Thursday 18 January 2018

A trip though the pages

Kit de Waal.
Kit de Waal.

Kit de Waal never wanted to be a writer.

The now 55-year-old instead devoted much of her life to the legal world, working for fifteen years in criminal and family law, as a magistrate and on adoption panels. Little did she know at the time that her archive of experiences with foster children and families would later become the building blocks for her debut novel.

'My Name is Leon' is loosely based upon Kit's experience working with foster children. It tells the tale of nine-year-old Leon, an intuitive child who has been forced to fight to keep his fractured and troubled family together until he is later placed into foster care. It is told through the eyes of Leon himself - a move well-thought out by Kit.

'If you are a child in care, you always have your story told by somebody else, People are always saying "this is how it feels for a foster child" and "this is what happens",' explained Kit. 'I wanted Leon to say what it is really like to be placed in care and to have things taken away from you. It's important. I have two adopted children myself and I could never speak for them. I don't think I should.'

Though entirely fictional, Kit aimed to give her readers a deeper understanding of the reality of a life in care.

'People like us don't know what it is like to be given up by my parents or to change bedrooms three times in one year. I have my brothers and sisters and I know they have my back,' she said. 'Children in care only have the state as their safety net and the state is shit. Very often, they grow up knowing that. They know that there is no bottom there if they fall.'

Not all of the book's content stemmed from other people's stories. It also echoes Kit's own adolescence growing up in 1980s Britain. Born to a mother from Campile and a father from the Caribbean, Kit had a very mixed upbringing. However, her connection with Ireland and in particular, Wexford, stems from her Birmingham beginnings.

'My grandparents were from Wexford and they both came over in the 1930s. They were complete and utter paddies and their accent remained as strong in their later lives as when they came over,' she said. 'In my own family, I was one of nine children. We were brought up in a massive Irish community in Birmingham where you need not mix with anyone else there was so many Irish people.'

Though Birmingham is now a much more diverse place with nationalities from across the globe, Kit's connection with her Wexford roots is as strong as ever. Now in its early stages, her next book will be heavily influenced by Wexford and its people.

'The next book I'm writing is set in Kilmore in the early 1970s and then in Birmingham in 1974 when the pub bombings happened. It was a very difficult time for the Irish community as any attack there was linked to them. It's a bit like the situation for many Muslims today,' explained Kit. 'In 'My Name is Leon' I explored what it is like to be an inner-city mixed race child. In this, I want to explore what it is to be an Irish person who has been displaced.'

Kit began working on her book not long after the release of 'My Name is Leon'. It soon dawned on her that, to truly understand her ancestors, she must take a trip to Kilmore.

'It was incredible,' said Kit. 'I went to Campile and saw a photo of where my grandparents were married. I met some fantastic people.'

'My grandfather was a famous musician in Birmingham and was also a mummer. I didn't know what a mummer was until I came here and somebody told me all about it. I will definitely mention it in the book.'

Some of Wexford's unique words and phrases are sure to get a mention in Kit's work, while a Wexford woman who speaks only in proverbs will serve as one of the novel's memorable characters. A certain place which grabbed her attention in Wexford will also play a central part in her next story.

'I went to Kilmore to do some research and came across a fantastic bay called Forlorn Bay. I cannot tell you how significant that will be in the book.'

Journeying back to Wexford was not only a research trip for the author. For her, it conjured up memories of her childhood and ultimately, felt like a coming home.

'Of all of the countries in the world, coming back to Ireland feels like coming home. When I'm surrounded by people with Irish accents, it feels like my childhood again. When I was young, you would go to the cornershops in Birmingham and everyone would have an Irish accent,' she said. 'It felt really great to go to Wexford and hear the accent again.'

Having received rave reviews from critics for her first novel, Kit hopes to give her readers plenty more in the years to come. She now works as a writer full time and in future, she said she might consider buying a place in Wexford to use as her writing haven.

For now, she is satisfied to with the direction that her unexpected new career is taking.

'It's every writer's dream to make enough money from writing and long may it continue. It's such a privilege to do it. I'm living the dream.'

In an effort to help other budding writers to achieve their dream, Kit has set up a scholarship to give marginalised people opportunities in creative writing. The scholarship at Birbeck University of London gives one applicant a fully-funded place on a creative writing master's course, with travel, books and computer equipment for the duration of the degree. Kit is hoping that the scholarship will provide that spark of encouragement to those who may not otherwise have access to such an opportunity.

Wexford People

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