Interview: Joan Lewis Author of Because You were there
Joan, "Because You Were There" touches on a deeply sensitive and recent event in history: the Windrush Deportation Scandal. What motivated you to write about this particular subject?
Throughout my career as a teacher in British state primary schools, I have always kept an eye out for the ‘underdog’ and been aware of inequalities. My husband was born in Rhodesia( now Zimbabwe,) and went to University in South Africa, and when we met we were immediately united by our joint hatred of racism. More recently the journalism of Amelia Gentleman, and her exposé of the Windrush scandal aroused me to anger, and provoked memories of the Caribbean children I had taught in a special school who had been cruelly discriminated against. I began to think about one particularly talented girl, and equated her possible fate with those members of the Windrush generation who were subsequently threatened with deportation.
The story is described as semi-autobiographical. How much of your own experiences and memories did you weave into the narrative of Tina and Felicity?
Clearly there are aspects of Felicity’s life which are semi- autobiographical, particularly her early teaching experiences, and experiences of Jamaica and France. The location of Dunborough is based upon the beautiful historic town where I once taught and lived. The children I met there played their part in the story, and I have tried to imagine how some of their lives might have transpired, such as those of Tina, Albert and his sister Lilian.
What research did you undertake to ensure accuracy and authenticity, especially regarding the lived experiences of the Windrush victims?
I read and reread recent journalism on the Windrush scandal. as well as interviews with some of its many victims, and found a graphic description of someone’s experiences in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. I was particularly moved by a film documentary in which Paulette Wilson, a Windrush victim, and her daughter talked about the devastating impact of this scandal on their lives, and their subsequent visit to meet relatives in Jamaica. I found an interesting you tube channel which took me on a taxi ride through the particular highland area of Jamaica where I imagined Tina once lived. I also read accounts of the early experiences of Windrush immigrants to Britain, such as Sam Selvon’s ‘The Lonely Londoners’ and David Matthew’s ‘Voices of the Windrush Generation’ I also read Floella Benjamin’s ’Coming to England.’ In which she describes leaving Trinidad on a boat to join her parents in England at the age of eleven.
Having witnessed prejudice first-hand during your time as a young teacher, how did these experiences shape your portrayal of the characters, particularly Tina?
I witnessed the frustration and despair that one particular pupil experienced, and the articulate way in which she tried to express this to me. I hope I portrayed her fighting spirit in my characterisation of Tina both then and in later life.
Felicity's regret over her earlier inaction is palpable in the story. How does her character development reflect broader societal realizations and reckonings?
Having witnessed unfairness, and felt unable to do anything about it in her early career, Felicity was attuned to issues of discrimination. Although she lived a comfortable middle class life, she quietly nursed a degree of resentment against the privileged, and was a staunch feminist, hence her spirited defence of Gloria, Tina’s daughter, when her privileged neighbours accused Gloria of theft.
Integration of students with additional needs is mentioned in your notes. How do you see this issue intersecting with the broader themes of belonging and national identity in your book?
Thank you for this question, because this is at the heart of my book. The very notion of separating people because of differences, be they intellectual, social, physical, religious or racial , destroys the very essence of society. It is quite possible to meet children’s special needs in a more inclusive situation, if the will is there. How can we live together if we don’t understand each other and see our common bonds? I might point out the disparity between our current politicians, and the rest of the British population.
With a career in education, particularly in areas with diverse populations, how have your experiences as a teacher influenced your writing style and choices?
I am unsure how my writing style has been influenced, although I did hear the poetry of Jamaican patois, and the rich timbre of Caribbean voices as I was writing about Tina and her family, and obviously felt a degree of affection for these characters.
You mentioned that "Because You Were There" is aimed at creating empathy for the victims of the scandal. How do you believe fiction can influence societal change and awareness?
Empathy is all. I have been surprised by the lack of interest shown by many people in the fate of The Windrush Generation. I sincerely feel that if I can persuade people to get involved in Tina’s story, they will feel as moved as I do by the injustices that she suffered. I am greatly in awe of the film director Steve McQueen. How can anyone remain unmoved when they watch his film ‘Twelve Years a Slave, or his B.B.C. series ‘Small Axe’ which portrays racism in Britain through a series of stirring dramas?
The bond between Tina and Felicity is central to the narrative. How would you describe the importance of female friendships and their role in times of adversity?
In fact the strongest bond in my novel is formed between Felicity and Tina’s daughter Gloria, who meet fortuitously. Yes, female friendship can be a wonderful thing. In this case Felicity was able to support Gloria as she faced up to her mother’s threatened deportation, and the racial abuse and discrimination that she herself suffered. In her turn , Gloria helped Felicity , an older woman, to relocate, and later to fight the forces of misogyny and resentment that were levelled against her. The question of whether the teacher Felicity, and Tina, her former pupil, will reunite and find a common understanding hangs over the novel.
The novel's setting spans several decades, reflecting a changing Britain. How did you approach capturing the nuances of each era?
Earlier times are reflected in my description of life in Dunborough, the recollection of the townscape where I worked and lived, the attitudes amongst teachers that I met, and the circumstances of my pupils . These memories are still vivid, as I was young and impressionable at that time. The larger part of my novel reflects morerecent times. I purposefully set out to reflect current social inequalities by contrasting descriptions of the life of Tina and her family, and the attitudes they encountered, with those of Felicity and her privileged neighbours. Tina’s granddaughter Alice, reflects modern life as seen through the younger generation, while the scene in the pub gives a wider perspective of people’s attitudes in general.
How has living in the Languedoc area of France influenced your perspective on issues of belonging and national identity?
Greatly! This is a question that I frequently ask myself, and which I tried to show through Felicity’s self doubt. I love France, and feel a fierce loyalty towards it, but I will never be a fully accepted and integrated member of French society. However I believe that people should acquire the right to belong to another country through commitment and assimilation. Tina was undoubtedly British, and felt very strongly about this. Felicity, less so!
What would you like readers, particularly those unfamiliar with the Windrush Scandal, to take away from your novel?
In short: anger and indignation. My book has been bought by readers in France, Germany and America, and I have been heartened by the questions that they have asked me and the astonishment felt over the actions of our politicians. Some ask why they had never heard about this scandal. Sadly, although I have tried to drum up interest in this story in Britain, I feel that this has been less successful. I ask myself why?
In the book, Tina faces many challenges due to prejudice and false judgments. How do you hope her story will resonate with readers today?
I believe we all harbour prejudices to some degree, and we are not always fully aware of them. Even Felicity asks herself whether she has been irrationally biased against Gloria. I hope my story will prompt people to reflect on their own attitudes, and the unfairness and illogicality of racism.
You've touched on the theme of 'belonging' in your novel. In your opinion, how has the concept of 'belonging' evolved over the years in Britain?
Prejudice is as old as the hills, but people will always move around the world, and with time prejudices are broken down, and people are assimilated. Eventually they ‘belong.’ There has been no essential change to people’s attitudes in Britain. Any excessive resentment that has been voiced recently towards outsiders has been whipped up by politicians . The Windrush and Rwanda Scandals illustrate this only too well.
Lastly, are there any plans for future novels? Will you continue exploring historical and societal themes, or do you have different topics in mind?
I can’t deny that I am rather obsessed by societal themes. I love writing and hope to continue. I am currently finishing a novel about disaffection and mental turmoil amongst younger people, and the way that this affects families in all sectors of society, with a gentle dig at the over-privileged!