I’ve been asked a few times about where I got my stories from. The most notable time was on Women’s Hour. ‘Did you ask asylum seekers if you could use their stories?’
In many ways these are valid questions, but on the other hand, they are curious questions to ask a writer of fiction. I’ve found people always want to know if what you are writing is autobiographical. Which part is real? Is that character based on a real person? This kind of response forgets that fiction is about making stuff up. This response assumes I went out and found people who had experienced conflict or who were asylum seekers and that I greedily wrote down their stories, like the literary equivalent of tapping people’s phones.
Fiction is a sticky, gluey mess of things and facts and research and the imagined, and something someone said once and some more abstract ideas and some feelings and something you can’t quite explain that you want to communicate and some words that come into your head…and a million other things. I just found this quotation on Claire Massey’s lovely blog. It is the playwright August Strindberg describing his characters as:
‘conglomerations of past and present stages of civilization, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, rags and tatters of fine clothing, patched together as is the human soul’
How beautifully phrased. We work from ‘scraps of humanity’. In The War Tour – though three stories are about the historical figures Lise Meitner, Rosa Luxemburg and John Hanning Speke – there is no real life equivalent of Japhet in ‘When the Truck Came’, or Devrim in ’33 Bullets’. To have included living people’s actual stories of trauma, war and exile would have been unethical and an act of appropriation. (For more on this there is an essay/metanarrative called ‘Notes’ at the back of my collection, which makes a brief exploration of Spivak and Said and Benita Parry on issues of appropriation, which I place in the context of 19th Century British exploration and colonialism).
But if it’s not about me and doesn’t include real life stories then why did I write it?
The book began with the publication of my short story cycle in Comma’s Ellipsis 2 in 2006, which included the two stories ‘These are only words about a woman on a bus’ and ‘The Breakfast She Had’. Both explored the effects of war on women and were the kernals of the rest of the book. Both stories contained the two things that made me write the book. First, the treatment of asylum seekers by this country and the Kafkesque and dehunamising asylum process. I was doing campaign work for asylum seekers in Manchester and I was angry. I felt more people needed to talk about what was happening.
The second kernal was apathy; we (us in the UK) – like the man on the bus in my ‘These are only words’ – don’t want to know; we don’t want to listen. At the same time we are fascinated by certain stories of horror. War zones become holiday destinations. We visit Auschwitz and are horrified by it. But we think this has nothing to do with us. Back in 2003 there was a moment of public outrage at Iraq and a moment when we thought it does concern us, but then public apathy seemed to settle in again (though Stop the War is still going strong).
While I was writing the book, I was continually beset by doubt. What do I know about war? What gives me the right to write these stories? Why the hell am I writing this book? But at the same time I was also compelled to write it. I couldn’t not write it. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling those things. I think most writers doubt themselves but something in them keeps on going.