Sita Brahmachari on home, homelessness, identity and belief

The human rights concerns I explore in ‘Red Leaves’ are ones that have always troubled me, but it seemed that NOW more than ever it was the time to tell a story for young people about the universal human right to have a home; a safe place to live that is free from danger and oppression, and in that home, everybody has the right to express their beliefs and identity and be respected for who they are.

‘Red Leaves’ is set in a wood that is part of the ancient forest that once covered Britain. When I was thinking about writing this book, the stories I had been hearing in the news that morning kept echoing through my mind: Thousands of orphaned Syrian refugee children on the march in search of a home; a man talking about how ‘migrants should go home’; a news report about the rise in poverty and homelessness among the young and the mentally ill in this country, and the increase in the use of food banks.

The word that kept repeating in my mind as I passed elaborate dens… was HOME.

Home and homelessness

There are few sights I find more poignant than to see a young, old or mentally ill homeless person wandering the streets. In ‘Red Leaves’ I not only explore the plight of a seventeen year old homeless girl, Iona, but also the story of an old homeless woman who lives in the wood called Elder. I have explored aspects of refugee experiences and homelessness in earlier stories, but I wanted to give them greater weight in ‘Red Leaves.’

Refugee experiences

In ‘Red Leaves’,  Zak’s mother is reporting on the Syrian refugee crisis and when he meets Aisha it serves to bring it home to him how connected we are, wherever we may live to the events that happen both in the next street as well as the wider world.

The character Jide Jackson in my first novel ‘Artichoke Hearts’ was a refugee from Rwanda who was adopted by former aid workers. In the interim period of writing ‘Artichoke Hearts’ and ‘Red Leaves’, I scripted a stage play based on Shaun Tan’s graphic novel, ‘The Arrival’; during the process of writing I met young refugees who told their own poignant stories. It was then that I decided to make an unaccompanied refugee child one of the central characters in a future novel. This is Aisha’s story.

Respect of individual identity and belief

At the launch event for ‘Red Leaves’ I went to a school where students told me that they were glad that I had made a Muslim girl a central character people would empathise with because they were fed up with hearing so much negative press.

'"Do you think the media hate us?” a boy asked.'

I have been aware for a long time of the constant barrage of negative commentary in the media around immigration. As the daughter of a doctor who came to this country in 1959 from Kolkata, India and married my mum – an English nurse from The Lake District, I find this level of discussion personally disturbing and I know that many of the young people I have spoken to are affected by it.

In ‘Red Leaves’ it is Mr and Mrs Kalsi, the Sikh couple who run the Woodland Store, with their belief in ‘community giving’ or ‘Sewa,’ who offer an alternative image about how we can each contribute to our communities.

Why do we build dens?

To feel safe, to feel protected, to find a place where you can be yourself. These are the universal human rights that I wanted to speak of when I wrote ‘Red Leaves.’

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Sita Brahmachari is a children's author, theatre maker and educationalist. her debut novel Artichoke Hearts won the Waterstones Children's Book Award in 2011.

Sita Brahmachari's new novel for young adults, Red Leaves, is a moving story about family, love, community, diversity, the tangled roots of history and searching for a place to call home.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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