When did you first know you were a writer?
I know when I first fell in love with writing (thanks to a wonderful teacher at primary school, Mrs Koumi, I’ve loved writing ever since I was about seven/eight). But I don’t think I’ve ever had an ‘Oh my God! I’m a writer!’ moment. The truth is, I still don’t feel like a writer. It’s something I love doing, but I guess I still see it as something I do on top of my ‘real’ jobs, and still not something that all writers I love got to do. Maybe one day I’ll feel like a ‘real writer’. But I think that day is a long way off yet. I still get surprised when I see my name on the front cover of my own books, and those books being in a real shop. It’s all surreal, and completely not fathomable yet.
What inspired you to write The Boy at the Back of the Class/What is your favourite part of the book?
The children I have met over the years in the refugee ‘camps’ in Calais and Dunkirk – in particular, baby Raehan to whom the book is dedicated. I meet children in most of my aid convoys to northern France and hate knowing that I won’t see most of them ever again. It’s tragic that we now have generations of little ones growing up in unthinkable situations, having fled everything they once knew and loved, with nowhere to go and so few places to be safe in. But countering the sadness, are amazing people, doing all they can to help them. So, both the refugee children themselves, and those doing what they can to save them, were my inspirations.
My favourite part of the book: when Ahmet physically fights back against Brendan-the-Bully—I cheered after writing those sentences out!
Share an interesting experience you’ve had with one of your readers.
There have been many. My favourite experiences always involve getting amazing letters from children, telling me how they would like to help children like Ahmet or Aniyah, and then hearing about their ideas or their attempts to go and do just that. It’s wonderful! I guess one of the sweetest direct experiences is when a little girl in Year 5 coming up to me after I had finished doing a school talk, to ask if she could touch Snowy and the pomegranate I had spoken of. It turned out she was blind and had never heard about or touched a pomegranate before. It made me realise just how important describing something in detail might be for someone, and how it was so crucial to keep as many children with different needs in mind when writing as possible.
How would you describe your writing style in three words?
Written as experienced.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
Feel the page and the scratches you’re making on it. If you don’t, no-one else will. (Gifted by Dr. Chilver, secondary school English, Drama and Law teacher—and pretty much the best teacher on the planet (besides Mrs Koumi at Primary School).)
What are you reading?
Books. And when I can bear to, the newspaper.
What are you working on now?
These questions! Oh, and another book about jewel thefts, a homeless man and a bully…
A very special thank you to Onjali Q. Raúf. The Boy at the Back of the Class is on our Book Club list.
To learn more about Onjali’s work visit https://makingherstory.org.uk/.