Helen Donohoe is an unusual lady. As someone who has been at the forefront of driving social change and author of various books including a successful novel, you’d expect her to be passionate, intelligent and driven—and she doesn’t disappoint.
Helen is a Londoner of Irish-Scottish parentage who studied politics and government in Manchester University and LSE. She recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at City University London, following which her debut novel Birdy Flynn was published.
Helen has twenty years’ experience speaking up for the powerless and invisible as campaigner, lobbyist, volunteer and writer. In her last role as Director of Public Policy at Action for Children she led the successful campaign to establish emotional child neglect in criminal law.
In this wide-ranging interview, we dig deep into Helen’s work and her wonderful book Birdy Flynn, which tells the story of a young girl growing up in the early 80’s and her struggle to find a place in the world, internal confusion of her sexuality, external family conflict, all against a tough socio-political backdrop. This is Your London Legacy.
“We changed the law but the law is only as good as it is applied on the ground.”
Tens of thousands of children are having to take care of their parents. They’re called young carers, and they are in charge of a huge variety of adult activities; shopping, medication, taking care of younger siblings, or their parents with disabilities and a wide variety of other ailments, self-inflicted and not. The law for child neglect was totally Victorian, where basically as long as they child wasn’t dead the parents were not in the wrong. Helen helped start a campaign to change this law and put a greater focus on child neglect, working with police officers, nurses, teachers on a law that would be nicknamed “The Cinderella Law”.
In Helen’s book Birdy Flynn the main character is a 12 year-old, Birdy, who is undergoing a struggle for their identity in the 1980’s. Even after a hundred pages the reader is still not quite sure of Birdy’s gender—which of course is a completely deliberate tactic used by Helen. This book is heavily influenced by Helen’s upbringing in the 1980’s where conversations about gender identity were nonexistent. She remembers not having a choice as to her gender, social class, and a range of things—back then she says you were taught to simply accept and get on with your life, something far different from what Helen sees being taught to children today.
“It’s often said that people’s first books have strong elements of autobiography. It’s based on my experience broadly.”
While the book can be considered Young Adult, it very much straddles the line of a full Adult novel. There is brutality that mirrors the times—IRA bombs, horses being murdered, and a horrible right wing government. The issues Birdy deals with are more personal, but still violent and life-changing none the less—the murder of a cat. Helen finds that Young Adult readers can handle tough topics and heavier subjects, so long as she stays honest and there remains a hope for change.
Like many other creators, both established and acclaimed and upcoming and unknown—Helen has wrestled with imposter syndrome. This started with the belief that she could even write a book in the first place. However after a lot of thought, and an open house where the director of the Creative Writing MA at City University gave her some encouragement, Helen joined the program. She came out with a draft of Birdy Flynn and after another year or so of editing and feedback and countless rewrites—had the book you find on shelves today.