Emirates Festival of Literature 2020: A chat with local author Julia Johnson

The Dubai-based author tells us what kids can expect from her sessions and takes a trip down memory lane

Emirates Festival of Literature 2020: A chat with local author Julia Johnson
Emirates Festival of Literature 2020: A chat with local author Julia Johnson Image #2

Dubai-based children’s book author Julia Johnson has written over 20 books focusing on stories about the region.

With two new books coming out and a fun workshop that little ones can look forward to at the Emirates Festival of Literature, we catch up with the long-time Dubai resident to talk telling important stories and to reminisce about the “good old days.”

How did you get into writing?
I got into writing through theatre and drama, running drama workshops for children and making up stories together. My background is in educational drama, both here in the UAE and back in the UK. I started out writing short stories for children and then decided I wanted to do something dramatic… So decided to write about the region in a dramatic way. So I wrote a story about pearl diving, because I couldn’t find one. It was obviously meant to be because from the minute I decided to write the story everything else fell into my lap. My husband read a story in the paper about an old man living in Al Manza, who was a pearl diver in his youth. So with the help of a translator I went and met this man. And then I was given some letters that were written about pearl divers dating back to 1850 so I had these exciting nuggets of information that nobody else had access to.

How did you go about getting published here?
I showed it to a friend who was buying a lot of children’s books for Magrudys at the time. She said she really liked and suggested a publisher for me – a small London-based publisher who specialised in books about the Middle East. And they asked me if I’d written anything else to which I replied: “no, but I can,” and that was the start of it all really.

As well as being beautiful stories, your books are also educational.
There are a lot of stories here in the region, but they tend to be in people’s heads. I want to make sure those stories are shared. When I go to schools I really try to encourage children to talk to their grandparents and to really listen to their stories from their childhood. It’s so important. And grandparents here have seen so many changes… No bridges across the Creek they used to just have to walk across at low tide. People see Dubai as it is now and think it’s always been like that.

You’ve published over 20 books, does any one in particular hold a special place in your heart?
I’d have to say The Pearl Diver, because it was my first and it really got me going. But I’m also very fond of The Turtle Secret, because it deals with an Emirati girl who faces modern day challenges. And of course every time you write a new story it becomes your favourite temporarily.

Is there any one author who has inspired you?
Yes, Michael Morpurgo definitely.

And what the most memorable books from your childhood?
I loved Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. My mother was an incredible storyteller and had a huge love of animals. She was so, so kind to animals. Because of that she tended to put animal stories my way. I think she passed her passion on to me, which is why so many of my books are about animals.

You first came in 1975, do you miss old Dubai?
There’s no denying it, I do miss the old days and the old ways. It was small, cosy and comfortable and you bumped into people you knew all the time. Now it’s huge and multi-cultural, but exciting. I have huge respect for what Dubai has done to promote itself as a tourist destination. When we first came here nobody had heard of Dubai, but my father asked if it was near Sharjah, where he’d stopped during the war. But Dubai was extremely friendly, and everyone was so welcoming and friendly.

Where can people go to learn about old Dubai?
There’s a wonderful pearling museum at the National Bank of Dubai headquarters on the 15th floor, where you can see a great heap of pearls. The Dubai Muesum in the old fort, with the underground walkway, is a good place to go. People should take a walk down the Creek, or catch an abra up and down it to see the old parts of Shindhagha. Sheikh Zayed’s house is worth looking at too, but one of the best ways to find out about the old days is to talk to the locals.

Johnson is hosting two kid’s sessions at the festival, one is a drama workshop aimed at children between eight and 11, and the other is an opportunity to hear all about the adventures of her two new characters, Lizard and Toad.
Dhs149 (workshop). Thu Feb 6, 4.30pm-6pm. Dhs39 (session). Sat Feb 8, 11.30am-12.15pm. Emirates Festival of Literature InterContinental, Dubai Festival City, www.emirateslitfest.com (04 355 9844).

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