Although most of us here at Invisible Children are probably considered too old for Young Adult literature, let’s get real, we can’t help ourselves. We especially love it when we find stories like City of Saints and Thieves, a novel released earlier this year by Natalie C. Anderson.
City of Saints and Thieves has everything we ever wanted in a long weekend read. It’s a story told from the perspective of a young African woman, Tina, living on the streets of the fictional Sangui City. After fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Tina and her mother arrive in Kenya to build a new life. But after her mother is murdered, Tina spends the next four years surviving on the streets alone as a thief in a local gang. When it brings her back to the place of her mother’s death, Tina’s overwhelmed, setting into motion a dangerous cascade of events that could, at any moment cost Tina her life. But finally uncovering the truth about who killed her mother – and why – keeps her holding on.
Let’s just say, we couldn’t put the book down.
In fact, we loved it so much that we called up Natalie C. Anderson and asked her to tell us more about what led her to write such a fascinating and eye-opening story. Here’s what she told us:
First off, tell us about yourself and your background working with refugees around the world.
I’ve spent several years working with refugees both in the U.S. and internationally — mostly in and around Nairobi, Kenya, where many Congolese refugees had fled. For a long time, I worked for an agency conducting interviews with refugees who are under consideration for resettlement in the United States. My job was to travel around parts of Africa and interview refugees, listen to their stories, and put them into the legal documents. Those documents are then used to determine whether or not a person is officially considered a refugee and where that person will be resettled.
How did that work lead to writing a novel for young adults?
Through my work, I interviewed probably around 4,000 refugees all over Africa, so I had been exposed to many stories of traumatizing experiences. I started writing as a hobby and as a way to cleanse my own palette and process all these stories. That sort of got me into the world of writing.
So, when I came back to the U.S. I took another job working with urban refugees – refugees who aren’t living big camps – focusing on those living in Nairobi, Kenya. After being away the city for a couple of years, I traveled to Nairobi for work and being in the city again caused a flood of emotions. So I started writing this story about a Robin Hood-type girl but set in Africa – again just for fun. I was writing about this character who grew up in a really tough place, like the streets of Nairobi, and about what that would have been like.
I ended up submitting the story to a contest with the Boston Public Library and won, which gave me the opportunity to spend the next year writing the rest of the story from the Boston Public Library.
Wow! What was it like writing the story from Boston about such a different place?
Well, I was traveling back and forth to Nairobi while I was writing the book because I still had my day job working with refugees there. I had also lived there for several years, so I would draw on that experience. I really thought of it as kind of a fun to be able to keep my foot in the door even though I was living in a very different place.
The setting of a story is something you can sort of just lay out, but the really fun part for me was figuring out the characters and how to write their stories. I’ve never been a writer before and was kind of stumbling into this, so I was just using my background in international development. There aren’t a lot of people out there writing about refugees living in Kenya so being able to bring those together was really fun.
On that note, Tina, your main character is a young, female refugee living in an African city and her’s is a story that’s not often told. What kind of role did that play in how you wrote her story?
At the time that I was writing the book, the refugee crisis was kind of front and center in the news cycle, especially in terms of migration to Europe. I think people had a lot of questions about refugees; “Who are they?”, “Why are they leaving their countries and coming here?”, and even questions like “Where is Congo?” Meanwhile, the average perception, I think, of refugees and of Africa is that it’s all very tragic and that these people are very sad because they are victims.
So, I wanted to write something that didn’t stick to the normal narrative of refugees—and Africans especially—as victims. I wanted to have a character who was strong and tough and not looking for any sympathy. It often gets overlooked that refugees are just people and that, just because people go through awful things, that’s not all that they are—they’re a lot more than that. So my main focus was for Tina’s experience as a refugee to be integral part of who she is, but not her defining characteristic.
I hope that people would come away from reading the book with a little bit more understanding of the situations that cause people to leave their countries and become refugees but also that they are so much more than those things that have happened to them. There are bigger stories and people don’t necessarily want to be a part of that narrative of the victim.
As you mentioned, the stories that we typically hear about refugees are about those coming to the U.S. or to Europe, but you chose to place Tina’s story in Africa. Was there a reason for that?
When I first started writing it, I actually got a little pushback about the setting. A lot of people told me an African story wouldn’t be as successful as one set in the U.S. or another Western country. But I wanted to keep the whole story in Africa because that is typically what happens with refugees. It’s actually a very small percentage of refugees who go straight to Western countries. I don’t think there are enough stories about refugees who come to Western countries and what that is like, but there are still more of those than there are of refugees who stay in Africa.
I also recognize that there are also a lot of misperceptions about Africa itself. So many people, when they think of Africa, think about vast savannahs with elephants and giraffes, but they don’t usually think about urban areas like Nairobi, or the cool things happening with technology there, or the blending of urban and rural. I wanted to set the story in a city to show that Africans aren’t just people in rural areas tending to cattle—Africans are also people who have lived in cities their whole lives and wouldn’t know what to do with a cow if it came and sat on their face.
What’s powerful about telling stories is their ability to connect us to each other and they way they help us see the commonalities we all have, even in different places and situations. How do you think young readers here in the U.S. can relate to Tina?
So much of creating this character was making her someone who was very tough and strong and could survive on the streets of a city like Nairobi. You have to be a strong person in a situation like that, but it takes its toll. If you’re able to be strong in that situation, it’s because you’ve chosen to be. You’re tough, not vulnerable—or you think you aren’t vulnerable. And that’s something everyone—not just teens—are constantly wrestling with. That’s where we’re able to relate with any character because we’re all figuring out what our strengths are and what weaknesses are developing alongside those strengths.