About The Author
Kit de Waal was born in Birmingham to an Irish mother, who was a foster carer and a Caribbean father. She worked for fifteen years in criminal and family law, was a magistrate for several years and sits on adoption panels. She used to advise Social Services on the care of foster children, and has written training manuals on adoption and foster care. Her writing has received numerous awards including the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize 2014 and 2015 and the SI Leeds Literary Reader's Choice Prize 2014. She has two children.
Her debut novel, My Name is Leon, is the story of nine-year-old Leon and his baby brother Jake. With different fathers, Jake is white and Leon is not. When their mother is incapable of caring for the boys, Jake is easily found adoptive parents but finding someone to take a mixed-race nine-year-old boy in England in the early 1980s proves more of a challenge. Leon wants permanence, a home and, more than anything, to be reunited with Jake, wishes which seem increasingly beyond his grasp.
Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Kit about being 'both and neither', the kindness of strangers and the benefits of political correctness.
Author photo © Justine Stoddart
Questions & Answers
You’ve previously written short fiction. How did Leon come about, did you feel ‘ready’ to write a novel, or did the theme pull you in that direction?
Actually, Leon started out life as a short story. I wrote one of the key chapters about three years before I wrote the novel. It was very unsuccessful as a short story – it was too big for the container. I put it aside for ages because as much as I knew I wanted to write it, I was overwhelmed by the task. I wasn’t sure I was up to it. Eventually, it got the better of me and found its way on to the page.
You worked for many years in criminal and family law. How did writing enter the picture?
I stopped working in criminal law about ten years before I started writing and did a number of jobs; I wrote training manuals for social workers and foster carers, trained Magistrates, became a Magistrate, sat in the Employment Tribunals and took a course in massage therapy! I started writing when I was taking a break between jobs after adopting my second child. Finding yourself at home with a small child does something to the brain. You think, ‘there are only so many times I can plump the cushions and do finger painting!’.
How did your own experience as the daughter of an Irish mother and Caribbean father inform your book?
I know what it’s like to be both and to be neither. Leon is a child of mixed parentage whose identity is informed by not only his parents but his foster carer and his broken-heartedness, his grief. Whilst my childhood was hard it was also very happy and I grew up with both of my birth parents and siblings. What I have in common with Leon is that feeling of being ‘other’; of being able to stand outside of the mainstream and look in.
As you were writing the book were you struck by how different – or indeed similar – children’s experience of familial difficulties and social services is today?
It’s an unfortunate truth I think that there are so many similarities between now and 1981 where children in care are concerned. Siblings are still separated – sometimes for very good reason – and children will still experience several moves during their life in the care system. There are still lots of children who don’t go into care who have difficult lives with their birth parents because of mental health issues, poverty, social exclusion and disadvantage. I don’t think there has been any improvement in that time, in fact I’m sure things have got worse.
How did you set about getting the feel of the eighties just right?
I was 21 in 1981 so well able to remember what life was like. I did have to do a bit of research on the price of things like sweets and nappies. I also had to remind myself when remote control TV came to the UK. I do recall the women I worked with at the time being obsessed with the Royal Wedding so writing that scene was not difficult at all.
Tufty and Mr Devlin are great characters who have a profound influence on Leon – as he ultimately does on them. How likely would such relationships be today?
Tufty and Mr Devlin have a great deal in common; not only are they both keen gardeners but they are both living in a foreign country, are outsiders, both rebellious in their own way and both of them have affection for Leon. I think the friendship between the men would be less problematic today than it was then; in many ways I think we are more tolerant of difference and more likely to have friends beyond our social background. However, I’m not sure children have as much freedom now as they did in 1981. My mother used to regularly send us out of the house and up to the park for hours at a time way before mobile phones were around. ‘Come back at four’ she’d say as she shoved some sandwiches in a carrier bag and that was that. We disappeared and she didn’t worry. I think we worry too much now – maybe rightly. And of course Leon would have had his face glued to some screen or other!
Given the choice, would you have kept the brothers together or allowed them to be split so that at least one of them had the chance of a good outcome? Are there more choices available today?
This is a difficult decision for anyone to make. I sit on an Adoption Panel and have made the decision in the past to separate siblings for complex and good reasons. However, in an ideal world you would never, ever separate brothers like Leon and Jake. If there was a foster carer or adoptive parents who could meet the needs of both boys and keep them both until adulthood, there would be no question of splitting them up. Unfortunately, it is a rare thing to have a choice of carer for two boys like Leon and Jake. It does happen and it would be wonderful if more carers came forward who would consider adopting or permanently fostering children of widely different ages and ethnic background.
How do you get inside the mind of a nine year old boy?
Well I had one! And when my brother was nine I was fourteen so I remember him well. He had an obsession with Action Men and sweets and I think lots of boys still do. Throughout the writing of the book I had a photograph of a young mixed race boy on a bicycle on my computer screen. I found a random picture on the internet and pinned it up there so I would always be reminded of what he wanted, what he thought, what he needed, what he understood. Leon was and is very real to me.
Ultimately, Leon is dependent on the kindness of strangers, and unexpectedly so in the case of Maureen’s sister Sylvia in a way that could never happen today. Do you think tighter controls, political correctness and our greater insularity have made us a society less likely, or perhaps less able, to be kind? Might a Leon in some ways have even fewer chances today than in the past?
Good question. I don’t like to think of political correctness as a bad thing. It was political correctness after all that took children out of chimneys, gave women the vote, abolished slavery and decriminalised homosexuality. Sometimes we forget that people that pushed the boundaries in the past and who were radical in their beliefs would have been accused of political correctness at the time had the term been around. But to come back to the question, I have great faith in the kindness of strangers and in kindness generally. I think our interconnectedness has brought the plight of strangers to our attention, has made us aware of things we would never have known about even twenty years ago. People generally respond with compassion I think even though such an onslaught of information can also make us feel impotent and overwhelmed.
I don’t know about Leon being better off in the past. Whilst there is still racism in this country there is at the least legislation as a protection. Whilst there is class-ism and disadvantage, there is at least awareness and a general feeling that social mobility is a good thing and something to strive for. As far as equality and inclusion goes, there is such a long way to go but in 1981 that journey had barely started, we have at least a foot on the road.
Do you agree with Maureen when she tells Leon that what he’s going through isn’t the whole of his life, just a bit of it?
I do agree with Maureen. It’s very difficult for a child – indeed for an adult – to see beyond the tragic things that happen to us. Loss is unbelievably painful and all consuming. There is always a context to what happens to us but in the moment, in the eye of the storm or the vortex of pain it’s hard to put your head up and look around you, to look forward or to look back. We seem to exist just in that awful place. Leon has such a long life ahead of him – although the rest of it may well be defined by losing his brother.
Do you have another novel gestating and can you say anything about it?
I am just coming towards the end of my second novel, working on the final draft and making sure it says exactly what I want it to. It has a female lead character who I love dearly but can’t say much more. She’s a very private person.