Thursday, 3 September 2015

Stranger (and sadder) than fiction: the Mediterranean crisis

A few weeks ago, I went rock climbing with some friends. One of the people in the group, a woman I hadn't met before, asked me what I did for a living, and I replied that I was a writer. I can usually answer the questions that follow in my sleep: Yes, two novels. No, you probably won't have heard of me...

I don't really like talking about my novels anyway; I guess writers as a whole tend to be introverts, preferring to observe and write about others rather than explaining ourselves. But for some reason, that afternoon I found myself talking about my first novel, 'The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages', which opens with a Kurdish boy's journey from Turkey to Germany via Italy.

I told her something that has been on my mind for a while, but that I haven't talked to anyone about, not even close friends. It's the fact that today's reality so closely mirrors certain scenes in the book, even though the book came out four years ago, and describes events that happened in the 1990s. In all those years, nothing has changed. If anything, things are worse.

In the opening scene of the Registrar, Selim, the Kurdish boy, is on a boat full of other refugees. The boat sinks, and he swims to safety. But Evin, a little girl who was also on the boat, doesn't make it. She drowns, and they bury her on the beach, digging a makeshift grave with her hands.

This week, there has been an outcry over shocking images of a drowned Syrian boy near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. One of the photos shows a Turkish police officer tenderly carrying the boy across the beach, with a terse, clenched expression on his face. He is not looking at the little boy in his arms, as if that's the only way he can hold himself together long enough to complete his task.

Judging from my Facebook feed, this news story has jolted many people into action - I've seen petitions, donations, calls for the UK to accept more refugees. But as terrible as the images are, the crisis is of course not new. The human tragedy in the Mediterranean is not new. Italy's rescue efforts improved the situation for a while, but even then, there were reports of drowned Kurdish, Syrian and other refugees, just not as many as now.

So when I was talking to the woman at the climbing centre, I was telling her that this is so incredibly difficult to accept, the fact that nothing has changed since I wrote the book. It's not as if I was naively expecting that writing about boat people was going to end all the world's wars, fix every rusty boat, give every refugee a home. That would be ridiculously stupid, vain and self-absorbed, even for a writer. But I do think that when someone writes about a terrible thing, and what they write is published, even to modest sales, and is reviewed and so on, they somehow think it will in some way make a tiny difference. Or maybe it's not even that. Maybe it's more abstract, a feeling that once you express something in a book, it is less likely to happen again in real life. There's an element of wishful, or perhaps magical, thinking. Like taking an umbrella with you to lessen the chance of rain.

The novelist David Grossman, for example, wrote 'To the End of the Land', a heartbreaking book about an Israeli woman whose son is in the military, while in real life, Grossman's own son was serving in the military. Grossman has said in interviews that facing up to the worst things that might happen, and then working those fears into a story, gave him the feeling that he was somehow protecting his son. But we all know magical thinking does not work. Tragically, in real life, Grossman's son was killed by an anti-tank missile fired by Hizbollah. The pen is not mightier than the sword. It's not very mighty at all.

I've always argued that the novelist's commitment is to art, to the story and to the reader, not to a cause. Novels written as a manifesto tend to be preachy, unconvincing and tone-deaf. But seeing just how utterly irrelevant my novel about Kurdish refugees was in the greater scheme of things, does make me question its value. Worse, it makes me wonder why we write and read ficton about real-life tragedies at all. For the thrill? As a safe way of sort-of empathising with the world's grief, while doing nothing about it? I haven't answered these questions for myself. Neither have I figured out whether there is some way to lift literature out of this sad insignificance.

For now, I'll do what all those other people on Facebook seem to be doing: sign a petition, make a donation, call for the UK to accept more refugees.

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