I have been lucky to live and work with people from many different backgrounds, and that’s reflected in my fiction.
I grew up in South Africa and left after being involved in student protests against the apartheid regime. I spent eight years in Zambia, at an exciting time in its early independence years, and later travelled extensively in Africa while working for Save the Children. All of this provided the inspiration for my novel If You Can Walk, You Can Dance. It follows a young woman who has to flee South Africa, through her journey exploring music in 1970s London and across East and Central Africa.
In Save the Children I was a senior policy advisor and travelled to over 30 countries to support programmes with disadvantaged children. This gave me an extraordinary opportunity to learn from inspiring people who have to cope with unrelenting poverty, political oppression, and war. My latest novel, Uncertain Light, reflects those experiences, and is set among international humanitarian workers. It begins when a UN peace negotiator is taken hostage in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For most of my adult life I have lived in London, and I love its cultural diversity. I worked for years in adult education, organising English classes for people who had come from other countries. My short story collection, A Language in Common, was inspired by getting to know women from South Asia who had come as immigrants to Britain. I also got to know many asylum seekers, to understand more about what had driven them to flee their homes, and the difficulties they faced since. A Shield of Coolest Air gives a glimpse of all this, through a story about Somali refugees in London.
Somewhere More Simple is set on the Isles of Scilly – a world away, and a place I love. It has been a special part of the growing up experience of my children and grandchildren.
My books have won several literary awards – it’s of course exciting to get that recognition, but what matters more to me is what I hear from readers. You can read some of their responses on the pages here for each book. And if you’d like to email me your own responses, please do.
I enjoy talking about my books – to reading groups, in libraries, or at literary festivals – more details of this in the Events section.
I also write and edit non-fiction. The section on Ralph Russell & Urdu introduces books by the eminent Urdu scholar which give a taste of this rich literary tradition to those who don’t know Urdu. As his literary executor and editor, I work with publishers to keep his work in print.
In Education & Development you’ll find books that grew out of my international work with Save the Children.