New Student Reading: Questions For Masha Hamilton Author of Camel Bookmobile

The Camel Bookmobile is this year’s required reading for undergraduate students entering the Steinhardt School. At a Glance interviewed author Masha Hamilton about her novel.

What inspired you to write The Camel Bookmobile?

When my daughter first told me about the real camel bookmobile in northeastern Kenya, the fact that it would stop visiting an entire community because one person failed to turn in her or his book seemed ripe for dramatic tension. I love good writing, but storytelling is crucial, I think, and this felt like a story bursting at the seams. As I began to write, I also wanted to explore that American trait of great generosity of spirit, but often profound lack of knowledge of other places and people. This idea that we can simply transplant or impose our way of seeing the world on another culture is something I’d seen repeatedly while overseas myself. This is something Fi exhibits from the beginning — her fatal flaw, if you will –and it is this flaw that ends up making the story, for her, a tragedy. I also was very interested in societies in transition, with the tug-o-war between the modern and the traditional, as I had covered that situation several times as a journalist and regard it as a kind of social crisis. (By the way, I think this is exactly the situation the US faces now.)

Once you got your idea, how did you go about about creating your novel?

At first, I didn’t want to go see the real camel library in person because, due to my long years as an overseas journalist, I was afraid I would begin reporting it, instead of creating it. I wanted my characters to each be changed by the camel bookmobile, but in very different ways, and I needed the freedom to get to know those characters apart from the real people I would later meet. So for early research for the novel, I used the Internet, snail mail and phone calls, but relied on my prior experiences and my imagination. After the novel was sold to HarperCollins and in the final editing stages, I actually went to see the real camel bookmobile. It was a wonderful trip to that northeastern corner of Kenya. It didn’t change the novel significantly, but I did add more emphasis regarding the heat and the aridity as I was there in the third year of drought and famine. I also added a very teeny bit more to Mr. Abasi (one of my personal favorite characters) since I met someone there who eerily reminded me of him. I also took my daughter, the one who first told me about the camel library. She was 17 at the time.

At Steinhardt in the fall, students will be looking at The Camel Bookmobile and talking about change. Can you tell us how the book changed you?

One way it changed me is that it led to my first literacy project — which sprung from the recognition I gained in that sparsely populated corner of northeastern Kenya that the stories we share across borders and languages become a vital part of our lives.

When I was traveling with the real camel library, I saw how much books meant to the young people of that area, and I saw that they didn’t have enough. The books they had sometimes disappeared with a pastoralist family on the move, or got ruined by weather. And suddenly, ironically, I was kind of in the position of Fi, wanting to do good, but wanting to do it in the most helpful way. So when my daughter and I got back to New York City, we sent a box of kids’ books, though I knew they needed more. I didn’t know how to go about getting them more, and I spoke to librarians and fellow authors before finally hitting on the idea of reaching out to fellow authors, asking them to send five appropriate books and offering to put their names up on a website. This led to an unexpected groundswell of award-winning and generous authors who all participated, and then when the novel actually came out, book groups, festivals, bookstores began to participate as well. They were able to begin a second camel bookmobile even closer to the border with Somalia. We tried to avoid the Fi-syndrome, if you will, by working with the librarian in Garissa, Mr. Farah, to compile a list of the kinds of books they actually wanted. We sent books in the official language of English, as well as Swahili, the language of the marketplace, and Somali, which is what nearly all the patrons speak. I saw, when I was there, the power of storytelling in these lives. Books were expanding their meaning of what it meant to be human. I also saw the power of collaboration, and that stuck with me and gave me courage later when I began the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

What advice do you have for students at the Steinhardt School who want to write?

Write, write, write, of course, and read, read, read. Try not to be too self-critical in early drafts. Be more like the kid who smeared finger-paint all over a paper, and proudly watched it get hung up on the fridge. You do need to edit and revise, but bringing out that side can kill the first drafts. Write about what makes you passionate. And write without thinking at all of audience. Write for yourself.

(Photos: Masha Hamilton, the author of The Camel Bookmobile and 31 Hours, in Kenya with a camel bookmobile.)