Anne Laurel Carter is the author of The Shepherd’s Granddaughter (which you can begin reading for a limited time on Figment!), a sensitive, nuanced look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of teenage Imani, a Palestinian girl determined to be a shepherd like her beloved grandfather. As Imani’s family land is encroached upon by Israeli occupiers, meadows for grazing her sheep become scarce, and Imani fears her flock will starve. While Imani’s father and brother begin to consider violent action, Imani befriends an American teen and begins to see the potential for peace and petition for non-violence. Carter, a Canadian, first learned about the conflict in the Middle East when she lived on kibbutzim in Israel, and continued her education through visits with Palestinian families in Bethlehem. We asked Anne what it takes to write about a controversial issue. The answer? Research. And travel!
Want to write about a real-world issue? For me, the trick is starting with months of research and then removing it, like scaffolding, so it doesn’t show. A good novel is about a good character. If research dominates her story, it will read like journalism, or worse, a lecture. When you keep your research in the background, it’s just part of the setting, adding interest (but only when it’s appropriate) and giving the story a ring of truth.
So—how much research did I do to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for The Shepherd’s Granddaughter? Wow. Lots. And one of the hardest things was that sources of information from both sides did not agree. The only solution was to witness the situation myself, talk to lots of people there, and form my own opinions. I’ve always been a firm believer in visiting the setting you are writing about. And not for a few days and not staying in hotels. If you want to write from a teen’s P.O.V. in Libya (and you’re not one yourself), you’ll need details about the most unexpected things in every scene you write. Music. Clothes. Food. School. Would your character skateboard, bike, walk, or take a bus/taxi to hang out with her best friend? You won’t find this stuff in books or online. You can only learn the details of someone’s life by spending real time in your character’s real setting.
Part of researching an “issue” is knowing all the sides of that issue—and there will be at least two sides. I lived in Israel on kibbutzim in the early 1970s and loved it.
Here’s a photo of me at 17 in the Negev Desert with a friend:
It took 30 years and media literacy to appreciate my one-sidedness about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2002, when some Palestinian students in my school [in Toronto] (I was the librarian) couldn’t find any books on the library shelves that reflected their lives, I thought, “Hmm, maybe something’s wrong with this picture.” I started getting curious about what I didn’t know—in fact, a whole half of the world I didn’t know.
My curiosity about a character or theme fuels my writing and the commitment it takes to finish a book. This novel required four separate visits to Bethlehem over four years. The more I learned, and the more I visited several Palestinian families (one friend, Atta Jaber, and his kids became the real-life inspiration for Amani’s life), the more I loved my character and her journey toward non-violence. Writing this book totally changed my life.
Here’s a photo of the checkpoint to Bethlehem, which is located near the Gilo settlement. Imagine this, and soldiers, every day you to go to work, or university, or to visit your grandmother.
Here’s a photo from my last visit with Atta in 2008. He said he is still harassed by Israeli settlers every day. Atta and his wife are 10 years younger than I am. The cost of living under the occupation is written on their faces.
Can you think of a piece of fiction that successfully chronicles a real-world issue or event? What makes the book successful? Post your comments below.
Girls with grit are fierce, independent, strong young women. They’re girls who face tough situations and sometimes don’t come out on top. They’re girls who work hard, who believe in themselves, and who try to follow their principles.
Groundwood Books’ Girls With Grit series is on Figment because each of these books is about a girl like you, or your sister, or your best friend. We’ll be featuring different books every week, so be sure to check the Figment Features page often!