It was May 2014, and I was sitting in the London office of Andre Heller Perache, the UK Head of Programmes for Médecins Sans Frontières. I’d contacted him because I’d been commissioned to write a radio drama series about the conflict in Syria, in the 5 x 15 minute slot on BBC Radio 4. It took us a while to find a date — he’d been in South Sudan, where there was a crisis involving tens of thousands of internally displaced people, starvation, cholera and more.
Andre listened attentively as I described what I was trying to do. He talked about his own work and gave me a huge amount of information. Then, near the end of our hour together, he asked me how many people usually listened to the slot. I said that the answer was about 1 million people, and that’s not counting the estimated 800,000 who catch it online. He looked at me, stunned. After a moment he said, ‘You wouldn’t believe how many young Syrian writers would give anything to have the platform you’ve got’. I thought: I wish I could give it to them — but said, instead, ‘I will do everything I can to be a channel for them.’ He nodded.
I seem to be drawn to write about people, situations, places, times, that I don’t know from my own experience. I’ve told the story of the relationship between a recently paralysed young woman and a capuchin monkey trained to be her live-in helper. I’ve given a part to a cat in a TV play about alcoholism. I’ve written about floods in Bangladesh, and about an earth-stranded Martian called Willis who struggles to understand mortgages, Morris dancing and falling in love. I’ve written about cloning (yes, there was a talking sheep), earthquakes, the Princes in the Tower, and Edwardian murders. I’ve written an episode of Downton Abbey, and that world is on the face of it as remote from mine as Willis’s life on Mars.
I say ‘on the face of it’ because of course, that advice sometimes offered to new writers, ‘write what you know’, only takes you so far. Of course we know that finding something universal in the particular narrative, something we recognise as authentic and familiar in a story that seems far from our own experience, is much more like it. And of course, writing is partly a discovery, an exploration, a process of trying to understand. James Baldwin said this and more, when interviewed by Jordan Elgrably for the Paris Review (Spring 1984: The Art of Fiction No.78): ‘The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.’
Andre didn’t say, ‘Who the hell do you think you are, proposing to write a story about which you have no direct experience?’ I’m certain that he wasn’t thinking anything like that. Still, he had touched on something that has troubled me often, especially when I’ve written about someone else’s tragedy, or crisis, or anything very personal. But I had a deadline, and, truth to tell, I did want to find a point of connection. Back then, in 2014, there weren’t huge numbers of refugees crossing dangerous seas in desperate efforts to get to Europe. Even so, it already felt as though what was happening in Syria was happening to the whole world.
I wasn’t able to go to Syria myself. The BBC wouldn’t have supported me to do so, and I accepted that. If you don’t know what you’re doing there, or how to survive, you can easily become another responsibility for the already overstretched NGO workers. And if you can’t say you’re with the BBC, it makes a difference. As I’ve found on other research trips, people talk to you if you’re with the BBC because they trust that their stories will find a reliable, far-reaching outlet. So what could I do, and what did I already know that I could start with, and what could I do to find out more?
Doing research is one of the privileges of being a writer. I love listening to the stories of people’s lives, to their thoughts, to whatever they want to tell me. And so often they do want to tell me, or someone. Sometimes they have been surprised and pleased to be asked — like the retired Polish miners living in Nottingham, who told me what it was like to arrive here after the Second World War, destitute, traumatised and bereaved, with no country to return to, and no knowledge of English, which meant they had to do manual labour, no matter what their profession had been at home. Their wives sometimes said that even they had never heard what their husbands were saying — after decades of marriage, children raised and gone, only now did they speak. Why? Perhaps because silence was a coping strategy, or perhaps simply because they hadn’t been prompted to tell their stories before: as several of them said, ‘Nobody ever asked us’.
But it’s a privilege, for sure, to be the listener. To be the channel, if you can. It’s also a responsibility, and as a dramatist, you’re not always fully in control of what happens next. This was my experience with the Syrian story.
I talked to people at Oxfam. I talked to the BBC’ s Middle East correspondent at the time, Lina Sinjab, who was at that time based in Damascus. Andre had pointed me towards two fairly new NGOs set up by UK-based Syrians who just couldn’t bear to do nothing about what was happening in their homeland — so I talked to people at Syria Relief and at Hand in Hand for Syria and learned how they managed to get supplies into Syria, and how volunteers inside Syria risked their lives to distribute those supplies. I learned a lot from a book called Syria Speaks: art and culture from the frontline — and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about how culture can become ‘a critical line of defence against tyranny’, as the book’s description says.
I also spent hours sitting in a cafe in London talking to an extraordinary man, a Syrian, who had been working with MSF in Syria when he was captured by Assad’s army. He was imprisoned and tortured for months. He told me he knew who betrayed him — a Syrian whom he doesn’t blame to this day: it’s about surviving as best you can, he said; no one’s got any money and everyone has someone to feed and protect. He told me what was done to him to make him talk, and what it was like to hear the screams of other prisoners whom he never saw, because he was kept in solitary confinement. He told me how he decided what to tell his tormentors so that they’d believe they’d broken him, so that he could keep some things secret and protect the people he might otherwise have given away. He told me how he heard of deaths of members of his family while he was imprisoned. He wanted me to publish his name. I never will.
But I told his story, in my drama, with his permission. I also told the story of how, at that time, Assad’s army was bombing the bread queues, so a few bakeries had been built underground. I made the characters aid workers: a mixture of career NGO workers and impassioned rookies who made potentially dangerous mistakes. I told the story of a child who had become separated from his family and who still turned up every day at his bombed-out school. I wrote about a nurse who went to teach women inside Syria some basic medical skills. The script had to go through a rigorous examination by the BBC staff who check for compliance with the Corporation’s editorial values — thin ice, where a drama about Syria is concerned, and we had a bit of a bumpy time. But the drama was recorded, and broadcast.
Andre Heller Perache had written to me in a later email encouraging me to think of myself as a curator. He said that’s what aid workers have to do because, he said, ‘it’s the Syrians’ Crisis and it’s their response. […] I hope that you’ll be able to connect with them and empower them by channelling their stories.’
I don’t know how many Syrians were able to listen to the programmes, and the situation there has changed so much since that what I wrote then is history. But Andre’s advice helped me hold to my belief in the validity of the attempt to be that channel. For me, writing is often a process of trying to understand, to explore connections and claim them, through telling stories. In 1624 John Donne told us that no man is an island — every man is ‘a piece of the continent’. If I felt in 2014 that what was happening in Syria seemed to be happening to the whole world – to me – it feels that way even more now.