The following is my SPOILER-FILLED detailed interview with Jasbinder Bilan about her award winning novel, Asha & the Spirit Bird.
Asha & the Spirit Bird is fantastic. And it’s not just me who thinks so. It won the 2017 Times / Chickenhouse Children’s Fiction competition and the 2019 Costa Children’s Book Award This in-depth interview is for people (like myself) who have read Asha & the Spirit Bird and would like to better understand the creative choices made by the author.
This interview CONTAINS SPOILERS, LOTS OF SPOILERS. If you have not yet read Asha then please don’t read this interview, because, as I may have mentioned already, it CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Consider yourself duly warned and please scroll down and read on…
Did you ever consider telling this story without any of the magic elements?
It was never going to be a story without magic because a big part of the story when I started was to have this element of the spirit bird as an extra layer of magic. It was always in there because I knew I was going to put Asha through some really hard things. I always wanted it to be quite subtle. I wanted readers to wonder – was it really her nanijee or was it just what Jeevan said?
I had this idea of the magic because of what my grandma believed and the sort of conversations that we used to have when I was little. It was something that was quite deep in me and connected to my grandmother.
Were you trying to use the magic as a kind of balance to the hard things that she goes through?
A lot of very hard things are thrown at Asha and I wanted to really push that because of the setting. I wanted to take Asha from the almost idyllic place where she lives to places that are not like that, places where there isn’t love. Although it’s a children’s book I wanted it to be quite layered. I wanted to be able to give Asha a tool that she could help her believe in herself, that would give her the magic.
In the first half or so of the book, the lamagaia spirit bird turns up largely to inspire Asha. Later in the book, the spirit bird intervenes directly in her life. Birds attack the men who have taken them into slavery and it directs Asha to the jewelry in the well. For me it was at that point that it was clear that the magic was not something she was imagining. Why did you choose to bring the magic so directly into her life in the later stage?
Probably the worst thing that happens to Asha is in the dump. I gave the manuscript to different people to read. There were some who felt that went too far but I didn’t feel that. I wanted to really push what it could be like for a lot of children who are in really tough situations like that. I think at that point Asha hits total rock bottom. She’s been locked away and the mango seedling is being destroyed.
I felt that was the moment where I had to go on her side and tell the reader, ‘Don’t worry. It is happening. Her nanijee is really going to help her.’ There had to be a very strong response. It couldn’t be is it or isn’t it at that point.
At the middle of the book, a tiger kills a wolf and in process perhaps saves Jeevan. Did you ever consider having the spirit bird fight the wolf?
No. It was always going to be the tiger. I don’t think I could have had the lamagaia fighting twice. I had to keep it for when it really mattered. Also it would have made it more Disney.
Your background is as a teacher. Are some of your decisions about teaching children that there are horrible things in the world, but at the same time pulling them close and saying, ‘it’s going to be okay and you’re going to be protected’?
Yes. Absolutely. As a teacher you see lots of things and you see how vulnerable children are. You see poverty. You see children that are neglected. This is how children can suffer, but children have to have hope. In this particularly story I’m saying, ‘However hard things get, you can keep that flame inside yourself.’
Where do you stand in the debate about children encountering potentially scary elements in books?
I think it’s really important to take children to dark places and show them that these things exist. At the end of the day they’re experiencing it from a safe position of their bedroom or school or sofa. It develops their empathy. They can see even if these things don’t happen to them, they’re happening to other people. It’s really important for kids to know that other children do go through things like that. It develops their humanity. It opens their eyes. It’s like a window to another world.
It’s also equally really important that we show young readers that are in dark situations themselves that we see them and that they matter too.
As a grown up I also pick up the subtext and levels of risk that a young reader won’t be aware of. For example, the book never grapples with the specific risks that a young girl might have in India.
I think as an adult that’s what you’re fearful of in that situation. But obviously even after saying that you have to take them to dark places, I wouldn’t have even touched on anything like that.
Her getting her hair cut sort of resolves or reduces some of the risk to her.
Yeah, that allows her to have safe passage and puts her in a different space. She has generic clothes on too. A hoodie and jeans.
It also means that the book doesn’t have to grapple with the specifics of gender roles. This doesn’t come up in the book at all.
Yes, I wanted Asha and Jeevan to have a really balanced friendship. When one can’t do something the other one does it. She’s very outdoorsy. She can built a fire and climb a tree. He’s sometimes more dreamy.
Without the spirit bird Asha wouldn’t have gotten the jewelry at the end so the magic saved her in so many ways.
Actually, the jewels at the end were an addition at the editorial stage. It wasn’t there at the end in the book in my drafts. Asha and Jeevan had the homecoming and the lamagaia comes back, but there weren’t any jewels. It was more of an open story. The bow was there but it wasn’t quite tied up.
My publishers felt that it would be really nice to round it off for a middle grade story and tie the bow up.
Also for a little extra background, that whole well thing was from my stories from my granny. She always used to say to me that she remembered me walking towards the well in the monsoon rain and nearly falling in. That where that came from and the publishers said, ‘We have to get that in,’ so they’re intertwined.
I expected her father to have to go back to the city, but when she pulled the jewelry out of the well then everything is resolved. He’s never have to back to work. On the other hand every other father in the village will still have to go.
I guess that’s the reality. It’s still there for other people, but at least after this family has been through so much, we can feel all cozy and know that it’s not going to happen to them.
Perhaps as an adult, you’re reading it and finding it a bit unbelievable maybe but I felt that she’s been through loads. It’s fine. Let’s have the family find the jewels.
Your natural instinct was to leave some of that systemic failing in the book, but with the jewelry it becomes more of a fairy tale ending.
Yeah. I think that was more of an editorial decision. There were other things that I was asked to do that went in and went out again, but didn’t make the final cut. It’s a to and fro process to see how certain things work, but it was felt that it was good for this to stay in.
I did really enjoy having the lamagaia on the well and almost going into the well with her.
Yes, almost pointing and saying, ‘Down there! Down there!’
In terms of the resolution with the dad, at what stage in the process did you come up with the explanation for why he’s been missing?
When I was writing I had an image in my head of a fire. I knew that I didn’t want it to be that she just goes on the journey and finds him and brings him home. There had to something quite major and difficult that happened before she found him. I wanted to push the obstacles as far as I could. I knew that he would recover and knew that she would take him home, but it would be quite far into the book.
So you always knew she’d bring him home? You never considered that he might be dead or anything like that?
That would have been really really harsh. Also in terms of the nature of the story that it is, a quest, it was always inevitable that she’d bring him home.
For me when the Dad turned out to have traumatic amnesia it struck me as a moment that it was clearly being written for children. As an adult the amnesia explanation for something is a little like a soap opera. But a child would go along with this.
Yeah, sure. I wanted to push it. Asha gets there and after everything, Asha finds him and he doesn’t recognise her. It’s awful.
You seem to love Asha. A lot of writers love their characters and as a result they protect them. But you’re putting your main character up a tree and throwing rocks at them. Where does that come for you as a writer?
I did the MA in Creative Writing in Bath. We were told that your story can’t just be a character goes to find her dad then happy ever after. You have to think about the bits in between. Otherwise it’s just an A to B. We were encouraged to throw everything that we could in their way to make it an interesting journey.
You often have a cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter, but if you don’t have that then you have a rise in emotion, like, ‘I will get there’ or ‘Oh no.’ Where did that come from?
When you’re editing especially, you want the reader to turn the page. You have to engineer it. You have to leave them wanting more. So I cut chapters. I cut back to the final sentence. It was a very conscious decision.
In this book you use emigration to England as the risk, the terrible fear. Was it deliberately meant to be a different representation of immigration to the one we often see in the media?
Yeah, I wanted to show the opposite side. For Asha, it’s a personal thing. She loves where she lives. She’s very much a country girl. They have letters from their uncle Neel in England. And there’s a bit right at the beginning where they’re sent a photo and she can’t believe that all they have is a little patch of green for their garden that’s all fenced around.
For her it’s to do with the freedom in her village. It would be her worst nightmare to go to England. This probably comes from when I visited India as an adult and I couldn’t believe how beautiful the farm was. Maybe that was subconsciously trickling back as I wondered why would someone go?
My uncles did jobs in England that weren’t nice jobs particularly. They lived in the city instead of the countryside. I understand why they did it. In the long term they have better prospects economically. I get it. But from a child’s point of view, you’re just seeing the things that affect you.
There seems like a common element to your the book: always having a counterbalance to everything. Jeevan vs Asha. Raj and Lakhsmhi vs child abuse at the dump. Always showing that there’s two sides of things. It’s also giving a balanced portrait of India.
Yes and for the children reading it, it’s great to show them the extremes.It makes it more rounded.
Why did you make Lakshmi and Raj run the street shelter?
I wanted to show the opposite of the horrible adults in the city. Although there are people imprisoning children, India is also full of lots of educated people who have heart and who aren’t happy with that. So I just wanted her to run the orphanage and wanted to show that Raj was someone going around in his taxi looking after people.
It’s a bit of coincidence that when Jeevan and Asha go back to their house, Lakshmi turns out to be running the street shelter? Was this to compress everything?
It was one of the things that changed during the editorial process. Originally it was a longer scene where it wasn’t connected to Sammi and the street shelter. The change was just a way to tie all of that in. It did feel like a little bit of coincidence, but I think that Raj leaving the shelter just before they meet him kind of tied it in.
And he’s a lovely guy so it was quite nice that he could be running the shelter with his wife.
I am interested in the visit to the temple. I know it’s not exactly in the middle of the book, but it feels like it. Was it always meant as the midpoint? Like a moment of calm before the city?
Yes, it was almost like a thanks for them having gotten that far and a respite in the pacing before the horrible things that happen to them in the city. It was important for me for them to be right in the mountains and at the source of the Ganges. I love writing that and being able to show children that the place exists even though I’ve embellished it. It’s such a powerful thing. The river that runs through the whole of India. It shows that you can get strength from that. It’s a sort of belief that passes through the whole country.
It was also the moment where she felt closest to her nanijee? She felt like her nanijee was with her?
Yes and it was the only time that she felt she was with her nanijee and not the lamagaia. Even so… Jeevan was still saying that it was probably just the priest.
Are there any key bits that changed in the process of writing and editing the book?
It basically stayed the same except for one big change I did when I was trying to get an agent. It was originally written in first person past tense and one of the agents that I showed it to suggested that I write it in present tense. I realised that make it much more immediate and pacey. So that was the one big change.
Apart from that, once I won the Times / Chickenhouse Prize, Chickenhouse had a few things they wanted to add in. They wanted to make the antagonist bigger and give her a face. In the beginning it was just a bunch of guy. It was fairly faceless. So we added a woman there. That was their idea.
We tried a couple more things to make her more of a villain, but it didn’t really work. At one point we had her being Dad’s sister. It was a bit crazy. I did all these things like having her run the dump. So all of that went in and came back out of the book.
And then of course the jewelry went in.
I think they wanted to bring the reader age down a little with these changes.
I suppose you have to go down all those false avenues to know that you’re in the right place.
Absolutely. Editorially it’s quite a collaborative process. You can’t be too precious about your work. That’s what you’re agreeing to when you are agreeing to be published. Sometimes you can be too close to a piece of writing you wrote and maybe can’t see it. To let someone else into the process can be really helpful.
I’d like to thank Jasbinder for letting us into that writing process too and giving a glimpse of how Asha & the Spirit Bird developed and the choices she made.
All the photos used in this blogpost are courtesy of Jasbinder’s website.