HEAVEN & HELL
Since her award-winning Looking for X, a story set in Toronto’s Regent Park, Deborah Ellis has written numerous books for young adults and children often dealing with difficult issues like war, disease and poverty. Now her 2004 novel The Heaven Shop is being produced as a play called Binti’s Journey by Theatre Direct opening Thu, Feb 21.
The Heaven Shop tells the story of 13-year-old Binti Phiri, a slightly self-centered young Malawian girl. As the novel begins she is living with her father, sister and brother in Blantyre, Malawi’s largest city, attending a private school and starring in a popular radio show called Gogo’s Family. When tragedy strikes, Binti is confronted with the realities of HIV/AIDS. Through her interactions with her own Gogo (grandmother) and the AIDS orphans in her care, Binti learns the importance of caring for others and the possibilities for both joy and sorrow in her new situation.
“I did a book called The Company of Fools that took place in medieval France during the time of the bubonic plague,” says Ellis. “It really hit me that a lot of the attitudes that we had back in the Middle Ages toward people suffering from the plague or leprosy were not really all that different from attitudes people have to people suffering from the modern-day plague of AIDS. And so I wanted to find out what it’s like to be a kid living at the epicentre of this modern day plague, which is southern Africa.”
Ellis travelled to Malawi and Zambia to meet with children and talk to them about their experiences. “People have been living with [HIV/AIDS] for such a long time that it’s just become part of their lives. So it’s not right out in front of your face; you have to look for it. But once you start looking, it’s everywhere. The newspapers carry obituaries full of the deaths of young people, there are hospitals overflowing, schools not up and running.”
Yet, even in this horrendous situation, there are many people doing their best to make positive change. Ellis says she came across many stories of “highly talented people, the competent people, the people who are solving the problems that they’re presented with and moving their whole country and society forward.”
Theatre Direct’s production of Binti’s Journey, adapted by Marcia Johnson with director ahdri zhina mandiela, stars Lisa Codrington, Sefton Jackson, Jajube Mandiela and Dienye Waboso, with traditional dance and music by Mxolisi Welcome Ngozi. Most performances are for school kids, with three performances open to the public.
All of Ellis’s novels demonstrate a deep concern with social justice; being a lesbian plays a part. “It’s helped me to feel comfortable being an outsider and that’s always a good thing for a writer,” says Ellis, “because then you can stand apart from the dominant culture and look in. You’re not so much tangled up in it that you lose your perspective.”