The Attic Child
by Lola Jaye
Interview by Diane Slocum
Twelve-year-old Dikembe is taken from his home in Africa during desperate times in the early 1900s to live in London as a ward of Sir Richard Babbington, a famous explorer. His life in a strange country, pining for his family, becomes intolerable when relatives of Babbington lock him in the attic and only release him to work for them as a slave in their house.
In this same house, in the 1970s, Lowra’s father dies leaving her an orphan at the mercy of her stepmother, who locks her in the same attic. There, Lowra discovers a necklace, a doll, a pen and mysterious writing on the wall which give her some sense of companionship, but also a compulsion to discover their significance and who put them there. A photo of an African boy at an exhibit gives her the clue she needs to begin her search.
AUTHORLINK: Where did you get the idea for this story?
“And I couldn’t tear my own eyes away from this little boy called Ndugu M’Hali.”
JAYE: One day I visited an exhibition that focused on Black people who had been present in England during the Victorian era. Among this array of fascinating images, one stood out to me – of a little boy. He wasn’t smiling. Although this wasn’t unusual for Victorian-era photographs, his expression reflected so much; his sadness, displacement, and … trauma. And I couldn’t tear my own eyes away from this little boy called Ndugu M’Hali. At that moment, I vowed to one day write a book about him, beginning my research the moment I walked through my front door that evening.
I found out that Ndugu M’Hali was brought to England by the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley. He also died at the age of 12. I then asked myself: What if Ndugu M’Hali had been allowed to live?
AUTHORLINK: How did you get from there to Dikembe and Lowra as attic children?
“I wanted to not only show their differences but also how they could be bound by their similarities.”
JAYE: As a child, I read and enjoyed the Flowers in the Attic series by Virginia Andrews and knew early on that I wanted to recreate a version of this. I also wanted to focus on two children from not only different backgrounds but also, separate eras. I wanted to not only show their differences but also how they could be bound by their similarities.
AUTHORLINK: What research did you do for this story?
JAYE: I conducted a lot of historical research which not only focused on England during the Edwardian era but also on The Congo. The novel does make references to what was going on during a particular year and so I needed to make sure dates corresponded with whatever was occurring during that specific time in history. This required not only a lot of reading … but mulling over photographs of atrocities inflicted on the people of The Congo during the specific period, as well as their rich cultural practices that have existed for centuries.
AUTHORLINK: Why was it important for Dikembe to come from the Congo?
JAYE: The main character in the story, Dikembe, is inspired by the real story of Ndugu M’Hali who died in the Congo in 1877 and for that reason, it felt right to base part of the novel there. However, I also wanted to bring to light the atrocities which occurred in the region, during a shameful period of history that not many people are aware of.
AUTHORLINK: How would you describe people like Babbington?
JAYE: Entitled, privileged, and with a complex which allows them to believe they are doing good… without acknowledging the reasons why the people they are ‘rescuing’ are in turmoil in the first place. Those who refuse to recognize the part their own practice has played in the initial destruction. Those who choose to inflict cruelty cloaked in civility
AUTHORLINK: What about Dikembe’s mama regarding taking him to Babbington? Would she have thought that was her only hope for him?
JAYE: Dikembe’s mama believed sending her son to England would be the only way to save her son. During The Congo atrocities of 1885 – 1908, everything was falling apart and perhaps she saw a silver lining in the form of this ‘nice’ explorer who wanted to give her child a home. There wasn’t time for questions. She needed to act.
AUTHORLINK: Despite all the suffering, your book does carry a message of resilience and hope. Can you discuss that aspect?
“The message of hope is one of the most important messages I hoped to convey.”
JAYE: Thank you. The message of hope is one of the most important messages I hoped to convey. I never want to simply portray trauma without offering some resolution. Black people are still suffering the effects of imperialism and racism to this day and to simply produce work that highlights this without hope… would be a disservice.
AUTHORLINK: What else can you say about your book fulfilling your need to make Ndugu M’Hali’s voice heard?
JAYE: My aim was to tell his story in a unique way whilst still being respectful to a little boy who is no longer with us. Ndugu M’Hali is mentioned in history as a mere footnote, as a ‘slave boy ‘ or ‘companion’ to yet another explorer that is constantly revered in history and whose statue remains intact in Wales today.
I wanted to show Ndugu as someone’s son, brother, and grandchild. He had a mum, dad, hopes, and dreams. He had a name: Ndugu M’Hali.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now?
JAYE: I am currently working on a novel set in the Victorian era and focusing on a woman. A feminist retelling if you like. That’s all I can say!
About the Author: Lola Jaye was born and raised in London and has lived in Nigeria and the United States. She has a degree in Psychology and Masters in Psychotherapy and Counselling. She contributed to the sequel to Lean In, and has written for Huffington Post, Essence, CNN, and BBC.