When Wayne Rajah needed a break from studying pediatric medicine—“I became disillusioned with seeing children struggling every day,” he says—he turned to writing. After some time away from his medical training, Rajah returned to the field, and he now works as a pediatrician in South Africa’s public health system. He is also the author of The Champion, a fantasy novel that follows a boy named Calvin on his quest to save his mother, who suffers from heart disease.
The Champion was inspired by Rajah’s work in medicine and focuses on the bond between a mother and her child. But at its core, he says, it is “a good gripping fantasy novel” full of adventures in unfamiliar settings:
The Forrotid Forest is an old and ancient place. A forest grown on a city that lay collapsed and abandoned for centuries. It has been so long that you wouldn’t even know there was once a city there. It is a treacherous and dangerous place, plagued by death. We need to be attentive. Take each step with care. The light that enters is bleak, kept out by a canopy of greenery above, the ground is soft and moist, wet with the remains of the dead and decaying, but what lies beneath is much more serious: a labyrinth of tunnels inhabited by menacing creatures called the Cryptomantis.
Kirkus Reviews warns that readers should have tissues at hand for the book’s final twist and declares it “an evocative, almost dreamlike mix of dark fantasy and moving reality.” As Calvin pursues his goal, with the help of Athwall, an ancient creature who guides and advises him, the story explores Calvin’s dreams themselves. The dreams are frequently perilous, blending Calvin’s imagination and his reality. “I’ve always been drawn toward the fantasy aspect of things,” says Rajah. Writing the book took more than two years, and he went through “probably about seven or eight versions” in the process. “It was quite difficult to write this book,” he admits.
Rajah says that no one patient inspired The Champion but rather a group he treated in a pediatric neurology ward during his training. Many of the children had been unable to see or hear since birth, but they responded to their caregivers, and Rajah wondered how they perceived the world. While the neurology patients were on his mind, he fell asleep one day while studying for exams and woke during one of South Africa’s “load-sharing” times, when electricity is temporarily cut because there is not enough power to meet the demand.
“When I woke up, everything was dark because it was during load-sharing, and it had gone into the night. I was extremely disorientated, didn’t know what was going on. Everything was pitch black,” Rajah says. “It took me a minute or so to figure it out.” As he adjusted to the sudden sensory deprivation, he thought about his young patients. “I always wondered what would be this child’s interpretation of the world, because from the time this child is born, he is unable to see. Some of them are unable to hear. But the child still smiles, the child still responds to sound, to warmth, and to touch.”
Wondering about how his patients understood the world provided some of the inspiration for Calvin’s experiences in The Champion, as did the relationships Rajah observed between them and their mothers. Rajah works with an underserved population where children are often cared for by single mothers and grandmothers. Sometimes the parents have moved elsewhere to find work, he says, and “because we have such a high infectious-disease profile, a lot of the parents pass away quite young.” Watching the mothers of his patients shaped Rajah’s portrayal of the close and affectionate relationship between Calvin and his mother.
Rajah didn’t set out to become a pediatrician when he began studying medicine, but during his clinical rotations, he found that he liked it, while other doctors-in-training were eager to trade responsibilities. “A lot of physicians are scared of pediatrics. It’s a lot different than adult medicine,” Rajah says. That’s part of why he enjoys it: “With children, there’s no malingering when they are ill, and when they’re better, they are better.” He learned that treating disease was only part of a pediatrician’s responsibilities. “The prognosis is not always the best,” he says. “It takes a certain kind of person to break that sort of news to a parent and often to a child who can understand.” His commitment to children’s health is why Rajah is donating all the profits from The Champion to charity, particularly “organizations that help children with disabilities.”
Medicine takes up much of Rajah’s time, but he tries to fit in some fun, too. He enjoys jigsaw puzzles—a world map he put together is framed on his wall—and football, particularly the English teams. His free time is also taken up by Diego. “He’s like a tiny German shepherd,” Rajah says. “My wife rescued a dog from a dump site.” Together they nursed Diego back to health and rehabilitated him, and he has been part of the family for three years now.
Rajah enjoys reading fantasy, though he has to make an effort to read works unrelated to medicine. Unlike many authors, he did not grow up with the ambition of writing a book. “It’s not like when I was younger, I was longing to do something like this,” he says, though he does have previous experience writing papers describing his research into HIV treatment protocols for medical journals. For the moment, he has no plans to write another novel. The writing process was “emotionally taxing and draining,” he says, and he’s going to wait for “something that inspires me as much as this.”
Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.