Tuesday, 23 August 2011

DIVERSITY MATTERS: WENDY MEDDOUR says 'whoever we are - we all want the same thing in the end: to feel at home in this strange, old, beautiful, world!

* Hi Wendy and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi Tracy and thanks for asking me to join you.

I’m 36 years old and live in a wobbly old house in Wiltshire with my husband, 4 young children and an enormous cat called Socrates (who many suspect is a goat). Hills are my natural habitat; I was brought up in Mid Wales and have a farm in the Berber mountains.

Now, having read many of the wonderful interviews on your blog, I feel the need to make a confession: I haven’t always wanted to be a writer. I didn’t used to carry notebooks about my person. And I’ve never kept a diary *blush*. However, I absolutely always wanted to be a reader (and a comedienne and a footballer and a cartoonist). So I became an English lecturer; one that gave funny lectures, doodled in the margins and knew the off-side rule.

That all changed when I was 33. I’d always loved drawing and (rather curiously) had illustrated a series of Welsh language books for Dyslexic children whilst doing my Phd, but when I came across the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Competition in 2009, something clicked. I just had to enter.

There was only one problem: I hadn’t written a book. So with 2 weeks to the deadline, I squeezed behind my desk (heavily pregnant with 4th child) and typed my first ever middle-grade novel. I’d like to tell you that I won. But I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even get shortlisted. However, I got some wonderful feedback from the judges. And they were right, about everything! It was like being a student again. So I made the suggested changes and sent the manuscript back to Frances Lincoln.

To my astonishment, they thought it was ‘lots of fun’ and offered me a 2 book deal. The first book is coming out in February 2012:

Cinnamon Grove:
A Hen in the Wardrobe

Strange things are happening at night in Cinnamon Grove! Someone in pyjamas has been chasing frogs in the pantry, climbing trees like a leopard, and even looking for a hen in Ramzi’s wardrobe. . . Who could it be? Surely not Ramzi’s dad?

Yes. Poor Dad’s sleepwalking again! Why? Because he’s homesick and the only solution is for the whole family to visit Dad’s Berber village in Algeria. But can the Spider in the woods, the Wise Man of the mountains or the Tuareg in the desert find a ‘cure’?
And what about Ramzi’s secret plan. . . ?

A funny, heart-warming family story set in Britain and Algeria, with fascinating glimpses of traditional Berber culture and lots of colourful characters.


* You’d been teaching English Literature and Critical Theory at Oxford University for 8 years. So why did you take a break from academia to write children’s books?

Well, the more children I had, the harder it became to sneak them into the Bodleian library. So I took the plunge and said goodbye.

Though I still write academic stuff as a hobby, writing and illustrating children’s books is my passion. I’m also publishing some rhyming picture books with Macmillan and have always loved messing about with my paints.
© Wendy Meddour

* Why Children’s Books?

It’s simple really. Though I get lost in the worlds of Milton, Hardy, Dickens, Morrison and Atwood, only children’s books have the power to haunt my imagination. I think that’s probably true for everyone. What you read as a child stays with you forever; it shapes your landscape and gives form to your dreams. This was the genre I wanted to write.

* What are you reading at the moment?

Well, if I were to list you the books on my bedside table, it would go like this: Toby Alone, Wilma Tenderfoot and the Case of the Broken Hearts, The Little Prince, Witch Child, Ottoline Goes to Sea and Memory in the Flesh (a sad but poetic novel by a famous Algerian writer called Ahlem Mustaghanemi).

* Your debut middle-grade series is based on Muslim characters. Why did you choose to write about Muslims?

Shall I give you ‘the quick answer’ first?

Because I know lots of wonderful, funny, gentle, compassionate, wacky, inspirational muslims and I wanted their stories to be told.

And for the more patient reader, here’s ‘the long answer’:

Whilst at Oxford, I published a lot of work on ‘The Construction of Muslims in Contemporary British Literature’. To be honest, it was pretty depressing. The adult fiction was dominated by disturbing clichés and tired old stereotypes – the women were voiceless, fully veiled and oppressed, and the men were violent, irrational, bullies. Although all communities have their problems, I was becoming increasingly disheartened by the amount of Islamophobic poppycock that was passing as ‘the truth’.

During this time, I was volunteering at an Islamic Saturday School – doing the ‘story time’. It was a wonderful experience but it became increasingly clear that the children felt dislocated. They were ‘British’ and loved Harry Potter and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but they wanted to read some funny and exciting stories about Muslim kids. Such books were almost impossible to find.

As my two eldest children had now started primary school, their teachers had begun to ask me to give talks about ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslims’. We had a lot of fun and the children's warmth, lack of prejudice and real interest in other cultures never failed to impress me.

That’s when I decided: these were the people I wanted to write for. Not just fusty academics entrenched in their views and stuck in their ways!

* In 2010, A Hen in the Wardrobe won the John C Laurence Award ‘for writing that improves relations between the races’ and First Place in the Islamic Foundation’s International Writing Competition (Middle-Grade Fiction), as well as the Illustrating Category. Were you expecting this reception for your first book? After all, it’s not even been published yet.

Goodness me no! These awards were not only an honour, they were a confidence booster. Writing academic work is not the same as writing and illustrating children’s books. It’s a completely different skill and I know I’ve got a huge amount to learn. But if my fiction can, in some small way, help to build bridges between people of different cultures, faiths and races, then I’m than thrilled. And if it makes them laugh at the same time – even better!

* Do you only write about Muslim characters?

No - I write about characters that ask to be written – the ones that pop into my head. I started off writing a series about loveable Muslim characters – from all sorts of racial and cultural backgrounds – because I thought that their voices needed to be heard.

©Wendy Meddour

But I draw on all aspects of my life when I write. In fact, nothing and no-one is safe! Memories, nightmares, dreams, hopes, worries, funny things that happened at the park – anything and everything really. Having said that, most of my characters are ‘outsiders’ in some way – they’re marginal or looking in. But I know that something unites them all. Whether Muslim, super-intelligent, daydreamers, visually-impaired, shy, quirky or plain old daft - they all want the same thing in the end: to feel at home in this strange, old, beautiful, world.

* What's next for Wendy Meddour?

Well, I’ve just finished Book 2 in the Cinnamon Grove series. It’s called The Black Cat Detectives and will be out in August 2012. It follows the crazy adventures of Ramzi Ramadan and his tiny best-friend – a Pakistani child genius called Shaima Stalk. (I don’t want to give too much away, but think dastardly villains, detective agencies and deeply endangered beetle collections!) And I’m halfway through a book that makes me giggle as I write – based on my plentiful and silly childhood memories.

Wendy blogs at:


Jenny Alexander said...

Lovely post - common sense and fun - a perfect combination!

Malaika Rose Stanley said...

I really like these 'Diversity Matters' interviews - interesting, informative and very refreshing. Thank you.

Tracy said...

Thanks for the comments!

Malaika Rose Stanley - I'm so glad you're enjoying the interviews. There are more to come, although there will have to be short break for some other posts during September/October then I'll start Diversity Matters Part 2.

Tracy :)

Kateyanne said...

Interesting interview. A lot of my stories have Muslims in them too and I get fed up with the stereotypical portrayal of them too.

Wendy Meddour said...

Thanks to all for the lovely comments - and for Tracy for convincing me to temporarily drop my silly façade (well, almost) ! :)

Leila Rasheed said...

Thanks for this really interesting post, Wendy (and Candy). We absolutely need children's books about characters from different cultures and religions. And I wish that Waterstone's would stop ghettoing anything with non-white characters away on a small shelf marked 'Multicultural', too - as if they were medicine, or something.

Authorator said...

True! What you read as a child definitely stays with you forever. Besides writing children's books is a lot of fun!
Create, Collaborate, Publish

Odette Elliott said...

I too really enjoyed this post. There is much to think about. I particularly like "I write about characters that ask to be written". Grateful for the link to Diversity Matters.

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