Sharada Keats on the inspiration behind her YA debut These Stolen Lives

Colonial Clash and an EPIC Cost-of-Living Crisis


Part thrilling adventure with found family, part slow-burn romance, part mystery, These Stolen Lives has been described as a YA fantasy dystopia. This guest post was written by Sharada Keats.

What’s it about? It follows seventeen-year-old Mora Dezil dealing with her trauma and guilt, discovering what she wants and summoning the courage to go after it. She’s survived the Skøl’s colonial invasion (though her people colonised this land a hundred years ago). Now she’s living precariously, repaying her supposed ‘debt’, because under Skøl rule, life isn’t free – everyone pays to live. When Mora finds out her young friend Zako is to be put to death for self-defence, she teams up with another survivor (handsome and elusive Kit) to rescue the boy. Their plans are soon upended, and they get mired in a dangerous mystery…

Inspirations…These Stolen Lives is built around the idea of one set of colonials coming in and crushing an existing colonial power. The thing that sets these newcomers apart is their culture of paying for life itself… this means the Skøl regime is one that in many ways oppresses its own alongside its subjugated peoples. I studied economics way back when, so having believable economic underpinnings was an important part of the worldbuilding for me. I also try to write situations that feel real in terms of people’s behaviour. I prefer grey characters to outright do-gooders or purely evil villains, though I’m most interested in the more unsung positives in people and in society; how they get nurtured and the ways we can and do support each other.

Readers will find intersections, hierarchies, and power dynamics galore in this clash of colonial identities, though I set out to focus on ordinary people with a few extraordinary touches. The main characters are not rich or specially privileged. They’re also minorities in their town. I take some inspiration from personal experiences like being an immigrant and coming from a mixed background. I hope young people from different cultures and circumstances can empathise or even recognise aspects of themselves in these pages.

These Stolen Lives doesn’t have a cosy plot or backdrop, but it’s been a kind of escape for me. Writing this was my chance to overlap familiar with more unusual challenges and experiences: dealing with high cost-of-living, trying to make new friends, confronting bullying, getting to work on time, falling in love, saving your friend from execution, uncovering family secrets, plotting prison breaks…

I wanted to create something that would have gripped and surprised young me, but that still has wide appeal – in terms of the gender and to some extent the age spectrum. Its written with a YA (young adult) audience in mind, but I hope some OAs (older adults) can also enjoy it in the way I enjoyed books like The Hunger Games when I read them in my 30s. A lot of the writing process is subconscious, and any cataloguing of inspiration is going to be partial, but I can say my inspirations include family, politics, relationships, travels, the natural world, nostalgia, other books, films etc… I grew up loving dystopia and fantasy. Toni Morrison said: “if there is a book you want to read, and it is not yet written, then you must write it yourself”. Toni Morrison is always inspiring. Everyone reaches for this quote because it’s so true.

Regarding some of the more difficult material… The context of These Stolen Lives might be bleak, but that’s not the primary focus. I’ve deliberately kept a lot of the violence, trauma, oppression etc off-scene – but I hope the anger and justified grievance it evokes punches through. The realities of colonialisation, ethnic cleansing, genocide etc. were and are much more atrocious, violent, and evil than anything detailed here. I think it’s important not to gloss over brutal realities, but like many people, I’m inspired by ideas of tackling injustice, solving problems, and cultivating hope. These Stolen Lives emphasises glimmers of green in the wasteland, pivoting around, not major revolution so much as small victories or light in the darkness.
I hope it finds its readers.

These Stolen Lives by Sharada Keats is out April 11th (Scholastic).
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