Christy Lefteri grew up in the shadow of her parents’ traumatic escape to the UK as Greek Cypriot asylum seekers fleeing the 1974 Turkish-Greek conflict in the Mediterranean island.
The storytelling in her second novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo (Ballantine Books, 2019) combines insights about trauma she had garnered from her family’s experience as well as a more contemporary amalgamation of settings, situations and social dynamics she absorbed while doing volunteer work with asylum seekers in Athens in 2016.
The acclaimed novel has been translated into several languages and has become a worldwide bestseller, winner of the prestigious 2020 Aspen Word Award. Alternating a narration of the protagonists’ present with flashbacks from their past, the novel chronicles the story of Nuri, the eponymous beekeeper from Aleppo, and his wife Afra, a painter who has lost her sight after witnessing a grenade kill her young son Sami. The journey from Aleppo to the UK is a never ending odyssey where the pitfalls of war and borders intertwine with the deafening silence of the trauma that destroyed their lives. In a live interview conducted in the Skype conference mode on 20 April, 2020, Christy Lefteri generously agreed to share with readers of Frontiere News and The Dreaming Machine the social and creative process that brought the novel to life.
A version of this interview appeared in Italian in Frontiere News on 26 April. Photos included here are courtesy of Frontiere News.
Joshua Evangelista (Frontiere News): Christy, maybe we can start from your volunteering experience in Greece and how this impacted the way you thought about the novel.
Christy Lefteri: Oh, so shall I start then with a little bit of my family background and why that is important to the novel?
JE. Actually, that was my second question. So please go ahead.
CL: So basically I’m going to start with my parents’ story because it leads into why I eventually ended up in Greece. My parents were refugees after the war in Cyprus in 1974, and they came to the UK. My dad was a commanding officer during that war, had to travel through Europe and had to eat fruit off the trees in France in order to survive. His own parents had already made it to UK and settled there and it was in London that eventually my parents met. From there, it was all about integrating and trying the best that they could to put the traumas behind them.
Although, you know, that doesn’t really happen. The traumas don’t go anywhere. They fester, this is where the psychotherapy comes in. They just kind of live there underneath the surface, and bubble up here and there, they’re like volcanoes. So, I think I lived in the shadow of that war and the shadow of that trauma. Though my parents wouldn’t talk about the war, I could tell that there were reactions and things that I couldn’t understand, that and overprotectiveness and anger sometimes that came through. Then I went into therapy myself later, which helped me to understand and to realise that actually my dad, as a commanding officer ,must’ve been really traumatised by that war. No wonder that there were certain reactions that as a child I couldn’t understand.
After my mom died in 2008, my dad moved back to Cyprus and then in 2016, for Easter, I went to visit him. He lives on the far east side of Cyprus that faces Syria, so if you’d gotten a little boat and went across, you’d get to Syria. It’s a really a beautiful sea, and I was sitting there thinking, “Well, there’s this war going on. It’s so nearby and I’m here. And, North of me is that line that divides the Island”. It got me thinking about my parents and my grandparents and my aunties and uncles and what they would have experienced. Now these people across the water were experiencing so much disaster, so much death and so much devastation. That I think, just moved something inside of me, compelling me to want to go and help.
Picture courtesy of Christy Lefteri.
JE: And here we come to your experience in Greece….
CL: I couldn’t go to Syria because it was too frightening, obviously it’s too dangerous. So I thought, “Well, I speak Greek, I’ve worked with children before, so maybe I could help”. So I ended up in a women and children’s center in Athens. I volunteered in a center called the Faros Hope Center, a safe place for women and children. We had a play area for children and an area for new mothers. We had a tea and biscuits area, which became really important because that’s where women develop routines and develop friendships and that sort of thing. So I got to know what kind of biscuits everybody wants (we had plain and chocolate), whether someone wanted milk in their tea. And it was chaotic, it was absolutely crazy. But you got to know people and it was safe. They also had showers, warm showers there. In the camps they didn’t have showers. It was mad, there was the smell, it was so hot. We had air conditioning in there. Don’t forget summer in Greece, it’s baking,
There were three main camps close by: the old school, which I had mentioned in the story… then there’s the camp in the old airport, which was horrendous. It was absolutely dire in there, because you had duty-free signs that were lit up, exit and taxi signs. Inside it was like a greenhouse because all the sun was coming in through the windows and it was just baking. There was no air conditioning. And there were camps, tents everywhere, thousands and thousands, thousands of tents. And then of course there were people outside, so they were hanging their clothes to dry on the trees and everywhere they could find. But it was that heat and the smell. So this wasn’t a good place for people, but it was better than being on the streets. Then there was Pedion tou Areos, which Is mentioned in the book, that’s the camp in the park.
So I decided to set a bit of the story in the park, because I wanted to bring in all the stuff about child prostitution and the other things that were happening. I think there were so many things, my experience in the camp, in the center that I became really overwhelmed with emotion. And when I got overwhelmed, the first thing I feel is that I want to do is write, so I thought maybe I might want to write about this. I decided to interview people in the evenings as I wouldn’t interview people at the center because it was meant to be a safe place for them. But after work, there were lots of people that were hanging around in Victoria square and I’d say to them, “Look, I might write about this, I’m not sure, but do you mind telling me your story?” Most people really wanted to speak and I heard lots and lots of stories that way.
Pina Piccolo (The Dreaming Machine): To me it’s really interesting how you structure the storytelling. The book is divided into 14 chapters headed by numbers and then as many chapters using as their title a word that continues the last sentence from the previous chapter. How did that structure arise from your creative process to help you tell the story?
CL: The reason I decided to do that was because, after my mom died, I remember having the experience of talking with people about just any mundane thing, then they would say a word that triggered a memory and I would fall into the past. My body would still continue being there, but suddenly I wasn’t present anymore. For example if someone said “Let’s have a cup of tea” I dropped into the past and suddenly I was having a cup of tea with my mom somewhere else and I could see her face, I could see it in my memory.
I just felt so sad as I was trying so hard to keep concentrated on the person that I was talking to. So when I was writing this book, I thought, “Well, Nuri has lost so much. His home, his son, his business, his bees, his cousin, everything. The relationship he’s had with his wife, his country”. So, I thought to myself, “How can I make that transition between the present, where he’s in the UK and get the past story to come in, in a way that conveys emotion, that has some kind of emotional resonance to it, or some emotional truth?” So I thought, let me experiment. I remembered that feeling of just dropping into memory. I tried it in the writing and it seemed to work.
JE: Talking about the past, I have a question about why you chose beekeeping as your protagonist’s profession. Coming from a family of beekeepers, I have been around it since i was a child and am familiar with that work and environment. What struck me reading the first pages of your novel was that they were about beekeeping and I was surprised by how you went deep into technical things.
CL: That means a lot coming from someone like you. But basically what happened was, I woke up one morning, I don’t know where this came from, and I said, “Wow, Nuri is going to be a beekeeper!”, I don’t exactly know where that came from but I thought, “Yes, that’s what he’s going to be, it fits his personality”. And so what I did is I started to research beekeeping in general and then I started researching beekeeping in Syria and agriculture in Syria. One day, I came across an article about a man called dr. Riyad Alsous who was a professor of agriculture at Damascus university and also kept beehives in Syria. He ended up in the UK as a refugee with his family and had settled in Huddersfield, which is in the North of England. There he set up a project called the Buzz Project where he teaches refugees and job seekers how to keep bees. You can probably see the influence now with Mustafa’s character in the novel. So, I’d already created the character of Mustafa and the character of Nuri. And when I saw the article, I thought, “Oh my God, I have to contact this man.” So I found him on Facebook. I found the Buzz Project, I found Ryad Alsous and I sent him a message on Facebook’s Messenger and I kept my fingers crossed that he was going to reply, and he did.
He was such a nice man, you could tell even from his first e-mail as he replied saying “My dearest Christy”, in response to my explaining a little bit about what I was doing and why I was doing it. He invited me immediately to go visit him, his family and the bees and so I went to Huddersfield. It was my first time with the bees, I went to see the bees in his garden, and it felt like there were 10,000 of them. I was scared but he taught me how to stand still and that I would know that they were getting angry if all of a sudden it started smelling bananas. This experience is what used in the novel to recreate the scene when Nuri meets the bees in the mountains for the first time, with Mustafa, when he is younger.
When I went to the apiaries, Ryad taught me about the beehives, raising queen bees, the seasons; he told me about so many things. And I recorded it because I thought there’s no way I can remember all this. And it was difficult to write it because we were wearing all the gear. So I was following him around and recording things and he was opening it up and it was telling me stuff. So we went to East, he has got two apiaries or three there, but we went to two and he was just explaining things the whole time, how the bees work together, how they communicate to each other with a dance. That intelligence, I was flabbergasted. I started a little bit of research, but to have someone explaining it, showing you was extraordinary for me. So I had those recordings, I went home and I listened to them again and again and again. And then I did more research and found books. So I read them and listened and read some more and listen. So I just sort of absorbed it and then it came out in the story. We’re still friends. He’s a lovely man. Such a nice man.
PP. I was wondering, when you have the scene in the camp, in the park, the way it comes through to the reader is like a background buzzing, all the voices and the people coming in. I was wondering if you had done that on purpose, consciously thinking of the image of the buzzing. And I was also thinking the character of Nuri, a contemplative man who, as narrator of the novel, seems to be the one in control. Then in the book things are turned around and you realise who is really seeing. How did you work creating those voices, and blending them to create the atmosphere. To me, that whole chapter that you have set in the park was remarkable , in how you reveal a lot about the coexistence of good and evil, in single characters, in a way that is not Manichean. What creative process was involved in creating that?
CL: I made myself a promise that I wasn’t going to leave Athens until I finished writing the bit that was set in Athens. So that means I was surrounded by it, by that atmosphere. This was in 2017 when I went back to the Faros Hope Center, but I was working as a teacher this time. So it had changed from being a drop in center to being an activity center and the women and children now were learning German, Greek, English. So I was teaching them English, but I wasn’t teaching every single day. So on my days off, I was sitting and absorbing and writing. And then, I remember some of the locals would ask me what I was doing, what I was writing. And I’d tell them, so then now they got to know me there and everyone wants to share my best stories.
The year before I was hearing the stories from the refugees and I was hearing about their journeys. Also while I was in England, because I was interviewing people there as well. Then in 2017, I was hearing all these stories from the locals about what was going on in the park, things like the black market. There were many stories about how people were kidnapping children in order to get their organs and sell them. And I thought, “This can’t be real!” So then in the evenings I’d sit there and listen then I would research it, see if I could find information on it and I would find tit in the newspapers and the magazines. And I’d think, “Bloody hell, what they’ve told me is true!”.
I got that constant atmosphere, the heat, then the locals that were coming to tell me what it meant to them to help the refugees there, what their fears were, and I was still working at the center, so I was still experiencing being there with the women and the children. I’m still hearing stories. So it was this, this whole thing of being there, hearing stories and absorbing the atmosphere that came through like this in the story, because I was there when I was doing it.
I worked on the book the whole time while I was there. I didn’t stop every single day, every day. If I was teaching, and on the days that I wasn’t teaching, I was writing from nine thirty in the morning until five thirty. I’m not usually that structured when I write at home. But I did that way because I knew I had this limited time and I knew that if I left Greece that I wouldn’t be able to convey the atmosphere as well, because being there every day you notice something different.
JE: How important was in the writing process the feedback you may have received from the migrants? While writing and maybe after the writing?
CL: Really, really important. When I came back in 2016, I decided to learn Arabic for a year and I found Ibrahim Othman to tutor me, who happened to be from Aleppo. I was so lucky to find a tutor that taught Syrian Arabic. Anyway, I didn’t know that this particular teacher was going to be from Aleppo. So we would meet up at Houston station for an hour and a half every single week for more than a year. I told him what I was doing and that my parents were also refugees. It’s touched my heart. I’ve just, I said to him, I’ve got these people in my head. I knew enough, I didn’t know their names, but I had these characters in my head. So I started listening to them from the start of writing the manuscript. We would do 45 minutes of Arabic and 45 minutes of reading through the manuscript.
I would ask Ibrahim, “Does this sound realistic?” And since we couldn’t go to Syria, we got the map out on Google, but with the Arabic names. And then he said to me, “Where do you want to get to?” I said, “From such and such part of Aleppo to here, on the Turkish border”. So he would tell me, “They would turn right here, down this road, this is what this road is called. And they’d go left”. And then I’d ask him what the trees were like, what about the flowers? What about the soil? What does it smell like? And then he taught me a lot about Syria before the war. I couldn’t have done without Ibrahim. He was amazing and it was difficult for him; he was remembering his home and he knew he couldn’t go back there.
PPI I was wondering if in writing the book you gave any thought about how to convey instances of empathy without sounding preachy and whether eliciting empathy on the part of the readers for the plight of the characters was something you consciously thought about.
CL: I wasn’t writing thinking that I have a message or to give a message or to make people be empathetic. It wasn’t even crossing my mind. I was just overwhelmed with emotion. So I was, in a way, I was writing what I saw and what I felt and what I understood. I know with my parents it was a different war, but I incorporated what I understood from that as well. So it didn’t have an objective. I think what naturally happens with literature is that you’ve got an intimate relationship with the characters in the story when you’re writing. So, a writer could make somebody empathise with a psychopath if they really wanted to, because you’re having an intimate relationship with that character.
I think for me where empathy comes in literature,, whether it’s a story I am writing or reading, it’s this idea of creating convincing characters that we can care about. Characters where the writer can help us to see through their eyes and to smell through their nose, to understand the world through their senses. And then if that is successful, which sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t, then empathy comes as a result of that.
I was just thinking, “Have I created convincing characters? Do they feel real? Do I care about these characters that I’m writing about?” And if I didn’t care about them, then I thought, “Well there’s something’s not right here”. So I was constantly checking my emotions. There was this bit at the beginning when Nuri took a slightly different turn and I thought, that’s not gonna work. That’s not quite right. I wanted him to have this distance from Afra and there was a point where he visited a refugee center in the UK and he was kind of distancing from her that way, physically. And I thought, this doesn’t feel right, it has to be a more internal kind of thing. I think Nuri needs to be more lost within himself. I made decisions based on how convinced I was by the characters and how much I felt that I could care about the characters.
JE Though I don’t think that your novel is a political novel, the readers find out about the interview process in the UK to be granted refugee status. More generally, we the readers are encouraged to question the way we consider ourselves as Europeans, let’s say, in relation to people coming from other countries. Did you receive any feedback from your readers about this? For example readers who maybe before were thinking about borders in one way and then changed their minds?
CL: I have given lots of talks in the UK. I get questions about that. Especially during the time of Brexit, we’d get into these discussions. The minute I had questions from the audience, somehow we get into these discussions about borders and Brexit and what works and what does it mean to say migrant or refugee and what about war, do the refugees feel welcome and if not, why not? Was it different in my parents day or why was it different and why, so we’d get into these kind of huge discussions with the audience that I found really interesting. However, the one thing that bothered me a little bit is that often these kind of questions come from people that were already questioning things. See what I mean? Someone who absolutely hates immigrants or likes Brexit is very unlikely to pick up my book to read it or to pick up another book that has to do with these kinds of subjects. Not because the book might be political, but it’s less likely, isn’t it? … It goes back to what you were saying about this idea of empathy. Although I wasn’t doing it necessarily on purpose, it seems to be that the outcome has been that, that people read it and empathise with the characters. So I always think, “Well, I hope it can get people thinking and talking and discussing these things”. But I also hope that it can get people who wouldn’t normally think these things. But how possible that is and how likely that is, I don’t know.
PP. Is that because we are in very polarised societies?
CL: Absolutely! And this whole lockdown, I don’t know if it’s going to change things, because look what’s been happening. Do you know how many doctors in the NHS have died who have been immigrants? And before with Brexit, people were saying “Get the immigrants out the NHS! they are taking our jobs.” Hold on a minute! Well, look what’s happened now. Will this make people realise? I don’t know. Will other things make people realise? I don’t know. The UK was a very polarised place to live in coming up to Brexit. It was awful. I hated it. I was ashamed of my country. Really, I felt sickened by it, by what was going on, there was such division, such polarisation, such hatred everywhere. It’s that lack of reflection that is maddening, we’re living in very strange, strange times.
PP: I was curious about is the character of Afra, why you chose to make her into a painter, the whole metaphor about vision. I was wondering if you could talk to us about her a little bit because she’s also tied to the switching that happens in the novel. As the story develops, there’s a turnaround and you discover that she is really the one who ‘sees’ . Please tell us about this character.
CL: Yes. I tell you there was one thing that influenced this decision to make Afra into an artist, even though it seems like it’s unconnected, but it was connected in my mind. There was this man that used to sit at Victoria square just by the Center and he wouldn’t talk to anyone. He lost his ability to speak and he’d cut his wrist every day, and he would hold a photograph of his mother and two brothers who he lost in the war. And as the weeks went by, somebody came to tell me that he, this man, went from not saying anything to looking at the photos and saying “I miss you”, to his mother and two brothers. And I thought, I hadn’t heard him speak, but I thought what an extraordinary story. Because even though that seems like a little thing, the fact that this man went from not speaking to speaking, to being able to say “I miss you”, actually shows extraordinary strength and it might be that nobody ever would hear the three words he said. Only this one guy heard and came to tell me, and maybe tell somebody else. But somehow there’s an extraordinary story in there. There’s a journey that he went through in his lungs and his mind to go from no words to three words. So I thought when I was creating the characters, I already saw this woman who was blind and then she started to come to light. Then suddenly, in my mind, after all maybe she’s an artist and maybe this thing, the strength that she has would be to be able to go from not seeing [to seeing]. Nuri would say she could see truth in landscapes before, then she suddenly went blind. Then after that, through the story she finds she has a strength. Like being able to follow the lines of the paper to draw without her sight.
That for me it was like a way of showing that she had this inner strength that maybe we, the reader, might not be able to see clearly at the beginning, nor Nuri might’ve ever seen near the beginning. So, Afra has her own journey of going from not seeing to seeing and actually (I’m trying not to give too much of the story away). But you know where she kind of cries when she’s at the doctors, that’s what releases more of her sight, when she’s able to cry for Sami, whereas Nuri who isn’t able to cry, is in the world that he’s created in his mind, that’s not real, is persistent. It keeps haunting him until he’s able to grieve. So with both characters, it was a journey of grieving. Can they grieve? Can they not grieve? And it was this idea of what seeing actually means; what does to see something actually mean. You know, when I was there and I saw these things like this man, and I saw this little baby that couldn’t breastfeed, and this woman that was traumatised, and I saw the children playing and I saw the camps and the tents. And I remember thinking, “Do I want to be here? Do I want to see these things? Do I want to actually look into these children’s eyes and see the fears that they, that these children, have”. You know, when you see children’s fear, it’s a different, the different look in their eyes. And you know, it was all this stuff came together to help me to create the character, this metaphor for seeing and, her inner strength and what that meant.
PP: The secondary character that you created, Angeliki, was interesting to me because in a way that’s who is able to bring Afra out of her isolation. And in that context, I was wondering about, the Moroccan, the man they meet in the English bed and breakfast; he plays that role. I was a little surprised because I had expected that it would be his friend Mustafa that would bring him out through the emails. In reality, what seems to bring him back into a feeling of empathy with the world is this Moroccan guy who in the beginning Nuri seems to look down upon, but, then, at the end, he kind of builds himself as the mentor.
CL: When I was there I noticed that sometimes help comes from unexpected places and friendships come from unexpected places. So, you know, I saw people making new friendships and how those friendships brought the laughter out of them. The women that were in the Center, I’d see them developing these friendships and I’d see them laughing again and you know there’s joy, and you think that doesn’t mean that pain has gone, but it means that they saw the woman has said something to bring out the joy in her again. So I think it was little things like that. And also I remembered my parents, when they were in the UK they’d make new friends and somehow these friends would introduce them to something that would bring more joy, or more strength, or more something into their lives. So it comes in unexpected places. Though the Moroccan man, he’s very quietly strong and very quietly empathetic.
He’s obviously thought about it. He has obviously observed Nuri and thought, ”Oh, let me do something for this man” and gone out and bought plants, and the train and stuff in there. It’s the kind of thing that maybe my grandfather would have done. He would have observed something and gone, “Ah, Okay, I can help there”. And without saying anything, just gone and done it, you know? And actually that thing ends up meaning something, but there’s no conversation about it, just is what it is, that sort of thing. So that’s how I saw the Moroccan man. Angeliki, she reminds me very much of a woman I met in Athens whose baby was taken away from her. She was from Kenya and I asked her once, “Where is your baby?” And she said, “They took her, they took her”. I don’t know, I never found out who took her, who they were.
Where did the baby go?Did it go missing on the journey? Was it in Athens? Did someone kidnap the baby? I, I never ever knew. But she had this beauty, this woman, whatever she’d been through. And also because she was one of the only black women there, she felt more ostracised than anybody else. Oh, this thing, where she put the powder on her face. The woman I met actually did this and I wanted to ask her, “Why are you doing it?” But I didn’t, I never knew. So in the same way that I don’t really know why Angeliki in the story is doing it. Is it because she wants to fit in more? Is it because she wants to disappear? Is it because who knows? So I put this in the story, but there was such warmth in her, so I could see how she was talking to other women and bringing all this beauty out in them too. So I think I was thinking about her when I created this friendship, this quiet friendship, because they speak different languages. So again, with the Moroccan man with Nuri, and with Angeliki and Afra, they have this quiet sort of bond that brings strength to each other and vice versa. Because after Afra draws that picture for Angeliki and puts it under the blanket, it goes both ways, the friendship goes both ways. There’s some mutuality there.
JE: Maybe it’s my last consideration. Usually when it comes to literature about migration, there is this tendency to polarise the characters. So you have the good characters that are these poor migrants and then you have all the evil people that usually are smugglers and traffickers and the policemen, soldiers and so on. What I really appreciated in your novel is that your bad people actually are very human. And this is what you can see when you work on the field with migrants and you understand that traffickers are just other migrants with their own problems. Even a terrible person like the Afghan that was also actually pushing two teenagers into prostitution is a very, very complicated character and so I really appreciate this effort to go deep into the characters.
CL: I felt like I could have written a whole book about Nadeem, I actually liked him as a character and I felt sorry for him. Before when we were talking about empathy, it comes from how you feel about the characters. So I didn’t think, “Oh, I want to create complex characters. I was just thinking about the people I met, and I remember meeting a lot of people, particularly men who had somehow got drawn into this horrible way of living because they wanted to survive. And actually where it starts often is where the two boys were, where someone says, “Look, the two twins, the twins, they’re sitting there, they don’t have anything to eat”. And then someone comes and gives them a phone and gives them aftershave and gives them trainers and they get drawn in, they get sucked in.
A lot of people people got sucked in this way and then they get embroiled more deeply. So I wanted to have this sort of notion in the background, that maybe this is what happened to Nadeem. And so that’s why I had him cut his wrists. Now, I remembered the other man cut his wrists, I had no idea what this man’s story was. But I thought, I don’t have to say that Nadeem is feeling guilty. I can just show him harming himself and people can maybe think about where that comes from. And also that he’s this man that loves music and he loved his family and he loves his dad and he sat there for hours with his dad, listening to his dad playing music so much that he loves to play it himself.
So this isn’t a man that was born evil and this wasn’t a man that got there because he wanted to. This is a man who wanted to find his freedom and he ends up getting killed in the forest. So, it’s this idea of who are we as people and which path might we end up going down. Because Nuri also kills, so it’s who can we become, who are we already. So, it’s those sort of questions that were going around in my mind when I was meeting people in Athens and speaking to people. In these situations you start to see the fabric of life unraveling and you start questioning, “Here are all the good people and there are all the bad people?” No, it doesn’t work like that.
PP: It’s interesting to think that this experience that we’re having now, the quarantine at a worldwide level, it’s not that different from the unraveling that went on with people who are involved in migration, escapees from war, that type of experience. And so I was wondering, in a way, what can this novel do, what can it say to us? Are people going to be reading this story as they’re going through this period themselves? Maybe drawing some lessons from it? And what can we, people who are involved in literature or journalism, what can we do, what can our contribution be in these times?
CL:The thing that struck me was that at the beginning of this, I was terrified. You know, I was terrified when I saw things shutting down: the shops, the pubs, the things that I went into, the supermarket. There was no toilet paper and my heart dropped and I thought, “Oh my God, we’re going into an apocalypse. At that point, none of us knew what was going to happen. I just thought this is, this is insane, what the hell is happening? And it reminds me, and I thought for a moment, we imagine those people that already lived in Syria where the whole world was falling apart, you know? And so, then, when you hear a lot of people on social media complaining about all of this hoard at the toilet paper, why is everyone needs so much toilet paper?
Okay, it’s annoying and there is something a bit funny about it, but actually does it also means that people are scared, they’re terrified, they don’t know what to do. So they’re collecting toilet paper. Now there’s something humorous in that, but there’s also something really serious in that because I just hope that when this is over, people will understand what the fear of losing everything means. This. This is the thing that I hope that we can all hold on to remember that thing. Because I have never been through a war and I still haven’t, but somehow, even though I’ve been to Athens and spoken to people and I’ve seen what my parents have been through, there was that moment in the supermarket where that real fear gripped me. And suddenly I felt even even more understanding of the fear that other people would have gone through at the point when they thought that their world was falling apart.
So it’s maybe holding on to that, even those horrible feelings, remember that maybe holding on to that, you know, seeing the hospitals collapsing, seeing what’s going on with the NHS staff, feeling that you might lose your relatives, feeling that you might go yourself. There’s so much uncertainty and I think there’s something about that uncertainty that we need to remember when all this is over. know maybe this sounds a bit preachy, but this is just how I feel, so maybe we don’t forget, it’s like someone else suffering. It’s in another country. It’s a different religion, different cultures, it’s an Other. But if we can understand that we are all just human, it’s just a matter of remembering that.
PP: And I, I have one, one last question is about the award that you received, the Aspen Word Award, which is associated actually with socially engaged literature. If you could talk a little bit about that and how we could be helping to promote that kind of view of literature as having a place in the world, where it’s not just related to the ego of the writer.
CL: Well, the Aspen Word Award, I feel so honored to have won that because for me, the nature of the prize, which is about highlighting fiction that shines the light on contemporary issues is very meaningful. And for me that was one of the most important prizes I could have won, even though I didn’t realize it when I was writing the book, I didn’t realize what it was that I was trying to do. I was just kind of creating. But once I wrote it and started getting out there and it was making people talk and it was getting conversations going,. then I thought, well, it’s amazing that literature can be such a catalyst.
And as I said in the acceptance speech for the Aspen Word prize, my belief is that change can start with a change of perception and perspective. And I think that’s where literature comes in. With literature, what you have is the opportunity to walk in other people’s shoes that you might have not walked in, to see things through their eyes, to feel things that they are feeling. If the writer has done a good job or an okay job in creating characters that are convincing, then, we can walk in these people’s shoes. And that’s where empathy comes in. Which is a bit different than maybe hearing statistics. Professor Paul Slovic from the university of Oregon says, “Statistics are humans with their tears dried off.”
Now I suppose what happens with literature is that you’re getting the humans with their tears and the complexities, you’re getting the individual story. So if this can then help to create a slight shift in perception or perspective. I am one of these people that believes that that’s the origin of change. That’s how discussions can happen. However, I still go back to the point I made earlier when I said then there’s no point in literature just reaching people that already think a certain way. I mean there is a point because obviously these discussions happen, but I think it’s also important to try and reach different groups of people who may not necessarily read that kind of story. It’s all about the shifts in perception. And I, I did have quite a few people, actually a few people saying to me, “I would normally not have read a story about refugees. That actually got me thinking such, such and such and such and such a thing”. So it’s those kind of discussions and the changes in perception and the shifts that we need. It doesn’t even have to be a change but a little shift. I think that’s where literature is important and where it can be a catalyst for change.