Today we're celebrating Shenaaz Nanji's new young adult novel Ghost Boys, out now from Mawenzi House!
Fifteen-year-old Munna lives with his Ma and sisters in a small town in India. Determined to end his family’s misfortunes, he is lured into a dream job in the Middle East, only to be sold. He must work at the Sheikh’s camel farm in the desert and train young boys as jockeys in camel races. The boys, smuggled from poor countries, have lost their families and homes. Munna must starve these boys so that they remain light on the camels’ backs, and he must win the Gold Sword race for the Sheikh. In despair, he realizes that he is trapped and there is no escape . . .
Welcome, Shenaaz! So, tell us . . .
Who was your favorite character to write and why?
The 4-year-old Babur in Ghost Boys was my favorite character to write for. The little innocent but spunky boy came on vividly and forcefully, tearing me apart, threatening to steal the thunder from the protagonist, Munna. On hindsight, I think Babur reminded me of my son long ago. When we (family of four -- mother-in-law, hubby and my 9-month-old toddler) first moved from Kenya to U.S.A. (hubby to pursue further education), we lived hand to mouth in deplorable conditions in the slums of Syracuse. Having lived in the tropics all our lives, we had never seen snow, had absolutely no idea how brrr freezingly cold it could get, couldn’t afford to buy winter apparel, jackets or boots. We’d roll up my son in a blanket and wheel him about in the grocery cart as our stroller. The only toy he had was a big steel pot from Africa . . .
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process?
And so it followed that one of the most difficult element of revision in Ghost Boys was to tone down the character of little Babur; after all the story really belonged to Munna. It was Munna who made the big sacrifice by dropping out of school, giving up his Big Dream of being a Bollywood actor, venturing out in the unknown world to save honor for his family. It was Munna who tried his best to be Babur’s big brother and prolonged his stay at the ousbah, camel camp. Later, it was Munna again, who influenced the other camel boys to stop bullying Babur. In the Gold Sword Race, Munna simply refused to pair up Babur with Kismet, the fastest racing camel, out of concern for Babur’s life. The challenge posed was: how do I evoke sympathy in Barbur yet tread carefully, not allow him to overshadow Munna?
Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.
I have lots pinned to my wall so I will pick two things.
A card says: “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are omnipotent.”
Hmm. I just found that these were the words of Calvin Coolidge, 30th USA President.
Did you know that Dr. Seuss, whose books sold millions over his lifetime, had his first book rejected at least twenty times? What if he had not persisted?
The second thing is the poem “Love after Love” by Derek Walcott. This is because I am deficient in the department of self-love.
A lovely poem. Friends, you can read it here.
What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
That melodrama leads to a sense of disbelief in readers.
I, Queen of Melodrama, still make the mistake of writing dramatically. Sad people burst into hot tears. Joyful people express their glee by jumping up and down. I know I must not run away with my emotions but I find it terribly hard to find the right balance of emotion; too little and readers feel no empathy for characters, but too much, and the scene becomes melodramatic.
Again and again, I remind myself that It is fine to express raw emotions in the first draft, but I ought to temper them during revision. I ought to strive to sprinkle spices in the curry, not burn fire in the mouths of those who eat it.
What was special about your VCFA graduating class?
The best part of our class, The Zoo, is that we have kept into touch with each other for the last 15 years. Amazing! We are diverse in race, culture, age, beliefs and in the region/countries we live and the genre of stories we write. Through the years, my class has witnessed weddings and separations, happiness and grief, the birth of babies and grand-babies. It is a thrill to get an email or photographs from my class.
What's special about the VCFA-WCYA program?
No doubt, the writing program at VCFA is tough and demanding, especially if you travel as far as I did (flight from West Canada, then a bus ride, then a cab). I was always exhausted in the first two days of every residency. Besides the mmm sumptuous extra-large cookies, the college offers an at-home nurturing environment that inspires learning and creativity. I like that the Program offers both workshop-type experience where the feedback is group-based as well as the one-on-one mentoring through the exchange of writing packets. The faculty is supportive and the students help enrich each other. Both the students as well as the faculty "stand shoulder to shoulder on the same landing"; there is no one-upmanship. No competition, rather a spirit of collaboration. The cherry on top is the administration staff, always cheerful and compassionate. I will never forget the time I was stuck at the US border and the administration staff traveled all the way to pick me up, not just once but twice in a row.
What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
Be thick-skinned like crocs. Be prepared to receive feedback that will not always be positive. In workshops in a group setting, several students and faculty offering critique all at once can hit you like punch in the gut and give rise to meltdowns, especially if you have an inner demon that pulls you down. But these are just opinions. Don’t take it personally. Remember the age old saying: no pain, no gain. Know that the main reason you came to college is to learn, to improve your writing skill. Know that too much praise on the other hand can kill your writing.
"Thick-skinned like crocs" might just be my new motto. Thank you so much for stopping by, Shenaaz! Welcome to the world, Ghost Boys.
Shenaaz Nanji is a squid who bubbles in the water world but surfaces occasionally to read and write. She grew up on the East African coast amid a fusion of cultures: Arabic, Swahili, British, East Indian, and later: American and Canadian. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College and has published ten books for young readers that include novels, short stories, non-fiction, and picture books. Her novel Child of Dandelions was a finalist in the Governor General in Children’s Literature and other awards. Shenaaz believes in the power of stories. Stories are not only fun to read; they touch our hearts and change the way we think and behave. Suddenly we see each other in new ways. Mere words expand our world and transform lives.
Visit Shenaaz online at www.shenaaznanji.com.
Watch the trailer for Ghost Boys below and on YouTube.