Catherine Bruton’s YA novel I Predict A Riot. Unique and fast paced, it was quite a journey.
It’s a gripping novel inspired by the 2011 London Riots, together with her teaching experiences in both South London and Southern Africa.
Southern Africa? I needed to find out more from Catherine.
What follows is an inspiring and unique post charting Catherine’s emergence as a writer. Filled with amazing and varied experiences, it’s compelling reading …
This is my third blog tour – I must have written countless blogs since I was first published; and yet nobody has ever asked me, nor has it ever occurred to me, to write a blog about the years I spent in Africa.
Which is odd since it was in Africa that I became a writer. At Otjikondo Primary School in the rural north of Namibia, in 1995, to be precise. Up till then all I’d written was a diary, a few pieces of GCSE coursework and a story about a giraffe (which won second prize in the Chester Zoo competition when I was ten, I’ll have you know!).
I was 21 when I arrived at Otjikondo – just graduated from Oxford University – vastly qualified and yet knowing very little about the world. I started out as a volunteer – running arts and crafts, sport, litter picking duty, the birthday cupboard, teaching six year olds their first few words of English.
Then, six months in, a witch-doctor related scandal led to the sacking of the Year 3 class teacher and somehow I found myself in charge of a class of 7 – 9 year olds. With no teaching experience, no text books, few resources, not much of a clue – and frankly no authority whatsoever!
In that year 3 classroom I attempted to teach kids from the bush – shoeless kids from mud huts who wiped their bottoms with stones that clogged the classroom toilet; who spoke in clicks and ate Mopani worms as a snack, sucking out the gooey insides from the tiger striped caterpillars as a delicacy; kids who saved me from scorpions and snakes that invaded our classroom whilst I, ‘Miss Catherine’ stood helpless on the teachers’ desk and screamed. Kids who only ever sat still and did what I asked for the last ten minutes of the day when I read them stories – Roald Dahl mostly, then stories of my own when the books ran out.
And Adolf, Hermograde, Bravo, Cyprianus, Negumbo Ya Negumbo, Jackson, Olavi, Tuhadeleni … all those boys became part of Tokes and Little Pea, the main characters in I Predict a Riot, the novel I wrote nearly twenty years later.
Although I only realised it recently when someone asked me about Little Pea, the crazy, lawless, loveable, lying, maddening, clever, heroic and ultimately tragic character in I Predict a Riot whose mum thinks he is possessed with the devil and sends him to the priest for cruel ritual exorcisms. Where did I get the idea from, they asked me? Well, it was a practice I came across in South London, working in youth groups with teen gang members. But I first came across it in Namibia.
C was the naughtiest boy in my class. Looking back, I suspect he had ADHD but no one had really heard of it back then. He told me his mum sent him to the witchdoctor for exorcism. Of course he might have been lying because C was a brilliant story-teller. He also couldn’t sit still, or stop talking … and I had no control over him whatsoever! Earlier in this tour, I wrote about how one day I sent him to the headmaster, not realizing he would be caned. Of all the mistakes I have made as a teacher, that is the one I am most ashamed of.
What’s worse is that C was shot dead by the police whilst robbing a bank when he was just 22. To this day I am haunted by the knowledge that I was one of many people who let him down.
I hadn’t even realised this was where Little Pea came from. I Predict a Riot might be set in South London, not Southern Africa, but Little Pea’s brilliance, his restless energy, his refusal to be saved, his fierce loyalty, his treachery, his self-destructive behaviour, his humour, and his ultimate tragedy – they all stem back to C. That what happened to him had resurfaced in I Predict a Riot without me even realising it, the way that memories sometimes do.
I wasn’t a writer when I arrived in Africa, but I was by the time I left. I’d kept a diary since I was eleven, diligently filling in every day throughout my school career, getting more intermittent during University, and dwindling since. But in Africa I found I wanted to write – needed to write. There was no electricity after six o’clock at night. No TV, no radio, no telephones, no internet (remember this was 1995) so no email – few books, very little to do. And yet my senses were being bombarded from every direction. Africa was stunning and terrifying in equal measure. The culture, the children, the wildlife, the landscape, the loneliness, the isolation – they were oppressive and yet inspiring, they stunned me, forcing me to question almost every single thing about myself and the world.
And a diary was no longer enough. I needed to record my response to all of it, but I needed to be liberated from the strictures of ‘I’ and chronology and the journal form. I needed to try and look at things from perspectives other than my own, but also to examine myself from an outside perspective. I started to fictionalise. Just snippets at first – playing with the third person, describing characters like a novelist.
And then something happened that made me a novelist. One of the hostel mothers gave birth in the night to a baby nobody knew she was carrying. She had kept the pregnancy secret, fearing she would lose her job if it was discovered. The same fear lead her to kill the new born, setting fire to it in a dustbin where its charred remains were found by one of the children the next day.
That became the subject of my first novel. It was never published because it is over-written, horribly self-conscious, self-indulgent and cringe-worthingly naïve. But it made me a writer.
I started writing it in Namibia, and finished it in South Africa a couple of years later when I was working on an educational development project in one of the former Homelands, and helping out at Siyavuka – a home for street children in King William’s Town. But there, as at Otjikondo, I was gaining inspiration for future novels without even realising it.
The Siyavuka boys – along with those at Daily Bread (a larger street kids charity in Port Elizabeth where I also worked as a volunteer one summer) helped shape the characters of Tokes in I Predict a Riot. Tokes is the son of a notorious gang member – he’s been involved in selling drugs – he is the kind of kid society too easily writes off as ‘bad news’. And yet he is a hero – he is a boy full of sunshine and heart, with a keen sense of morality, loyalty and a fierce intelligence who will flip readers assumptions about class and race on their heads – and steal their hearts at the same time, just like he steals Maggie’s.
He is like so many of the Siyavuka boys: boys who had lived on the streets, scavenging for food, often abused, exploited, abandoned and yet who still had the capacity for hope, for joy, for second chances. In them it was possible to see the potential for good that exists in every child. Because it only takes one person, one organisation to say ‘I care … I believe in you … I won’t give up on you’ – and any child can have a second chance, make good – be a hero.
I saw that at Siyavuka. I saw it at Otjikondo. I saw it on the projects I worked at in South London. I see it in the kids I’ve taught in schools all over the UK (and not just in kids from economically deprived backgrounds either). And in the character of Tokes I put it on the page.
So, yes, Africa made me a writer, and the kids I met there have shaped my stories ever since – along with so many of the young people I’ve had the privilege to know and work with since. I only hope I can do them justice!