“She lies in an open crib, wrapped in a blanket. She knows neither blanket nor crib, only the feel of where they touch her body. She is raw, uncooked, exposed. Burned by the elements.”
I began writing my novel, Open My Eyes, That I May See Marvellous Things as an imaginative response to working with premature babies in a public hospital in Addis Ababa, our second posting with the FCO. There was one particular baby I remember. Her mother had died and she was lying motionless in an incubator. She was so vulnerable, so small and so alone. All I wanted to do was hold her but as a professional (I am a lactation consultant) I knew it was off-limits. The book imagines what happens if I’d succumbed to my instincts.
It tells the story of Mariam, a British midwife who was adopted from Ethiopia as child. Mariam returns to Ethiopia to do VSO, very much not looking for her birth mother. But a premature baby is abandoned on the ward, and against her professional judgment, and against the wishes of the hospital, Mariam embarks on an unorthodox scheme to keep the baby out of the orphanage, to keep it alive with skin-to-skin contact, sometimes known as kangaroo care. It’s a story about love and loss and the power that touch has to remind us what it is to be human.
We’re on our third four-year posting with the FCO. As a diplomatic spouse, writing has been a life-line when work opportunities have been scarce. Not only has it given me a sense of self, but it has been a way for me to record and respond to the experiences of living abroad. It’s so easy to forget the daily details, the smells, the names of brands of food, the funny little quirks of culture that become normal during the space of a posting. It’s a historical snap-shot too; a famous jazz-club that appears in my book burned down a few months after we left. The Addis light-railway, the construction of which brought traffic to a near-standstill for most of our posting is now up and running.
I write to process the loss of leaving too. When we arrived back in London from our previous post in Tokyo, the reverse culture shock was horrible. I used to jump suspiciously every time a friendly shop assistant commented on the weather (just not done in Japan!). It helped to write out my nostalgia, my ‘home-sickness’ for my adoptive country, knowing I was also telling my daughter the story of where she was born. My Ethiopia novel was born out of the grief and anger of working with poor mothers and babies. It was a way to wrangle with the unfairness of life in developing countries, and a way to give readers insight into and empathy for a very different way of living. We’re in Uzbekistan now; suzanis and paranjas will inspire the next book. Of all the treasures that we’ve brought back from our travels, it’s not the photos and souvenirs that line our mantelpiece that are most precious, it’s the stories.