Anna Perera – ‘We are all “us”’

I’m in The Tardis Room at Puffin HQ to speed interview three of Puffin’s authors. I’ve opted for the ‘pot luck’ approach, so don’t know which order they will turn up in. First through the door is Anna Perera, and she very politely sits where I ask her to sit.

It seems as if Anna might be more prepared for our chat than I am. She has read up on Bookwitch, which is nice of her, and I have to admit to having read only her new novel The Glass Collector, but not her first book Guantánamo Boy, which came two years ago. But it’s obvious to me that Anna likes topics that look at how others – far away – live. Human rights, if you like, and how to learn something about others who might seem different from ourselves. For a Swede that’s an attractive stance to take, and I did enjoy the story about Aaron, the rubbish collector from Cairo.

‘I finished your book this morning. I never read your first one, so I was interested to see what it was like.’

‘Yes.’

‘I kept thinking “this is very quiet,” but by the end I thought it was as it should be.’

‘It was actually very carefully plotted. I had quite a long time thinking about how I was going to do this, because obviously it isn’t going to be a group of people I know in any way…’

‘No.’

‘It’s Cairo, which many teenagers don’t know apart from the pyramids. And quite frankly I didn’t know much about it.’ Anna laughs apologetically. ‘This particular area; I went there and I was completely flabbergasted by the way they live and how people are actually involved in this amount of waste and…’ She speaks softly and quietly.

‘Yes, it’s fascinating.’

‘It took me a while to put together, thinking “how am I going to do it? Do I want to do this? In what way am I going to develop this?” But yes, it is fascinating.’

‘I thought it was interesting how you picked the subject for your book. That you heard about this, and then you went and had a look. Is that the way you operate, or were you just short of a topic for a book?’

‘What happened was my agent sent me an article, and he said he thought I might find this interesting. I read the article and I thought I wouldn’t even know where to start. I went on YouTube’ – we laugh – ‘and had a look on there, and I read a few articles and I thought “I need to go out there.” You couldn’t imagine that, and I was in two minds. I was not sure I’d actually be able to do this. But once I went out there I became intrigued.’

‘Mm.’

‘But where do you start with a group of people who are Coptic Christians? So many areas to consider; how do you build a narrative about a subject matter that’s not very much known, and how do you make it appealing, so that people will want to read about it? And so we had to go there, to this community that the guide actually couldn’t find.’

‘Oh dear. How far is it from Cairo? It’s hard to get an idea of this from the story.’

‘Not very far. It’s on the edge of the city, about 15 minutes by taxi. The taxi driver had no idea where they lived.’

‘Because they’d never go there…’

‘No, and the translator that I’d hired hadn’t been there either, but she knew roughly where it was, so yeah.‘  Anna laughs.

‘It’s so fascinating. I was thinking halfway through the book, something drastic must happen, but in actual fact it didn’t and then I thought, well what’s going to be the point, and then you don’t really want it to.’

‘Thank you for getting it.’

‘If a character were to hit fame and fortune, that would not be natural.’

‘That wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, that had been done with Slumdog Millionaire, which did change the lives of people, because they became part of the film. But in actual fact, the truth is very few people do escape that life. And I wanted to give some kind of honest account of that, and some dignity.’

‘You made it clear that there were good things there.’

‘That’s right, I wanted to emphasise that.’

Here Puffin’s Hannah comes in to offer drinks. There is no Earl Grey, so Anna settles for green tea, saying her brain’s getting stale.

I mention that it’s nice to be able to speak to Anna like this, rather than a hurried introduction while mingling, when it’s rarely possible to say much more than ‘oh, I loved your book’. We talk a little about Manchester, where Anna’s sister lives, and about Stockport, which she believes is posh. We discuss different cultures and what you can see in different places.

‘I was struck by the fact that you picked English names for quite a few of the characters in your book.’

‘Because they are Christians, they quite often have biblical names.’

‘Yes, but they are in their English form. Luke, for example.’

‘Yeah, well, that was a kind of borrowing. But they are subject to Western culture, just like everybody else, and they pick names they like. I know Western kids that are called Tariq, you know, because the parents liked the name, and therefore they chose it. Isn’t that an example really of multi-ethnic community that exists worldwide?’

‘Mm. Have you any idea how common Christianity is in Egypt? Because we tend to think that it’s not Christian at all.’

‘A tiny percentage of the population.’

‘It must be.’

‘I would say less than three percent. Less than that, even. I don’t know what the actual figure is.’

‘Is the whole area Christian?’

‘Not all of it, no. It was Muslim until a Coptic Christian priest went into the community 30 years ago, and decided to do some conversion work. He was a wonderful man. A fantastic priest, and he introduced all kinds of things and he did convert a great many.’

‘So basically they weren’t Christians before then?’

‘No.’

‘That’s quite interesting.’

‘I didn’t put that into the book. Many of them are still Muslim, but it’s mainly a Christian community. The Coptic Christian church is quite interesting too, because it’s split between a kind of Protestant group and a Catholic group. So it varies as much as Christianity does.’

‘I felt that Aaron’s preoccupation with Mary was strongly Catholic.’

‘Yes, he is very Catholic in that, and the community itself does have a real worshipping factor, if you want to call it that. And that concerns Mary, and there have been many, many appearances of Mary in Cairo, in fact.’

‘Yes, I wondered at the beginning what was going to turn out to be relevant about Mary.’

‘Yes.’

‘So it was quite nice when she turned up at the end. What are you trying to do with your book? Just entertain, or are you trying to make readers aware of the recycling?’

‘Well, there’s many elements to that, and there are quite a few layers that not everybody sees. And that’s good, because you bring your own perception to anything, especially stories. I like that idea that not everybody feels the same way about it. What I tried to do was challenge a myth. With Guantánamo Boy I challenged the myth that torture is sometimes acceptable, and that was a myth that was being developed and spread.’

‘Mm’

‘And here it’s the myth that people from other cultures, who live in very different ways, with very different religions, are actually different to us as people. I wanted to look at the complications of their lives, and explore them, and explore values that we apply to people from other cultures, without even investigating them, and without them being challenged. I think we live in times now where it needs to be challenged, because lots of untruths are spread and the more we can identify with other cultures, the less we can think of them as a group that’s separate and therefore identify them as “them”, as “they” and not as “us”. Because we are all “us”.’

And with that thought we have to finish, as Hannah is back to “swap” Anna for my next interviewee.

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