Tamsin Janu is inspired to write by all the things she sees and experiences. Here she shares with Reading Time how her experiences in Ghana shaped her debut novel Figgy in the World…
In 2009 I spent three months in Ghana, a country in West Africa, working at a school and orphanage and staying with a local family. Having never been to a developing country before I was surprised by the poverty I saw daily, but also fell in love with the humour and resilience of the Ghanaian people. The kids I worked with were particularly interesting, as their world and how they perceived it was so different to kids in Australia. Most Ghanaian kids have never been more than a few hours from home, and the idea that I had come from the other side of the world was very confusing to them. I remember once trying to explain where I had come from to a smart and perpetually curious eight year old in my class, a boy named Osagyefo. I pointed out Australia on a world map, and he looked at it in silence for a number of minutes, his brow creased. He finally looked up at me and asked, ‘Is Australia in the sky?’
Once I returned home I really wanted to write about the Ghanaian kids I had met. I’ve always loved writing little stories, and I had what I thought could be a fun new idea. But I was in the middle of my law degree at university, and was concurrently working part time at cafes, a kid’s shoe store and in legal centres, so it took me a while to put pen to paper. I eventually did, and after prodding from my Mum I sent my story off to Scholastic Omnibus, one of the few Australian publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts. After a big revision my story was accepted for publication.
My first novel Figgy in the World follows a little girl named Figgy, who lives in Ghana, on her journey to America to find the medicine that will make her Grandma Ama well again. Figgy and her goat Kwame visit interesting places and meet many quirky characters along the way. The book inevitably contains references to the poverty many Ghanaians face, and shows how life can be incredibly difficult because of it. But the story is also uplifting and funny, to reflect the positivity and energy of Ghanaian kids. As well as increasing my familiarity with technical aspects of writing, such as where to put commas and the benefits of succinctness, the process of writing this book taught me that writing is most enjoyable when you are telling a story about something you are genuinely passionate about.
Writing for kids was an obvious choice for me. In the years following my Ghanaian trip I did volunteer work with Aboriginal kids in Redfern, and in Western Australian and Northern Territory communities, and worked with teenage girls at a juvenile detention centre in Sydney. Having finished my law degree at the end of last year, in January I began full time work as a Youth Worker in a little community of around 200 people named Willowra, which is located in the Northern Territory Central Desert. Being around kids everyday, with the funny things they say and their unique insights on life, provides great inspiration for future stories.
With Figgy in the World I wanted to show Australian kids how differently people on the other side of the world live; as a kid I loved reading about places and people I knew little about. And I strove to encapsulate the spirit and energy which seems to be a characteristic of all kids, no matter where they live, no matter what their circumstances. I hope that with this story I did the kids I met in Ghana proud.