How a childhood game helped me write my debut novel

Kereen Getten on her debut, When Life Gives You Mangoes, a love letter to her childhood

Kereen Getten: “I  wanted to recreate in my book. The magic of childhood where all your hopes and dreams are wrapped up in that one moment.” Photograph: Aimee Spinks

Kereen Getten: “I wanted to recreate in my book. The magic of childhood where all your hopes and dreams are wrapped up in that one moment.” Photograph: Aimee Spinks

 

When I was five or six years old, I remember quite clearly sitting on the veranda of our Caribbean home, by my mother’s feet, sucking my thumb while she and her friends exchanged the latest gossip. I would have one ear on what my mother was saying, and another on the kids in our front yard playing games.

I was a shy child who found great comfort in my mother’s skirt. I spent a lot of time looking out, watching, but rarely participating. Sometimes my mother would practically push me to play with the other kids, and sometimes I felt brave enough to actually join them.

Our house was on the outskirts of a fishing village. We lived at the top of a hill aptly named First Hill. We were surrounded by trees. A mango tree at the back of the house, a guinep tree to the side, pear, breadfruit and ackee to name a few.

We would eat these fruits straight from the tree until we felt sick. None of which I really appreciated until I left the island and had to buy them.

But one of my most vivid memories of those times was not the sitting under a mango tree catching mangos that a nominated child had climbed to pick, but of playing the game Pick Leaf.

The game pick leaf went like this; you picked a leader, who would name a tree, and the first person to find that tree, pick a leaf and return to where the leader stood, won that point.

It wasn’t a complicated game, and I still to this day don’t remember how it ended, presumably when we got tired or bored.

But it was the most fun of all the games. It was a race against time so speed was essential, and it was about memory, you had to remember where every tree was on that hill, what their names were and you had to be tactical and find the quickest way to get to there.

Those memories stayed with me long after I left the island and moved to England where I discovered books and a whole new world.

Books became my escape in a strange country I didn’t understand, and who didn’t understand me. But books gave me what I left in that fishing village. It gave me an escape. It gave me adventure. I could read about kids doing all the things I loved to do back home. The first books I read were by Enid Blyton and almost immediately I wanted to create those worlds myself. I wanted my own escape; one I could control.

From the moment I first started writing short stories, to now, my stories always had a sense of adventure to them, an escapism, and it wasn’t until five years a go that I realised what it was, this need for adventure and escape in my stories.

I had been trying for some time to write about home, the experience, the feeling. That house on the hill that overlooked the fishing village, the fruit trees, the games, the adventures, but I didn’t quite know what the story was about until two years a go when I sat down and asked myself, what did I want to read when I was a child? What made me fall in love with reading? What would have been my perfect book if I could have summoned it on those days when I was sat on a blue beanbag in the cubby room with shelves of books decorating one wall, and a box of toys on the other.

The answer was, I wanted to read about friendship and adventure, but I wanted it to be somewhere I knew. Somewhere familiar, somewhere that evoked nostalgia, somewhere where kids could go on adventures and had the space and freedom to do it.

That’s when I wrote When Life Gives You Mangoes, a story about kids going on adventures, falling out, making up. Where everything was intense, the heat, the arguments, the feeling of not being understood.

It was a love letter to my childhood. A love letter to that house on the hill. The memories stayed with me long after I left the island, and even when I returned many times after and we made the journey to our family home where my uncle now lived.

Even though the view was now obstructed by a family member’s partially built house, and the front yard seemed so much smaller. Even though the house was falling apart, the wood was chipped, the steps were broken. It still brought back those feelings of nostalgia, when your heart was beating hard against your chest.

When you had one foot sturdy in the dirt, and another foot facing outwards ready to run. When your eyes scan the trees that you see and your mind scan the ones you don’t. When the leader counts down with one hand in the air and the other kids push and shove, giggling and arguing. When in the background your mother’s voice swims in and out as she laughed with her friends, and the trees swayed in the breeze taunting us. When the leader finally shouted ‘go’ and your legs slipped a little but you regained your balance and ran down the hill pushing and shoving as you went because you knew where that leaf was.

When laughter and screaming echoed on the hill while the sun beat down on us.

That is the memory I wanted to recreate in my book. The magic of childhood where all your hopes and dreams are wrapped up in that one moment. When nothing else mattered, not yesterday, not tomorrow, not a week from now. All you wanted was to win, all you wanted was for your little legs to go faster. It is a memory that stayed with me. The memory of a game that filled the usually quiet hill with laughter and squeals. The memory of belonging.

The memory of home.
When Life Gives You Mangoes is published by Pushkin Children’s Books, at £7.99

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