Q: Where did your character Jesika come from?
AB: Jesika appeared in my life almost five years ago. She was born from a single thought: ‘What does homelessness look like to a child?’ And there she was, opening her eyes in the dark, wondering why she couldn’t hear all the usual daytime noises – the ‘veekles’ and the doors banging and the shouting and the thump-da-thump-da-thump music – marvelling when her ears adjusted to the quiet and her eyes to the night-orange. She took my hand and led me through a day in her life, talking non-stop while I typed at a feverish pace to keep up with her.
This became ‘A Home Without Moles’ – a short story in the first Stories for Homes anthology (edited by Debi Alper and Sally Swingewood) to raise money for the charity Shelter. Afterwards, I returned to other writing projects, but Jesika wouldn’t leave me alone. She insisted she had more to say. She whispered in my ear, she pulled my hair, she cajoled and she had tantrums, and in the end I gave in and wrote her a novel.
I was a curious child who listened in on conversations and pieced together fragments to make a truth
You’ve captured the voice of a four-year-old child authentically, how did you go about doing so?
Jesika’s voice was the easiest element of the novel to capture. Every day I sat down to write she was a physical presence in the room, waiting for me to get settled so she could continue telling me her story, and it felt like a story she had waited a long time to tell. She reminded me of my two children, who were three and five when I began her novel, but she also reminded me of countless children I’d taught over the years, and she reminded me of myself.
I was a curious child who listened in on conversations and pieced together fragments to make a truth, and when that truth didn’t match what the adults around me were telling me, I questioned it. Often my experiences or emotions would be dismissed, minimized or fudged and I remember vividly the frustration of having an understanding on some level but not having the language to explain myself so that I could be heard.
As a teacher and a parent, this gap between what a child understands and experiences and feels and what they can verbalize has always fascinated me, and Jesika allowed me to explore that.
Home touches on some very difficult topics, including poverty and abuse. How did you handle those for Jesika?
Her background was also familiar to me. I grew up in a single-parent family, with an absent dad, and experienced financial and emotional struggles, but in contrast to Jesika, we always had a safe, habitable roof over our heads and family and friends who could be called upon if needed. Safe shelter is a basic human need but the poorer you are, both in terms of finances and support, the fewer choices you have, and when your choices are restricted, nothing is easy or straightforward.
In Home, I set out to write a book about the difficulties of raising children in poverty with limited choice and no safety nets, but as I listened to Jesika and her story evolved, it also became a book about control: Who has it? Who doesn’t? How do you regain control over your life when you have lost it, or never had it in the first place?
The answer to that last question is largely, I believe, education and community: education is transformative and empowering and we are all stronger together.