The Pomegranate Tree by Vanessa Altin is the story of a young girl named Dilvan, a Kurdish girl whose entire life and family has been ripped apart by a killer cult as they journey through Syria murdering innocent people and spreading misery and death everywhere they go.
After an incredibly powerful and emotive opening chapter, Rehanna tells Dilvan to write her story down, through Dilvan’s writing we learn about her wonderful parents and siblings and the loving and simple life they enjoyed before the ‘ratmen’ began their attack of unnecessary violence. Although the book is suitable for ages 14+ I felt myself gripped by Dilvan’s story and the relentless hope she kept as she tried to reunite herself with her family in the midst of a chaotic and seemingly hateful world.
There are moments where the book was difficult to read but this allows for a better understanding of how thousands of people, like Dilvan, are suffering every day. I was fortunate enough to get some time with Vanessa, and here’s what she had to say about the book.
I found the opening of the book incredibly powerful and raw, does it worry you how young people will react to this or was that your intention?
I was aiming for powerful and raw – drawing on my background in journalism I know you need to grab the reader immediately to get their attention and hold it to the end. Also, despite 15 years as a national newspaper journalist, I have NEVER been more shocked or affected than I was by reporting on the war in Syria and meeting the child refugees. I did want readers here to have the chance to experience, as close to first hand as possible, the things I witnessed and the reality for children caught up in this ongoing nightmare. However, as the mother of a 12-going-on-22-year-old, I’m also aware that young adults hate to be patronised and are more aware of world events than they’re often given credit for. Reading the book this week on a school tour several girls and even a teacher were reduced to tears by the first chapter, but all of them spoke to me after and said they were tears of empathy, which is more than I ever hoped to achieve.
What made you introduce the idea of Dilvan writing everything down?
By using the diary format it meant I could fill in all the background detail that gives you an idea of how life was for Dilvan before the war.
Through the narrative of Dilvan’s writing we learn so much about her and her family, how important was it for you to include this?
It was crucial to me that people had a clear understanding of Dilvan and her family and home life. I wanted readers to realise that these were normal people, living and loving their everyday lives before the war. I was hoping to try and redress the balance of recent reports. We only hear them being referred to as migrants or refugees or a “swarm” according to the Prime Minister. I felt we had a very unbalanced picture. To me they are just people, men, women and children who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in the middle of a war – a particularly brutal one without rules. I wanted to share my experience of happy Kurdish village life and used personal insights (the orange eating episode was a true story about my husband and his brothers and friends) to illustrate why so many people are fleeing from Syria.
Despite the heartbreaking and bleak situation that Dilvan and other Kurdish families find themselves in, hope seemed an important message. Is this something you experienced during your recent trip?
I have always been impressed by their cheerful resilience but even more so recently. These people have nothing – but will happily share it – they seem untroubled by personal possessions and that has always been a very refreshing quality. Since the war, however, it is their belief in themselves and their bravery and determination which has translated to huge success on the battlefield and provides the prospect of hope for a brighter future.
I really loved the character of Rehanna, how did she come about and is she based on young women you met during your travels?
Rehana is real – I loved her and her friends and colleagues in the YPJ. All the tweets about her are real – sadly after that there were reports that she had been targeted by IS and beheaded.I was going to include that in the book but it was too hard to write… and I wanted to cling to the hope that it wasn’t true.
I saw a lot of comparisons being drawn between Harry Potter and the very real life threat of the Ratmen, was it important for you to reference something so universal for the younger audience?
Definitely. It was extremely important to find points that kids here could relate to – I thought that if they could identify with Dilvan and the other Kurdish children it would be more interesting and relatable. And, to be honest, I think the ratmen/dementor comparison really works (I might be biased!).
The last chapters of the book were very gripping and had me on the edge of my seat, was it difficult to write about the more violent aspects of the ratmen?
In some ways the last chapters were both the hardest and the easiest to write at the same time! They were easier because I knew exactly what was going to happen – but it was quite difficult to be detailed and accurate while trying to keep the pace. It took a few attempts to get the suspense right – in the end I just concentrated on being Dilly in the tree and writing what she was thinking and doing. I’m very glad to hear it had you on the edge of your seat.
If there’s one thing you hope for readers to take away from The Pomegranate Tree what would it be?
I’d be happy if the reader liked Dilvan and her friends and family – and perhaps had gained a slightly better understanding and respect for them. It would be nice to be able to redress the balance from either pity or resentment which are the two normal reactions in Britain to witnessing the plight of child refugees.
The Pomegranate Tree is published by Blanket Press and is available from all good bookshops (RRP £9.99)