Sita Brahmachari looks to ‘spooky’ Queens Wood in unifying tale of cultural diversity

Sita Bramachari, author of Red Leaves

Sita Bramachari, author of Red Leaves - Credit: Archant

Sita Brahmachari’s fourth novel unites a homeless Scottish teen, a wealthy child of divorce and a Somalian refugee with a common need for a place to call home.

Queen's Wood.

Queen's Wood. - Credit: Archant

The three runaways spark a manhunt when they take refuge in an old air raid shelter in Queen’s Wood – but in reality, the Muswell Hill writer admits, these adolescents wouldn’t meet in a modern city where social groups still tend to be segregated.

“My characters get together in the wood but when would those children really? We don’t hang out with homeless people in real life. What’s given me the ability to draw these people together is this ancient free space that has survived all these historic events and understands the changes that have gone on in the city.”

Queen’s Wood, “spookier, murkier and wilder than Highgate Wood” where Brahmachari regularly walks her dog, is an extra character in Red Leaves which includes the figure of an ancient bag lady who embodies the spirit of the wood.

“It dates back to the Domesday Book, a place where plague victims were buried. I picked on various places that inspired an idea, like the ancient earthwork conservation area that is cordoned off for the next 12 years in the middle that was a believable place where they might hide.”

Wood Green riots

The 48-year-old, whose father is from India and mother from England, is passionately in favour of ethnically and economically diverse communities – a common feature of previous novels Artichoke Hearts, Jasmine Skies and Kite Spirit.

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“After the Wood Green riots, politicians asked how can people do this to their own community? That’s all very well when you live in gated communities where everyone’s like them. Perhaps David Cameron doesn’t have an elderly neighbour living in a housing association flat.”

Brahmachari, who sent her two children to local comprehensive Alexandra Park School, finds education a divisive issue with some schools shunned by the middle-classes who have abandoned their historic commitment to comprehensive education.

“When it came to choosing a school, suddenly the community I had felt was so strong proved to be so fragile and individualistic. These shutters go down and the local school isn’t good enough for your child. This idea of choice is not choice, it’s choice for some then ghettos for others.

“I can’t understand how we can function as a society if we don’t have experience of each other. Children don’t choose just to be with people like them who look like them or don’t challenge them in any way.”

Through Red Leaves, Brahmachari brings together a diverse group and explores their respective journeys towards belonging.

Iona “is completely dispossessed,” homeless since her mother re-married; Aisha, handed over at a checkpoint in war-torn Somalia by her desperate father, arrived as an unaccompanied minor and was taken into a warm secure home with an elderly working-class Irish foster mum.

She is thrown into turmoil by the possibility of adoption: “It’s only a possibility but it rocks her world so badly she runs away in panic.”

And Zak’s divorcing parents have left him with a Sri Lankan nanny while they work abroad.

Born in Derby, Brahmachari studied English and Drama at Bristol University before landing her first job as a community theatre worker at the Royal Court.

“At university it was a community theatre project, going into local schools and doing workshops that made me think about working with young creative minds.

“It really helped to find that one thing that I loved at an early age.”

At the Royal Court she reached out to marginalised communities in Kensington and Chelsea to develop stories and bring young writers back into the young people’s theatre to make a more diverse cohort.

“I sigh when I think how so many of these opportunities have now been cut, we live in a diverse society but it’s not equal. Look at the statistics in theatre how much work it takes to invite people into these places. You are not just going to walk into the Royal Court or even think ‘I could be a writer’ when you haven’t even got a literacy culture.”

Sent one day to talk about trainers at a meeting of young people in Ladbroke Grove, she launched into a speech about training opportunities at the Royal Court only to be met by “a blank sea of faces”.

“I can’t believe now I was so confident when I knew nothing.

“This boy pointed to his feet and said: ‘we are here because gangs of kids are stealing our trainers and we have had enough’.

“Every time I approach writing a character from a different background, I think about that and start by thinking I know nothing.”

Red Leaves is published by Macmillan priced £6.99.