James A. Levine
James A Levine
Reading The Blue Notebook, based on the child prostitutes in the Street of Cages was a profoundly moving experience and I wanted to know why James Levine had written it. Here he answers my questions.
VW: Why were you kidnapped in Delhi?
JL: In 2002, with a team from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, we reported in the medical journal Science, the impact of child labor on education and malnutrition in children from the Ivory Coast. We subsequently expanded these studies to Jamaica, China and several years later, India.
After an invitation from an Indian governmental agency, I arrived in New Delhi at 3:00 am where I was promptly kidnapped. Although I was incarcerated for only a few days, my response to this assault was far from robust. I was released by the Police numbed.
The day after being freed, I was flown to Mumbai to join the team I was to work with. There, touring several of the poorest urban areas with local agencies, I walked down the famed Street of Cages. This is one of the central areas for the estimated half-million child prostitutes in India.
Before leaving the Street of Cages, I saw a 15 year old girl leaning against her bright blue steel gate. She wore a pink sari with a rainbow trim; she was writing in a blue notebook. Having worked in numerous underserved areas, the mantra, "education is the answer," is invariably touted as pivotal to solution- rendering. That being so, I could not reconcile the image of a child prostitute who wrote.
The girl in the pink sari with the rainbow trim haunted me to write the Blue Notebook which is a work of fiction based upon fieldworkers' reports and observation of the conditions such children survive. I named the girl, Batuk. The book is about how Batuk rises above catastrophic personal circumstance.
Whenever I struggle amidst the simple luxuriant pressures of modern living, I think of Batuk and crave a droplet of her power to ascend.
VW: Did that effect your experiences when you saw the Street of Cages in Mumbai?
JL: I think it softened me - psychologically.
VW: How unusual was it to see a young prostitute from the Street of Cages writing?
JL: Literacy is not unheard of, but exceedingly rare.
VW: How much of your novel was based on the real notebook?
JL: None of it. I could not read or understand her writing. It was the notion that she wrote at all, that intrigued me. Moreover, one learns in working in underserved regions - "Education is the answer." One has to wonder then, what is the question.
VW: Which helped the most in writing your novel - fieldworkers reports or meeting the child prostitute?
JL: Meeting the young lady who became the protagonist was the principal driver. Subsequently, I awoke several times at night and felt her presence.
VW: Being a scientist and writing reports is one thing but writing a novel is very different - have you always written stories?
VW: I used to write and make-up stories for my daughters. The 2 stories in the book were written for them. As a child I used to love to write but was discouraged at school for so ding.
VW: As competitive poet did this make writing The Blue Notebook any easier because you write in a very eloquent way?
JL: Not really. I actually engaged in Slam Poetry to gain a better understand of modern cultural shifts. This is because I spend a great deal of time trying to help people, especially young people, become healthier. To do this, one has to understand the culture one is trying to impact, I believe.
VW: Why is your story so graphic and detailed of Batuk's experiences?
JL: I would have to declare that I have massively understated the realities that child prostitutes endure. Suffice it to say, the novel has 3 difficult sequences - far worse is endured every day by children. We have to collectively end this.
VW: How did you choose the name Batuk - does it have a relevant meaning to your story?
JL: A very interesting question, that I must ask readers to research for themselves. I chose the name, I should add, very carefully indeed.
VW: Did you write your book to be educational or entertaining?
JL: No. I wrote the book without any prior experience of writing fiction. It was written I think as an emotional response to a person I simply could not comes to terms with. I viewed the young lady I met with a combination of awe and utter guilt that I was helpless in her aid. I still feel a sense of hopeless fallibility.
VW: How do feel your book can help other children like Batuk?
JL: I have long lectured about and examined the difficulties that children face. When I would talk about child labor to people from developed countries, I frequently heard people comment, "This is awful" and yet turn away from the issue. The reason for this I believe, is because they cannot connect the plight of such children to the images of either their own children or those they know. I think the Blue Notebook will help in the call to bear witness. There are a million child slaves who are hitherto voiceless. The Blue Notebook, is a cry.
VW: As a very creative and competitive person in music, poetry, furniture making and now writing where do you see yourself going now in the creative arts?
JL: I think the question is excessively laudatory. In the creative arts The Blue Notebook is literally a 1 in a million experience for me. I am deeply humbled by the book and the reception it has received. Of course, I will try again in future writings to give a voice to those without - whether I will succeed to build on The Blue Notebook, time will tell.
VW: Will you bring any of your creative interests into your day job as a scientist/doctor?
JL: I believe science to be beautiful and artistic endeavor - much as writing, painting and music are scientific. Consider, for a moment, the science of Picasso inventing new Lithographic methods or Monet's formulae for paint.
VW: Will you do a follow up book as to where you perceive a person like Batuk could go with some education?
JL: That is the theme of the second book - although it is set elsewhere.
VW: Now that you have written your first novel which I suppose could be called faction will you write in any other genre?
JL: I have written a ‘memoir' which I greatly enjoyed. I would like to write a play.
VW: Why did you set up the Batuk Foundation especially when there are several organisations already out there helping these children?
JL: This is a good point. Really I set this up as a simple means for people to be directed to authenticated sites. I am not sure how far I will take it beyond that.
VW: How would you feel if The Blue Notebook became a Modern Classic?
JL: I am astonished it was published and I have been greatly moved by the letters and correspondence I have received. Suffice it to say, the book has awoken the minds of many who never knew....that alone is sufficient.
VW: Do you feel that having experienced the Street of Cages in the reality and now having written a book about it has this changed your life in anyway?
JL: Yes. I am a broken person like most people. I do not view my writing - present and future- to be intellectual altruism; my writing serves myself as much as you. I do feel overwhelmed by the Blue Notebook - I glance at it from time to time and cannot believe it came out of me. I have been blessed to have these opportunities, blessed to have the correct education and family, blessed with incredible friends, blessed by a literary agent you picked this writing from the morass, blessed by publishers who saw and without hesitation said, Yes, blessed by children who said "Dad, of corse you can," and blessed by our divine creator who pours infinite love into a fountain he lets me sip from.
VW: Would you consider doing a sabbatical year in Mumbai helping the underprivileged children and women forced into the sex trade?
JL: Give me a start date
VW: Can people make donations to the Batuk Foundation or any of the other charities you talk about on the website?
JL: I would suggest donating to the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children or the Sparrows program on the website.