Natalie Anderson, author of the debut novel City of Saints and Thieves, is excited at the prospect of visiting Asheville (she’ll read at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Feb. 11) and her home town of Sylva (City Lights Bookstore on Friday, Feb. 17). “If you asked me where my home was, I would definitely say there — Western North Carolina,” she says. “I’m really excited to come full circle and go to the bookstore that I used to go to as a teenager. … And I actually get to go there and be the author.”
Even though her family is here, Anderson hasn’t lived in WNC in quite some time. For high school, she attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then went on to UNC Chapel Hill, where she majored in international studies. After working with a Raleigh agency that settled refugees in N.C., she earned an MS in Forced Migration from Oxford University, and then worked in the field in Africa, where she saw firsthand the conditions that had driven refugees to the U.S.
In that line of work, “We were traveling more often than not,” Anderson says, “doing these brief but thorough interviews that were basically just asking people to ‘Tell me every horrible thing that has ever happened to you and why that makes you a refugee.’”
As the constant exposure to stories of war and displacement took its toll, however, Anderson sought refuge in books. “I started reading a lot of children’s literature, because that was basically the only thing I could handle,” she says. She also turned to writing a middle grade novel of her own as “a way to create a world where I could control the chaos.”
A break from the field, followed by a return to Africa, set Anderson to work on the story that eventually became City of Saints and Thieves. Working out of Kenya, she thought about writing a novel set in Nairobi that dramatized the experiences that drove refugees there from the Congo.
“My family would ask, ‘What is it that you actually do?’ And, ‘What kind of stuff did they tell you?’” Anderson recalls, and admits that she had trouble telling people about the kinds of horrors that she heard. “I was always fascinated with this idea of how can you take these real stories. … How do you turn that into something that people would want to read and still set it in the real world?”
In Nairobi, however, Anderson conceived of a novel in which a young woman rises from her refugee past to becomes a Robin Hoodlike fighter for justice. Telling the back story of that character turned out to be a novel in itself, and eventually became the plot of City, in which a thirst for revenge drives Tina, a young refugee, to peel away the layers of secrecy that have sprung up around her and her mother’s flight from Congo.
Ttelling Tina’s story to a YA audience proved liberating, the perfect vehicle for the refugee experience. “There are certain things that I just wouldn’t have written about, whether I was writing for an adult or young adult audience,” Anderson says. “I’m not into gratuitous sex and violence scenes, so YA is a great place for me to work.”
Anderson maintains that her novel holds true to the refugee experience. Taken out of context, City may read like a dystopian techno-thriller in the vein of The Hunger Games, or Nancy Farmer’s classic one-step-into-the-future House of the Scorpion. But Anderson says she would read YA dystopian fiction and find herself saying, “Oh, that feels so familiar, even though it’s not set in Africa.”
“People think this isn’t real,” she says, “but all this stuff is actually happening.” Tina’s story, Anderson says, reflects the stories of individual refugees around the globe. And with refugees in the news, Anderson hopes that readers will remember this.
Refugees, Anderson says, “all have these complicated histories beyond just being the people on the boats in the orange life jackets. They want to be known as: ‘I’m an engineering student,’ or, ‘I’m this person’s mother.’ They’re real, individual people who are much more than the situation they’re in right now.”