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.)