‘Cut Flowers’ by Aneeta Prem is, in her own words, a story about saving lives. It discusses the continuing threat of FGM (female genital mutilation) not only abroad but also in the UK. FGM affects around 70 million women and girls worldwide and ‘Cut Flowers’ explores how it individually touches two British girls lives on their summer break.
Katie and Sophia are two ordinary eleven year-olds who have extraordinary holiday experiences. Sophia is disappointed only to be going on a ‘staycation’ in the UK, whilst Katie is excited about her family trip to Africa to reconnect with her mother’s African roots in the village where she grew up. The narrative flips between the two girls as each encounters individual challenges on their vacation. Whilst Sophia navigates the world of a British caravan site and gets up to mischief with her friend Charlie, Katie is exposed to a whole new universe of culture and tradition in her mother’s African village. Through Katie and her mother, Prem explores the interaction of Western and African values. Katie hurts herself climbing a mango tree and her siblings invariably get dirty playing outside, which worries her mother. Katie’s grandmother, the village matriarch is perplexed by the daughter who seems to have changed since moving to the UK. These are small squabbles and compellingly told to understand that both sides have valid reasons for their views.
The importance of Katie’s story, however, is the discovery of the village’s history of FGM, culminating in the discovery that not only was her mother cut, but that her aunt died from it. Katie and her African cousin are saved from the procedure. Prem uses Katie’s mother, a mix of African and Western values and who is also a nurse, as a tool for explaining to the village the perils of FGM. Before they return home the hut where the procedure has been performed is symbolically burned down.
Sophia’s holiday, on the other hand is eventful for different reasons. She uses her time to write and enter a song into a competition organised by Freedom, a charity which, amongst other things, works to highlight the plight of FGM worldwide. Sophia wins and ends up singing at an event attended by Prince Harry. Thus both girls are affected in different ways by FGM.
The importance of ‘Cut Flowers’ is that it takes a holistic look at tradition, without being judgmental, understanding that it can enrich and educate whilst also sheltering atrocities such as FGM. Those who support FGM in the story are not demonised but rather represented as misinformed; and figures like Granny Jojo come to understand that the procedure has no place in any society. Sophia and Katie are fictional, but their stories are real. Many girls will face the prospect of FGM, or will know someone who does. The book educates without being superior and through the eyes of the characters, both young and old, and some who have been cut themselves, explains how FGM cannot be tolerated; and paves a way for a world where female genital mutilation will only be a tragic history and not an inevitable future.