From the upheaval of loss to insight, acceptance and love
This is the second of two posts where I share a bit about why I chose the theme of displacement for my novel of the same name. In the first post I talked about physical displacement – displacement from home and country. In this post I’m going to look at the emotional aspects explored in the novel.
Rachel, one of the two main characters, is a fifty-something woman. She lives alone on the Isle of Skye, one of the Hebridean islands off Scotland’s west coast. Her home is on a small farm, or croft as it’s called in the Scottish highlands. And as well as looking after her sheep, she also works as a children’s book illustrator and writer. Rachel has been through a lot of upheaval in her life––divorce, grief after the loss of her soldier son, killed in Afghanistan, and then as the story begins, the loss of her mother who she’s been living with and caring for.
And the other main character, is newly retired Edinburgh police detective, Jack. He’s coming to terms with his retirement, has just had heart surgery, and is feeling stuck in a relationship that has run its course. Like Rachel he is divorced. At the start of the novel he has just bought a rundown cottage in the (fictional) Skye village of Halladale. He plans to do it up and to use it as a holiday home.
Both Rachel and Jack have lost their way emotionally. Both of them need to come to terms with the changes in their lives and to find a new way of living. During the course of the novel both of them explore new ways of life.
Rachel goes to Israel-Palestine, where her brother lives. She wants to explore her Jewish heritage and to see if she too can settle and make a new life in the Middle East. And the people she meets there certainly open her mind to new ways of living and new possibilities. There’s Hana, a Palestinian woman who owns a guest house on the West Bank where Rachel spends a few days. The conversations Rachel has with Hana are life-changing. And then there’s Eitan, an artist, and best friend of Rachel’s brother. Eitan reawakens in Rachel what it is to be a woman and a person in her own right––not just a mother, daughter or ex-wife.
Jack meanwhile finds working on his cottage to be therapeutic. He also finds walking in and photographing the stunning Skye landscape provides him with time and space to decide what’s next now he’s retired.
And then there’s the relationship between Rachel and Jack. They establish a strong friendship before Rachel leaves for Israel and it’s a friendship that benefits both of them emotionally. But there’s also a complication––an undercurrent that both of them sense but neither acknowledge––they are strongly attracted to each other. Beginning a new relationship isn’t something either of them wants and it’s this emotional complication that drives the narrative of Displacementforward.
At its heart Displacementhas the question of whether Jack and Rachel can become new anchoring points in each other’s previously turbulent lives.
The reasons behind the plot and settings of my second novel
When I wrote Displacement, I wanted to explore what knocks people’s lives off course, what pushes them out of their normal place and space. I also wanted to examine the consequences of both physical and emotional displacement. In other words i wanted to look at what happens when people are forced by circumstances to change their location – both external and internal.
At the emotional level, I wanted to explore the displacement caused by grief, betrayal, illness and ageing and I’ll share more of the background to this in a subsequent post. But I also wanted to explore the long term consequences of physical displacement, of what happens when people are forced to abandon their home and culture in order to stay alive – and that’s what I’m looking at in this post.
When I came to write Displacement, three examples of the forced movement of people were in my mind – two from the relatively recent past, and one that has existed since the 1940s and continues to the present day. The first was the forced eviction of people from their land in the north of Scotland. The evidence of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries is still visible today. And this, combined with the earlier punitive measures put in place by the victorious Hanoverian side following the Battle of Culloden, meant that Gaelic culture came close to being eliminated. The wearing of tartan was outlawed as was speaking Gaelic. The organisation of Highland society by the clan system came to an end and thousands of Scots were forced to emigrate to Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand.
The second example of the forced displacement of people that I had in mind was the much deadlier clearance of a whole culture that was wrought in Nazi Germany. I saw an item on Scottish television marking the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport that took place just before the second world war. This happened when Great Britain agreed to accept 10,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria. The children were taken in by British families and most never saw their parents again as they died in the Holocaust. Some survivors of the Kindertransport were interviewed about their experiences of arriving in and growing up in Scotland in their adoptive families. Their stories of stoicism and survival made quite an impression on me.
And the third example is that of the plight of the Palestinian people displaced from their homes by the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 following on from the end of the Second World War.
I brought the three together in Displacement by making the late mother of the main female character, Rachel, a Kindertransport survivor who was taken in by a family in Glasgow and who later married a native of the Isle of Skye (in the Scottish highlands) and settled there. Rachel lives on Skye, but her brother has followed his Jewish heritage and emigrated to Israel-Palestine.
And because of the significant emotional upheavals in Rachel’s life, she decides to visit her brother in his adopted homeland and see if she too can find a renewed sense of home by being there.
Hence the action in the novel moves between these two very different places and addresses many layers and levels of displacement as Rachel tries to decide where in the world her future lies.
And I was able to describe both settings from experience.
I’m a Scot and I live in the Scottish Hebrides so I’m steeped in that environment and its history. The wild and often challenging landscape, the resilience and resourcefulness needed to survive here, and the still visible evidence of whole townships abandoned and left to crumble when the inhabitants were forced off their land – all lend themselves to the exploration of the themes of upheaval and displacement .
I’ve also been to Israel-Palestine several times. It’s a country that fascinates me and it’s certainly no stranger to upheaval.
My link with the Middle East dates back to when I was fourteen and to my high school days in Edinburgh. A new girl joined the class and I was the one who volunteered to look after her. The new girl was Revital and she was an Israeli. Her father was doing a PhD at Edinburgh university and had brought his family with him for the duration. Revital and I quickly became friends. So much so that after she and her family returned home we kept in touch and in 1975 during my long summer holidays from university I travelled to Israel to visit her. As she was doing her national service at the time we could only meet up at certain times, so I worked on a kibbutz for a bit and did a bit of travelling. The kibbutz was on the Golan Heights – something I didn’t tell my mother who was worried enough about me visiting what she saw as a very dangerous country. I wasn’t worried though; I had the invincibility of youth. And I was smitten by the place – its beauty, its ancient landscape and its vitality.
I’ve revisited since then. One trip was in 1993 and coincided with the optimism which followed the signing of the Oslo Accord. The Palestinian flag flew from balconies, houses and cars – something that would have been illegal before the Accord. The atmosphere was relaxed, peace seemed to have been established. Revital and her husband were activists for the peace settlement and knew there was still a lot of work to be done, but were hopeful that they could now live and bring up their children in a new, constructive and co-operative society with all their neighbours regardless of background, religion, or race. Fast forward to my most recent visit in 2012 and the situation had deteriorated to worse than before 1993. All optimism for a peaceful and fair settlement was gone. Revital and her husband continued to work for a peaceful solution, trying to raise awareness amongst their Israeli friends of the true plight of the Palestinians. Her husband, an academic has written several books on the subject and speaks on it all over the world. You can view one of his many talks here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qblO4u0pF9M And Revital is part of Machsom Watch – who in their own words are
‘a volunteer organization of Israeli women who are peace activists from all sectors of society. We oppose the Israeli occupation in the area known as the West Bank, we oppose the appropriation of Palestinian land and the denial of Palestinian human rights. We support the right of Palestinians to move freely in their land and oppose the checkpoints which severely restrict Palestinian daily life.
And amongst other things they, ‘conduct daily observations of Israel Defense Force checkpoints in the West Bank and the hamlets in the Jordan Valley.’ (taken from the Machsom website at http://www.machsomwatch.org/en/about-us)
When I visited in 2012 I accompanied Revital on one of these checkpoint observations. It was a bit scary – I’ve not been that close to a soldier on active duty before or to an automatic weapon – but it was an interesting and enlightening experience. Palestinians, including the elderly, the sick, and the pregnant are given a lot of hassle while just trying to go about their ordinary daily business such as visiting family or attending hospital appointments.
So all of the above was in my head as I wrote the novel and I incorporated some of my own experiences into the story – from Rachel’s life as a crofter to the realities of life in the Middle East.
Footnote re current refugees:
I’m not a historian, a politician or an activist, so I wrote simply as a human being reflecting on the plight of other human beings and on the injustices of enforced displacement inflicted by some of us on those we perceive as ‘other’.
But, as I mentioned above, I’m only too aware of the plight of refugees from Syria right now as they try to get Europe. I’ve donated to charities and written to my MP – as I’m sure many of you will have – and I will continue to do whatever else I can to help, albeit in a small way. I’m particularly proud that my relatively small and remote community is, as I write this, collecting desperately needed items for those refugees and as soon as there’s enough to fill the articulated lorry that is on standby, these items will be driven to Greece for delivery to those who need them.
So by way of acknowledging displacement as an ever-present and often devastating fact in human life, I thought I’d end by including the cartoon below. It has been shared a lot on social media recently in relation to the recent deaths in the Mediterranean and to the refugee crisis in general. (The cartoon is actually from 2014 and was created Australian cartoonist and fellow wordpress blogger Simon Kneebone, in response to the time when boatloads of people were trying to reach Australia from Indonesia.)
Two good reads for the price of one this week. One is non-fiction and the other is fiction. But they’re connected by setting and they complement each other beautifully.
I became aware of The Occupation Diaries when I read a review of it in the Observer newspaper whilst on the flight home from a visit to Israel-Palestine last year. It was quite a coincidence to read about a book that was set in the very place I’d just visited. It was my third visit to the country and I blogged about it here. I was so impressed by the review that I bought the book as soon as I got home.
I was even more impressed by the book itself. Shehadeh’s writing certainly confirmed the impressions I’d formed during my visit. The book is made up of diary entries during a two year period from 2009 to 2011.
It chronicles events leading up to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. But it is far from dry. This a very personal account, Shehadeh gives a clear and detailed record of his everyday life and of the lives of his fellow Palestinians living on the West Bank. He states his annoyance, anger and frustration at the ignominies, inconveniences, injustices and dangers that they face on a daily basis. But he never rants or lectures and his words are all the more effective for that.
Readers get a vivid portrait of Palestinian life and history and gain a clearer understanding of the politics and issues that the citizens on both sides of this contested land have to deal with.
The standout section for me was Shehadeh’s poignant account of a visit to Nablus station. In it he tells how when he arrived there were about twenty passengers waiting for the train. He describes the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation as they await the train’s arrival. But when it does arrive at the platform, no-one can get on. The train is an image. It’s part of an art installation commemorating the station’s centenary. Nowadays, however, no-one uses it. There are no longer any trains linking Nablus to Jerusalem, Damascus, Amman or Cairo. No trains cross this isolated and hemmed in territory. Travel in and out of the West Bank is a tortuous and uncomfortable undertaking for the Palestinians. But, as Shehadeh says, the experience of seeing the image of the train let the observers go beyond their ‘dismal present’ and envisage a future of freedom and connection with all their neighbours.
I recommend this moving book to anyone who wants to gain an insight into this conflicted area. Shehadeh is a skilled writer and educator and a quiet and honest activist.
It was while I was reading the above book that my husband presented me with The Wall. It had been recommended by a colleague of his and he reckoned I might like it. He was right. This is a charming work of fiction and is also set in The West Bank.
The main character is a thirteen- year-old Israeli boy named Joshua. Joshua lives in the (fictional) town of Amarias. Amarias is an illegal Israeli settlement which is situated close to a checkpoint (based on the real one at Qalandia). Joshua, still grieving the death of his father – killed while doing reservist service in the Israeli army – lives with his mother and step-father. Joshua doesn’t get on with his overbearing step-father who bullies and controls both Joshua and Joshua’s mother. Joshua also hates Amarias – finding it too manicured, perfect and stifling.
The town is close to a heavily fortified checkpoint in the wall which divides Israel form the occupied territories of the West Bank.
All Joshua knows of the territory beyond the wall is that it is there that ‘the enemy’ live. That is until the day he finds a tunnel under the wall and goes through it. Here he meets Leila and her family. Joshua finds a place that is truly another world to the one of Amarias. It is the first of several very tense and risky visits. On the other side of the wall, Joshua’s concepts of loyalty, identity and justice are all challenged.
It is the character of Joshua that gives this book its charm. He is naive. He has no vested interest. He’s not weighted by history, religion or politics. He sees the issues as simply unfair and unjust.
The book is a political fable which presents a political reality. Looking through young Joshua’s eyes, we are reminded of the simple truth that there are two sides to every story. It’s a clash of innocence and experience.
In the end it’s a redemptive tale – or at least it is for Joshua. There is hope for his future, hope that just maybe he’ll use what he’s learned to redeem and give hope to – even in a small way – people like his Palestinian friend, Leila.
I urge you to consider reading both the above books. They’re straight-forward and informative and moving. More than that – they are full of dignity and life-affirming truth.
Both books are available in bookshops and on Amazon
The Occupation Diaries is published by Profile Books