Damian Barr: "Fiction shows us other lives"
As his much-anticipated debut novel You Will Be Safe Here is published, Damian Barr discusses the empathy of reading, modern day masculinity and the history of colonial brutality
The title of Damian Barr’s debut novel You Will Be Safe Here sounds reassuring. The reality is anything but as the story veers between South Africa in the midst of the second Boer War in 1901, as a woman and her young son are forced into a British-run concentration camp, and 2010 Johannesburg, where a bookish teenage boy is sent packing to a violent training camp promising to ‘make men out of boys’. Through its moving, page-turning look at extreme cruelty and kindness, the novel shines a light on the realities of historical colonial brutality and a modern day legacy of nationalistic masculinity.
So, what drew Barr to South Africa as a setting for the novel, and how did he research it? “It’s where my stories were; both the historical one and the contemporary one. I didn’t decide to set it there. It just happens to be where the stories happened that inspired me to write the novel. I’d never been before and it was fascinating to see the place I’d read and researched for years. The Arts Council gave me a grant to travel there and it makes all the difference – walking, sleeping, breathing, crying there. That trip brought it all to life and meant I had to rip up some of what I’d been working on and look in another direction.
“The Anglo-Boer War Museum were very generous – it’s a powerful place to visit. But really it’s down to one heroic woman that we know anything – Emily Hobhouse travelled there and uncovered the camps in 1900 and wrote back to England. She was vilified for her bravery and few believed her – that Britain had invented these hellish places where tens of thousands of women and children were dying. She recorded the stories of these women who inspired the characters of Sarah and Helen. She saved lives and was given a state funeral in SA. We should have a statue of her in front of Parliament.”
Sarah, who is sent to Bloemfontein Camp, is particularly well drawn as a character, balancing her declining hope for release and the return of her husband with the pressing challenge of finding food and safety for her son. Did Barr feel any apprehension about writing from the perspective of a woman? “I’m glad you think so! I wrote from my mum’s perspective and my granny’s perspective in [Barr's memoir] Maggie & Me. I thought a lot about these women and how to give them a voice that history, and misgogyny, had denied them. For me it was about listening for a long time before I started writing and then being true to who they are.
“My childhood was dominated by strong women and I was raised by my mum. Being a single parent requires enormous strength and especially being a single mother. It required my mum to make sacrifices I will never be called upon to make and sometimes it meant she did not always make the best choices either. I wanted to explore this role and give it a context. What do single mothers lose and gain? What are their particular strengths and challenges? What are their stories?”
Sarah is fortunate to be befriended by Helen, a colourful character who shows her the ways of the camp and helps secure extra food. What was the inspiration for her? “My chickens! She reminds me of a scratty, persistent hen that’s determined to look after its chicks. All her movements and mannerisms came from that observation. But on a more serious note, Helen is judged by a lot of the women around her – they think she is a slut and a whore. She does what she has to do for her child. I wanted the reader to think about what they might do to save the person they love most.”
All of the characters face intense hardship and pressures. Willem is faced with macho posturing and has difficulty matching up to it. Is there a crisis in masculinity today? “South Africa has a culture of toxic masculinity unlike any other place I have ever been. It affects men and women (though not equally) and it is so violent it is almost pornographic. Boys like my character Willem are being forced into real-life camps – like the one Raymond Buys was murdered in – to ‘make men out of boys’. These places and the racist, sexist ideology underpinning them are a terrifying symptom. That said, South Africa is also proposing the most radical of solutions to many of these problems and it is, by no means, a dystopia. Furthermore, this crisis of masculinity is global. The problem is global so the solution must be too. Feminism frees men too.
“If we don’t learn from it we are doomed to repeat it over and over. I wanted to show cycles of violence but I also wanted to show how individuals can break those cycles. Victim is not doomed to be victimiser – I hate that lazy thinking. Survivors can inspire, that is what I tried to do with Maggie & Me and what I hope this novel does too. This story is very specifically South African but it is also universal.”
Having previously published the well-received memoir Maggie & Me about growing up gay during Thatcher’s rule, it's fair to wonder how Damian feels to now be bringing out his debut novel. “Samuel Johnson said ‘A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.' I am really looking forward to having conversations with readers who bring their own history and story to what I’ve been working on this past five years. It’s all writing, whether fiction or memoir, so I don’t feel more or less nervous about the form. I am less fearful, I suppose, about what my family might think this time round.”
There’s a lot of advance praise for the book, including from the late Diana Athill, the iconic editor who said, “You come out of reading it a different person from when you went in.” What does it mean to be so well received by other writers? “The world, truly. Diana was very involved and gave me some stern early feedback! Through my literary salon I get to meet lots of writers and read lots of books, often before they’re finished. It’s a real privilege to be part of that literary conversation. I don’t feel that way about all writers just as I am sure all writers don’t feel that way about me!”
In the modern half of the book, character Willem’s love of reading sets him against frustrated parents who don’t understand his difficulty fitting in with other boys. He benefits from the escapism and alternate perspectives.
“Fiction is the cornerstone of empathy. I am not likely to swim to the bottom of the sea or fly to the moon but a book can take me there. It can also take me into a stifling hold with a thousand slaves being taken across the Atlantic, or to an operating room where a surgeon must choose between the life of a mother or her child. Fiction shows us other lives, other times and places, and lets us see different lives for ourselves. It is a hand that reaches out to us. This particular book gives voice to those who were and are voiceless and asks readers to watch difficult choices being made.”
You Will Be Safe Here is published by Bloomsbury on 4 Apr, hardback £16.99
Damien Barr appears at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 31 Mar (part of Aye Write!); Topping, St Andrews, 9 Apr; Waterstones Edinburgh, 10 Apr; Main Street Trading, St Boswells, 11 Apr