When the Taliban shot a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, in Pakistan earlier this month for daring to oppose its rule and advocating for the right of girls to go to school, it was a shocking reminder of how dangerous it is to be a girl, particularly a brave one, in that region. It made Deborah Ellis’s new novel, My Name Is Parvana, published by Toronto-based Groundwood Books, seem particularly timely. The book is a follow-up to her Breadwinner trilogy about 11-year-old Parvana, who disguises herself as a boy in order to work and support her family, and her friend Shauzia’s struggle to get out of an Afghan refugee camp. That series has sold more than two million copies in 25 languages; Ellis donates all of the royalties – to date, $1 million – to the charity Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.
In the new novel, Parvana is 15 and has survived a bombing of the school for girls that her mother started, but is arrested by the U.S. military – who suspect that their captive, who refuses to speak, might be working with the Taliban.
Why did you decide to continue Parvana’s story?
There have been a lot of changes since the end of the trilogy, which came out about 10 years ago, and there have been a lot of changes in Afghanistan. I’ve often wondered how the characters would fare in this semi-new Afghanistan, so I wanted to go back and pay them a visit and see what their lives would be like. They are both pretty extraordinary young women.
Is Parvana based on a real person?
I met a lot of people in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, including folks who were related to kids who had [disguised the fact that they were girls]. The characters are composites.
What went through your mind when you heard about the shooting of Malala?
That unfortunately, it’s not a one-of-a-kind story. There have been tons of those kinds of stories in varying degrees. I’m glad that she has been able to galvanize people to be able to look at what’s going on. I hope that she’s going to be alright.
How did you first get interested in this part of the world?
When the Taliban took over in 1996, the news of their crimes hit the Toronto papers. As a feminist and as an anti-war activist, I heard about what was happening to women and I wanted to do something to support those folks. I thought if I went over and gathered together people’s stories of how they had survived and what they’d been through, who they were, we [Canadian women] would have a better sense of how we could be useful.
You spent months interviewing women in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Was it difficult for you to travel there as a woman?
I traveled alone, but when you travel as a woman, you get to go into the world of women and children. I would meet another woman and she would introduce me to her friends. I was very lucky in that I met women who were very well connected into the camps, and they knew a lot of people. They had all been kicked out of Afghanistan together, and so that’s kind of how I moved through the area. I did interviews for an [adult] book called Women of the Afghan War, so that was the initial project. Then when I heard the stories of kids, I decided to do The Breadwinner.
Women of the Afghan War was published by an academic press. Was it part of an academic research project?
No, no, not academic research. It got published by the press that it did, just because they were the only ones who said yes. I sent out tons of queries, and I was basically unpublished at the time.
What experiences of your travels in that region have made the deepest impression on you?
I was back in Afghanistan in the winter of 2011 to do a book called Kids of Kabul, which [collects] interviews with children. I came away with a sense of two things. One is that there is still a huge hill to climb in terms of rebuilding the country after so many years of war. And part of that hill includes a great deal of violence against women and a great deal of people clinging to old ideas, which is making it difficult for others to move forward. So we have situations of teenage girls locked away in prison for years because they didn’t want to marry somebody that their fathers wanted them to marry – even though that’s not supposed to be allowed under Afghan law – and other situations of violence and terrible poverty.
The other thing I came away with is how amazing this current generation of young Afghans is. They have families that were affected by the Taliban and by the war, and [who] have been encouraging them to grab hold of every single opportunity they can get and [to] run as far and as fast as they can possibly manage because they don’t know when it is going to be taken away again. So they are working really hard at school. They are exploring art and music, interconnectedness with other people in very creative, exciting ways.
Another book of yours, Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, attracted some controversy. Some Ontario school libraries restricted access to it based on objections raised by the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Why did the group take issue?
Because the Middle East is such a complicated situation, people thought that the age group that the book was aimed toward was too young and wouldn’t get a complete picture. I think it ended up being a very interesting discussion on what kids are capable of understanding and what kind of stuff we write for kids: if we subject kids to it in real life, should it be reflected in their literature?
Your books seem to give children credit for being able to understand a great deal.
I imagine that as a parent you would want to protect your kid as much as possible, but since I’m not [a parent], that doesn’t really enter into my head. What enters into it is, “Here are kids going through this; how can we gather their experiences in a way that we get a better understanding of what they are going through?” And if they are kids talking about their lives, I generally think other kids are going to be interested.
Where else has your writing taken you?
Off to War was interviews with military kids from North America, Children of War is [about] children from the war in Iraq living in refugee camps in Jordan. Our Stories, Our Songs [contains] interviews with kids from Southern Africa (Malawi and Zambia) affected by AIDS. I did a bully book called We Want You to Know, which is kids talking about bullying, published last year.
And now, I hear, you’re working on a book of interviews with aboriginal children?
Yes, that book will be out next year. It’s been an incredible journey of going to a lot of First Nations, Metis, Inuit, Native American communities throughout North America. A lot of the kids talked about how they would be in town, going into a shop, minding their own business, waiting for a stop light to change, and white adults will come up to them and just say racist things right to their face. I’d hear those things over and over. The money from that project is going to the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
How have your travels and each book changed you?
One of the things that has really hit home for me is that the world is how we decide it is going to be. Very few things just happen. They grow out of history, and they grow out of the present, and the more we can get a sense of how our actions lead into other actions in the future, hopefully we’ll learn to make better decisions.
You sound like an optimist.
If I’m going to be a pessimist then I should just stop writing for young people because that’s too heavy a burden to put on young readers. But also I get to meet with people who have waded through horrible things, and they get up every morning and they try to do their best. They do what they can to make their community better, and so I really don’t have any right to give in to pessimism.
My Name Is Parvana by Deborah Ellis. Groundwood Books, $16.95 Sept. ISBN 978-1-55498-297-4