Monday, 29 February 2016
On Writing and Politics
When I was interviewed for my writing course a few years back, I was asked what I wanted to write about. My answer, 'God and politics' produced a wry response, 'So you won't be writing bestsellers then?'. Perhaps not, but I do have to write about my passions. Since God and politics are in my top three most important things in life (the third being husband and family), they are obvious topics to choose.
I'm thinking about the politics aspect of my writing today, because yesterday it was 25 years since the 1991 Gulf War ended. It was that war that really opened my eyes to both the way modern warfare is conducted, and the way governments mislead us. I date my political activism from that time, although I didn't get heavily involved in peace issues until I met my husband Chris, a few years later.
When I began 'Echo Hall', I didn't intend to write a political novel. I was initially drawn to the ghost story and gothic elements. I am a big Bronte fan (all three, I have no favourite) and I just love stories about old country houses filled with secrets. I thought that this was what my novel would be about, but I soon realised the only way to explain the ghostly voices Ruth hears at the beginning was to go back to the previous generation. As I worked out that I was dealing with a story about unresolved conflict, I decided it would be good to set it against the backdrop of war. At the time, we were still living with the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Chris and I were actively engaged in protesting about the ongoing occupation. It all felt too immediate for me to see the issues clearly, and so I decided to begin the book in a period of recent history, the first Gulf War. This also allowed me to create a link back to World War 2 and, as more of the story emerged, World War 1.
Having these three different time periods also made sense politically. Because Germany was an ally of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was a battleground from the outset of World War 1. In 1914, Britain won the battle of Basra, and by 1918 was occupying the whole country. Post-war, the League of Nations gave Britain the mandate to run Iraq and Jordan (France was given Syria). Britain also took over Kuwait as a protectorate, much to the resentment of Iraqi leaders, who considered the region part of their country. But a few years later, faced with frequent rebellions, the British withdrew their troops, imposing King Faisal on the country, until World War 2 when they occupied it again. Once more this stoked Iraqi anger, leading to a post-war resistance movement and ultimately a coup in 1958. Meanwhile, the British decision to grant Kuwait independence In 1961, created an ongoing irritation for those in Iraq who still considered Kuwait part of their nation. The coup of 1958, was succeeded by the rise of the Ba'ath Party and by 1979, Saddam Hussein was in power. Hussein, like Assad and Gaddafi, was a vicious dictator, who the West tolerated and sold weapons to right up until 1990. They even turned a blind eye to his bombing of his own citizens in Halabja until he made the mistake of invading Kuwait, setting in motion another cycle of violence that has continued until today.
Very little of this political history makes it into 'Echo Hall', as too much research makes a dull, dull novel, but the sense of history repeating itself does. I have also had characters refer to the events of the past that have created the wars of today, but I've tried to make most of these points as throw away comments. The 1991 section is the most direct, with characters responding to three key moments of the Gulf War: the televised bombing of Baghdad in January, the destruction of the Amiryah air raid shelter in February, and an account of the aftermath of the killing of thousands of soldiers fleeing Kuwait (the so-called 'Highway of Death'). I hope in this way that I've given you readers enough hints and clues to place the questions raised by the central story in the context of the world wars being waged at the same time. And, with any luck, I've created a rattling good yarn that will maintain your interest right to the end.
I'm still not sure if I've got the right balance between too much information and too little. I'd hate to end up with a preachy novel like 'Maurice' by E M Forster. But, equally, I don't want the politics to be done so subtly it passes most readers by. As I was writing the novel, I made sure I looked at how my favourite authors managed it (Graham Greene in 'The Quiet American'; David Mitchell in 'Cloud Atlas', and the Iraq and Climate Change sections of 'The Bone Clocks'; Harper Lee in 'To Kill a Mockingbird', Yusuf Toropov in his recent debut novel, the stunning 'Jihadi: A Love Story'). I hope I have applied their lessons by allowing my characters' reactions to events to get you thinking about the issues I'm raising. I'm sure if I haven't, the editorial process will find me out!
Hopefully, by the time you read 'Echo Hall' I'll have achieved the effect I'm after, and provided you with a story that intrigues, entertains and makes you think. I'm not much bothered by whether you agree with my take on things by the end, but I do want to provide a space where these questions will be explored. Because I believe politics matters, and when done well, political fiction can help us better understand the world in which we live.