For our February Q&A, we were very excited to speak to the wonderful Jasbinder Bilan, the imaginative mind behind the wonderful Asha & the Spirit Bird.
Jasbinder’s debut book tells the story of Asha who goes on an unforgettable adventure set in contemporary India. Guided by a majestic bird which she believes to be the spirit of her grandmother and together with her best friend, Jeevan, she embarks on a journey across the Himalayas to find her missing father and save her home…
Lyrical and vivid, Jasbinder’s haunting debut explores themes of faith, friendship and greed while capturing the wild, rich heart of contemporary India.
Your book, Asha & the Spirit Bird, is a magical-realist Indian adventure about a young girl who embarks on a journey to find her missing father. Can you tell us a bit more about where the inspiration for it came from?
The main inspiration for my book came from the very special bond I had with my grandmother. Throughout my childhood she told me funny stories about our life in India. One of these stories was when our extra family member, a native wild monkey Oma, took my brother off to the neem tree and rocked him to sleep in her arms. When I came to write my story, I drew on all these precious memories and gave them a creative twist.
This book is partly inspired by your own childhood growing up in Northern India. What was the research process like for you? Did you look at old family photos?
I moved to England when I was 1 ½, so family stories were my main inspiration. I started the idea with a very strong image of a girl on a farm in India, playing in the earth with water. From here I looked at old black and white photos and imagined being back on our farm. I collected all these memories and began to fill a special sketchbook with pictures, words and thoughts in a very loose imaginative way. Once I had the seed of my story, I watched lots of documentaries set in the Himalayas to create an authentic wildlife setting.
Asha is guided by a majestic bird which she believes is the spirit of her grandmother (her ‘Nanijee’). Why is this relationship important to Asha’s growth and journey?
At the start of the story Asha is desperate. She doesn’t know what’s happened to her papa and her home is about to be torn away, so she has to look beyond the everyday for support. In the beginning, her self-confidence is low, but as she connects with the spirit of her nanijee, it gives her the extra push she needs to stay strong. Having faith in the spirit bird helps her to have faith in herself.
If you could trek across the Himalayas with one of your characters, who would it be and why?
This is really hard! Ideally I would like to trek with both Asha and Jeevan, but if I had to choose I’d say Jeevan. He’s such a fantastic friend to Asha and I feel that if he’d trek across the wild Himalayas with me, facing all those very real dangers, then he’d do anything!
Are there any scenes that you edited out of this book that you wish you could have kept?
The only scenes I edited out were the home scenes in the beginning. Although I loved them, because they showed more of Asha’s ma and how hard she worked to keep everything going, they slowed the story down. Luckily, I managed to hold on to all my favourite scenes!
In the book, there are mentions of a lot of mouth-watering Indian food such as barfi and dhosa. What is your favourite?
My mum is an amazing cook and she always puts on huge family feasts, so my favourite meals are the ones Asha has at home, especially when her ma makes her frothy cinnamon milk.
You began writing Asha & the Spirit Bird while doing an MA in Creative Writing. How did that help your writing? And what advice would you give to any budding young writers out there?
Doing the MA was a crucial part of writing Asha & The Spirit Bird. Firstly, It gave me the confidence to write the story that was in my heart and secondly it taught me the importance of editing; we were famously told, all writing is re-writing. My advice to any young writer is to write the story that only you can tell, have faith in yourself and never give up.
At the heart of your book is a warm message about the importance of family, friendship and faith. What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Life can be tough but having good friends who will do anything for you can make all the difference, so be a good friend.
As part of our Share A Story campaign, we celebrate the magic of sharing a story, even if it’s just for 10 minutes a day. What are your favourite stories to share?
When my sons were younger, story-time was always something we looked forward to. One of our favourite picture books to share was Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell. We also loved sharing anything by Michael Morpurgo and we adored White Giraffe by Lauren St John. Books I loved as a child were The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, The Greek Myths and The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aitken, all of which are great for sharing.
Asha & the Spirit Bird, published by Chicken House, is out now