THE 'GRACE' case, which has generated many headlines lately, has focused attention on the foster care system and its shortcomings. It is a story that adds topicality to the Cúirt appearance of Kit de Waal, whose much-praised novel My Name is Leon, conjures a world of broken families and fostering in 1980s London.
The novel tells the heart-breaking yet uplifting story of Leon, a young boy whose mother, Carol, is incapable of looking after him and his baby half brother, Jake. This leads to the intrusion of social workers into their lives and the separation of the family.
De Waal was born in Birmingham to an Irish mother, who was a foster carer, and a Caribbean father. She worked for 15 years in criminal and family law, sits on adoption panels, and has written training manuals on adoption and foster care. Her short stories have received numerous awards. My Name Is Leon is her first novel.
“I was born in 1960 and at that time mixed race relationships were extremely rare anywhere in England,” she tells me, describing her upbringing. “I came from on the one side a big Irish family; my mother was one of nine, my grandmother was one of 13, and on the other side my West Indian family was quite small. I was brought up pretty much in the Irish community and yet I didn’t look Irish being brown skinned. Me and my brothers and sisters – there are five of us –became a sort of black Irish clan of our own. It didn’t have any detrimental impact on my childhood; I felt part of both the Irish and Caribbean communities at the same time.”
De Waal was in her forties when she began writing. “I never thought about being a writer,” she declares. “It wasn’t on the horizon for me. It certainly wasn’t in my family or among my friends. If you were working class or immigrant class you just didn’t write; you got a job and contributed to the household. I left school at 16 and never imagined I could write, but when I adopted my second child, he was quite ill and I was stuck at home. I was 45. I just thought I’d have a go to see if I could do it because I was bored. I was crap obviously to begin with but it got a grip of me, and then at 52 I did an MA in creative writing which I loved, it was really good for me.”
Despite her extensive first-hand knowledge of the fostering system, De Waal did not want her novel to be an issue-driven book. “I was more interested in Leon’s journey than in highlighting anything to do with the system,” she states. “I didn’t feel like I had something to say about that. It was a real surprise to me so many people were asking me if being in care ‘is really like that’. It’s a lot worse to be honest; there are a lot more tragic stories than Leon’s. I wanted to write a good book and I didn’t have any notion that the themes that crop up of separation and identity and loss were that unknown to the general public certainly not as regards to adoption and fostering.”
Many reviewers have remarked on the warmth with which all De Waal’s characters are drawn. “I worked in criminal law for 17 years, both for the prosecution and the defence,” she says. “You are confronted with the worst of human nature, you come across ghastly stories. I’d go to a prison for example to meet rapists, murderers, burglars, men who beat their wives or their children. I would never say that those actions can be condoned but you do see the people behind the tragedy.
"When you hear their stories you realise that no-one is born a murderer or a wife-beater, these are things that happen to people. Definitely there is choice and free will but there is a story behind every tragedy. I’ve seen bad people who could do good things and good people who could do very bad things. I’ve never lost sight of the fact that there but for the grace of God go I; if I’d had a different life, different circumstances, I could be one of those terrible people. I could be Carol certainly, Leon’s mother. She’s a really crap mum but she was 15 when she got pregnant and she’s fragile. If I’d got pregnant at 15 I can imagine doing the same things she does.”
Kit de Waal reads with John Boyne at the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday April 27 at 8.30pm as part of the Cúirt international Festival of Literature. Tickets are €16/13 from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie See also www.cuirt.ie