When I set out to write the story of  Tina’s life in Because You Were There, I wanted to achieve two things. I not only wanted to inform as many readers as possible about the Windrush scandal, I also wanted to make them care. To that purpose I had to write an entertaining and gripping story with characters that captured their emotions.

Author Joan Lewis

Author Joan Lewis

But my story also had to be credible. Two things I knew for certain. My actual pupil, whom I named Tina, had come to live in England from somewhere in the Caribbean. Moreover she was bright and rebellious, and although she had been placed in a school for so called ‘educationally subnormal pupils’ she was able to write poetry that moved me.

In order to embroider her life, I needed more facts. I read stories about Windrush immigrants and from that I was able to establish a likely pattern. Many children joined their parent(s) at a later date, after they had become established in Britain, as did Floella Benjamin. And so, I described Tina’s flight from Jamaica, ten years old and alone on an aircraft, stopping to refuel in Bermuda, and finally arriving to meet her mother, an NHS nurse, at Gatwick airport. All these facts and likelihoods I checked out to make my story authentic and credible.

There are a number of personal accounts from members of the Windrush generation about how it felt to arrive in Britain, and about the ongoing treatment they received.  And so I was able to weave some of these experiences into the life and attitudes of Tina, both as a child and as an adult.

But I was acutely aware that I am white. How can I possibly understand what it feels like to be subject to racism? At the time I was writing, there was no shortage of distressing reports in the media about detention, enforced deportations, threats and even the unjustified removal of free health care from people who were seriously ill. I had to trust in my powers of empathy to translate this to the page. After all isn’t that what writers do? But I felt another element at work too. As I began to build the characters in Tina’s family, notably her daughter Gloria, granddaughter Alice and son in law Joseph, I swear that they took on a life of their own, and told me exactly how it was.

It was also important to have a second protagonist too, Tina’s ex teacher Felicity, through whom we can observe the same events. In a way she represents those of us who are not black, and makes a strong case for interracial friendship and mutual support.  Moreover, because she has travelled widely and was once settled in France, she questions her own loyalty to Britain. How could her country of birth behave in such a cruel way? This contrasts sharply with Tina who is staunchly loyal to Britain, in spite of everything.  The question of belonging lies at the heart of this novel.

As my story evolved, I was able to use all the characters in Tina’s family to illustrate the ongoing effects of racism on subsequent generations. I also wanted to inform my readers why Tina had an absolute right to stay in Britain. After researching the facts, I was able to use Joseph, a well-informed man with strong political convictions, to explain this. What’s more the Royal Visit of then Prince William and his wife to the Caribbean could not have occurred at a better time. As the novel ends with an update in 2022, Joseph is watching their progress on the television, and berates them for their ongoing exploitation. Thus I was able to explain Britain’s involvement in slave trading. Joseph explained to Alice the nature of her heritage, and the need for reparation. He also explained this to us all when he addressed a belligerent drunk in the pub, who told Tina and her family to go back to where they came from, as they definitely weren’t British. Joseph simply replied.

“We are here,” … “because you were there.”

Finally , I wanted to relay  a message of hope. As the novel ends, Alice is the same age as Tina was when she arrived in Britain. She is bright and ambitious. Maybe one day, she thinks, she should become an M.P. like Dawn Butler. Through Alice I offer a symbol of  hope for the future, whereby Britain can slough off the hatred and discrimination of the Windrush years.

About the Author

JOAN LEWIS was born a Geordie, growing up in Newcastle and Durham. She began teaching in Carlisle, then moved to Cheltenham and then Bath. Her experiences of teaching at a special school, and living amongst the magnificent architecture of Bath, inspired this novel.

Joan subsequently lived in Germany before returning to Britain – London - and then to a small holding in Pembrokeshire, where she and her husband practised self-sufficiency. They kept a Jersey cow, sheep, goats and chickens while she taught in Milford Haven, followed by headship in Pembroke Dock. After many years they moved to Marlborough, Wiltshire , where she became head of the infant school

In 2002, Joan took early retirement and moved to France. For the past 21 years they have lived in an amazing spot in the hills of Languedoc. She now feels that she belongs more in France than Britain.

The Book

Book cover image, Because You Were There by Joan Lewis
Because You Were There

Joan Lewis' latest novel Because You Were There is a powerful novel about the treatment of Windrush immigrants in Britain, complicity and what it really means to belong. 

A stirring and compelling novel about the scandalous treatment of Windrush immigrants. In the 1960s and ‘70s and beyond.

BECAUSE YOU WERE THERE is available in paperback (£7.99) and ebook (£2.49).

Read our preview click here

by for www.femalefirst.co.uk
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