… How the story fell upon my mind, and refused to leave…
… And grew into a thorny briar patch…
… Demanding to be told…
Years ago I had an idea for a novel. It struck me one day when I was doing something quite normal. Maybe I was washing the dishes, maybe I was taking a walk, but it was during one of those moments when your body is in autodrive and your mind elsewhere.
The story began with: ‘Why hasn’t anyone written about this before?’ At first, the question was small, a pin-prick in the brain. But later I realised it was in fact an old, dull ache born from an event of systematic racial intolerance that subsided and was later left to stew slowly in a stagnant mire of political and personal gain. It’s a well known fact that people get used to things they shouldn’t, things like pain, hunger and even death. Of course, this had nothing to do with those things, but harboured within it the traces of such suffering and was seeking justice to its burnt pride. It offered me its tangled skein of problems and asked me to listen to the voices therein.
Writing a story is hard enough, but giving a story the justice it deserves
requires phenomenal talent. All I had at my possession was an above average passion for books and an appreciation for the written word. So it was here I began my search, between dusty pages and forgotten tomes, for remnants of the question. I racked my brains, trying to come up with a book, a film, a play, anything that was a half-decent attempt to portray this neglected area of history. I was to my dismay, met by silence and denial.
Art had next to nothing in its vast repertory that was a study of the country, its people or their history. Any accounts were abridged version of events written predominantly by outsiders. I poured over military documents, political correspondence, ‘eyewitness’ accounts, but all were sterile, too neutered to be a faithful representation of events. The question pulsed its’ red light, ‘Something is missing, something is wrong’. Yes, I could see it now. Something was missing. It was the absence of the hand-over-the-heart, the honesty, the coming-clean. It was the absence of the voices in the skein, those who could still recount the past on the rough-hewn syllables of their mother-tongue.
This silence, this absence was denial and it issued from a particular political ilk that championed democracy and fairness, but was (as the indelible ink of history would have it) the very demon that fanned the embers of racism.
For months I thought about this, and an anger welled up inside me. There were so many stories to tell, so many versions; the culmination of which would be the chorus to break this unreasonable silence. These stories weren’t in any
historical books or anthologies, instead they existed as fables of old did: on the dying breath of story-telling. No one ever thought of recording it in print. My family is one of the rare ones that still talk about that time, talk about it in its ugly glory. Through them I saw what the question really wanted: the grassroots of the problem. It wanted the events as it happened, the series of cause and effect as it unfolded under the relentless glare of the mediterranean sun. It wanted the chorus of voices, each unique yet the same in their own ways to merge with the elements of a small island on that day on June 1974, and sing their deafening cicada song to a world who would rather forget them.
Men and women now in their eighties had faced the ugly, mindless wrath of war. Some had seen things that had pushed them to murder, madness and suicide. Others did things for country and religion that they carry around with them today like a guilty sin. People went missing, whole villages were razed to the ground. There were the tortured with some still alive to tell the tale. There was an artillery bullet through the hipbone of a five-year old girl, four years in hospital clamped together by metal because of metal and a lifetime (a half-life) confined to wheel-chairs.
Yet after three decades people are trying to build a future for themselves, free from the horror and shame of their near-past. But the skyscrapers and the luxury villas, the five-star hotels and expensive shopping malls are not bringing any comfort. Money is a temporary panacea. It does not fill the strange void, the gaping alienation of a nation. The bones of the dead, the eternally silenced, push at the foundations of these new-fangled buildings. At night, the dreams of the new, forgetful generation are troubled from the tremors of their ancestors shuddering in unmarked graves. It is like the hum of a coming earthquake, a deep guttural unearthly hum. It’s a rule: no one can build a future by burying the past. The truth will out. And it is the charge of a writer to tell the truth, the way it needs to be told.
All the above, in all its straight and flowery language fell upon my mind in a matter of minutes, yet took months to spool out into its full-length. Thought moves fast, and one thought follows another at lightning speed until you have a many-headed hydra; reason upon reason to tell a story, to strengthen the validity of it in the world.
As I said, this idea for a novel happened years ago, and I still wrestle with it. I write almost daily, but there is so much to write. It began with a people and a particular moment in their quiet yet complex history, but has extended to the rocks and the seas and the wind. I used to listen to people recounting the history of their personal lives during that time, but now I find everything in the hum of the earth, and all the silent souls it bears inside it.