Back in 2000, when she first published The Breadwinner and dedicated the royalties from it to an Afghan women’s group, Canadian writer Deborah Ellis hoped, for its sake, the novel would earn back the entire $3,000 publisher’s advance. Today, after 9/11 and the shift of international focus to Afghanistan, The Breadwinner and its two sequels (Parvana’s Journey and Mud City) are one of the most famous trilogies in recent tween literature, and their royalties total more than $1 million. The money has all gone to causes dear to Ellis—mostly, via Canadian Women For Afghanistan, for girls’ education in the war-torn nation—although Mud City’s returns are dedicated to Street Kids International. “I don’t notice it going,” says Ellis, laughing, in an interview at Pomegranate, a Persian restaurant in Toronto. “It’s all whisked away before I see it, like an automatic savings plan.”
Ellis, 52, has now published 20 books, and even without the financial boost of her bestsellers, the Simcoe, Ont., author was able to leave her job as a mental health counsellor five years ago to become a full-time writer. But long before her writing career began, Ellis was passionately interested in what she calls “peace and justice” issues, from anti-war activism to women’s rights. They all coalesced in 1996 after the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and gave free reign to misogyny. “Here I was,” says Ellis, “a woman in Canada, used to doing what I want, going where I want—I couldn’t imagine living under a government that restricted that because of my gender.”
Travelling on her savings, she went to an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan the next year, and again in 1999, and did what she could to help, which turned out to be recording the stories of the women in the camps. Ellis collected a depressingly familiar litany of war horrors, and a few stories specific to the Taliban’s rule: girls’ schools destroyed, women beaten for being out without male accompaniment, and young girls working dressed as boys, risking drastic retribution to bring home a little money or food. She put it all into The Breadwinner, about courageous 11-year-old Parvana, who assumes her dead brother’s place after her father is imprisoned in order to provide for her mother and sisters. The response, financially and critically, was massive, and Ellis can expect more of the same now that her iconic heroine is back in her newest novel, My Name is Parvana.
Now 15, Parvana is in the custody of American troops who found her in the ruins of a bombed-out school. She refuses, for reasons that slowly become apparent, to speak to the foreigners, despite days of mistreatment and threats. Instead she retreats within herself, enduring her detention by recalling the past four years of her life. “I was curious about Parvana and [her friend] Shauzia’s lives in post-9/11 Afghanistan,’ says Ellis, in the peculiar, living-beings way authors tend to talk about their characters. “And, of course, the children always ask me when I go into schools. So I thought I’d find out.”
My Name is Parvana is perhaps the most subtle and accomplished of the four Breadwinner volumes. There are striking scenes of contrast in Afghanistan, torn between Western troops and the Taliban. Parvana’s involvement in a girls’ school brings her more moments of real childhood happiness than most of her past life offered, before it brings catastrophes more painful than ever. “I think most people, no matter what their situation, manage to find joy and comfort in their daily lives,” says Ellis. “I also think things fall apart.”
Then there’s the way that, even while Parvana is being manhandled by American soldiers, her older sister wins a scholarship to a New York university. It’s a feat Nooria accomplishes, in part, by appropriating Parvana’s story of the risks she ran dressed as a boy—a tale that delights the scholarship administrators and infuriates Parvana, even as it mirrors what Ellis did with the collective memories of real Afghan girls. But Parvana eventually comes to accept what readers already know: Nooria’s ends, like Ellis’s before her, far outweigh the means.