Dreaming of a better life through education

Author Suzy Zail with schoolchildren in Uganda during her 2015 research trip.

After writing two Holocaust-themed novels, author Suzy Zail turned her attention to the plight of African girls fighting for the right to an education in her latest novel. Danny Gocs reports.

FOR author Suzy Zail, it was a chance meeting with an Ugandan woman visiting Australia who told of her desperate fight for an education that planted the seed for a new book.

Zail, a former lawyer, wrote her first book in 2006 about her Holocaust survivor father titled The Tattooed Flower, followed by two Holocaust-themed novels, The Wrong Boy and Alexander Altmann A10567.

“I had been comfortable about writing Holocaust fiction, but the 2014 kidnapping of 270 Nigerian schoolgirls by terror group Boko Haram haunted me and I wondered what I could do to help not only those girls but millions of girls around the world who were being denied an education,” Zail told The AJN.

Suzy Zail with excited students in a classroom in Uganda.

“I started to think about writing about education and girls’ rights and by chance I met Nakamya Lilian during her Australian visit in 2015 who told me her story about growing up in a small impoverished village and being desperate for an education – and I knew immediately that it would be the heart of my next book.”

Within weeks the Melbourne author was on a flight to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to start her research. She had already contacted aid organisations there such as Girls Not Brides and Concern for the Girl Child who help girls complete their school education.

“When I got there five organisations had already organised about 30 girls to meet with me and be interviewed,” she said. 

“I started at 8am every day and there was a line of girls waiting to tell their stories. For 10 hours a day I listened and recorded the interviews on my phone and later transcribed the notes. 

“They were so generous in sharing their stories even though some were devastating. They had been overlooked by their fathers, brothers, teachers and this was a chance to tell their stories.”

The front cover of I Am Change by Suzy Zail.

Most of the interviewees were teenagers, some in their early 20s and a few older women.

“Many were orphans, their mothers dying of diseases and their fathers abandoning them for second and third wives,” said Zail.

“A lucky few were in secondary school, on scholarships, the only girls in their class. They lived in concrete boxes in the city’s slums, walked an hour to school on an empty stomach and they considered themselves blessed. They were lucky to be learning.” 

Zail said that each day, after conducting her interviews, she felt sorrow and anger as well as hope and admiration. She also took time out to visit villages, schools and meet the girls in their mud huts to understand how they lived.

“I left Uganda with their secrets and dreams,” said Zail. “I knew that hearing their stories was a privilege which came with a responsibility to get the details right, so I continued my research, devouring memoirs and history books, watching movies and YouTube clips, and reaching out to professors and journalists, teachers and aid workers, to amass the knowledge I needed to write an authentic story.

Author Suzy Zail.

“It was tough listening to their stories, but I had to remain strong and unemotional. They didn’t want my tears, they wanted me to write their story.”

Zail spent three years writing I Am Change, set around a girl named Lilian – inspired by all the interviews – who lives in a poor village in Uganda and faces numerous struggles to gain an education. Kept at home to cook and dig the garden, she steals her brother’s books and teaches herself to read and write. 

In 2017 Zail sent a draft of her novel to Namukasa Nusula Sarah, one of the students she had interviewed on her first day in Uganda and with whom she had kept in contact.

Namukasa completed her schooling thanks to the support of an American doctor who paid her school fees and paid for her uniform through Concern for the Girl Child.

She had asked to read a draft to check details, and told Zail: “After a few pages I was lost in the story, in my story, and I cried … Suzy had listened to our stories. It was all there. The lessons and the beatings, the laughter, the drums, the hunger and the fear.”

Zail said she was amazed at the determination of many of the girls she met.

“I would ask them what makes them happy and they replied, ‘books’. They treasured their education. Some would wake up at 5am and work for their neighbours so that they could afford to pay their fees. They knew their future lay in education.”

Even though I Am Change is a novel aimed at the young adult market of readers aged 14 and over, Zail emphasised that everything is based on fact and has been thoroughly researched.

“Many stories in the book were true stories. Some were told confidentially to me and I have changed names, but every detail is based on fact,” she said.

I Am Change, which has been published by Black Dog Books and was launched last week, is a story that Zail hopes will raise awareness of the plight of millions of girls around the world who are being denied an education.

Zail embarked on a writing career after her father became ill in 1997 and revealed his Holocaust story that he’d kept hidden in order to put his past behind him.

“I decided that life was too short to keep doing something that I was not passionate about – my heart was not in the law which I had done for six years – and I wanted to spend more time with my dad.

“I devoted the next five years to The Tattooed Flower, which was published in 2006. It was a beautiful project and I have continued my writing career, which I love.”

Zail has teamed up with travel agent Yvonne Verstandig of Executive Edge in Caulfield to co-host a small group women’s tour to Uganda in May 2020 as part of her Travel My Way tours.

The group will learn about tribal culture and meet female leaders and girls’ empowerment organisations, but also spend time seeing Africa’s wildlife on safari in the Kidepo Valley National Park and tracking gorillas on foot in the Bwindi Forest.

“We will meet Namukasa and Lilian and some of the girls I interviewed; it will be a great opportunity to hear their stories first-hand, as well as meet some of the organisations that helped the girls,” said Zail.

Suzy Zail’s I Am Change is published by Black Dog Books, $19.99 (rrp).