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Varied Voices 2020 4: Asha and the Spirit Bird, blog by Jasbinder Bilan

25 March 2020 Share

Jasbinder Bilan talks about her writing process for the Varied Voices blog.

Asha and the Spirit Bird 

by Jasbinder Bilan

I was born close to the foothills of the Himalaya on our family farm. Even though I was barely a toddler when in 1965 my family emigrated to the UK, the memories of our life in rural India were etched in to my mind, like a Gerald Durrell story with an Indian twist. On our farm we had a grumpy camel and our very own wild monkey Oma who adopted our family. She used to carry my brother off to the neem tree and rock him to sleep in her arms. And just to top off the rural idyll – I was born surrounded by cows in the stable – Yes that's right me and Jesus! The story goes that my mum had to go and milk the cows and before she knew it I'd popped out onto the straw strewn floor!

Once in the UK, we would gather often at our Nottingham house, for extended family meals of steaming saffroned rice, spiced lamb piled high on platters, and numerous vegetable dishes. The main focus of these occasions was always the stories, peppered with raucous laughter from all my uncles. When I came to write my debut Asha and the Spirit Bird, I naturally went back to India for my inspiration.

My majee (grandmother) was the matriarch, and the story-teller and we had a very special bond. When I was searching my heart for a story, I got a very strong visual image of a little girl playing in the dust with water. In the background was a towering mountain. In this moment I knew that I wanted to write a story set in India, with magic in it, about a girl with a strong connection to her grandmother. And so the seed of the idea was planted.

My majee believed in the ancient idea of reincarnation and very often we would discuss what happened when people passed away. She was very clear that they would come back in the form of an animal and so the spirit bird was born.

I asked myself lots of what if questions: what if my family hadn't moved? What if money was tight? What if my dad had to go away to work? Taking all these questions as starting points, I built my story using a blank sketchbook and began scribbling all my thoughts down. I collected together the diaries I wrote when I visited India as an adult and used them to get a visceral sense of setting and place. I wanted the emotion of the story to touch my reader and I hope the first person narrative keeps them close to Asha as her journey to find her papa twists and turns from one cliff-edge to the next.

Throughout the adventure, even though very hard things happen to Asha and her friend Jeevan, she has a very strong belief in her power and connection to the world of her ancestors and this is what helps her overcome those events. It isn't a story of religion, but it is a story of faith. 

Writing my first novel was a real labour of love. The road to publication can be a rocky one and in this industry there are no guarantees of anything. Having enrolled on the MA Creative Writing course at Bath Spa was key to getting my MS in good shape. The support from the tutors and fellow students is not to be underestimated. I began the course not really knowing what sort of writer I was and by the end I was beginning to find my author voice.

 A few years down the line and having written my second novel Tamarind and the Star of Ishta which will publish in August 2020, I discover that I am a writer who loves to set stories in the natural world where a sprinkling of magic can connect a main character to a greater, wider universe.

My debut year has been the most wonderful and thrilling and exceeded all my expectations when was I nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2020, longlisted for the Branford Boase 2020, Longlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2020, shortlisted for The Waterstones Book Prize 2020 and won The Costa Children's Book Award 2019. It is such an honour to be on these lists because of the encouragement and confidence it gives and for the acknowledgement it implies. 

My dad was a great believer in the power of education and reading and we were enrolled in to the library system at a young age. Asha and the Spirit Bird is the sort of book I wish I could have found in the libraries of my childhood and it gives me the greatest pleasure every time I step into a library and find it on the shelves. One of the perks of being an author is to be able to give your younger self a present, and this is mine.

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