Five minutes with... Sita Brahmachari
Published on: 13 Ebrill 2012
We caught up with award-winning author Sita Brahmachari at the launch of her book Jasmine Skies at Waterstones in Hampstead.
When we last met, you had just been awarded the Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2011 by the then Children's Laureate Anthony Browne, for Artichoke Hearts. How did it feel to win this prestigious prize for your first book?
It was a real honour and a total surprise. I felt that Artichoke Hearts was a quiet little book written from the heart. I hoped that people would appreciate it, but I was overwhelmed to find that so many people seem to have been moved by my debut novel. It was especially wonderful to receive the award from Anthony Browne, whose work I so admire.
Artichoke Hearts has been one of our best received Beyond Booked Up titles. What did being a Beyond Booked Up author mean to you?
My father, whose spirit I have tried to do justice to in Jasmine Skies always used to talk of the freedom that books can afford people.'The greatest freedom in the world is the freedom to be educated' he used to say. Books are 'education' in the broadest, most liberating, sense of the word. There are children in my street refuge in Kolkata whose greatest wish is to learn how to read. Having my book chosen by Booktrust for the Beyond Booked Up scheme and reaching so many children brings me great happiness.
Your book, Jasmine Skies, revisits the character of Mira a couple of years after Artichoke Hearts. Had you always intended to write a sequel and continue Mira's story?
I had already suggested a novel set in Kolkata to Sam Swinnerton my wonderful editor at Macmillan. In 2008 I travelled to Kolkata with my family and was already forming an idea for a story. However, I didn't know that it would be my second novel. After the success of Artichoke Hearts many people said that they would like to see Mira again, and it seemed natural that Mira, with a part of her history in Kolkata should travel to India.
The new book takes Mira on a journey to India, and paints a wonderfully atmospheric and evocative picture of all the new sights and sounds Mira encounters there. How did you go about researching the setting for the novel?
Some of the images in the novel come from the first time I visited Kolkata; like Mira my eyes were opened onto a much wider world. I was particularly shocked as a child to come face to face with other children growing up in real poverty. This sense of outrage I have carried into the book and it led me to the creation of Anjali's Children's Refuge. I also draw on conversations about Kolkata and the history of partition with my late father. In a visit to Kolkata in 2008 I took many photos of the streets around Doctor's Lane and New Market where I have based many scenes. I have also posted drafts of the novel backwards and forwards to my classical dancer cousin Jhuma who has checked my descriptions for detail and accuracy.
Jasmine Skies is clearly a very personal story, exploring family, history, memory and identity. How closely is it based on your own family and experiences?
There are elements that are based on my own history, such as Mira's musings on identity and her wish to explore her Indian history. My cousin Jhuma and I also have always had a very close connection, writing letters to each other since we were very young. We now facebook too, but we still treasure each other's letters. There are no hidden family secrets in the pages of our letters but they did give me the idea for the plot of Jasmine Skies.
As a child I was fascinated by my own dual history. With a father from Kolkata, India and a mother from the mountains in the Lake District in the North of England, my heritage is diverse. What I learned as a child was how world's connect and diverge. Coming home from my village school one day walking past green fields in lambing season and open countryside I strolled into my front room to find that my aunt and cousin had arrived from India. They were all dressed up in their finery and dancing for my Mum and Dad (my cousin and aunt Mira - the namesake of Mira in my books - were both dancers and they sometimes toured Britain with their dance troupe). I was stunned by the contrast between my world and my cousin's. I couldn't understand the exact meaning of the dance... but from that day on I wanted to understand more about my Indian heritage. I felt as Mira feels in Jasmine Skies when she sees her cousin dance:
'There's nothing to say when you see someone as talented as Priya. You just have to watch and feel and let her spirit carry you away so that you almost feel as if it's you dancing.'
Dance and beautiful saris have sewn themselves into the fabric of Jasmine Skies.
Your husband hgave you a beautiful artichoke charm to mark the publication of Artichoke Hearts. Did he give you something to celebrate Jasmine Skies?
He did indeed! This time he found me a beautiful jasmine charm bracelet. I've told him that it was only a joke that I'd be placing a jewel in every book I write! Without wanting to give anything away... jasmine is the flower of love!
Check out Sita's book
More from Sita
Read Sita's blogs from her time as the BookTrust Writer in Residence.