From boy of the slums to Oxford Graduate. This is the story of Shuki Bolkiah, modern day eunuch.
“Not a Man’ is set in an unnamed country of Arabia. Shuki is aged ten, and a ‘bed-boy.’ His master wants his beautiful boy to stay beautiful, so arranges for him to have ‘a small operation.’ This traumatic event changed forever the life of a clever, determined boy.
Shuki learns to manipulate his master. He learns to read and write, he gets his master into the habit of giving him large sums of money, and he makes friends with the master’s sons.
Shuki becomes more beautiful with every passing year. His master becomes more possessive, more jealous, and Shuki is guarded. When his master takes him to England, he escapes and starts a new life with the money he’s saved. He is fifteen.
Marj: I have set my novel in a fictitious country of Arabia. It begins in Elbarada, a city of slums. Shuki is a child of the slums. He has known hunger, and he has seen younger siblings die of hunger and disease. This background is important to understand the way he accepts his change in circumstances.
Hassanel is the rich and powerful man who takes him as his bed-boy, and then has him castrated. In this third world country, there is no need for him to fear legal repercussions. Elbarada is not London or Paris or New York. It is not a civilised city. My story could not have happened in a civilised city.
T: Without giving away too much of the story, can you tell us about Shuki and the challenges he faces? What are his strengths, and how do these strengths help him to survive a situation which might destroy a less determined young man?
M: Shuki is a tough and resilient child who has known hunger and death. He is highly intelligent, and has a strong streak of pragmatism. If he cannot change something, he makes the best of it.
T: Shuki’s journey is unique, but in many ways, his situation is similar to the plight many women and children across the world face. Do you feel that your book carries a strong human right’s message? How does your book relate to Women’s Rights?
M: In much of the Arabic world, women are viewed as chattels, without rights. The unfairness is implicit in the story.
But there is more. It was a reviewer who made me realise that when I invented this character, this eunuch with his beauty and his fascination, he represented all of us who have felt themselves prey for men. Shuki’s allure is not quite believable. It is the aspect of my book that requires some suspension of disbelief – and yet most women have felt at times that every man wants them, that they are prey. I may not have realised it at the time, but this book is very much about women.
T: How did you come up with the idea for Not a Man?
M: So many people see the idea of castrating a human as something incredible and ghastly. Yet we do it to our pets – it is viewed as a necessary part of responsible pet ownership. Livestock are routinely castrated.
Some years ago, my dearly beloved pet dog was taken to the vet for the routine operation. Who knows how much he understood of what was done? He sulked for a few days, but what choice did he have but to accept it?
This is what started me thinking. If a child had no choice, how would he react? If the alternative was starvation, would he accept it? Would he maybe think it in his best interests not to show his anger? Would he even scheme to better himself, to make the most of his circumstances?
Shuki is not a man, will never be a man, but he is determined to become a person to be accepted, as he says himself, ‘Not weak. Never weak.’
T: How much research went into your novel?
M: It was difficult to find information about eunuchs. Normal boys do not get castrated, and if they are, maybe because of accident, they would be given hormones. And just in case anyone is worried, I do assure readers that I did no practical research. No boys became sopranos.
Research about conditions in Arabic countries was a lot easier – books, internet, some travel. I did run into trouble with Oxford. My publisher insisted that details be correct, and Oxford is not like the universities that I know. Jacquie Watts came to my rescue here, generously helping me get the details right. (JS Watts, Cats and Other Myths.) I am very grateful to Jacquie.
T: Can you tell us about your other projects? What’s next?
M: The sequel to Not a Man is called The King’s Favourite. I need to do some editing yet, but the novel is complete. I expect to release it around June this year.
T: Which writers have inspired you?
M: My favourite books over the years have mostly been thrillers, but when it came to writing, it was not a thriller that took shape. I have frequently been asked what genre it fits into, but I am at a loss. All I can say is that it is the genre that Colleen McCullough writes in – books like the famous ‘Tim,’ or ‘The Thorn Birds.’ Colleen McCullough was already approaching middle age when she became well known. I would be very proud to be spoken of as something like Colleen McCullough.
T: Of all the reviews that Not a Man has had, which is your favorite?
M: There have been hundreds of reviews on the writing site, Authonomy, and since it’s been published, more reviews on sites like Amazon and Smashwords. But my favourite ‘review’ was from my husband. Once the book was in print and we were on holiday, he had no further excuse not to read it. So he reluctantly picked it up, and after a half hour, found an excuse to do something else. But he went back to it, and for a bit longer, and a bit longer, and by the third day, he was totally engrossed. It’s a long book, around 530 pages, but he didn’t take long to finish it. That my husband became so very involved, that is my very best ‘review.’
For anyone interested in learning more about Marj’s work, you can visit her blog: M.A. McRae, Author