weston: I’ve always been something of an idealist. I’m a professional artist and I’ve always written, alongside making sculpture, drawings etc. I suppose I’m a fairly passionate person. But anger was a foundation block for this book. And perhaps a smidgen of arrogance too: I was in the company of other writers and artists one evening (not long after my family had heard the sad news about Ramatou) and an American woman proclaimed, ‘Men can’t write as women!’ That’s an old argument that holds no more water than stating that women can’t write as men, in my opinion.
The idea of finding a ‘voice’ for a girl like Haoua had, I think, already been simmering in my mind, but that was the trigger I needed to get going. A few days later, when I read out the first pages of my manuscript (which later became the prologue to Harmattan) my ‘audience’ seemed convinced, so I just kept writing after that. Nevertheless, I was filled with doubt from time to time and, as I’ve said, researching the subject was not easy, so there were times when I put the work aside and almost gave up.
Six years and two agents later I had a book completed and then began the really hard work – finding a publisher!
EMC: Tell us about your work with FORWARD and what you see as some of the best ways to help put an end to child marriage.
Weston: Finding FORWARD has been immensely positive. After I signed to Myrmidon Books I began to feel that there was potential for the novel to actually work on another level. I knew that once it was out there it would, like all novels, be scrutinised and criticised and dissected and I was, of course, prepared for that. But I cared less about the responses of literary critics than how individuals and communities actually affected by child marriage would react. One evening I trolled the Internet, looking at the mission statements of NGOs from all over the world.
Eventually I found FORWARD and liked what I read. I plucked up courage and rattled up an e-mail to their director, Naana Otoo-Oyortey, outlining who I was, what I’d attempted to do and why. Naana replied the following day and said that she would like to read the book and planned to do so whilst on a trip to their child mothers project in Tanzania. My publishers sent her a galley proof and there then ensued a rather nail-biting month while I waited. I can’t begin to explain the relief (and to some extent surprise) I felt when FORWARD endorsed Harmattan. Certainly a pivotal point in my life.
I didn’t write this book with a view to ‘campaigning’, (I do, of course, want it to be thought of as an artwork) but I’m more than happy if it can also raise awareness about this great scourge. (25,000 child marriages occur every day!) I was nervously delighted to be invited as a guest speaker to a seminar on child marriage in March and honoured when FORWARD asked me to serve as one of their ambassadors. Holding the London launch event on October 11th, the first ever International Day of the Girl, through FORWARD, was kind of mind-blowing. Fantastic. And meeting survivors of child marriage and FGM – who thanked me – was truly humbling.
Education is clearly one of the key factors in ending child marriage. And working at ground level, with communities and leaders as well as with governments and other NGOs is crucial, of course. I passionately believe that NGOs have a duty of care to any child who joins their programmes, to provide on-going protection and to ensure that schooling is uninterrupted. I’m not entirely sure how we can do this, but it is something that must be achieved. I’m not advocating an end to child sponsorship and I don’t know how many girls who have been sponsored have subsequently been married off, but I am certain that Ramatou is not the only one.
The most recent development is that FORWARD is in talks with my Turkish publisher, Ayrinti, and – through the input of the activist group Flying Broom – we hope to be able to use the book to raise awareness in Turkey too. (It’s only fairly recently that I discovered that child marriage was still a major problem there also.) The recent emergence of Girls Not Brides, steered by amazing people such as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, Ela Bhatt and others, is important and we were delighted that they were represented at the London launch of the book. But it’s also important to point out that Girls Not Brides is comprised of 190 smaller organisations, (such as FORWARD), many of which have been, for decades, grafting in the ‘trenches’, as it were, on these issues. A vast amount of money has been spent over the years alleviating the results of child marriage. It is now time to find a sustainable solution, one that clearly must entail the eradication of the evils of child marriage.
EMC: You're bringing a critical issue into the mainstream- but it's one that people in the west aren't used to facing. What's been the response?
Weston: It makes a lot of people uncomfortable, even some of my friends – especially male friends. For the most part they’ve been very supportive and have slapped me on the back for my achievement, but few of them are willing to have an in depth discussion about child marriage. It’s still a huge taboo in places where it happens every day, and we in ‘the West’ have been able to ignore it for too long, so it’s going to take time. Personally I feel that it needs to be talked about… and talked about… for as long as it takes, until there is no further need for discussion.
Gavin Weston is on Twitter @WestonOfTinTown
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