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June 18, 2010 / castingpods99

Casting Pods Show 3 Interview: Sarah Mussi Author Door of No Return

Cover of Sarah Mussi's book Door of No ReturnShow #3 – Interview with Sarah Mussi Author – The Door of No Return Click the title to listen while you read.

27:36 mins – uploaded 18/07/07

This show is dedicated to an interview with author Sarah Mussi, and a break from my usual chat and music. We touch on subjects as wide as global debt, poverty, racism and the slave trade, as her book is a modern action adventure in which a teenage boy investigates his African roots. Sarah’s book, The Door of No Return was recently published by Hodder and has some rave reviews on Amazon, in The Times and on Waterstones’ website. I feel privileged to be Sarah’s friend and to have been able to interview her about her writing.

Keywords: Africa, Ghana, slavery, book, novel, teen, fiction, interview, author, issues, race, adventure, action, education, poverty, literature, global, debt

Time Stamp Hello and welcome to the, wow, third instalment of Casting Pods. I’m Josie Henley-Einion and I’m your host. // //
0:08-0:15 [Music – Fastbeat]This instalment focuses on an interview with Sarah Mussi, author of the teen adventure novel Door of No Return, published by Hodder. Sarah’s second novel Last of the Warrior Kings, is due to be published in 2008, also by Hodder. Sarah is a good friend of mine and we have been writing buddies since we met when we were both shortlisted for the BBC Talent Children’s Fiction prize in 2001.

I fondly remember meeting Sarah and the other finalists in the BBC studios in London. We ate lunch and chatted about our novels. Since then we’ve got together regularly to share our writing, thoughts and celebrate our successes. A couple of weeks ago, Sarah and I stayed at Caroline’s house (one of the other BBC Talent finalists). In the last instalment of Casting Pods, I included an extract from our evening’s conversation, which was very varied. I decided to save the interview with Sarah for a separate show.

1:11-1:29 [Music – Filler]Before talking about Sarah’s own book, we chatted about writing in general and I asked Sarah how she felt about writing courses and writing workshops, and ‘how to write’ kind of books. Whether these were worth anything or whether it was just a matter of getting down there and writing, because this is something that she has often said to me. And I found her answer quite interesting, because I hadn’t actually realised that she knew anything about football at all, or that she would compare football to writing. Have a listen to this.

J: Do you see yourself as teaching yourself to write by writing? As if that’s the only way that you can do it?

S: Yes.

J: I mean, would you… Because, you know, I went on an MA in writing and I studied it, but would you say that it’s just as good, it could be just as good, just to actually, to do it, rather than having to study it?

S: No, well, how can I say? I mean obviously, oh god, that’s too many questions I’ll need to unpack that. I would say that all writing essentially is a self-taught art. However, like any art form there are people who’ve been there before and they have stories to tell. And so there are actually strands, if you like, that have been explored before that could be learnt. But it would be a bit like kicking a ball and then going to football school, in a way. If you went to football school and you just watched all the replays of all the greatest matches and David Beckham scoring goals in all the last cup finals or whatever he does. It wouldn’t teach you how to kick a ball.

C: Course not.

S: It would teach you how other people have kicked a ball, it would teach you great moments in football, it might teach you the rules of football. It might teach you about how fans respond to football, it might teach you about how teamplay is important, it might teach you about capitalising on the moment, it might teach you about the pitch and about, you know, combinations and teamplay. It might teach you loads of stuff which would be incredibly valuable, but it won’t teach you how to kick a ball. You have to get down with the ball and kick it. That’s how you have to learn to do it. And I think that writing is the same, you can go on courses, you can read books, and all that is like watching replays of the best matches and listening to all the coaches, and listening to people telling you, you know, the theory of football, but until you get out there with the ball, you are not a writer. Until you get out there with the words you are not a writer. And when you do that, then you start learning.

That was Sarah’s philosophy on the David Beckham school of writing.

3:55 Then I asked Sarah to tell me what is the title of your newly published book?S: The Door of No Return.

J: By Sarah Mussi.

S: Yeah, by Sarah Mussi.

J: Available on Amazon. Tell me about your book, is there a genre that that fits into or would you say that you’re writing into a new genre?

S: No, I wouldn’t really say it’s a new genre, no. It’s a kind of adaptation, as all, I suppose like, you know, post-modernist cross-genre kinds of, um, creations. But really it’s essentially a kind of thriller with a bit of a whodunit twist, mm, action-adventure. I mean, I suppose the things that makes it slightly crossover is because it is the first-person narrative as opposed to, in a thriller you would normally expect it to be a third-person multiple viewpoint. Then it’s a first-person narrative so it then has this growing up tale, or this character that starts at a certain position and then has to go through life. Life is similar a sort of, a series of lessons and he learns through those lessons, something, and arrives essentially at the same position but different. So it has that kind of element to it, so yes it has some kind of crossover strands in it, I think. But I think, for me the thing that makes it different, or original, if there’s anything that could be termed original, is the fact that it’s actually targeting a black hero.

J: Yeah.

5:22 S: And now this is like, uncharted territory, well as far as I’m concerned anyway. There aren’t really models to follow. Oh, well there are, there are the kind of Camero like The African Child type. Which are also kind of a genre of their own, you know, this very ethnic growing up story of a child from Africa, told in an African voice. Even to a certain extent I would say Benjamine Zephinia’s Refugee Boy is of that ilk. It’s appealing in a sense to a minority, a minority audience. Although probably with his, it’s trying to appeal to a more of a majority audience, but it doesn’t essentially because it doesn’t crack the mould of that genre. So I’m trying to crack that mould, and I’m trying to say, ‘Hey, we can write with black heroes that do and have the same kinds of experience that white heroes have.’ But, but with a difference, because they can never be the white heroes. So they can never be mainstream society, so they have to come in at a tangent.J: But it could be read by mainstream.

S: And it’s intended for mainstream, or yeah absolutely mainstream, and a mainstream audience. But they’re coming in at a tangent.

6:40 So you couldn’t really have a black hero like Alex Rider being recruited by a spy team to go off and do missions that required a white hero to do them. So essentially, by the very nature that you’re choosing a black hero, you kind of have to construct a series of adventures that, that it would be possible for that hero to have.J: So that’s why they’re based on, sort of, African conspiracy-type…

S: Well not really, no no no, not really, no. That comes because, that’s leftover from the other bit of the genre. There was this kind of whole idea that you could only have, black heroes could only be involved in like, black issue novels. And so that you appealed to this minority audience really, that wanted black issue novels, which had black protagonists. How can I tweak this, and how can I play around with this, and how can I deliver that, and yet deliver more than that? So I was thinking, okay, fine, you have a black hero, you take a black hero, and then you, you send them out to do a kind of mainstream adventure, action-adventure, thriller plotline, okay. With things that affect everybody, whether they’re white or black, whether they’re coming from the West or the underdeveloped, or less developed countries. But then, how can you also deliver a kind of issue, a black issue inside that? And so, yeah, that’s what I tried to do, I just sort of tried to thread in… It’s not a black issue actually, slavery isn’t a black issue. Slavery, for example with Door, it affected African people, because they were the people who were taken as slaves, but it was run by the West, by white people. The slaves benefited the societies in America and in the West. So it’s not just a black issue, it’s a black and white issue. So I’ve tried to kind of take black and white issues, that have two sides, two facets. And then have a backstory that shows one angle and a front story that shows another angle, and then, so you kind of deliver something for every audience. Is that clear?

8:30 J: Yeah, that makes sense. I remember a few years ago having a conversation with you and you said that you wanted to write a book that you would have wanted your children to be able to read. That when your children were of the age that they were reading children’s books, especially your son, that there wasn’t really anything available, in terms of having a boy hero in a book, who was black, that would appeal, where he could see himself and identify with the… and that that’s why you wanted to write this sort of book.S: Yeah.

J: Do you still feel like that now after you’ve written, because this is, this is your third now that you’re writing, and is this still the thing that motivates you?

9:12 S: Yes to a certain extent, yes, because I think, you know, you’ve got to write novels that have sort of credibility. If you want kids of, how can I say? If you want kids of any kind of ethnic diversity, whether they’re black or Asian or mixed race, whether they see themselves as belonging to the white mega society, despite the fact that they’re actually maybe mixed race, but you know, living in maybe one-parent families with mothers who are white and then dads who aren’t and who’ve disappeared or have gone off or… of which there are in our inner cities large numbers of kids in this situation. You have to deliver novels that have some credibility for them. They don’t want a differentiated curriculum or differentiated set of stories, they don’t. So, yeah, you have to deliver something that they want, and, and yet it’s not fair to keep on delivering the old white heroes. You know, this is one of the criticisms, not that I want to start knocking other people’s novels because it’s hard enough to come up with an idea and then write a whole novel and get it published, but you know, we’re still seeing novels that are set in Africa or set in ethnically diverse areas, in which we’ve got white heroes who are facilitated by the others. The others are always women or black people. We see this in film all the time, I mean, you know, much as I commend films like Blood Diamond. We’ve got Leondardo di Caprio there, and then we’ve got that wonderful Senegalese supporter actor, what’s his name again? I don’t know.
10:46 J: I don’t know! That kind of makes your point, really doesn’t it?S: It’s awful, exactly that makes my point! I don’t even know his name. And yet he’s, he was great, he was in Gladiator, again, Russell Crow’s side-kick, and I can’t even remember his name! I mean, that’s it, that says it all, what’s his name? And he’s just the facilitator for this white guy to have this adventure. And I must say, you know, Caprio is wonderful in that film, absolutely amazing for a sleazy South African jewellery dealer, he lends something, you know, and it’s great, but it’s all about him, isn’t it? It’s not really, Sierra Leone and the crisis with the kind of conflict diamonds are just the backdrop for him, really. And okay, it’s a tragedy and he dies, and maybe something better comes out, and the black guy actually, whatever his name is, survives and lives and gets his family back and actually makes some money out of it. So maybe there’s some messages there, thank god! But why can’t we just have a story in which there’s just a black guy with another black guy? And still want to watch it.
11:42 J: Yeah. What is the literature scene like in Africa?S: Well, it’s like everything else in Africa: developing. Yeah of course there are black writers in Africa. There are, I mean, poets and dramatists, of course, and filmmakers, of course there are. There are many of them. But the question is, do they ever, do we ever see their work? Do we ever get to appreciate their work?

J: No, I don’t think we do, over here. No.

S: No we don’t, no we don’t. I mean there are wonderful writers…

C: Because we’ve got this awful populous narrow mentality that just plays to the crowd, that’s what the problem is. The idea of intellect and, and deep stories, I mean, that’s not what people are reading, it’s all the me-me-me celebrity culture, that’s all part of the problem as well, I think.

12:28 J: Do they have celebrity culture in Africa, do they have, like, famous football players, and famous…?S: Yes, yes, they do.

J: They have all that?

S: They do. The football players, yes. But, I mean, you’re talking about a continent so, you know, let’s break it down.

J: Right. Yeah.

S: Let’s break it down. We can’t really, I don’t think we can discuss Africa any more than we can say Europe. Let’s talk, we have to talk about specific countries, because each country have their own different set of economic and social pressures that make them unique. So, right, so that’s the first thing I want to say. And I am not an expert of Africa, I could tell you a little bit about West Africa, where I have my most experience. It’s completely different from Central Africa, which is completely different from South Africa, which is completely different from East Africa. And North Africa is a different nation altogether. So I could tell you a little bit about West Africa, but I can’t really speak generically.

// //
13:19 J: You think that your novels are, they’re set in Britain and Africa, they’re going to be mainly set in West Africa because that’s what you’ve got experience of?S: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve lived for many years in Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana. I’ve visited Togo, Benin, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Algeria, Niger, you know, Bekina Fas. I’ve visited these places, so this is, um, Que Duboir, whatever, you know, I, so I know most of West Africa through either having lived there or visited. So Francophone of course is very different from Anglophone countries, but the cultural sort of banding across sort of West Africa is similar, so I can write about West Africa with some degree of authority. But I would still have to, like any, any writer, have to go and do my research. I mean, for example, I’ve lived in South London. I could write with a great deal of authority about South London, but if you take me to Yorkshire, I’d have to really go and study it, you know.
14:18 J: Yeah, yeah.S: It would be the same in Ghana, I know Accra but if you sent me to Wa, I wouldn’t know so much.

J: Yeah. Well would you say that when you’re writing your novel, your novels are sort of teen novels, aimed at a specific agegroup and that you’ve kind of found your niche in the, the black hero and the British and African, or the British and Ghanaian, at least, connection? Would you say that the primary drive in your writing is the issues, or would you say that it’s the story, the adventure, the, you know that you love, you love to express that, or do the two go hand in hand?

S: Yeah, I think, oh, it’s a very interesting question and a difficult one to answer. I think the story always comes first, always. But you see, you can’t have a story without a context for a story. And the minute you try to fabricate a context for that story, you are starting to create a series of lies, and in fiction that’s fine, we, we call it fiction, we don’t call it lies. We create a context in which our heroes can then have a story. I just happen to be one of these people who wants to take a context that is real. And so I don’t have to a, give myself the trouble of creating a context in which my heroes have to live out their story, that they can actually live it out against a real backdrop. So I guess I’d like to call what I do faction instead of fiction. But essentially, yeah, it’s always the story that comes first. I guess it’s just that, certainly in West Africa, there are so many stories that haven’t been explored or told, that wealth there, that I can draw upon.

16:11 J: Yeah.S: And I guess I’m privileged to be able to do that, because I’ve lived there.

J: I think you’re definitely in a, in a lucky position of having lived there and sort of absorbed all of that, but also having the ability and the skill and the, I suppose contacts as well, to actually express those in a novel. Because it could quite possibly be that somebody who is living in Africa now, could be writing a book like yours, but we would never get to hear about it. Do you know what I mean? It goes on the cusp of sounding racist, but I’m not saying that they wouldn’t have the capability of doing that, what I’m saying is that nobody would know.

S: Well nobody here would know.

J: Nobody here would know. But your book, potentially, could be sold in Africa, in Ghana as well as being sold over here, whereas their book would only be sold in Ghana, do you see what I mean? Because, because of being British, because of being in the sort of culture that we’re in, I mean, it’s on Amazon.

17:15 C: It is, isn’t it?S: Yeah, it has been bought, and it will be sold in America. Yeah.

J: Exactly, so by being British, we are, I think that we are quite privileged, in terms of…

S: In terms of sales. Is that what you mean, yeah?

J: Yeah, and in terms of how we are going to be marketed.

S: The thing is, I can’t talk about the whole of Africa obviously. I know in Ghana that there is a couple of publishing houses. They are more like self publishing houses. You’re looking at a nation in which you’ve only got, this is Ghana in particular, that you’ve got no free education past primary level. So you’ve only got free education up to class six. And that’s, we call it free, that means you can actually turn up in class and you don’t have to pay the teachers school fees. But it’s not free in terms of you still have to buy the school uniform, the text books, sometimes even have to provide your own desk, your own chair. So it still eliminates vast numbers of peoples who cannot afford to buy uniforms and books for their children despite the fact that the, the actual teachers’ salaries are free. So we’re looking at a nation in which…

18:17 J: And also, also if the family depends on the children, say for instance children who are looking after their younger siblings, or children who are working in the family business, or… I know in a lot of countries, you’ve got children who actually, if they work on farms or whatever. And this is how it used to, used to be in Britain hundreds of years ago, the families… does that tend to happen?S: No, I wouldn’t, I would beg to differ here now. I would say that does not happen in Ghana. I would say that most Ghanaian parents there, they would sacrifice family income to send their kids to school. There is an enormous respect for education. And kids go out and sell charcoal, you know, or bread before school. We used to have a kid who came round, he brought us bread and then he would sweep my veranda and I would try to give him enough money to buy his books, pens, pencils, give him a little bit at the end of the week to buy uniform. And he would come and do sort of menial tasks after and before school and at the weekend, in order to put himself through school. And if he couldn’t come, his mum would come and do it. Because they’re really very keen on, so no. All children, where there is a way in Ghana all parents would send their kids to school, and the family income is not an issue.
19:22 J: Yeah, unlike in this country, there are people in Britain who won’t…S: However, having said that, having said that, not, English is not their first language, most kids. It is the national language and if you’re in Accra, major city, of course, most kids will speak it. But if you’re outside Accra, then, um, primary education will be taught, as it should be, in native language. So English may become a subject that is actually only studies towards class five and class six and perhaps more at secondary school. Now, as secondary school isn’t free, many, many children actually don’t go on to secondary school. If you’re looking at children’s books in particular, and you’re looking about an audience, a reading audience of children for children’s books, you know, you’ve got a big problem here. Because most children aren’t going to be able to get to school, the ones that do get to school may not be educated in English, and many of them may not go on to secondary school. And they’re having a struggle just to buy exercise books.
20:16 J: Yeah.S: They really don’t have the money to buy reading, novels. Most schools don’t have libraries and now when you look at the publishing companies, this is what they’re up against. Reading is a luxury. And there is an elite in Accra that will read and have good libraries, household libraries. And there’s a few elite schools, in Accra, and in Kumassi, that have school libraries where kids will read, but this is such a small percentage of society. So you can’t compare what’s happening in terms of writing for kids in England. And, you know, you’d be very surprised at the middle classes in Ghana are infinitely better off than the middle classes in Britain. I mean, you know, they have lovely homes with swimming pools and three or four, five cars, household servants. They travel regularly to the States, to the Far East, to Japan to do shopping, to Australia, to England. I mean, England isn’t their only destination, they live a very privileged lifestyle, um, against that…

J: And this is the middle classes?

S: This is the middle classes, but of course there’s very few of them. And against this, you have the poorer classes. They of course have virtually nothing. So you haven’t got a society like you’ve got here. So when you’re talking about writers there, or writing, you’re talking about a very different kind of…

21:29 I asked Sarah what she thought about the West giving aid to the developing world. I wondered if it was nationalistic to focus on poverty in our own country when there is so much deprivation in other countries.S: I don’t think there’s anything wrong in being nationalistic. But what is wrong is when you’re nationalistic at the expense of other nations and of other peoples. And then that’s where the problem starts, you know. There’s a lot of deprivation, illiteracy, disenchantment in this country that needs to be sorted out. You know, we need to look at our kids in England, in inner cities, and the kinds of breakdown in youth culture that’s happening here, and we need to fix that. We don’t necessarily have to take on board the problems of the Ghanaian children, but insofar as we maintain the shackles of third world debt on countries like Ghana and we force them to accept unpalatable trade agreements which cripple their ability to provide for themselves, then yeah, then of course we have to look at it. And unfortunately that’s what’s going on. It’s not like okay Britain has to stand up and go and hold out a great big patronising helping hand to a third world country that’s struggling. That as far as I’m concerned is unnecessary and disingenuous too. Britain should take its hands off some of the assets that are being produced in third world countries, they should free countries from the kinds of debt burden that has been incurred by foreign trade that the people of those countries never wanted or taken on by tyrannical rulers, despots who were put there by America and Britain, and then the local people have to pay for. These are the kind of things that Britain should be sorting out. They should be saying okay, you know, we’re actually going to undo some of that stuff, and allow countries like Ghana to rule themselves and enjoy the fruits and the benefits of their own labour and their own resources and their own economic development arc, whatever that is. So, I mean I think this is where I’m coming from.

J: Yeah.

S: And we should look at our own kids in our inner city areas and just sort try and some of the $h*t out in our own back yard.

23:43 I asked Sarah what is the Door of No Return, what does it actually mean? And I found out that there is actually, there were a number of doors. Any fortress where the slaves were kept had a door which the slaves had to go through to get onto the ship, and it was called the Door of No Return, because once you went through that door you didn’t come back. Although Sarah did tell me that she found out about a slave who bought his way to freedom and did come back, came back to his home town. And she saw the grave of this old man who had been a child taken as a slave, taken through the Door of No Return. And returned. And that’s where she got the idea for the book. So The Door of No Return being a physical door, it’s quite a symbolic thing, and it’s best to let Sarah say it in her own words, which are amazing.S: If you type in The Door of No Return and you go on the web, you’ll find out a lot more than just my book. Because of course it’s a hugely symbolic title, and all the slave forts and fortresses and castles across Africa, that stalked the entire borders of the slave trading world, all had the Door of No Return. And I think the most famous one actually is in Gory Island off Senegal, oh, I can still see it in my mind’s eye. It’s this, just this slit in the stone side of the fortress which, you see the ocean beyond. I mean it’s scary, sinister, beautiful, calamitous, symbolic, it’s just everything.

J: Wow.

S: Yeah. J: Wow. Okay.

25:30 It’s very interesting to interview a friend. Sarah has said things I’ve heard before, and we’ve had conversations about race issues many times. I’ve read Door of No Return, and it’s a very good book, on the level of an exciting teen adventure as well as on an ‘issues’ level. I also believe myself to be reasonably clued in as far as political global awareness is concerned. But in conducting an interview, I’ve listened from a different perspective. I hadn’t realised some of the assumptions I’d made about Africa, slavery and poverty, the origins of national debt and attitudes towards education. Especially listening to this interview whilst editing and transcribing, I realise that I do make a lot of assumptions when I’m talking about things that maybe I don’t know enough about. I think that there are times in this where I sounded quite arrogant. So I think I’ve learned a lot by doing this interview, about Africa and about myself!I hope you’ve enjoyed listening. I’m off to Paris very soon, to see my son singing in the choir in the Notre Dame. Please tune in next time when I hope to podcast some of my Paris trip.
26:33 [Music – Dum Dum]
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