Tina Athaide was four years old when her family left Uganda in the early 1970s, shortly before President Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of 80,000 South Asian Indians within 90 days. Her father, though born in Uganda, had a British passport; her mother had a Portuguese passport (the family has roots in Goa, India, which had been under Portuguese rule). Many thousands of Indians who thought they had Ugandan citizenship found themselves stateless and faced with cries of “Asian, go home” in Uganda, while countries such as India, Kenya, and Tanzania refused to accept them as refugees.
Though Athaide’s family’s departure from Uganda was not as traumatic as the experiences depicted in her novel, some of her earliest memories involve her parents welcoming relatives who arrived at her London home with one suitcase and 50 shillings, which was all they were allowed to take when forced to leave Uganda. Years later, as a teenager, Athaide attended a Ugandan Goan reunion in Vancouver. Moved by how the community’s joy, hope, and resilience empowered them to rebuild their lives in new countries, she became aware that her family’s story might get lost and needed to be told.
Athaide’s calling to write developed in the 1990s from her work as a teacher (she helped start a charter school in Menifee, Calif., where she oversees at-risk populations) and her realization that there were few books that dealt with cultures outside of the white European experience. Believing that books can present different experiences to children in an organic, natural way, Athaide started publishing early literacy readers for the educational market, such as Pran’s Week of Adventure, with BeBop Books (a subsidiary of Lee & Low), featuring children of different ethnicities.
The inspiration for Orange for the Sunsets (HarperCollins/Tegen) came 14 years before the book’s publication. Athaide initially conceived the story as a picture book about the Goan Indian community in Uganda. When she submitted the manuscript to Lee & Low editor Louise May in 2004, May encouraged her to dig deeper and try writing a middle grade novel. “This publishing world is like stumbling and falling through the hole in Alice in Wonderland and running into one obstacle after another,” Athaide says. “You get little gifts along the way that sustain you and keep you going.”
Athaide next wrote the story in the form of letters between cousins in Uganda and Canada. She then rewrote the whole story from the point of view of Asha, a 12-year-old Goan Indian whose family faces expulsion from Uganda. In 2015, she submitted the story, then titled Impossible Goodbyes, to Karen Boss at Charlesbridge through the house’s general inquiry process. Boss responded that she liked the story but thought it might be too similar to Shenaaz Nanji’s Child of Dandelions and suggested that she consider including both Indian and African points of view.
Athaide rewrote the story adding the POV of Asha’s best friend, Yesofu, an African-Ugandan whose mother works for Asha’s family. This required her to step outside her own community and look at the story with a wider lens, so as to understand why Amin was motivated to do what he did and how African Ugandans were so oppressed within their own country.
Wanting to make sure that she did justice to Yesofu’s story, Athaide did extensive research, traveling to Kenya with her family, interviewing Ugandans and Kenyans who lived through the same period, and reading relevant news articles.
Athaide remembered hearing Kim Griswell, a freelance editor, give a lecture on voice at a SCBWI conference; eight years later, to help develop her writing skills, she tracked Griswell down and hired her as a freelance editor. Athaide also took online writing classes with Uma Krishnaswami and Sarah Aronson. Throughout the years, Athaide repeatedly received feedback that there wasn’t a market for this type of story. The #OwnVoices conversation had yet to burst onto the publishing scene.
The manuscript was rejected by 29 agents before Athaide sent the book to Aronson’s daughter, Rebecca, who was working with Katherine Tegen Books. To Athaide’s amazement, Sarah Aronson got back to her saying, “They love it!” Athaide then found (through an article in the Huffington Post) attorney Denise Gibbon, who reviewed her contract. After PW announced the book’s sale, Athaide was contacted by Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Agency, with whom she signed a year later.
For Athaide, the entire publishing experience has been a testament to the idea of perseverance and patience. “I am grateful for all of the people that have played a part in Orange for the Sunsets finally being published,” she says. “Even the rejections, when viewed objectively and not personally, offer insight into stepping on a different path or looking at the manuscript with a different lens.” She currently has several projects in the works, including a picture book about mindfulness and meditation told from the perspective of Gandhi’s granddaughter, and a middle grade fantasy book.
Though the parallels between Athaide’s story and the rise of populist anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the world today trouble her, she believes that books have the power to open readers to new awareness and appreciation of differences in culture and experience. Her book is not yet available in Uganda, but she hopes that it will be someday.