Saturday, July 09, 2011

Miriam Halahmy (Awesome Women)

I have the great honour to welcome another EDGE author to my blog today. The EDGE is a fab blog filled with interesting posts for a range of fantastic authors of YA literature. You really must check it out.

Everyone, please say hello to Miriam Halahmy, the lovely author of Hidden! I've recently read, reviewed and loved this story of immigration, racism and seeing beyond appearances.

It is wonderful to have you here, Miriam! If any of my readers would like to know more about Hidden or about Miriam, please do visit the following websites:

Can you tell me a little something about yourself?

I was a teacher for 25 years and now I mentor developing writers. I have a particular interest in working with asylum seekers, helping them to write their story down. I am on the Readers and Writers Committee at English PEN ( literature and human rights) helping to develop creative writing programmes for asylum seekers.

I have always written from childhood. I have published poetry, articles, books reviews and short and long fiction for children, teens and adults. My debut Y.A. novel, HIDDEN, Meadowside Books, March 2011, is about two teenagers who pull an illegal immigrant from the sea and hide him to save him from being deported. It is the first in a cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island, opposite the Isle of Wight. The next two titles, ILLEGAL and STUFFED will be published in 2012.

Did you have a role model growing up?

Anne Frank and Miep Gies. For their courage in the face of adversity. As a Jewish girl growing up in London after the Holocaust, I knew that Anne's story could easily have been mine. She inspired me to write diaries as a practise for a future life as a writer. I loved the honesty of her writing and the vivid pictures she drew. I could see the tree outside the window she watched change with the seasons and the awful scenes of terror in the streets below. When Anne fell in love with Peter, so did I and when she was furious with her mother, I felt her pain.

Miep Gies was the Dutch woman who helped to hide Anne and the others in the Secret Annexe. When they were deported Miep saved Anne's diary for the world. When Miep died in January 2010 I felt as though I had lost my guiding light who had been there all my life. "I am not a hero," Miep said but she certainly was to me. Miep was my big sister, my protector and my witness.

I wrote a blog about her when she died, Saving Anne Frank and Saving Me, and other women emailed me to say they felt the same loss.

Who do you look up to now?

I have always admired those who stand up against injustice despite terrible danger and in particular, brave women. Today I am in awe of the continuing bravery of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's Democracy movement. She has been under house arrest for most of the past 20 years and despite many opportunities, has refused to abandon Burma and her people to their fate. Her quiet modesty, steadfastness and bravery are an inspiration to everyone.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be teacher. I started school at three and within six months insisted on going full time, all day. I thought my teacher had a wonderful job and so I decided to follow in her footsteps. I started to work with children as a teenager, babysitting and running Sunday school classes.

I realised my dream in the 1970s and after only five years I was a Head of a Special Needs Department in a large Camden secondary school. I remained in Special Needs and have worked with a wide range of pupils with all sort of medical, learning , sensory, physical and emotional problems. It was fascinating work. Now I give talks to school pupils about my writing and I find them just as fascinating as ever.

Tell me something about the women in your life who have been an influence on you?

The women in my family have probably been the greatest influence. Firstly, my mother, Daphne Hyams Berk. Daphne was a free spirit and a rebel, very much like me. Her father refused to let her become a nurse in the 1930s and she ended up leaving school at fifteen and working in an office. She hated it. When she was 18 war broke out and she immdiately joined the Navy as a VAD and trained to be a nurse. She loved it and even spent a year in South Africa. After the war she met my father and they had three children. Life was always a struggle for them, money was short and they wanted all three of us to go to college, which we did. But I always remember my mother gritting her teeth through thick and thin and she always greeted me with a smile. Her great phrase was, 'Count your blessings' and it is still one of my mantras today. Sadly Mum developed Alzheimers at 66 and died at 69 - too soon. I still miss her guidance and positive view of life to this day. She would have been very proud of my writing.

My grandmother, Esther Berk, was also a great role model. Born in Poland in 1894 she moved with her family around Europe before WW1, escaping pogroms in Poland against the Jews. They lived in Paris for a while and she learnt fluent French. She also spoke Polish and English and could read in Russian. She was a highly intelligent woman who should have gone to university. But like so many women of her generation she was sent out to work at the age of 12. You could talk to my grandmother about any subject; politics, literature, art, religion. She was self taught, very widely read and well informed. She supported my brothers and my cousins into adulthood and was proud that everyone had a university education, including the girls. Her eldest brother, Louis, was deported from France in 1942 and murdered in Auschwitz after a month. She cried about him all her life. My younger brother is named after her. I am writing a family memoir centred on Louis's life and fate, using a brief autobiography written by my grandmother.

Who is your favourite fictional character? And why?

When I was 9 my mother gave me her copy of Little Women. It was a birthday present from her siblings when she was a child and I have passed it on to my daughter. I can't count how many times I have read and re-read this book, right into adult life. I totally identified with Jo, hankering after freedom to do whatever she pleased, laying on the couch in the attic all day reading books and eating a bag of apples and of course, eventually realising her dream to become a published author. Jo has gone before me as a beacon for most of my life and I have often referred to her in blogs and other areas of my writing.

What were you like as a teenager and how did you cope with all the changes that occurred?

I was a rather quiet, withdrawn teenager, lacking in self-confidence. I always had a small circle of close friends and we all wanted to go to parties and meet boys! Not much different from today, I think. I was a very studious, passionately serious teenager. Everything seem to affect me very deeply.

I would read poetry aloud with friends and listen to all the great singer-song writers of the day, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell. I taught myself to play the guitar and wrote and performed my own folk songs, sometimes writing in French. Reading was probably the most important thing in my life and writing came a close second.

I found my teenage years bewildering and only coped by having a strong family life and close friends, some of which now go back 50 years.

If you had any advice for yourself as a teenager, what would you say?

I should have taken A Level English Literature but I refused because I didn't want to have my reading restricted to the set books! Crazy. I also should have worked harder at French and taken another foreign language. And of course, I shouldn't have taken life so seriously. But I probably wouldn't have listened to any of this advice.

Of the issues and concerns that women are faced with today, what's the area you most like reading/writing about?

How to cope once the kids have grown up and you are faced with the later part of your life. It's all a bit confusing today because women simply don't age in the way that our mothers and certainly our grandmothers did. I feel young and free now that the kids have left home. But at the same time I miss having young people drifting in and out of the house, bringing home their friends, messing up the living room, playing their awful music. I write poems about this stage in my life and it helps to make sense of where I am. Where I'm that is a totally different question!

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I think as a woman living in England today, I am perhaps living at the most free and equal time in the history of women. My choices and options are wide open. Women of my age in previous generations would be considering retirement and grandchildren But I am writing and publishing novels about teenagers, for teenagers and reliving some of the more exciting times of my younger self - my books contain motorbikes and rock climbing - I used to love extreme sports. If I was fourteen now I would be the local Free Runner! I believe in grasping life with both hands, enjoying every minute possible. You don't know what is around the next corner, so take the chances that are out there and as my Mum used to say, "Count your blessings."

Happy reading! Happy writing!

Thank you so much Miriam, that was brilliant. I think the strength and courage of Anne Frank and Miep Gies has had a huge impact on many lives, mine included!


  1. Inspiring stuff Miriam. I didn't know of your secret desire to be a Free Runner. They say it's never too late! Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were big influences on me when I was growing up too, and fuelled my love for language. Would like to hear one of your French folk songs one day. Maybe we could incorporate a music slot in an Edge event? Music and Free Running perhaps?

  2. What a wonderful, interesting, and inspiring interview. It's always fascinating to hear what has influenced and inspired your favourite authors, and the women you mention stand out as all being incredibly strong, intelligent and free-willed, through the heaviest adversity. Truly inspirational indeed.

  3. Wow, what an interesting interview. A really enjoyable read!

  4. Wow, what an interesting interview. A really enjoyable read!

  5. I really, really love this interview, thank you Miriam! The women in your life sound so wonderful, but I also love how diverse and interesting YOUR life sounds. I'd love to sit around reading poetry and listening to folk music with you :)

  6. Excellent - well it seems from the comments I need to get out my guitar and perform one of my French songs while Free Running over the local garden walls. Bring it on!


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