Here’s my latest post on the International Crime Authors Reality Check blog:
I keep finding new reasons why I write my novels about the Palestinians. Usually these reasons have nothing to do with the Palestinians.
Here’s the one that may be the deepest, the one I’ve known about for a while, but have only recently been able to face up to: it’s because I’m scared of home.
Not so long ago, I read the 1992 novel “Fat Lad” by Northern Irish novelist Glenn Patterson. It’s a terrific book, examining Belfast’s changing political landscape through the story of a young man returning after a decade in England.
But I was struck by my reaction to the nostalgic tone of the main character’s memories. They filled me with terror and loathing.
What were these memories? Patterson recalls Choppers, which were long-handled bikes for kids. I never had one. The main character lays out his desk with a bottle of Quink, a brand name for ink which I used at school. I wasn’t happy at school. He listens to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, a specific remix of the song Relax. Relax was number one in the charts when I was in high school; I chose to listen to music that no one else liked in high school, because I didn’t like anyone and imagined no one would like me.
I cite other examples of Patterson’s nostalgia, but I think perhaps you get the picture.
Patterson created a world coterminous with my own childhood in Wales. For Patterson, who went to England for graduate work and returned to his hometown, nostalgia is filled with warmth and friendship, even amid the violence of Belfast. Nostalgia doesn’t work if the period being viewed through rose-colored spectacles was experienced through isolation and self-loathing. I left home, and I’ve never been back.
I used to think: Never mind, everyone’s pretty miserable as a teenager. In a series of interviews with other writers on my blog, I started asking: “Do you have a pain from childhood that drives you to write?” Almost all of them responded that, No, they had pretty good childhoods. At first I refused to believe it. (I even told Miriam Froitzheim, the delightful German who gave me my copy of “Fat Lad,” that she couldn’t be a writer because she’d had a happy childhood and was a very well-balanced, happy adult. Well, I take it back, Miriam. It’s just me.)
I started to realize I had been pretty miserable in my twenties and early thirties, too. It wasn’t only my childhood. I left Britain and went to America. But I boozed myself into a different kind of isolation there, before I found my way to the Middle East.
During those early times I wrote stories of alienation – loners driven to acts of violence or victims of violence, troubled men stuck in unfulfilling relationships with doomed women. With the Palestinians, I came out of that darkness. It wasn’t just the exotic magic of their culture, their architecture, their cuisine. It was that their memories weren’t mine.
No Palestinian has ever said: Did you have a Chopper when you were a kid? Remember having those Quink-stains on your fingers at school? Did you grope your first girl dancing to Frankie at the school disco?
I’ve never had to say to a Palestinian: No, I was a miserable kid and I hate you for having been happy.
This freed me from the angst trap. Me, and my writing, both. I could enter the heads of characters who had been scarred – I understood what it was to have suffered. But they’d been scarred by war and occupation. That allowed me to see my own sufferings for what they were: bad, but things that could be overcome by personal development.
If you’re a Palestinian, you can go to therapy and meditate and listen to Mozart all you want. You’ll be better off, but you’ll still be living under occupation. In my case, life among a people with real problems helped me separate from the anger that clung to me all those years. Beside them, my life was a constant beach holiday. In Jerusalem I go for days on end without meeting anyone as relaxed as me. I’ve started to think perhaps this is the real me.
I’ve lived in the Middle East 13 years now. Last month it was 20 years since I left Britain (when I was 22.) Soon all the nostalgia novels will be about periods of British life of which I know nothing, because I was no longer living there. In the Middle East, I’ve been insulated, distant from British culture and not really immersed in Palestinian or Israeli pop culture. Free from all the babble, from the reminiscences of others’ lives which are supposed to be my shared experiences.
Free not to be a member of a broader society. Free to live inside my head. Which is good. Because that’s where novels are written.