About The Author
Christie Watson trained as a nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital and worked for over ten years as a children's nurse before she began writing; she still works part time as a nurse. She won the Malcolm Bradbury Bursary to take the renowned MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
Her first novel was Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, which won the 2011 Costa First Novel Award. The lives of Blessing and her brother Ezikiel, living in comfort in Lagos, are turned upside-down when their father leaves their mother. She is fired from her job at the Royal Imperial Hotel as she is now unmarried and the family is forced to move to cramped rural dwellings in the Niger Delta with the children's grandparents.
Written from the point of view of the twelve-year-old Blessing, it sees Ezikiel survive a stray bullet while picking snails and decide to join the Freedom Fighters of the Izon Nation. Their mother fails in love with a white oilman, only to see him kidnapped on their wedding day.
Her new novel is Where Women Are Kings. Elijah has been taken away from his birth mother, who is now in a secure mental institution, dreaming of taking him back to Nigeria. Elijah's periods in foster care are punctuated by acts of tremendous destruction, which he blames upon the wizard the local evangelical bishop has tried to exorcize from him.
After four miscarriages and a stillbirth, Nikki and Obi have given up hope of a child of their own. When it is suggested that they adopt Elijah, the couple are confident that that they will be able to provide him with the caring and stable environment he needs. Will even the support of their extended family be enough to nurture a little boy with such a troubled past?
Talking exclusively to Foyles, Christie discusses how the NHS deals with cases of abuse, the qualities that make us all human and why difficult second-novel syndrome is very real.
Author photo © Cheryl George
Questions & Answers
Most of your characters, with a couple of notable exceptions, are essentially good-hearted people. Does this reflect your own view of human nature?
I'm a great believer that most people are essentially good. Working with people in hospitals gives the opportunity to study human nature, both of staff and patients, to see people in their most vulnerable state, and how, when stripped back to our bones, we're all made of the same stuff: fear, love, and hope.
You work for the NHS as a nurse. Have you encountered children who have experienced the religious abuse that Elijah has suffered in your work?
Scotland Yard has conducted 83 investigations into faith-based abuse in the last ten years, but of course the vast majority of this abuse goes unreported. There has been an attitude within the public sector of turning a blind eye to practices that are deemed cultural norms. The police (and NHS) are finally trying to get the message out that the abuse of children is never acceptable in any circumstance, but changing attitudes is a slow process and professionals remain fearful of being called culturally insensitive or even racist if they challenge certain practices.
What needs to happen to ensure more appropriate treatment for mental health sufferers from other cultures?
People with serious mental health disorders can expect to live 18 years less than anyone else in the UK, and have numerous physical problems - having a serious mental health disorder means you are unlikely to be living a healthy lifestyle, complying with any medication and looking after yourself properly. But training is now so focused that mental health nurses for example are unprepared to look after a person with mental health issues who becomes physically unwell.
Much more work needs to be done to look at training staff how to understand the whole person - in the context of their physical health, culture, family, background, religion, spiritual beliefs, and everything else. Part of this understanding can be achieved by building a workforce that is reflective of the people it cares for, and the NHS does this particularly well. But although sensitivity and respect for individual beliefs is key, the underlying message needs to be stronger: that abuse is abuse in any context.
Your first book was motivated in part by a desire to expose the West's exploitation of Nigerian oil resources. Is there any message you would like readers to taker away from Where Women Are Kings?
Where Women are Kings is in many ways a much smaller story. I wanted to explore some of the issues around religious abuse but essentially it's a love story and about attachment between a mother and child. In terms of message for readers to take away I suppose after reading it I'd want my readers to feel moved and also be reminded of how lucky most of us are.
Writing a second novel for many writers, especially when their first novel has been well received, can be a difficult process. What did you learn from writing Tiny Sunbirds Far Away that helped you with Where Women Are Kings?
I didn't believe the hype about second-book syndrome, that it would be difficult at best and agony at worst. But it was all true. My US publisher once told me that writing a book, if the book is good, should take a chunk of the author's soul. Where Women are Kings took a huge chunk of my soul! It was a very difficult process and emotional - I had to dig deep to get the story out. I'm hoping that book three will be a breeze in comparison but I fear I'm kidding myself.
How was Tiny Sunbirds Far Away received in Nigeria? Do you expect a different response to this novel?
Tiny Sunbirds Far Away was published locally in Nigeria by Cassava Republic and received excellent reviews. I'm travelling to Nigeria for the Ake Book and Arts Festival in November and looking forward to giving workshops in local schools. I was fearful about the response of Tiny Sunbirds when it originally came out as it dealt with difficult subjects such as female genital mutilation. Now with Where Women Are Kings I'm also dealing with difficult subject matter - of religion and faith based abuse. I have no expectations - only hope that I've expressed the story sensitively.
Can you tell us anything about what you might write next?
I'm currently thinking of novel three - the characters are coming alive in my head and I've begun to dream of them - which is always a good sign.
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