Exploring the story behind Diana Anyakwo's YA book : My Life as a Chameleon
With the Writer Spotlight Series, we create a positive image for young girls to refer to by having conversations with different writers and illustrators. This month we have been doing Q&As with many writers, to get to know more about them and their work. Here, we are showcasing all the questions we have asked author Diana Anyakwo. We discuss her YA book, My Life as a Chameleon.
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Welcome Diana. Tell us about yourself.
I currently live in Manchester, working as an editor and author, but for educational books, mainly for teenagers and children. Manchester has been my home for most of my life. I spent most of my childhood in Nigeria, Lagos, before moving to the UK. I started writing when I was in my 20s. Writing was not something I wanted to become, because I did not know that was a profession. I spent three years living in Greece in Athens, where I was teaching English as a foreign language. That was quite nice, the beautiful weather and culture.
My Life as a Chameleon tackles important issues with honesty and trust. Can you explain the inspiration behind the story?
The inspiration comes from growing up in Nigeria. It was a great nostalgia for Nigeria and my childhood, but particularly the time that I grew up, which was like the 80s. While writing this story, I pictured it to be a short story. The focus was on the setting, as a child growing up in Nigeria, from little scenes and memories. After a few years, I went back to Nigeria. It differed totally from what I remembered growing up. Which was slightly disappointing. However, it was nice to see the developments.
My Life as a Chameleon is set in dual timelines. 1990s Manchester and Lagos in the 1980s. Can you describe your writing process? Do you outline, plot and plan, or is your writing more organic?
It was organic. I am disorganised as a person. For my next project, I am trying to be
more organised. I just knew that I wanted a youthful voice to narrate the story. Originally writing short scenes and extracts from the girl's memory, then eventually, tie them all together to make a novel. My editor helped with the time frames throughout the story. I would have to give her credit for making it very clear. As I mentioned before that I wanted a youthful voice narrated, she mentioned “it was not clear enough for the reader”. So I needed to make the storyline clear that it is 15-year-old Lily that is looking back on their life and using the things that she experienced to find some kind of resilience for her current teenage years. By introducing two time frames, it gives an introduction and a final summary.
I also wanted to capture the fact that, like various teenagers, they have had unique life experiences. Teenagers are often told “they have not lived yet” but there are some teenagers that have gone through more life experiences than someone in their 50s. So they still have the right and benefit from reflecting on those sorts of experiences. Maybe using them to face what is ahead of them for the future.
What is your favourite line from your book?
So I have it here. So just as an intro, it is the main character Lily. She is at her father's funeral. And it is when they all come back to the house for the week. And she's kind of reacting differently from all her family members. There are people being very dramatic at the funeral, and Lily is not feeling or acting the same. So she questions herself, “What is wrong with me?”. “Why am I not crying?”
“Back at home, the formalities keep going on around me. And as I stand in a corner of the lounge watching, I begin to feel as if I am a ghost.”
I just wanted to show that Lily feels like she does not exist, because there was so much emotion in the room. That might be something numerous people feel at funerals. People could feel numb, or not focus on their feelings. Especially for a child that has lost a parent, everyone grieves in different ways.
As a YA writer, how important is it to have stories about life experiences?
I tend to read stories that are based on life experiences. I like realistic fiction or contemporary fiction, although mine was based in the 80s. When a young reader reads My Life as a Chameleon, maybe they can relate to emotions or feelings of the character. That can make them feel good, or less alone, more seen. Genres around fantasy are fantastic, as I used to read these stories as a child.
My Life as a Chameleon would be a good reference for teachers. There may be some students in class who are going through something which nobody is aware of. Their attitude may change. For example, they could be passive or aggressive. Lily had some trouble with her teacher, as she turned up to school late every day and her teacher was not pleased about this situation. However, it is not Lily’s fault that her father has fallen ill, and Lily has to be there to give him his medication, which makes Lily late for school. So instead of shouting, the teacher should address these issues with the parents. The story was based in the 80s, so I am
sure schools have changed today to allow the students to have a voice.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished reading a book that just had me in tears. It is called Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender. Caroline is from the Caribbean, the island of St. Thomas. It is a coming of age book. The main character is Caroline, a 12-year-old girl who thinks that she is cursed because of her mother leaving her and her father. We discovered that her mother has mental health issues. Plus, Caroline has new feelings for another girl in her school. She is not sure if these feelings are right or not. It is beautifully written, I highly recommend it!
Who inspires you in your genre?
I wrote a few names down, as there are various writers. I love Danielle Jawando. She deals with social issues and makes them very human. So you learn something, also there are various emotions. And it's difficult to read her books without crying, beautifully written. I enjoy Jacqueline Woodson's writing. Her book, Brown Girl Dreaming, was great.
Lastly, I enjoy Kereen Getten’s writing, love her book called Life Gives You Mangoes.
Quick Fire Round
Would you rather have an endless summer or an endless winter?
Where is your happy place?
What song is always on the top of your playlist?
Feeling good by Nina Simone.
About the author
Diana Anyakwo grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. Diana is of mixed Irish and Nigerian heritage. Anyakwo moved to the UK when she was a teenager and later graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in Molecular Biology and a Masters in Bioreactor Systems. She spent three years in Athens, Greece, where she taught English and worked as an editor at an educational publisher. She currently lives and works in Manchester as a freelance writer and editor for English Language teaching materials.