I recently received a question from a reader that stopped me in my tracks. When I was writing A Single Stone, she asked, did I know about children mining mica in India? She included a link to a newspaper article entitled, “India’s mica mines: The shameful truth behind mineral makeup’s shimmer” In reply, I said two things: Wow and I had no idea. In A Single Stone, young girls tunnel deep into mountains to harvest a mineral called mica. I chose to use this real-world mineral name for a few simple reasons:
- Since childhood, I have thought of it as fool’s gold – bright and shiny but essentially valueless
- It forms flakes and sheets
- I liked the way the word sounded
It’s possible that some of these reasons are more compelling than others. Although I gave my mineral a real name, for the purposes of the narrative I invested it with some fictional properties. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I didn’t just invent something entirely fictional, as I did for some other elements in the story. Not having done so, there was now this unexpected real-world connection, about which I felt a little uneasy.
Since I had never thought of mica as valuable, I’d never imagined it was actually mined. To now find that it is, and moreover that this is done by children caught in an oppressive system … might my book be seen as making a comment on this? Might I be seen as having idly appropriated a deplorable real-world situation as story fodder? Was this – in effect if not intent – another kind of colonisation, another instance of the developed world plundering the developing for resources?
Was I overthinking things? This has been known to happen. Nonetheless, I was struck by the parallels. Reading the article, I learned that:
It is mica that gives make-up products such as eyeshadow, nail polish, lipstick and concealer their shimmer.
And I thought about this, from A Single Stone:
[Their ancestors] hacked at the rock, taking whatever they wanted – some things simply because they were shiny or pleasing to the eye.
There was more to come. At a writers’ festival the next day, I mentioned all this to some colleagues. Among them was Ken Spillman, who has spent a lot of time in India, and who immediately told me about a photographer who had happened upon the mica mines in Bihar. The photographer related seeing boys aged ten so muscled by their labour that their radically altered bodies seemed to belong to much older men. Eventually, he said, their bodies break down under the strain and they become supervisors, and then fathers, giving birth to the next generation of boys who will enter the mines.
In the world of A Single Stone, where mica has become essential for survival and mythology now forbids digging inside the mountain, girls are kept small, their bodies regulated from birth by a strict regimen in order that they can slip more easily through its passages: fissures and crevices carved by water and time, caverns hollowed out naturally like the chambers of a heart. The regimen continues until a girl’s tunneling days are over, at which point she takes on a different role – perhaps as a supervising “Mother”, perhaps simply birthing her own daughters and inducting them in turn into the system.
It’s no surprise to me that my fictional system reflects a real-world system in this broad sense. This is a parallel I drew consciously with systems of oppression, wanting to explore the way they so often work, in which those who are initially exploited often go on to become part of the perpetuating hierarchy. But when I did so, I was completely unaware that there were real children mining real mica inside real mountains.
A Single Stone is not about the Indian mica mines, but it cannot help being connected to them – by that curious intersection between fiction and fact that often takes writers completely by surprise, and which in this case hinges on my use of a single word.
While any alignment between my book and the real mica mines was entirely unintentional, I’ll certainly be finding out more about this issue now. If you’d like to do the same, here are a few places to start:
Al Jazeera: “Ugly Truth Behind Global Beauty Industry”
And here are some organisations campaigning against this specific issue:
Thinking about my own previous obliviousness to all this, I come back to one of the notions that lies at the heart of A Single Stone, and which perhaps ties the book to this issue in a much more important way than any literal connections: that it’s incumbent on all of us to be thoughtful about the systems in which we live and are complicit, about the hidden practices and structures that support them. To ask questions about the way we live, and to take action once we learn the answers.