Jo Acharya & Deborah Jenkins | August 22, 2022
I loved Deborah Jenkins’ debut novel Braver. It’s a perfect summer read – light enough to lift your mood and deep enough to make you think. At its heart, it’s a story about the power of friendship, valuing our differences and recognising our need for each other. I found it joyful and lovely, and recommend it highly.
Healthy, life-giving community is one of the topics I explored in my own book, Refresh: a wellness devotional for the whole Christian life. Braver has some great things to say on this subject, and while reading the book I kept wanting to ask Deborah about it! So I reached out, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed. As you’ll see, her answers were thoughtful and wise. I hope you enjoy our conversation – and do check out Braver too.
Deborah, in your novel Braver, people with many differences come together in friendship. Can you tell us a little about some of the characters we get to know in the course of the story?
The story is narrated by three very different people: Hazel, a lonely teaching assistant who suffers with anxiety; Harry, a vulnerable teenager, bullied at home and school and Virginia, a church minister with a past. Each has a story to tell and challenges to overcome.
In the book, your characters find acceptance in a welcoming church community, even though some are not churchgoers themselves. Where have you experienced this in your own life, and do you think there is something about church, at its best, that enables all kinds of people to value and care for each other?
I’ve experienced it in different ways in all the churches I’ve been part of over the years, from the church youth group I attended as a teenager, to the Baptist church I’m with now. No church is perfect (they say, if you find one, don’t join it!) but full of fallible people who believe that the love of God and others can help them do life better. But, yes, I think church at its best, with its funny, flawed humans, welcomes everyone, supports everyone, values everyone. That’s what Jesus said we should do.
But I’ve seen it elsewhere too: at some schools I’ve worked in; a place where I volunteered; in the homes of strangers. If we’re made in God’s image, some people will display his energy and enthusiasm because that’s who they are. It only takes warmth from a few people to raise the temperature of a whole community, transforming everyone’s experience.
Absolutely. One thing that hinders this I think, is when we unintentionally divide people into ‘helpers’ and ‘those who need help’. The characters in Braver seem at first to fit neatly into those categories, but by the end of the story it’s clear that they all need support from each other, but they also all have something important to give. Was this an intentional theme in the book, and what do you hope your readers will take from it?
I think this is a stereotype we all allow ourselves to believe if we’re not careful: there are strong people and weak people. But the truth is, we’re all a mixture of both and life goes belly-up for everyone at times. We need each other to keep going, to look for the good, stand together in the bad. Often people with long-term challenges have a core of inner faith/strength that can inspire the rest of us. They’ve lived for so long with difficult circumstances that they’ve found ways to cope, and even hope, with lots to offer others. In my opinion, these are some of the bravest people alive. One of the characters has this revelation in the book:
‘Maybe the bravest people are not the strong ones but the weak ones, the fearful ones, the ones who get up every morning and fight battles they cannot win.’
Yes, this was intentional. I hope readers will dare to hope that however tough life gets, we are never alone. Instinct tells us to dig a hole and hide (I’ve been there) but instincts can be wrong. We may not want to reach out to God and others, but in my experience, this is what we need to do. There may not be a way out, but there’s always a way through.
My favourite thing about the book was seeing characters with different backgrounds, personalities and challenges – including mental illness, disability and (perhaps) autism – accepted, valued and enabled to grow. For one character in particular, small acts of kindness and friendship were genuinely life-changing. How do you think we can make sure that these sorts of things happen in our own communities, at church and elsewhere?
We have to be intentional, I think, valuing and making time for welcoming, supportive relationships. At church, it might mean tasking some to look out for newcomers or to chat to people over coffee. This can be an awkward time for visitors, and if someone has anxiety or other social challenges, it can be extra stressful.
I think it’s modelled from the top down. For example, at my current place of work, the head teacher goes to each class before school to check staff are OK. This models a concern which is reflected in relationships throughout the school and results in a caring, supportive staff.
But in life generally, it’s reminding ourselves, I think, to be aware of the room: the second language speaker, the hard of hearing person, someone on their own. And it’s asking ourselves what can we do? It might be something small but as you point out, the smallest acts of kindness have a big impact.
That’s great advice. How do you think we benefit from forming relationships with those who are different from us?
Forming friendships with people who are different brings such richness to our lives. To share stories, to ask questions, to learn from another’s journey. These are the keys to the understanding and wisdom with which to navigate life. Through such friendships, we can ‘live in another skin’, improve our social skills and have a lot of fun. Some of those who struggle most have learned how to laugh the most too.
Many of us spend most of our time with people who are similar to us, and we might even feel awkward engaging with people who are different in ways we aren’t used to. Do you have any suggestions for how we can be ‘braver’ in offering love and friendship to all kinds of people?
That’s such a good question. I think we can start simple. Smile, ask a question, offer coffee. Everyone needs these small affirmations of acceptance and belonging. The other thing I’ve learned, which may seem counter-intuitive, is to ask for help. No one likes being condescended to but most people like to help. I once asked someone very shy to help me with a display at school. I’m rubbish at that kind of thing, and she had a gift. It was the beginning of a fascinating friendship.
I think the worst thing you can do is say nothing. Start with Hello, I’m (your name). Say something. If you get it wrong, you can apologise and say you’re not great with new people. Then ask if they come here often. One day you’ll both laugh about it. Be curious, always.
That’s wonderful Deborah. Thank you so much for joining me on the blog today. Where can readers find out more about you, and where can they get hold of your book?
Here are the links to some of the interviews/pieces I’ve written recently if you’d like to know more about me and the thinking behind the book.
- Braver – My Inspiration (article for booksbywomen.org)
- Becoming Braver (interview with Christianity Today)
- Seven Things I’d Like My Readers to Know About Me (article for femalefirst.co.uk)
- Interview and Exclusive Extract (fairlightbooks.co.uk)
I also write a blog where I muse about the crazy, inspiring and inappropriate, at stillwonderinghere.net.
Deborah Jenkins is a freelance writer and primary teacher who has worked in schools in the UK and abroad. She has written several educational textbooks, as well as articles for the TES online and Guardian Weekend, among other publications. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies, and she has also published a novella, The Evenness of Things. She lives in Sussex and enjoys reading, walking gardening, travel and good coffee. She writes a blog at stillwonderinghere.