Writing it out

Any writer will tell you that the main components of fiction are experience, observation and imagination. But sometimes, particularly when the impetus to write comes from powerful personal experience, experience that, it seems, must be honoured, imagination can have a hard time freeing itself from the shackles of ‘what was’. For me, the question that released my writing, and transformed it from therapy or autobiography, was ‘What if?’

I began writing my novel, ‘Open My Eyes, That I May See Marvellous Things’ while working as a lactation consultant with premature babies in a public hospital in Addis Ababa. It was our second posting abroad with the British foreign service, but our first to a developing country, and the book was born out of the grief and anger of working with poor mothers and their babies. I would come home and cry, then write.

There was one particular baby I remember. Her mother had died and she was lying motionless in an incubator. All I wanted to do was hold her, but as a professional I knew it was off-limits. The book asks the question, what if I’d followed my instincts and picked her up? The thrust and logic of that pivotal decision (one I did not make) carries my heroine on her journey. My heroine allowed me to imaginatively explore the paths I did not or could not take.

‘Open My Eyes’ 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.

The tug between honouring truth (as I experienced it) and telling stories happened most strongly when the inspiration for characters came from particular individuals. However, in a previous career, I was an actress, and I drew on the craft of character observation to help. Tics and gestures observed elsewhere, the way emotion and psychology impact on muscle tensions and gait can be overlaid onto ‘real’ people, not just to blend away identifying features, but to forge fictional characters who then are then free to unhitch themselves from reality, and walk into the story as someone else. One blunt tool can be changing the sex of the character; I used this as a starting point to shake up my perception of them.

Some observations were too important to disguise. Ethiopia’s often imagined as a barren land afflicted by poverty, dependent on foreign hand-outs. It is so much more than that. I wrote, in part, to challenge readers’ preconceptions of Ethiopia, to honour a country I’d fallen in love with. Addis Ababa is a complex character in its own right. It is polluted, chaotic and exhausting and yet, the physical location of the city, ringed by high peaks, climbing into the eucalyptus-fringed hills, makes it heart-stoppingly beautiful. Ethiopia is a rapidly modernising country whose history is visible in its living traditions of food, dress, dance and worship; the integrity, pride and generosity of its citizens often humbled me. My novel was a way to wrangle with the unfairness of life in a developing country, but it was also way to express my wonder and affection for an extraordinary place and people.

As a diplomatic spouse, writing has been a life-line. When work opportunities have been scarce, when friends have been left far behind, not only has it given me a sense of self and continuity, but it has been a way for me to record and respond to the experiences of living abroad. As a family, we often rehearse exceptional memories but it’s easy to forget the mundane 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 wrote to process the loss of leaving too. When we arrived back in London from Addis Ababa, I used to accost surprised British-Ethiopian shop assistants in Amharic, sought out Ethiopian restaurants and shouted ineffectual ‘I miss you’s’ down crackling phone lines to Ethiopian friends. It helped to write out my nostalgia, my ‘home-sickness’ for my adoptive country, knowing I was also telling my daughters the story of where they grew up.

We’re on a posting in Central Asia now. Perhaps suzanis and paranjas will inspire my 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 memories. While writing fiction is not a faithful retelling, melding experience and imagination means engaging with both head and heart to create something that is both profoundly personal, but universal enough to speak to the outside world.

First published in booksbywomen.org, September 2017