Tell Your Own Story
Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas From? by Olivia RanaMake Your Submission to Writing & Me
I teach a course in novel writing at Queen’s University Belfast, and one of the questions that often comes up is ‘how do writers get their ideas?’ An idea is not something that we can magically pull out of a hat, fully formed and ready to go. I tell the students that ideas for novels and stories come from fragments of emotions and experiences, of things we have heard or witnessed, and that we often have to piece together these fragments until they become something that has the semblance of an idea, something that might be capable of generating a story. I love the quote from Flannery O’Connor: “…anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make much out of a lot”.
I think this supports my dislike of the saying ‘write what you know’. I don’t subscribe to this notion, as I believe that so long as what you write is emotionally true to your own experiences, the physical reality of the story – the characters, the setting, the events can be totally made up.
I have never been sold to a circus in India, been trafficked or abused. I’ve never formed a friendship with a chimpanzee, yet these are elements of my novel Elastic Girl. I have experienced fear and hurt, rejection and rage, and I have been to India, so I felt well equipped to write this novel, to imagine stepping into someone else’s shoes.
But, where did I get my idea? It came to be in several parts. The first notion about the book formed one day when I was playing with my young daughter. The radio was on in the background and I could hear a man talking about a charity he had founded, the Esther Benjamin’s Trust. This charity were involved in rescuing young children who had been trafficked into the circus in India. He talked about how some of them were as young as seven years old, and were taken hundreds of miles from home to places where they couldn’t speak the language and were often subjected to physically gruelling training regimes, starvation and sexual abuse.
My daughter is half Indian, and when I looked at her I imagined that in a twist of fate, she could have been one of those children. I had been to Indian many times and I loved it, but now I was discovering a dark side that I felt compelled to explore.
I began to research the issue of trafficking into the circus and I came across some horrifying stories. Many girls were trafficked from Nepal, because they were favoured for their fair skin, often they were sold for as little as £10 and promised a glamorous and exciting life in the circus. Many of these children never saw their families again.
During my research I read many newspaper articles that helped inform me, and I also came across the work of an American Photographer called MaryEllen Mark. MaryEllen spent years in Indian Circus’ capturing images of performers, including many young girls, and these images had a profound impact on me. In particular I came across several images of a young performer called Pinky, who was sold to the circus by her parents and became a contortionist. She inspired the idea for my central character, Elastic Girl.
I also came across a story about a mass eviction that took place in Chennai in 2004. A housing tenement funded by the world-bank in the early 1980’s was demolished overnight, as the government had decided to reuse the dried up lake bed it had been constructed on. Thousands of people, some whom had lived in those houses for over fifteen years found themselves destitute and living on the streets. I wondered if in situations like this, were parents driven to extremes, such as selling a child to the circus in order to earn an income? Thus, this story of the Ambattur lake evictees wove its way into my novel.
The charity work, the newspaper reports, and the photographs were all strands that came together to help me form an idea for a novel. Elastic Girl is based on real life events, but I have fictionalised my character and her individual story. I wanted this novel to truthfully show how dark life can be for a child who is trafficked, but I also wanted it to be a story about hope and the strength of individuals to overcome the most horrendous of circumstances.
Ideas are all around us. We must reach out and touch them and play around with them, and ultimately feel passionate about the one we choose. I was moved by the stories I read about these trafficked children, and I needed to explore all the questions I had through writing about the subject through the eyes of a young girl. Thankfully as a consequence, Elastic Girl has opened up some discussion on this important topic, and for that I am all the more thankful.
I grew up in County Fermanagh, and as far as I can recall I never did have a chimpanzee as a friend.
(c) Olivia Rana
About Elastic Girl:
‘Elastic Girl highlights the cruelties, indignities and injustice of child trafficking. An enlightening and gripping read.’ Joanna Lumley
Before Muthu Tikaram is born, her grandfather murders the family’s landlord, an act of violence that shapes Muthu’s life from the very beginning.
Too young to understand the repercussions of this act of brutality, Muthu knows only that her two older sisters are given special treatment while she is forced to sell rotis on the dusty roadside, dreaming of escape.
When the family find themselves destitute and living by the side of the railway station, Muthu is sold to The Great Raman Circus of Chennai. Her father convinces her that this is the only way to help free her family from poverty, and in her innocence Muthu imagines that with her extraordinary contortionist abilities she will become a star, just like all her Bollywood idols.
Muthu’s hopes for glamour and excitement are short lived, as she is transported into a world of misery and abuse. After several years of enslavement, she plans her escape with her friend Gloria, convinced that they can make it on their own in Mumbai, the City of Dreams. Will Muthu succeed in making her name as the Elastic Girl or will her dreams turn into a nightmare?
This poignant tale draws attention to the plight of child performers in India, and on the horrors of child trafficking, but as Muthu tries to make sense of her existence, readers will discover the true strength of the “Elastic Girl.”
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15% of profits from each book will go towards the work of Child Rescue Nepal.