by Martha Anne Toll
Kit De Waal is that rare writer who has transformed her career expertise into a novel that is both exquisitely written and big-hearted. De Waal grew up in Birmingham, England, and currently makes her home in Leamington Spa. My Name Is Leon, De Waal’s debut, comes after a lifetime of engagement with the foster care system—initially having grown up in a family that fostered children, and later as a professional in criminal and family law, as a magistrate, and as a member of adoption panels. De Waal has advised British Social Services on the care of foster children, and has written training manuals on adoption and foster care.
My Name Is Leon tells the story a young boy, Leon, whose family disintegrates following the birth of his mother’s second son, Jake. Leon is the son of a black father, while Jake’s father is white. Their mother, Carol, increasingly unable to cope, is white. In a tragic but utterly realistic development, Jake is adopted because he is white, while Leon understands that as a child of color, he can never be adopted. Thus, Leon is forced into foster care. The novel has as its central theme Leon’s thwarted desire—or more accurately, visceral need—to care for his brother, and ultimately his absent mother. Leon takes in everything that around him, but even the adults with the best intentions fail to hear him. They can’t understand what’s best for him, particularly his need to reunite with his younger brother.
My Name Is Leon provides a window into the UK system of foster care, which appears to share similar inequities found in the US regarding children of color. There are, however, some positives. Good and caring adults are threaded throughout Leon’s story, as de Waal lovingly describes the ups and downs of a system that steps in where families collapse. I was lucky enough to explore with de Waal how her personal and professional experience coalesced in My Name Is Leon.
Martha Anne Toll: My Name Is Leon treats the experience of foster care with great nuance and sensitivity. Your mother was a foster carer as you were growing up. How did you incorporate that experience into the novel?
Kit De Waal: When you grow up with something, you’re not really aware of how it gets into your bones, but you find you can call on the memories as an adult. Leon himself and his carers Maureen and Sylvia, have nothing to do with anyone I knew as a child, but the context of their experiences is part of my internal mapping. Our house was always overflowing with children, too many to remember but there were one or two that stuck in the memory. There was a little boy who cried beautifully, another who used to hiccup after every meal, another who had the most infectious laugh and so on. My first memories are of playing outside with the random and varied children who came through our house so I suppose Leon is an amalgam of all of them.
MAT: Many of the adults in Leon’s life make their best efforts to care for him, but often Leon doesn’t see it that way. Could you discuss what went into your decision to keep the novel entirely in Leon’s voice?
KDW: Leon first came to me as an adult character in a thriller I was writing, but he wouldn’t leave me alone until I’d told his backstory. This is his story, so it had to be in his voice. I’m a fan of the close third person point view: it allows you to keep a story in one character’s voice, but also incorporate insights into the bigger picture. As a child, Leon observes things he doesn’t understand but the reader does. I have worked with lots of children in foster care, and so often their story is told by a social worker or their parent, or a foster carer or a guardian, anyone but the child. Even when social workers do their very best, it’s not the same as hearing it from the child so it was important that I got as close to the child as possible and let Leon tell us what he wanted to say.
MAT: Race is an important part of Leon’s story. Does your background as a child of an Irish mother and a Caribbean father come in here?
Photo via The Guardian
KDW: Yes it does. I have vivid memories of having one black and one white parent in the 60’s when it was not as acceptable or common as it is now. It isolates you. I have four siblings and of course we had each other but Leon has no one who looks like him and this further makes him question his identity. I know that when I was growing up I didn’t fit in, I was not part of the black community and not part of the white but also part of both. To be mixed race is no longer an unusual thing but it is a unique thing; you are able to empathise and understand at least two communities, in my case three as I was Irish, Caribbean and also living in England. I wanted to explore this through Leon again who looks like neither parent nor the brother he loves so much.
MAT: Race drives the fact that Jake is adopted as an infant but Leon is not adopted. Could you speak to the heartbreaking realities of this kind of family breakup?
KDW: This is something I saw time and time again in my work. It’s a sad reality that little white babies are the most likely to get adopted and siblings are often broken up to meet the demands of the system. It is an unfortunate truth that there are more parents willing to adopt white babies than any other race or age. Many adoptive parents come to adoption after failed pregnancies or years of IVF and many women want the experience of nursing a very young baby. There is also the perception that the younger the child the less the damage which is unfortunately not at all true. It would be lovely if more people could think about adopting older children and if more parents of mixed race or from the black community came forward to adopt children who could be brought up in a family that reflected their ethnic make-up and identity.
When there are siblings who are very different as in this book, social workers can have a horrible dilemma of whether to keep the much wanted white baby with the older, black sibling—who in all likelihood won’t be adopted—together in foster care or split them up and risk the sort of heartbreak we see Leon experience. It’s not an unusual scenario unfortunately but one that really shouldn’t happen to any child.
I also wanted to show how deep the love between brothers can go and how love can be the driving force of a child’s existence. It’s not only adults who get their hearts broken.
MAT: Much has been written about the challenges of transforming the workplace into fiction. Was it your aim in My Name Is Leon to expose what you had learned from work and could you discuss the novel’s motivations, and what advice you have for writers who delve into the world of work?
KDW: It’s never easy to sum up a novel’s motivations. Writers pull inspiration from all sorts of different experiences they have in life, and let’s face it, work is a huge part of our existence. I had no particular intention to explore the world of work, but they do say write what you know, and this world and period are two things I know very well indeed! I was very clear in my own mind that I didn’t want to preach or hit people over the head with my politics or views on society. I wanted above all else to be authentic and true to the people in the novel, to the birth mothers and social workers, foster carers, black men and Irish men, to everyone. Because I have worked with many people who are damaged or at the edge of society, I found this fairly easy. My view on those people is ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’ It could be me. What I really wanted to expose was Leon’s inner life and his take on what was happening; anything beyond that didn’t enter my consciousness.
My advice to other writers would be to create a balance between what you already know, which gives authenticity and texture to your work, and what excites your curiosity. Don’t be afraid to research things you don’t know: your voyage of discovery will add impetus to your writing, as long as what you’re looking into really fascinates you.
MAT: Despite the efforts of the women who care for him, Leon needs men who will guide him. He finds a couple of men in the community garden who might not meet with approval from the foster care “system,” but who provide him important lessons. Could you describe how and why you made these novelistic choices?
KDW: Something I’ve noticed in reading novels is that writers often create families around their main characters. It’s a subtle thing, and, I believe, not a conscious one. It just happens if you care about your characters and maybe it’s a reflection of what we do naturally in life, build families around ourselves. I also wanted Leon to have some role models, albeit both men are not easy characters; each is fighting his own demon. In novels I think it’s important to set characters challenges so that not only is the reader interested but it allows the novelist to play with characters, to demonstrate how they respond under pressure, which is the only way we truly know who they are – or who we are.
MAT: Leon’s mother, Carol, is never able to rise to the task of caring for him. Could you talk about Carol and how you see her as emblematic for what happens in the larger world?
KDW:I don’t know about Carol being emblematic for anything in the larger world, but she’s certainly typical of the characters I love to write. It’s the characters who are outside mainstream experience who interest me, the ones who run into troubles in life, who make mistakes they regret. Good people who perhaps do bad things. I think it’s important to represent marginalised voices in literature and strive for understanding and empathy in the larger world.
Carol loves her children; of that there is no doubt. But for many reasons—drugs, depression, loneliness, heartbreak—she finds herself outside or at the edge of society. Carol’s story again is a familiar one and a story that is too often a reality for many and for whom there is often little support and understanding. It is fairly easy to see that if Carol had more support, or if she could take advantage of the support offered to her, she may have been able to get over her difficulties and resume caring for her children—meaning the boys wouldn’t have been separated.
In the larger world this speaks to me of ensuring that the most vulnerable in society are cared for and helped.
MAT: Are there writers whom you admire who have treated the subject of adoption and the dislocation of children?
KDW: I know Dickens often had orphans and isolated or abandoned children in his novels—Oliver Twist, Pip, Estella, for example—and obviously he did it very well. I wish there were more writers who tackled this subject. I’ve had so many people write to me and say that this is the first book they have read that has covered their experience.
MAT: Would you share something about your “bloomer” status? How did it come to pass that you published your first novel after the age of 40? Our readers are particularly interested in the zig zags that mark a mature writer’s career.
KDW: It might look there was some sort of plan but that couldn’t be further from the truth. At every stage of my life I’ve just been doing that thing—whether it was working for Social Services or in criminal law or prioritizing my children—that’s what took up most of my time and emotional energy. When I adopted my second child, who wasn’t very well for a lot of his babyhood, I knew I had to do more than just be at home because I would have gone mad. So I began to write. Again, no plan. I didn’t think, I’ll write and then I’ll publish a few short stories and then after that I’ll write novels and then I’ll get somewhere. I was just inching along a path without knowing I was on a path at all. I did find there was a point at which I became serious about it, when I felt I had to know how to do it properly, which is when I did a Creative Writing MA at University – bear in mind I left school at 16 – this was a huge jump and I was 52 years old. I got out of that course exactly what I put in – 100%. I took it seriously, learnt the craft and afterwards wrote My Name is Leon. I also had numerous short stories published and flash fiction, and I suppose if you want to use a cliché, I burst on to the scene – not that there is much bursting at my age!
If your readers want to take anything from my trajectory, it would be that you have to give everything your all—everything that matters, anyway. I would never deny that I had some luck, but equally I know how much work I put in and continue to put in to becoming and staying a good writer.
MAT: This is your debut novel. You are also an accomplished short story writer. Do you have other novels in process, and if so, what subjects are you exploring?
KDW: I have just finished my second novel, but I’m not really allowed to tell you about it yet! All I can say is that it explores coping with change at an older age, much older than Leon! I’m also writing a book of short stories. My process involves working on both. Short stories give you such a buzz: the amazing feeling of creating something in a day, so they can provide shots of energy during the long periods of time it takes to craft a novel. I need both.
MAT: Finally, in your acknowledgements you give a nod to Edmund de Waal, who has achieved prominence as both a ceramist and a writer (Hare With Amber Eyes, The White Road). Would you tell us about your relationship with Edmund?
KDW: Edmund is my brother-in-law, and he’s always encouraged my writing. When you start out on any new career, especially a bit later on in life, it’s important to have people who cheer you on, and Edmund was very generous in that role. He also supports the scholarship I founded last year at Birkbeck University, which helps writers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to study for a Master’s in creative writing. So he’s an all-round excellent bloke really!
Martha Anne Toll’s fiction has appeared in Vol.1 Brooklyn, Slush Pile Magazine [forthcoming], Yale’s Letters Journal, Poetica E Magazine, Referential Magazine, Inkapture Magazine, Wild. She is a frequent contributor to The Millions. Martha’s essays and book commentaries have also appeared in Heck, [PANK], The Nervous Breakdown, Tin House blog, Narrative, NPR, and Washington Independent Review of Books. She has recently completed a novel that is short listed for the 2016 Mary Rinehart Roberts fiction prize. She directs a social justice foundation focused on preventing and ending homelessness and abolishing the death penalty. Please visit her at marthaannetoll.com; and tweet to her @marthaannetoll.