Set in a world where words appear physically when spoken, Away with Words follows Gala who has just moved from home in Cataluña to a town in Scotland. Gala doesn’t speak much English, and feels lost and lonely until she befriends Natalie, a girl with selective mutism. The two girls find their own ways to communicate, which includes collecting other people’s discarded words. We had the honour of chatting with Sophie Cameron about her important story:
The idea of seeing words as they are spoken is so creative. Where did you draw the inspiration from?
The idea came from my experience learning languages. I sometimes have trouble with pronunciation and replicating different sounds, and it can feel as if the words are stuck at the back of my throat and won’t come out. Initially the image of words getting trapped between my teeth came to me, and from there I had the idea of words physically appearing as they’re spoken. In the story they also change colour and shape depending on things like the speaker’s mood, and that was partly inspired by Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Voyelles (or Vowels) about his synaesthesia and seeing colours around different letters.
And it’s so creative to think that words spoken when tired would have blurred edges while gossip would appear as sleek cursives. Do all these imagery come naturally to you?
I think so – when I’m writing I tend to see the story play out like a film in my head, so while I don’t tend to go too in-depth with description, the images come quite naturally. For the shapes of the word I mostly thought about how people’s voices can change so much depending on their mood and the environment they’re in and tried to convey that through the way the words change.
And what would you imagine your usual voice would look like?
That’s a really interesting question, I hadn’t thought about that before! I’m quite a calm, quiet person, so they’d probably tend to be in cooler, lighter colours and a softer font. I’m also a bit of a mumbler, so I’m sure my words would probably be a bit blurred and hard to read sometimes!
The ideas of collecting words and words fading at different paces are also very clever. Do you think people are often underestimating the impacts of words? And please give us a quote from Away with Words that you hope will not fade from readers’ minds.
I think a lot of people really underestimate the impact of words – you can see that online, especially, with the way so many people will send such awful messages to others without thinking about the effect it might have on them. On the other hand, words also have the power to stay with us in a positive way, to comfort us or make us laugh even months or years after they’ve been spoken. A line I like from Away With Words is: “I’d missed being able to do this – shaping my words into jokes and silliness and making people laugh at them, like a clown twisting balloons into different animals.” It’s from a part of the story where Gala realises she’s now able to joke around in English, which is always such a great moment when you’re learning a new language.
Gala was moved from Spain to Scotland, and like many kids who have to move to a new school, she feels lonely, especially when she doesn’t really speak English. It’s easy for kids like Gala to be angry at their parents but did Gala’s dad actually do the right thing? And did he do enough?
I’m not sure if there’s a right or wrong thing to do in a situation like that. It’s really hard for Gala to be taken away from her friends, her grandmother and her hometown, and there’s no denying that it’s a huge loss. On the other hand, the move brings her new friends and the opportunity to learn a new language and experience a different culture, which is really enriching. While Gala’s situation is different, it’s something I think about a lot as I’m bringing my own kids up abroad – what they gain from living in a more multicultural and multilingual environment, versus what we lose by being so far away from family – and I don’t think there’s really a right or wrong answer, it all depends on the individual.
Thanks for starting a conversation about selective mutism. Can you tell us some facts about selective mutism e.g. how likely do kids have it and is it more likely for kids or adults to have it?
Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder which leads people who can otherwise speak to become unable to do so in certain situations. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, it’s estimated to affect between 0.2% and 1.6% of children and usually begins between the ages of 3 and 6. It affects different people in different ways – some people might be entire mute in a certain setting, or mute with some people and verbal with others, or only mute around certain anxiety-inducing activities. It also affects older children and adults, but as that’s not as common and there haven’t been as many studies done it’s harder to find figures to suggest how prevalent it is.
And from writing Away With Words, do you feel like the world is doing enough for kids like Gala and Natalie? What can we do to help kids like them?
In Gala’s case, I think people underestimate how hard it can be for children to be thrown into an environment where they don’t speak the language. There’s this idea that kids soak up languages like sponges, and while they do tend to learn faster than adults, it’s a slower process than many people think and it can be extremely difficult for them to adapt – I know kids as young as 3 or 4 who have had real trouble with this, and it’s usually even harder for older children like Gala. In Natalie’s case, I think there are lots of misconceptions around selective mutism (such as that kids with SM are choosing not to speak to be difficult, or they’re simply shy and will grow out of it) that need to be tackled. But I’m just a writer and not a speech therapist so I’m far from being an expert, these are just my opinions!