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Sudan inspires Schnell to write her first novel

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1) Melanie Schnell, who grew up in the Lampman area, has released her first novel – a book that required more than a decade of work and research. (Photo credit: Graham Powell).

Melanie Schnell has seen much of the world since she left the Lampman area after graduating from high school in 1989.

The daughter of David and Cathy Schnell, Melanie Schnell has lived in several Canadian provinces. She has taught at a high school in Colombia and at the University of Bangkok in Thailand, and she has worked in Africa twice.

But she always knew, since she was a little girl, that she was going to be a writer. Those dreams were fulfilled when her first novel, "While the Sun is Above Us," was released on April 1.

The book shares the story of two interconnected women. One of them, Adut, a Sudanese woman, is captured and held as a slave for eight years during a civil war. Meanwhile, Sandra flees her life in Canada and arrives in south Sudan as an aid worker, but is soon surrounded by a violent local conflict. Chance briefly brings them together.

The inspiration for "While the Sun is Above Us" came when Schnell was reading an article in "MacLean's" magazine in 2000 about women and children who were captured and enslaved in Sudan, and used as a weapon in a decades-long civil war.

"It just totally absorbed me," said Schnell. "I ripped out the article and I read it again and again. And then, very soon after I read this article, two characters just kind of just waltzed into my head."

Those characters were Adut and Sandra, who, according to Schnell, demanded to have their stories told, and to connect with each other.

She would spend nearly a dozen years writing, researching and developing the novel.

Her research included seven months working in South Sudan, first in 2003 and then in 2005 and 2006, through Canadian Aid for South Sudan. Schnell also spent time in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Schnell hopes that "While the Sun is Above Us" gives people gain a greater understanding and awareness of what's happening in Sudan, particularly with women being forced into slavery, and how the lives of women have been transformed due to the changing nature of their culture.

"I would hope that people think more deeply about this human desire for connection, especially in an age of Facebook, texting and tweeting," said Schnell.

She still closely monitors what is happening in Sudan, and she dedicates a portion of her website to slavery and South Sudan's struggles for independence. The Republic of South Sudan became a country on July 9 of last year.

Schnell said the response to "While the Sun is Above Us" has been very positive. She has received a lot of excellent feedback. And she has been busy promoting the book.

Book launches have happened in Regina, Calgary and Saskatoon, and she has been interviewed by a lot of media outlets.

Schnell has started to work on her second novel. It's very different from "While the Sun is Above Us," she said, as it has one narrator – a dead woman who has refused to ascend. The woman hovers around her old life, and tries to find meaning amid depression and regret.

Ideally, Schnell hopes the book will be available in the next three or four years.

An English professor at the University of Regina, Schnell never imagined that she would return to her home province, but a series of events, starting in 2006, brought her back. One was the start of her studies for her masters degree at the University of Regina. Her father had a near-fatal farming accident. She also became ill after her second trip to Africa, so she wanted to stay in Saskatchewan and recover.

And she had a son, which influenced her decision to stay.

Now she doesn't want to leave.

"Saskatchewan is a very easy place for me to write, and I think a lot of that has to do with the landscape," said Schnell. "Lots of writers I know go to the bigger centres because all that psychic energy and that noise and that stimulation really stimulate their creativity.

"But for me it was the opposite. What stimulates my creativity is silence and even the flatness of this Saskatchewan landscape and a lot of quiet and solitude. I can get that here."

"While the Sun is Above Us" is published by Freehand Books, and it can be purchased at Chapters, or on-line at Amazon.

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