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Writing your own story

Tiger Skin Rug is a brilliant new magical realism story by Joan Haig. Bridget Carrington interviews the author about the inspiration for her latest book.

Bridget: First of all, can you tell us why you chose the tiger skin rug as the central ‘character’ in the book?


Joan: The character was given to me. My Auntie Lilian was a master storyteller. She intended to write a novel for my sister, cousins and me. It was about four children who moved from the Highlands to the Scottish Borders in the Second World War or thereabouts and went on a magical adventure. It was called Tiger Skin Rug. That’s about as much as we knew: she never wrote it and sadly wasn’t able to recall it after developing dementia.


When it came to typing up something for my own children, I started with my auntie’s idea – it was such a good one and I didn’t want it to be lost. But, at a writing retreat in the Highlands, I struggled immensely trying to depict Scottish children in wartime. One of the retreat mentors, Melvin Burgess, advised me not to try. He said, “You can’t write someone else’s story. Start again. Take your aunt’s idea and use it to write your own story.” So that’s what I did.


Lal and Dilip and their parents, and especially their grandmother, Naniji, are powerful portraits of Hindus from India. Can you tell us how you were able to write such true-to-life characters?


I’m pleased you find them authentic. Part of the joy of being a writer is imagining and creating characters. Writing across cultures, I constantly reflected on how I was representing not only the individual characters but wider Hindu ethnicity. It wasn’t a random choice; I have connections to Hindu families and culture. I grew up in Zambia where my parents had many Indian friends and encouraged us to celebrate cultural difference. From my mid-teens onwards I read a lot of books by Indian authors and in my late teens – partly influenced by a Vikram Seth novel – volunteered for several months for an organisation supporting street children in the Indian city of Hyderabad. Later on, I wrote a PhD thesis on the Hindu minority of Lusaka in Zambia, researching history, customs, culture and perceptions of home and belonging. I didn’t know it at the time, but this all made rich material for my fiction.


Lal in particular is very homesick, and Naniji is very critical of their new life in Scotland. Does this reflect any of your own experience?


Absolutely. I moved house and continent several times as a child, teenager and adult in my twenties. For a long time my primary feeling was one of homesickness and/or missing, and it remains a strong part of my day-to-day life. I enjoyed writing exchanges between the children and the older characters of Naniji and Granny. Older relatives were strong forces in helping my sister Marian (who illustrated the book) and me feel settled in Scotland.


Tiger Skin Rug seemed to me to belong to a tradition of magic realism which was very popular around the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries. As a child were you a reader of any of these books?


I’m bowled over that Tiger Skin Rug seems to anyone to be belong to a literary ‘tradition’! I suppose all things I’ve read have pulled on my writing in one way or another. I’m not a huge fan of high fantasy, but I love magical elements in real-world settings. I grew up with African and South Pacific folklore, and with several French surrealist picture books of my mother’s from the 1960s and 1970s. In my twenties I went through a phase of reading African literature, some of which is straight magical realism – and William Blake, Diana Wynne Jones, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison definitely appear on my list of best-loved writers.


In the book you empathetically address some very serious issues of our time: identity, migration and conservation. Was this choice a result of your own experience?

These are issues I care about immensely. Growing up as part of an expatriate minority in 1980s Zambia, I was aware of racially defined differences and racism from an early age. I also found it hard sometimes as a child to move country, never being part of majority culture or a member of settled minorities, and always confronting the ‘identity’ question. It's not easy, particularly as a child, to learn how to handle privilege, stand up to prejudice, and understand (mis)perceptions about place and belonging. It fascinates and saddens me that humans continue to label and exclude each other.


I think it would be difficult to write a contemporary story about a tiger without involving conservation. We need to act holistically in protecting tigers’ habitats and saving their chances of survival. I had my primary audience in mind here, too: I wrote Tiger Skin Rug for my two boys and nephews who care passionately about the planet and its animals.


Have you been actively involved in conservation at any point in your travels around the globe?


The first organisation I ever joined was a group called Elefriends. I was eleven. After reading a book called Among the Elephants by Iain and Orta Douglas-Hamilton, I pledged to save the elephant and sold lots of traybakes and buns to that end. I’ve got my hands muddy and painted banners for many local initiatives and campaigns but never actively worked in conservation. That said, being a wildlife ranger remains on my list of things I want to be when I grow up.


What was the particular reason that you chose Dilip as the one who was able to communicate with the tiger?


I wanted Lal to have some distance from the tiger so that young readers would sense its wildness. I didn’t want the tiger to be domesticated or tamed. The story is written in first person from Lal’s perspective, so giving him the power to talk to the tiger felt too cosy. I am fascinated by sibling dynamics and thought it would help younger siblings relate to the story more if Dilip, who is the younger brother, was pivotal to the plot, too, rather than tagging along.


Jenny is a very strong character. Is she based on any young Scot that you know?


Ah, Jenny was the most difficult to write. Perhaps because she isn’t based on a particular person, I kept falling into Scottish stereotypes – she started off with wild, ginger hair and her accent kept dancing around the country in my imagination. I couldn’t decide whether she should be affectionate or feisty but in the end reconciled that she could be both.


What are you writing at the moment?


I am cowriting, with Joan Lennon, a children’s nonfiction titled Talking History. It comes out in July 2021 with Templar/Bonnier – I can’t wait! I am also working on a second novel for children that involves more animal magic.


What would you like to write in the future?


More nonfiction titles with Joan Lennon would be fun. I have a chapter book idea on the back-burner. I want to confront and write across differences, rather than reinforcing labels and boundaries – and I want to write more adventure with magic and animals.


Thank you so much for telling us more about yourself and your writing!


Thank you for hosting me and asking such thoughtful questions. What a treat!

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