We are delighted to welcome Tariq Mehmood to guest blog about his latest young adult novel, You're Not Here and to discuss the gaps in the publishing market and how he came to write this.
'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.' Maya Angelou,
When I was in my teens, I was homeless in Bradford and always hungry. In those days the Central Library opened 9am-9pm. It had a cafe where my friends often fed me. I spent all day in the library browsing through all sorts of books. I read John Locke and David Hulme, and many other writers who often I didn't even understand. I usually found comfort in the world of fiction of Tolstoy, Harding and others, but felt something amiss in this. It would take me 30 years to realise what this really was: I was fictionally invisible, as were my stories and those of my friends.
In 1981, along with eleven others, I was imprisoned falsely on charges of terrorism in a case that was known as the Bradford 12. We were all acquitted.
If convicted I was looking at two life sentences, plus 14 years. I desperately wanted to leave a record of my story behind, and started write my first novel, Hand On The Sun, whilst in prison. I completed it whilst on bail and sent it to Penguin who published it in 1983. At the time of writing the novel, I didn't understand anything about the tools of fiction, such as character, tension or pacing. I didn't even have an 'O' level in English, and besides I am dyslexic.
Three decades later, I'd had children of my own and as they were growing up, I realised that the world of children's literature was all but white . I began to publish some illustrated books for them, which would eventually lead to me publishing my first YA novel You're Not Proper. Most of us writers don't really know what will happen with our novel if ever we actually finish it. I was lucky and entered the manuscript for the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices in Children's Fiction Award, which the novel won in 2013. This is set in a Northern English town seething with Islamophobia, where two young girls struggle to find out who they are. I tried to address issues of love, loss, war, racism, tolerance and Identity all with a generous sprinkling of Northern English humour.
Some time after the publication of You're Not Proper, I met a white woman in Manchester, who was vociferously opposed to the 'War On Terror' and had campaigned against it. She was distraught. Her son had joined the British Army and was due to go to Afghanistan. My next novel, You're Not Here, is a squeal to You're Not Proper. In this novel the characters are older, and looks at how the effect of the never ending war working class communities. In this story, one brother goes missing in action in Afghanistan, whilst the other falls in love with an Afghan girl in England. The story is told through Jake, a white boy, the son of an ex-soldier. Jake's love, Leila comes from the same village in Afghanistan where his brother goes missing. This novel tries to bring the war out there, is connected to the strife back home. I really enjoyed writing this novel, as it allowed me not only to deal with complex issues of the infiltration of the British Army by Far Right groups, but also into new depth of working class humour – something I grew up with, and continues to put a smile on my faces in the dark and dreary times.