Sylvia Whitman

The Milk of Birds, Simon & Schuster, 2013

Readers of my early drafts of The Milk of Birds raved about Nawra, resilient survivor of Darfur’s genocidal civil war. She’s thoughtful, tough, exotic. But they didn’t like K.C., the smart-alecky American teen. Next to Nawra, K.C. seems selfish, scattered—exuberant all right—but immature. Cut her out, someone advised.

I couldn’t. I love K.C., who shares some of the best and worst qualities of my own kids. And Nawra needs her. The Milk of Birds isn’t a story about Darfur; it’s a story about a relationship. Although K.C. and Nawra often talk past each other, they understand the gist. “What I like about this book,” one reader told me, “is that both girls have real struggles. It isn’t easy to grow up anywhere in the world.”

I grew up in a preppy, suburban family, but my parents had a not-so-secret vice: they loved to travel. As the youngest child, I tagged along on several of their trips and later had a few adventures of my own. You could say I inherited a global curiosity. I have often wondered how people live in other places. Who would I be had I been born in Finland or Kenya or Peru? How are my peers faring around the world?

Pollen from many places gathered into the seed of this novel: my background in Arab studies, my experience as a mom, my discovery of a Congolese rape survivor’s testimony and a dissertation full of Sudanese proverbs, and my brief involvement as a volunteer with Women for Women International, a nonprofit that empowers women in international crisis zones through aid and letters. I still don’t know if I have the “right” as an American to imagine Nawra’s Sudanese life. Even though I did a lot of research for The Milk of Birds, curiosity can’t always overcome cultural blinders. In the same way, I had to imagine how K.C.’s distractibility and verve shape how she navigates her world. The Milk of Birds is a work of fiction. Whatever truth it claims lies in the connection between K.C. and Nawra. They never meet, and yet they save each other.

For folks interested in either of the “big issues” of the book–the genocidal civil war in Darfur or learning disabilities–my website has links to some interesting sites: www.sylviawhitmanbooks.com.

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