In her debut novel, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, Christie Watson writes about Nigeria, oil industry, violence. The story is of twelve year old Blessing and survival of family through challenges people face in that corner of the world. The innocence which child’s narration brings into such serious issues makes it an amazing book.
Christie Watson worked as a nurse for over ten years before joining UEA for her MA in Creative Writing, where she won the Malcolm Bradbury Bursary. We were curious to ask her few questions about her first book.
CBF: Firstly, as an introduction to this interview, can you tell us a bit about your own experience with Nigeria, particularly the Niger Delta where Tiny Sunbirds Far Away is mainly set?
Christie Watson: I first travelled to Nigeria over ten years ago after I met my Nigerian partner. I’d travelled to various other African countries before, and parts of West Africa, but nothing quite prepared me for how amazing a place Nigeria is. The differences between rich and poor and traditional and modern are more extreme than anywhere else I’ve visited, and there’s a story on every corner. Most of my travel in Nigeria has been limited to the South and South East – although I’d love to explore the North. My in – laws live in Lagos and we have family dotted all over the country. As an area that has a reputation for violence and extreme poverty the Niger Delta is usually off limits to Western tourists.The Nigerian side of my family did not want me to go as they were worried that as a white person, I’d be kidnapped by militants who would presume I worked for an oil company. But I did visit the Niger Delta, after much deliberation, and luckily, nothing sinister happened. In fact I loved the trip. The Niger Delta is a beautiful part of the world, with creeks lines with mangroves, beautiful birds and flowers. And the people we met were amazing. The women of the Niger Delta are the most inspirational women I’ve ever met – real activists driving change, protesting against the oil companies and the corruption as well as the militant groups and the poverty and violence (the mobile police are known locally as ‘Kill and Go’). Generally my experience of Nigeria is not what I first expected it would be. Nigeria is a place of world class restaurants, fantastic nightlife, a thriving arts scene, and new series BMWs everywhere you look!
Christie Watson: Everyone in Nigeria is interested in politics. You can’t buy a bottle of Coca-Cola without the shopkeeper selling talking about their political views on the Niger Delta. But it wasn’t really my trips to Nigeria that influenced me, although of course they helped. We have relatives in the UK who are from the Niger Delta and we have friends from there. Whenever we see them they have another terrible story about something that has happened to someone they know. I’d always wanted to set a story in Nigeria. Eventually a family friend, who knows that I write, suggested I set me story in the Niger Delta, and translate the complicated political issues into a story accessible to Western readers. I began researching and after watching my niece and nephew in Nigeria, their closeness, how they see things in a very simple way, Blessing and her brother Ezikiel were born.
CBF: The oil industry as viewed by the locals is not portrayed very favourably in the novel, however the character of Dan, a white oil worker, gives an individual face to the industry which is more favourable than the corporate mass. Was it your intention to show that it is not the individual workers who are to blame for the oil industry’s effect on the region?
Christie Watson: During the course of researching the novel I spoke to various oil workers from the Niger Delta as well as some of the local militia. I spoke to a man who had kidnapped an oil worker and I spoke to an oil worker who had been kidnapped. I wanted to get both sides of a story. What I found is that neither can be blamed for a situation that has been created by the greed of multinational oil companies and the greed of corrupt politicians. By making Dan human I hope that story isn’t too one sided. I hope that all my characters are individually flawed and imperfect, as we all are in life.
CBF: While the novel deals with issues such as violence and female genital mutilation, the reader is slightly shielded from the full horror of these as we see them through the eyes of Blessing, a young girl. Can you tell us about how you chose to portray these hard-hitting issues?
Christie Watson: The politics of oil in Nigeria is a complicated business and took me some time to understand. I wanted to write a story that was readable and enjoyable while examining these issues in the background. As for other sensitive issues that I examined, such as female genital mutilation, that is very personal to me as members of my own extended family have suffered FGM. I spent time with Comfort Momoh who is the world expert on FGM and she convinced me that despite the fact that it was so uncomfortable to think about, FGM had to be in my novel. If I had a choice, I would not have chosen to write about FGM. It is not a popular subject to be written about or talked about. But it couldn’t be ignored. It is sadly a reality for many young girls both in Nigeria, and in the UK, where up to seven thousand girls a year are estimated to undergo female genital mutilation. It needs to be talked about. I hadn’t intended to shield the reader by using Blessing’s voice, but of course I had to make the novel enjoyable, and so was very careful to balance the darkness with light, the tragedy with humour.
CBF: At first I didn’t like the intrusion of Celestine, the grandfather’s second wife, into the family unit, but by the end of novel, particularly the protest scene, I felt she was a valuable addition to the family. Did you enjoy writing this larger than life character?
Christie Watson: I loved writing Celestine and I agree I didn’t like her much at the beginning either! But by the end of the novel I was in love with her and of all the characters who followed me around as I wrote TS, she’s the one I miss the most. I still hear her voice sometimes, commenting on everything from a bad hairdo to a new lipstick. And I can’t look at neon lycra without smiling.
CBF: Throughout the novel Blessing’s view of her father gradually changes until she finally realises the truth about him, however once the truth becomes apparent, the reader can see that the hints were there. Was it your intention that your readers would come to realise his nature before Blessing does?
Christie Watson: Yes – I really wanted the reader to realise and almost will Blessing to face up to the truth. Becoming an adult is facing the truth, however uncomfortable that truth is, and I hope that through the novel the reader can experience Blessing’s journey towards adulthood.
CBF: Finally, could you share with us anything about your future writing plans? Will Nigeria feature again?
Christie Watson: I’m currently working hard on my next novel which is set between U.K. and Nigeria, and I’m discovering that in some ways, the two countries are not so different, after all.
Thanks to Christie Watson and eilidhcatriona for making this interview.
You can find Christie on Twitter @tinysunbird and on her site.
Tiny Sunbirds Far Away has been published by Quercus Publishing, March 2011
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