Sharing our alumni successes: Juleus Ghunta
We caught up with Juleus Ghunta, MA Peace Studies 2018, just in time for the launch of his new book Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows.
Tell us about Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows.
Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows is about a young boy who struggles to read because of the adversities he faces in his daily life. He befriends a book that helps him to understand and manage his Shadows. The Shadows are manifestations of Rohan’s trauma/toxic stress. Even though the book takes on challenging topics, it is full of magic and hope that will engage and inspire readers. Rohan’s journey is a guide not only for children experiencing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress but also for others who want to understand how to offer them support. Rohan is beautifully illustrated by Jamaican artist Rachel Moss and is published by CaribbeanReads.
What are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)?
ACEs refer to intense sources of stress that many children experience, including physical, emotional or sexual abuse, community violence, poverty and racism. ACEs increase risks for maladaptive outcomes across a wide range of developmental domains, including postnatal brain development and gene expression, and may cause permanent damage to various parts of children’s brains, such as the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for impulse control and decision making. ACEs can be gateways to drug addiction, violence, and other harmful behaviours, and they can result in poor health outcomes such as chronic depression, heart disease and obesity.
What inspired you to write this book and to work in this area?
My childhood was largely shaped by abuse and neglect. When I learned to read at age twelve, I searched for stories with protagonists who had encountered and overcome similar adversities, but such books were scarce. I am trying to fill a void. Many children’s writers do not write books that explore difficult issues, despite the severe adversities our children endure. We often pretend these realities do not exist and ignore our children’s complex interior lives: their pain, their traumas, their emotions, and their longing to be seen as discerning rather than unperceptive. Authors do children a disservice when we shy away from exploring problematic themes.
Are there plans to write another book already underway?
In Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows, the protagonist creates and uses a special Notebook of Words and Ideas in which he records much of what he learns. In 2022 I will publish a Notebook of Words and Ideas for readers to use as a unique reading companion to Rohan and any other book. It has beautiful original art and sketches, inspiring quotes by great writers and thinkers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alain de Botton and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and space for children to add their own notes and ideas. I’ve also co-edited a collection of essays on ACEs and storytelling in, a peer-reviewed online journal based in Kingston, Jamaica.
I'm working on two new picture books. One is based on the journey of my mentor, who was diagnosed with PTSD after fighting in the Vietnam War and whose move from Texas to my childhood community in Jamaica saved his life. The other is the first in a series of three books that explore homelessness and displacement through the eyes of a mythical Jamaican creature known as the Rolling Calf. I also hope to complete my first full collection of poems in the next two years.
How do you think this book compliments the University’s values?
Many of Bradford’s students come from very harsh socioeconomic backgrounds where they experienced severe traumatic events. While there, I had challenges accessing trauma-informed counselling within the University’s formal structures, but fortunately I received vital support from a lecturer and friends. This is not to say that the formal systems – such as the Disability Service – have not been beneficial to others. I’m aware that in recent years the University has shown deeper interest in mental health issues and is in the process of implementing several awareness and training programmes for students and staff. But much more needs to be done to improve understanding of the nexus between ACEs/toxic stress and some student’s academic, health and social struggles.
Rohan Bullkin and the Shadows provides insights for critical conversations about some of the questions that are central to the University’s efforts to promote Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, as well as the need for and benefits of trauma-informed pedagogy. But these approaches will only lead to meaningful change if the University takes a bottom-up approach that engages seriously with the experiences of victims and survivors of various types of trauma.
Where can we purchase a copy?
Tell us about your University of Bradford experience
What brought you to UoB for your degree?
I became interested in studying at Bradford after participating in a peacebuilding conference in Rwanda in 2010. Even though the conference focused on geopolitics and state violence, I spent much of my time there thinking about the psychological impacts of familial and interpersonal conflicts. At Bradford, I did autoethnographic work on how storytelling and expressive writing can mitigate the effects of ACEs-induced psychological wounds.
In my dissertation, I wrote about the extreme poverty and abuse I endured as a child, about why I was sub-literate up to the age of 12, and about being forced by my family to live on my own from 14-17. I analysed my traumatic childhood against a backdrop of tangled cultural narratives and histories. My in-depth reading and writing helped me to clarify many harrowing memories. I now have a profound appreciation of my traumatic ordeals, including my own history of aggression and violence. The Bradford experience transformed my life. I’m now healthier and more productive than at any other time in the last eighteen years.
Do you have any special memories from your time in Bradford?
My first children’s book Tata and the Big Bad Bull was published a few months after I started my studies. In June 2018, I launched Tata at the Bradford Literature Festival. I felt honoured to represent the University in this way and for the opportunities to learn from upcoming and established writers.
Advice for aspiring authors
What advice would you give others who are considering writing a book?
Read Anne Lamott’s essay Shitty First Drafts and then listen to Creative Breakthroughs – Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brief interview with The Atlantic. To excel at writing (and life in general) you need to have a good grasp of what ‘draft’ means and embrace it with humility and courage. In his 1984 interview in The Paris Review James Baldwin said a writer’s natural talent is not as important as his/her commitment and persistence. Read, write and rewrite. Persist.