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How One Photograph Inspired a Novel

During a tumultuous time, author Lola Jaye sought distraction. Here she describes how one photograph inspired her new novel, The Attic Child.

The year was 2016 and I needed a distraction. Life had suddenly taken a turn I hadn’t expected, and spending days at the hospital bedside of a loved one was where I found myself on most days. So, when a friend suggested we take a trip to an exhibition entitled: Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948, I hesitated. It wasn't until I walked through the doors of The National Portrait Gallery in London and spotted the beautiful picture displays of Black people that I truly began to experience the beauty in that moment.

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This wasn’t a sight I was used to.

Indeed, most Black people from yesteryear are usually referenced as slaves or in other forms of servitude. In these pictures were smartly dressed men and women in native and western attire alike. Singers from The African Choir, who toured Britain between 1891-1893; women who lived within the realms of Victorian high society, like Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

Then there were pictures of a little boy. He wasn’t smiling. This wasn’t unusual for Victorian era photographs, but his expression told me a story I perhaps wasn’t ready to confront. His obvious sadness, the displacement and … trauma. A brutal history of colonialism and imperialism written in each of his expressions in every one of those photographs.

How One Photograph Inspired a Novel

Ndugu M’Hali

I was transfixed.

He had a name—Ndugu M’Hali—and in that moment, I vowed to one day write a book about him. And I began my research the moment I walked through the front door that evening.

Ndugu was brought to England by the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley. He also died at the age of 12. It’s then I asked myself a series of questions, starting with What if (a useful tool for anyone embarking on writing a novel)? What if Ndugu M’Hali had been allowed to live? What could he have become? Who would he have loved? As an historical fiction author, I get to rewrite history that has previously been whitewashed and here was a chance to do that and so much more.

Ndugu’s life did not end the way he deserved, severed before it had a chance to even begin. My own research cut short due to a bereavement. It would be four years later that I’d revisit his story.

How One Photograph Inspired a Novel

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During this gap, I released two historical fiction novels which had nothing to do with Ndugu. Yet he remained in the background, waiting for me to make a start on what I had promised him one afternoon at an art gallery.

By 2020 when the world stood still due to a pandemic, Ndugu’s voice grew even louder! The subject of racism was now a topic of discussion in more spaces than ever before; statues of explorers just like Stanley’s were being pulled down. Art imitating life at play. How many more “messages” did I need?

It was time to make a start on this special book.

This fresh determination of mine was further tested. A contract for a novel I had written many years previously had three offers on the table from publishers! As any author is aware, publishing deals do not just appear so easily … and yet I could not eradicate the feeling that it was Ndugu’s turn. So, I decided to focus on producing a 50-page proposal of The Attic Child inspired by his life. A story which had occupied my head, my thoughts for four years.

How One Photograph Inspired a Novel

When a publisher swooped in for an offer based on this proposal, it dawned on me that the book I vowed to write, whilst I stood in front of Ndugu’s photograph, was finally going to happen.

The Attic Child weaves dual stories of two very different children, but with similar experiences; a Black child, Dikembe (based on Ndugu) who is let down by an imperialist and racist system in the 1900s; a white child (Lowra) who is abandoned by the social care system in the 1990s.

Historically, Ndugu M’Hali has been a mere footnote in someone else’s story—my aim in writing The Attic Child was to bring him to life, humanize him, and give him a voice.

It’s the very least he deserves.

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