AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR JASBINDER BILAN ON LIVING OUT HER DREAM
by MITA MISTRY
In 2019 Jasbinder Bilan won the Costa Children’s Book Award for her stunning debut novel Asha And The Spirit Bird, which was inspired by a close relationship with her grandmother.
The starting point for her book was a strong visual image of a little girl in India playing in the dust with a huge mountain setting behind her.
From this simple image, which could easily have been her mother as a little girl, she wrote an adventure story with a magical twist set in northern India about a young girl empowered by spiritual connections to her grandmother.
Eastern Eye caught up with Jasbinder, who was born on a farm close to the Himalayas and now lives near Bath, England, with her husband and two sons to talk about her book, award and writing journey.
Tell us about Asha And The Spirit Bird…
It tells the story of 11-year-old Asha who lives on a farm in the foothills of the Himalaya. She goes on a dangerous quest through the mountains with her best friend in search of her papa who is working in the city. Throughout the journey she is guided by the spirit of her late nanijee who appears to her in the form of a Himalayan bird of prey called a lamagaia.
What is special for you about the book?
The special thing is the book offers the reader a fresh story inspired by my family roots in India, and the idea that in times of trouble we can call on our ancestors to help and guide us. It presents an alternative view on life and death based on the belief of reincarnation, something my majee told me a lot about when I was growing up.
What was the most challenging part of writing it?
Writing is very hard, so the first challenge was to decide to write and then edit it so it became the story I wanted it to be. I wrote the novel quite quickly to first draft, but then I spent a year editing it before entering for The Times Chickenhouse Prize, which I won in 2017.
What did you enjoy the most in writing this book?
I really enjoyed editing. This is the moment in writing when you can make it the best version of itself, and stand back and look at it with fresh eyes. I also really enjoyed the editorial process with my editor, Kesia Lupo, at my publishers Chickenhouse.
Who are you hoping connects with the book?
The magic of writing a book is that once it is out there it starts its own journey. I hope that anybody who is inspired by the title or beautiful cover will connect with Asha’s story and bring a part of themselves to the reading. It’s a real honour to write a book that an 11-year-old me would have loved and to give children who perhaps haven’t seen themselves in stories the chance to be represented. I think it’s also important for all children regardless of background to experience a book with a girl like Asha who is strong, clever and adventurous.
Is there a key message you want people to take away from the book?
I want people to feel stronger after reading and for it to give them hope in their own lives. Its core values of family, faith and friendship are themes which are uplifting and positive.
Had you always wanted to be an author?
Being a writer was always a childhood dream, so now I have achieved it I am very happy. I am also a teacher, so the two things work very well together.
If you could give your younger-writing-self advice, what would it be?
Write the story that means something special to you and finish it. Keep persevering even when things don’t go well because in the end the hard work will pay off.
Who or what has helped you become a better writer?
The decision to take a break from teaching and do the MA Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University gave me time and space to write. I became part of a supportive writing community.
What was an experience where you learned that language had power?
I always loved reading as a girl and discovered at a young age the power that words can have over your imagination. Books open up thousands of new worlds and teach you about empathy, bravery and hope. These are such wonderful things and we can all experience them equally regardless of our background, where we live or who we are.
Who is your favourite writer?
I loved magical books like The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, The Hobbit and The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase. At the moment, I enjoy writers like Katherine Rundell, David Almond, Kiran Millwood-Hargrave.
What is your best novel?
The one I always come back to is The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe because it takes an ordinary situation and makes it extraordinary. The idea that you could find a land like Narnia at the back of a wardrobe is eternally appealing.
How does it feel to win the Costa Book Award?
It’s such a huge thrill to win the award and a great honour. There are so many amazing books out there, so to be selected is unbelievable. I feel really proud both for myself and for my family, who have been so supportive.
Today, what inspires you?
I’m really inspired by the children and young people I meet on school visits and festivals. It’s a really tough time to be young and yet they go forward, wear their hearts on the sleeve and are so trusting. As adults, we have to care for all our children as if they were our own.
What can we expect from you next?
I am currently editing book two, which is called Tamarind And The Star Of Ishta. It is another story set in the Himalaya with magic in it and will be out in August this year, so look out for it!