When Fact Becomes Fiction: Because You Were There by Joan Lewis

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Because You Were There

By Joan Lewis

Because You Were There was woven from two indisputable facts. Firstly, I once taught at a school for ‘educationally subnormal pupils’ in the historic English city of Bath, where I met a bright Caribbean teenager who wrote poetry. Secondly, a disproportionate number of black pupils were classed as ‘subnormal’ and sent to special schools such as this one, at that time in seventies Britain. These two irreconcilable facts have nagged at me throughout my life. When I read recently of a talented black pupil from a London comprehensive school, who had won a national poetry award, and a place at Oxbridge, I knew that I had to tell the world about my own pupil who had been given such an unfair start in life. But facts don’t garner empathy. I felt compelled to turn my pupil’s story into fiction, and imagine how the rest of her life might have panned out. And so, I created the character of Felicity, a teacher, who witnesses this all. Felicity is very loosely based on myself. My pupil became Tina. We meet her first at her home in Jamaica, where she is much loved and appreciated. This contrasts greatly with her subsequent treatment in Britain.

But I didn’t just want to tell the story of Tina’s childhood. Over the years I have come to learn of the many injustices that people of ‘The Windrush generation’ have suffered. This knowledge is largely due to the excoriating journalism of Amelia Gentleman in The Guardian. And so, some of the facts that Ms Gentleman has uncovered about detainments, deportations, and the cruelty of the British Home Office, have become woven into my fiction too. The events that happened to Tina, and the people she meets in the detention centre, actually happened to others in real life. I researched reports about these centres and read about victims’ personal experiences to help my fiction come alive. I also watched a documentary in which Paulette Wilson, a Windrush victim, was filmed returning to her childhood home in Jamaica. It was largely through the devotion of her only daughter that Paulette Wilson was able to prove her British status. I used her example as a model for Gloria, Tina’s daughter, who also fought tooth and nail to establish her mother’s rights.

I had occasionally speculated what it would be like to meet up with my actual pupil again, to learn how her life has gone. After all, we were not that far apart in age. In my novel, Felicity returns to Dunborough in her old age and inadvertently forms a friendship with Gloria. Only later does she realise that Gloria is the daughter of her former pupil.  A question hangs over the novel, as it could do in real life. Can Tina and Felicity ever be reconciled?

As a young, impressionable teacher I had been deeply affected by the experience of living in Bath with its Georgian architecture and landscaped parks and gardens. But I did not want my past school to be identified, and for my fiction to be confused with fact, and so Bath became Dunborough. I tried to show how much living in a beautiful city meant to Tina too, and how it gave her a strong sense of identity and belonging. She visited the same park as a child that I once enjoyed, and much later she took her own daughter and granddaughter there too. Four generations were rooted to that soil. This forces us to ask how anyone could possibly question Tina’s Britishness.

In writing my novel I was able to call upon my own personal experience of a trip to Jamaica, where, like my protagonist Felicity, I was a rather unwilling guest in a plush multinational resort. Afterwards however, my husband and I took the opportunity to extend our visit and explore a part of the hinterland, where we stayed in a non-tourist location. The area that we explored became the scene for Tina’s first home in rural Jamaica. During this visit I actually met a British man who was returning to his childhood home in Jamaica, and suffering from culture shock. I was able to transcribe this into my fiction to reveal how cruel  repatriation is, after people have spent many decades living in Britain. Again, it proved very useful to turn fact into fiction to make my point.

Every author must draw upon their own lives to some degree in order to write fiction, as I have done here. But memories are fickle, and recollections warp and bend over time as they are rehearsed in our minds.  Because You Were There touches on real events both in my own life, and in Britain’s recent history, and exposes some pretty harsh truths. But it is above all a work of fiction, that I hope will stir a chord with my readers.

(c) Joan Lewis

About Because You Were There:

Because You Were There

Tina was silent for a second. Then she shut her desk lid with a reverberating slam and stood up.

“You wouldn’t dare,” she challenged. “What about Denise? You’re only getting at me because I’m black.”

Tina, a bright and rebellious ten-year-old from Jamaica, leaves her homeland in 1968 to join her mother in Britain. But instead of receiving a warm welcome, Tina is forced to attend an ESN school, where she is treated as inferior due to her Jamaican heritage. Eventually, in desperation, she writes a cry for help in the form of a poem, giving it to the one teacher she trusts. But her teacher, Felicity, ignores her hidden plea, though as the years go by she remains haunted by the memory of the vulnerable teenager.

Fifty years later, Tina and Felicity cross paths again, and as Felicity grows closer to Tina’s family, she wonders if she will ever be able to make amends for the cruelties that Tina has suffered in the interim.

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About the author

Hi, I’m Joan. Twenty years ago we moved to the South of France,where we have made our home in the middle of a forest, and welcome guests of all nationalities to our gite. I have always enjoyed writing, be it short stories, travel diaries or novels. Now that I have retired from a life as a teacher and Headteacher, I delight in being able to write more and to expand stories that I once wrote. I feel very strongly about certain issues, and writing has enabled me to put forward my points of view. As an older writer I believe I have much experience to impart, and an exceedingly wide perspective.

My first published novel, ‘Because You Were There’ concerns the terrible Windrush scandal, which I witnessed from the beginning as a young teacher in a special needs school. I have just completed a second novel which looks at issues of violence, mental illness and disaffection amongst young people today. I began to write this in 2007, but sadly things have not changed. I hope it adds a new dimension to this subject, together with an element of hope and even a little humour.

Some time ago I wrote a novel for children which I am now refining. It takes place in a ‘genteel’ town in middle England, where things are not always as they seem. I would like to see it inspire children to take action when they experience injustice.

Of course living in such an amazing place, I am inspired to write about it in my regular blog. I talk about French life and customs, the food and wine of the area, and the natural surroundings which I adore. My blog can be found at joansjottings.net .

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