Writing as Activism

Today Barbara Henderson is here to say a little more about the background to her book Scottish by Inclination. I am biased, but I don’t feel you can say enough about this. Consider this activism from me too.

“As I write, I have come out of an emotional week: the fifth anniversary of the Brexit referendum and the deadline for Settled Status applications, but also the publication of Scottish by Inclination. The book is my reflection on Scotland, EU immigration and belonging – my own story with Scotland, interspersed with 30 profiles of others like me who have made their home here. People who have shaped Scotland. You’d be forgiven for asking: ‘You’re a children’s writer, Barbara. Why write this kind of book at all?’

I would never argue that I am a conscious activist – I am definitely a writer first! But naturally, as a writer, words are my way of wrestling with the world. When I wrote my Highland Clearances children’s novel, Fir for Luck, I deliberately placed a strong and feisty female character at the centre of the action. It was no conscious act of feminism on my part, but The Desperate Journey, so far the staple school text on the period, felt a little outdated and relied too much on gender stereotyping for my liking. The same applied to my medieval novel, The Siege of Caerlaverock. Can you think of a historical novel for kids which is not primarily about a boy? I couldn’t – so I wrote one. A whiff of outrage is enough to tip the balance of choice one way or the other. It was subtle.

Not so with Scottish by Inclination. There was nothing subtle about my motivation to write this one! After 30 years in Scotland, I had all but forgotten that I was a foreigner. I was blithely naïve about the prospect of a Brexit referendum. Most of my friends thought that the result would be a foregone conclusion: we’d remain in the EU. It was a no-brainer.

Suffice to say that my memories of the last week of June 2016 are not good ones. Shock first, then bewilderment and finally a form of grief. By then I had lived in Scotland for more than a quarter of a century and my feeling was that I belonged. Had it all been an illusion? What was this fresh hell? I attended a protest and was struck by the talent and variety of my fellow activists. The phrase ‘Scottish by Inclination’ had popped up in public and political discourse again and again and eventually, my brain connected the two.

I was a writer, for goodness’ sake! Could I somehow make the case for the value of EU immigration, despite the fact that the Brexit train was already merrily chugging along towards the 31st December 2020? Could I amplify the EU-Scottish voices which hadn’t been heard?

I pitched the idea to publishers in a tweet: Scottish by Inclination. Activists, academics, artists, radiologists and removal men. A chapter-by-chapter collection of interesting stories of EU nationals who have made their homes here and are helping to shape what Scotland is today.

I received publisher interest, refined the vision to include a biographical thread, applied for funding and set to work. Five months flew by. To my surprise, I didn’t struggle much – adult non-fiction wasn’t quite the hostile territory I had anticipated it would be. In fact, I found that I loved the process. Every new person I spoke with was another reason to write it. Their story needed to be written, these voices needed to be heard and as a writer, I was in a position to make it happen.

I don’t know if Scottish by Inclination will make a difference. Brexit lies behind us, after all, and opinions seem so entrenched that I have little faith for it to change many minds. But make the EU immigrant voice heard a little louder? Remind people of the richness and the colour and the warmth and spread and joy of a society threaded through with shades from other shores?

This I can do. This I will do.

And yes, in that sense, I am an activist.”

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