Thursday, March 01, 2007

Deborah Ellis By: Lezah Williamson

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Last week I was lucky enough to attend a reading by Deborah Ellis. Ellis is best known as a writer of teen fiction. Her book, 'The Breadwinner', has been recommended to me a number of times, although I'm ashamed to admit that I have yet to read it.

Ellis started off her talk with a reading from one of her more recent books, 'I Am a Taxi'. The protagonist of the novel is a Bolivian child whose parents have been imprisoned. He lives in jail with his mother and works as a 'taxi', or go-for, for other prisoners. He ends up owing someone money, and in order to get out of debt, allows himself to be taken to the jungle where he is forced to work for long hours in the cocaine trade. The children of Bolivia who work breaking down coco leaf for the cocaine industry are exposed to many chemicals, including sulphuric acid. Many become permanently disabled due to their exposure.

Ellis went on to discuss her book 'The Breadwinner', which was shortlisted for the Trillium Award in 2000, and later became the first in a trilogy, including the highly acclaimed 'Parvana's Journey', which was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award (2002). This series deals with the plight of young women in Afghanistan.

Ellis has a new book coming out soon, one that deals with children from New York City whose mothers are imprisoned in upstate New York. In order to see their mothers, these young children must endure an arduous 12 hour bus trip.

One of Ellis's earliest works, 'Looking For X', was a Governor General's Award winner.

During her talk, Ellis fielded a number of questions from the audience, and her responses were quite enlightening. She started writing at 12, but did not get published until she was 39. She is now 46, and it has just been in the last year that she was able to give up her day job as a women's shelter counsellor in Toronto, as she now makes enough money from her writing.

'The Breadwinner' is her best seller, and has been published in 19 different languages. She talked about how she still writes 'bad' books, citing the example of the novel she wrote last summer that was rejected by her publisher, in spite of her recent success.

Thematically, Ellis writes about youth who are victims of circumstance. One young man in the audience made everyone laugh by asking, "Do you ever write about anything happy?" Ellis just smiled.

I think it was as interesting listening to Ellis talk about the writing process as it was listening to her actual reading. She does a lot of research for each novel, and travels to all the different locations herself. Many of the countries that she finds herself in are ones in which she doesn't speak the language, nor is she familiar with the culture. She spoke about having to hire interpreters and guides in order to get all her information. Most of her books are fictionalized accounts that are based on real people or actual events. With that in mind, Ellis tries to be very respectful to each character.

Altogether, it was a very different kind of reading than I've been to before, and was almost more about the process than the actual works. But that, in itself, was quite fascinating.

I've added her books to my list of 'must reads'.

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