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An Afternoon with Deborah Ellis

Lucky me! On Friday I had the enjoyable experience of hearing Deborah Ellis, author of The Breadwinner series set in Taliban Afghanistan and many other books for children and young adults, speak at our librarian’s PD. I took notes so I could share this wonderful opportunity with others, including a few jealous colleagues!

Trip to Afghanistan

Deborah Ellis returned to Afghanistan last year, travelling with two women associated with the organization, Women for Women. Her reaction to the current situation in this country is two-fold. She experienced rage, disappointment, and discouragement at the ongoing government corruption. Obtaining any kind of a permit requires money on the side. More disturbing than this petty corruption is government concessions to the right wing. There are women’s shelters in Afghanistan, but a woman must apply to a panel of five men and submit to a virginity test to determine to her worthiness. Deborah observed that people often hold on to the old, tired ways when threatened.

However, the new generation gives her hope. Deborah Ellis said that these Afghan young people, who remember being locked in their homes with their mothers, are grabbing hold of any opportunities, be they sports or education, doing three or four years of school in one year. They never know when they might lose these opportunities, so they experience their freedom to the full and pack as much in as they can. There is also a sense of solidarity; they are in this together. A free press does exist in Afghanistan. Young people are also embracing the new technology and many have cell phones. There is a women’s soccer team, although those who play are subject to criticism that it is not appropriate for girls to be running about and getting sweaty, that it is immodest.

Sadly, women are still stoned and forced marriages still occur. Deborah told of a young 13 or 14-year-old girl who resisted a forced marriage with an old man. She was adamant that she was not going to marry him.  She sought help from the authorities, who did nothing.

This girl had sent a song request to a young DJ who became concerned with her plight. He said he would help her and she ended up running away with him. Along the way they stopped at a restaurant. The owner asked questions and upon learning  the circumstances, he called the police. Even though she had not violated Afghan law, she was put in jail for seven years. In fact, you can be put in jail, even if you have committed no crime under the Afghan criminal code.

Sad to say, she is better off in jail with girls who are incarcerated for similar reasons, than on her own. Women cannot own property or rent. Deborah emphasized the importance of economic power for girls and women.

Deborah spoke of a teacher of a women’s literacy class, who found that initially the women needed to talk. All that had happened to them flowed out; this was their first opportunity to release their distress. After a while less time was spent talking and more on the lessons that were to empower them. One woman commented that now that she knows how to read she’ll be able to find things out for herself.

Similarly, a community centre had a library consisting of 10 shelves of books. A young man said that with these 10 shelves they can now solve all their problems. Imagine!

Deborah was asked if she has a bodyguard when she travels to trouble spots. She does not, she generally travels alone. In Afghanistan she was accompanied by the two women from Women for Women. She is more concerned with the risk to the people she talks to, and allows them to frame their own terms, i.e., how much they reveal about their identity. She said that as a woman she can easily slide into the world of women and children in a way a man could not.

Deborah Ellis, a long-time peace activist, asks people to consider the possibility of finding other ways to settle conflict apart from war. She noted that when you ask primary students if it is possible to eliminate war, many will say yes. By the time they are in the junior grades their opinions are divided and in high school most say no. She commented that we are failing to inspire a different vision of the future and we need to bring home to children the effects of these decisions.

Her Writing

Deborah Ellis also spoke of her writing and her books. She said her books begin with a question: “What would I do if my best friend were accused of murder? “What would it be like to be a girl in Taliban Afghanistan?” She also noted that her interview-based writing follows in the tradition of the late Studs Terkel, whom she admires. Favourite books include A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and anything by Jean Little.

She spoke specifically to some books. I will outline her comments below:

Off to War:  Deborah Ellis said this book of interviews with children whose parents were fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq was her most challenging book to write because of her anti-war views. However, she said she that in talking with these children she was reminded that every group, including the military, consists of individuals. She noted that books she would have liked to write would have been Children of War, Children of the Taliban, and Children of the Iraqi Army.

No Ordinary Day: This junior-level book was written to benefit The Leprosy Mission. She noted that we have the ability to wipe out leprosy, but the funding is lacking.

True Blue: This more recent book looks at how we find courage. While Casey knew her own mind from a young age and had determined her path, Jess was not equipped to be on her own. She had no compass, no inner strength. Deborah Ellis also revealed that she had been a camp counsellor and asked herself, “What if I had lost one of the campers?” (Elsewhere Deborah Ellis said, “Courage interests me – when we have it, when we don’t, and how we make the decision to be brave or cowardly.”)

Bifocal: This book, written with Eric Walters, was based on a terrorist incident in 2006. Students at a high school in Mississauga, Ontario were arrested on suspicion of terrorism, although the charges were later dropped. The authors wanted to explore the effect of such an event on a school. She said she and Eric Walters visited the same school so that their setting would match and exchanged chapters as they wrote the book.  She wrote Haroon’s story and Eric wrote Jay’s.  The shared authorship worked well for them, but was hard on their editor!

Upcoming Books: I was very excited to learn that a fourth book in the Breadwinner series, My Name is Parvana, will be coming out in September.  She had just finished her edit the day she spoke with us. She is also working on a book on the Nuremberg trials, with a particular focus on accountability.

At the end, I took the opportunity to get True Blue autographed and to tell her how much recent Grade 6 classes have enjoyed The Breadwinner. Like many kids their age, they’re not really interested in other cultures, so the teacher has to do a persuasive introduction before they begin. However, once they get into the story, they love it and a number go on to read the entire series. She smiled broadly when I told her. Her smile told me that’s where her heart is, reaching young people with her stories.

I was unable to find a good up-to-date biography of Deborah Ellis, but in this short videotaped interview in 2010 she talks about a recent book, No Safe Place, and the impact she hopes to have on young people through her writing.
A longer, more recent video interview with Deborah Ellis in December 2011 is available here.

One comment on “An Afternoon with Deborah Ellis

  1. I just read your blog about Deborah Ellis. She’s an amazing woman. What interesting insights and observations. Sometimes we lose sight of how lucky we are in Canada, the USA, etc., even though we have some bad problems. They’re small compared to what DE has witnessed and heard about. Imagine a young girl being put in jail for refusing an inappropriate marriage. But I guess she’s lucky she didn’t come to a worse end. And then there are all the other curtailments of liberty. I’m glad there are brave and motivated people like DE to bring awareness to young people, women and others – both here and there. 

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