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Interview: Growing Up under the Veil

6 minute read

Deborah Ellis is a writer, women’s rights activist and mental health counselor in Toronto. Her latest children’s book is ‘The Breadwinner’, published this month by Oxford University Press. The novel follows a young Afghan girl living in poverty under the Taliban who is forced to masquerade as a boy to earn food for her family. Billed as the only children’s book available on current life in Afghanistan, interest in The Breadwinner has surged as parents struggle to explain the events of recent months to their children.

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nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) TIME: What motivated you to write about the life of children in Afghanistan?
Ellis: I’d been doing solidarity work with women in Afghanistan for a couple of years back in Canada and I was in Pakistan interviewing women for an adult non- fiction book called ‘Women of the Afghan War’. I met a woman whose daughter was in Kabul doing what the girl in the novel does, masquerading as a boy to earn a living for her family, and I thought that would make a really interesting children’s novel.

TIME: Was the family that you based the story on new arrivals or had they been in the camps for some time?
Ellis: The woman had just come out of Afghanistan for a few days to attend an international women’s rally. She’d been smuggled out by one of the women’s organizations that operate secretly inside the country and she had to go back into Kabul the day after I met with her.

TIME: Do you maintain contact with that woman or anyone else you met from the camps?
Ellis: No, I wasn’t able to maintain contact with most of the women. They spoke to me only on the condition of anonymity. I know the mother was very worried about what was going to happen to the daughter once she was no longer able to masquerade as a boy and had to be kept inside like the other women in Afghanistan. She thought that it would be terribly difficult for the child to get used to after being able to run through the streets in Kabul freely.

TIME: The story that you wrote is fairly graphic and realistically portrays the life of women in Afghanistan. How is it possible to get that suffering, that life across in a children’s novel without disturbing the children that you’re writing for?
Ellis: I’m not terribly worried about disturbing the children that I’m writing for. I think that good writing should be disturbing and if you’re lucky you’re able to pull it off well. I wrote the book because I wanted to pay tribute and honor to the children who are involved in that situation. Children live in very dangerous situations in many parts of the world and I wanted kids in North America to know what was going on in Afghanistan and what other children were living through.

TIME: How would you tell parents how to explain to their children what life is like in Afghanistan?
Ellis: I don’t think that parents would be doing any favors to them by not talking about it. I think they should explain to them that when we allow our governments to go to war, this is the kind of thing that results from it. They should know about that because they’re going to be decision-makers very soon.

TIME: Has what’s happened over the past two months in Afghanistan changed your conception of the book? Is there anything you wish you could have done differently?
Ellis: No, I think the book is a strongly anti-war book, which is why I wrote it and I think the message still stands, now even more so because of the bombing.

TIME: The Breadwinner is poised to be very successful. How are you reacting to that?
Ellis: I’m surprised to be published at all, frankly. I’m really glad that it’s going to be successful because the money that the book raises is going back into education programs for children in Afghanistan, so the more people who buy the book the more money that will be available and the more kids who can go to school.

TIME: What’s next for you?
Ellis: I’m just finishing a sequel to ‘The Breadwinner’. That’ll be done in a couple of weeks, and I’ve got children’s books outlined that will take me until the end of the summer. After that, we’ll see.

TIME: What is the sequel to ‘The Breadwinner’ going to be about?
Ellis: It follows the two girls as they continue on their different journeys, one further into Afghanistan to look for her mother and the other girl as she leaves the country and becomes a refugee in Pakistan and tries to get to the ocean.

TIME: What are your hopes for the people of Afghanistan?
Ellis: Throughout history, aerial bombing has never helped a situation so I think that’s going to make things worse. I think we have a very small window of opportunity here should the Taliban regime fall to put in a government that’s going to be decent, but the only way that’s going to happen is if women are brought to the negotiating table in a very large and meaningful way. At the moment there are no women on the loya jirga that’s trying to form in exile and that’s a huge mistake. There are competent, educated, amazing Afghan women around the world living in exile who need to be brought back and have their voices heard and they need to be making policy. The men in Afghanistan and the men in the surrounding countries and all the men in all the countries that have had an influence in Afghanistan have proven time and time again that they do not have the best interests of the people at heart. They need to step aside so that the women can have a role. If that happens, I have hope for the country. If not, I don’t have any hope.

TIME: Will the people of Afghanistan demand this themselves or will it have to be imposed on them?
Ellis: I certainly think that the women around the world need to put pressure on our own governments to make sure that it happens. We have a chance to do that now and we have to do our best to ensure that it happens.

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