Seven-year-old Elijah believes in wizards, though his story is far from magical. In Christie Watson’s Where Women are Kings, Elijah struggles to adapt to his new life after being adopted. He was taken away from his Nigerian mother, a woman who abused him under the guidance of a manipulative bishop because she believed Elijah had an evil wizard living inside of him. What follows his adoption is a moving and tragic story about the depths of love that is sure to stay with readers long after the last page is turned. Here, we talk with Watson about how her own children inspired this novel, the changing culture of child abuse in the U.K., and the moments that make her feel like a king.
Bookish: Obi’s father says that to dismiss the idea of a belief system, simply because it’s alien to another culture, is to deny identity. Then there’s one of Elijah’s nurses bluntly stating that “child abuse is child abuse.” When writing this book, did you find your own beliefs changing or evolving as you explored the lines between cultural practices and outsider opinion?
Christie Watson: My thinking always evolves when I write. But there are no lines in my head between cultural practices and outsider opinions. I have spoken to many “insider” family and friends living in the U.K. and in Nigeria, and they are very clear, and always have been, that child abuse is child abuse. In fact it has been outsiders (white English people), who have suffered the fear of being branded racist in the U.K., who have traditionally advised that “cultural norms” had some place in discussions about child abuse. But thankfully things are changing rapidly. The police, NHS, and social work are all now trained that accepting something abusive as culturally normal can itself harm a child, and has been a contributing factor in some very high profile cases (Victoria Climbié, for example). But I wanted to explore how although Obi’s father would agree with that sentiment, he could understand that to deny Elijah the belief of the wizard was to deny his belief of his mother’s love. Obi’s father did not believe in wizards, he simply understood that Elijah did. Obi’s dad was very wise.
Bookish: Your first book, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, is set in Nigeria and this book features characters who emigrated from there. What do you most remember about your first trip to Nigeria? Did you realize then how much it would impact your writing?
CW: I remember almost everything. Every smell, sight, and sound. The call to prayer through the loud-speaker at dawn, the clapping and singing of the Christian worshippers shortly afterwards, the smell of roasting meat, the taste of pepper soup, the sweat trickling down my back in the oppressive heat, the number of babies I didn’t know, plonked on my lap, the stories, the laughter. I had no idea how much it would impact my writing, but I did know it would impact my life. England looked so gray when I arrived home!
Bookish: The story is not only about what makes a family, but also the challenges of living with mental illness, the stresses of adoption, and barriers in the foster care system. You’ve said you’ve always been a woman with a cause; which cause in this particular novel is the closest to your heart?
CW: In my previous job as a pediatric intensive care nurse I’d looked after too many children who had suffered abuse so awful they ended up on life support machines. Too many. And I wanted to write about it. But the reason this novel was so close to my heart was my own experience fostering and then adopting my youngest child. I knew the pitfalls of the system, the reasons why children in the U.K. get taken into care, the loss and the love in families, both birth and adoptive. I had a wonderful experience in my family, but as a novelist I’m always asking the what ifs. Elijah was born of my thinking about how things might go wrong, the reasons for such a tragedy despite good people doing their best, despite love like the world has never known.
Bookish: Elijah struggles to find a “forever family.” What kind of research did you do into cases like Elijah’s, where children spend time growing up in the system? Is his story a common one?
CW: I have been through the process myself, so although I did do research I knew the system. There are many thousands of children in the U.K. waiting for an adoptive family. And very sadly, a significant proportion of placements break down. The system in the U.K. is very different from the U.S. Most children in the care system in the U.K. have suffered or are at risk of significant harm, and have been removed from their birth families, very few are relinquished at birth. But thankfully Elijah’s story is not common.
Bookish: Your own mom is a social worker. Did you turn to her when working on those characters? Did any of her experiences influence the book?
CW: My mum is invaluable for fact checking, but she doesn’t discuss any specific cases or examples with me, so I don’t know her experiences. That said, my work as a nurse has enabled me to imagine what her life has been like as a child protection social worker, and most recently a specialist play therapist. Chioma was a character that was based on what my mum describes as the power of play.
Bookish: How have your own experiences as a mother of two biracial children informed this story?
CW: All my experiences make their way into my writing somehow, although the characters and story are completely made up. But I did want to explore race through my characters. We’ve certainly been exposed to racism as a family in a way that I wasn’t before I had biracial children. In fact some of my own experiences of racism were played down in the novel as real life, sadly, is sometimes unbelievable. My daughter was called the N-word, for example, when she was a toddler playing in the park….
Bookish: As children grow and begin forming their own identity, what do you think is the most important thing a parent can do?
CW: Parenting is a mammoth task and getting through the day is sometimes all I seem to achieve, but I constantly remind myself that talking with the children is vital. We have honest, open conversations about everything. I think that if we talk things through we can deal with anything.
Bookish: Elijah believes he has a wizard inside of him. Was there anything you believed as a child that you couldn’t be convinced of otherwise?
CW: I had many strange beliefs. I’m sure most writers did, and still do. For example I was adamant that there was a wolf living in our garden, along with a large centipede who wore a top hat and danced to jazz. My parents tried many times to convince me that this was not true. But they were wrong.
Bookish: The novel is about love and motherhood, but also how love on its own isn’t always enough. Deborah, Elijah’s birth mother, even says “fear surpasses love, in the end.” Do you think that’s true?
CW: I think for a woman as afraid as Deborah was, it was true for her. But I hope that for most of us love is the thing.
Bookish: Deborah says that there are three places where women are kings: the moment after birth, Nigeria, and heaven. Where or what makes you feel like a king?
CW: Holding my children, kissing their heads, listening to their stories, watching them play. That’s where I not only feel like a king, I am a king.
Christie Watson is a British novelist. Her novels, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, and Where Women are Kings have been widely translated. Christie won the Costa First Novel Award, the Waverton Good Read Award and was named Red Magazine’s Hot Woman of the Year (Creative).