Jasbinder Bilan Talks New Book Xanthe & the Ruby Crown

Interview: George White
Sunday 12 March 2023
reading time: min, words

Tackling important topics including dementia and the state-mandated removal of Indian minorities from Uganda - which saw thousands of refugees flee to the UK in the 1970s - Xanthe & the Ruby Crown is a fascinating and fantastical new novel set in our very own city. We chat to Costa Award-winning author Jasbinder Bilan all about it…


I wanted to start with one of the key themes of the book - dementia. Why was that an issue you wanted to explore in Xanthe & the Ruby Crown?
With my books, I don’t tend to start with a theme and build a story around that. It’s always an organic process. When I began thinking about Xanthe’s granny, I wanted to imagine what she might be going through, and dive into the idea of how if you’ve had traumatic experiences in your past, those early memories can become more vivid with dementia. I thought that was an interesting and important strand to bring into the story. Dementia is one of those issues that affects all of our lives, and I thought this was an opportunity for younger people to have an opportunity to talk about it. From Xanthe’s point of view, it’s really hard to see someone you love changing, and I think that’s something we can all relate to. It also gave me the opportunity to explore the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, which I think is such a wonderful thing. 

This story focuses on Ugandan characters and a defining moment in the country’s history. Was this book about trying to highlight this in a personal and affecting way? 
Definitely. I grew up in the seventies and my grandmother had relatives who lived in Uganda and migrated at that time. It had a real impact on me when they arrived in Nottingham. I remember a grandfather moving into our neighbourhood and he had these really interesting stories about rural life in, and being a refugee from, Uganda - which differed a lot from my experience moving from northern Punjab to Nottingham. The removal of the Indian minority from Uganda isn’t a story that is spotlighted very often, and I thought this was an opportunity to bring that into Nani’s backstory, and have it as an illuminating thread to highlight this bit of history from the Asian community. I think it’s quite powerful because it dives into what it might be like to be young and suddenly have to leave behind everything you’ve ever known in quite scary circumstances. 

Was researching for this book quite educational for you?
I was aware of the Ugandan story, but I didn’t realise that they had to leave in ninety days, that they couldn’t take anything with them - it was a really dramatic, harsh time. People just didn’t know what would happen to them. Migration is always in the news, and I think it’s really important that these stories are explored and that a light is shone on them, because it really helps to contextualise it all. It makes people realise that, with each wave of migration, there’s real reason and there are real people behind it. 

In all of my books, I explore some dark and difficult issues, but there’s always a sprinkle of magic

The story is written in first-person. Why did you take this approach? 
I like to write first-person because I think that, as a reader, you can feel closer to the character - you’re seeing everything through their eyes. For me, it’s a really powerful narrative tool. It can be intense, as well, as the issues covered can be quite traumatic and may affect the reader. Yet, at the same time, I’ve found young readers can be really resilient and want to read these sorts of things, and I think this is an effective way to get them really close to the emotions of the character. 

At the same time as tackling important issues, the book has elements of fun and fantasy. How did you make sure there’s a tonal balance here - that things weren’t too heavy, despite covering heavy themes? 
In all of my books, I explore some dark and difficult issues, but there’s always a sprinkle of magic. When you have that light touch magic, it lifts everything, even the mundane. When I’m writing, I always try to put myself into my younger self’s shoes. I would always have these moments where I’d be looking out of the window, and I’d see something that I believed to be really magical, but that could be explained in other ways - like an interesting shadow or the way a tree branch looks. I think that’s important for young people - to believe in their imagination, and to find wonder in the everyday.

Xanthe is set in your hometown of Nottingham. Why was that important for you? 
There are a few reasons. I’m the Patron of Reading for my old school, Mellers, and I’ve done a lot of work with them. The last time I was there I was talking about my previous book and how I was looking for a new story, and outside of the window is a huge tower block that was there when I was growing up. Myself and my siblings would always play around this tower block, and I thought it would be nice to bring my work closer to home again, and that this would be a great location to set this story. 

It’s also about showing children in Nottingham that they can have adventures wherever they are - and that wherever they are, there’s magic. I think, sometimes, people try to put a ceiling on what children and young people can achieve, but I like to show them that there is no limit. What better way than by having a magical story set in their own area? 

Xanthe & the Ruby Crown is available in bookstores and online from Thursday 2 March 


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