Today Vanessa Pearse stops by today to talk about Deniable Memories. It is out now in paperback and eBook.
Deniable Memories by Vanessa Pearse
When asked why she is heading off as a volunteer to war-torn Sudan, Martha’s stock answer is, “I’ve had a good life, it’s time I gave something back.” But the truth is buried in a muddle of memories distorted by her so-called family.
From the moment she lands, trembling into the heat of a run-down Khartoum airport filled with armed guards, she realises that she is ill-prepared for the dusty, military-controlled Muslim country.
Amidst the unsettling, and at times terrifying, experiences that await her, the dignity, humanity and resilience of the Sudanese people who face unspeakable loss resonates with her. As she finds joy in an orphanage, witnesses unconditional love in bare hovels, learns to embrace new friendships and the possibility of romantic love Martha is drawn to face her memories.
Africa will change her, as is its way.
By default, rather than design, I ended up with a business degree and became an accountant. Accountancy provided me with a ticket to travel back when spending a year or two abroad was something very few people did. In 1989/1990, I took a career break and spent a year experiencing first Sudan, then Kenya, with all their differences from life in Ireland; good, bad. mundane and exciting.
Igrew up in a house full of books and from an early age my reading was diverse and extensive. I like books to be thought provoking while also being warm and compelling; I need to feel empathy with at least one of the main characters for a book to fully engage me.
Over many years, I found myself writing short stories and poetry as an emotional response to some particularly good or particularly bad event. Finally, after too many years as a reluctant accountant, I retired from figures to focus on writing and this has allowed me to pursue one of my great curiosities: what makes people who they are.
When not escaping to West Cork or further afield, I normally live in Clontarf, with my husband, three of our four children – one has flown the nest, our dog Yoda and our epileptic cat, named Cat.
Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey, please?
It all started with a writing course at Bantry Literary Festival with Magi Gibson and a group of supportive Wild Women Writers. That got me writing and one course led to another and led to some short stories and then writing my first novel, the current one, Deniable Memories. I got small sections of my novel reviewed along the way in these courses and I also learned from listening to reviews of other people’s work. My husband and some great friends also gave me feedback.
Eventually I felt my work was of a high enough standard to be submitted. I did all the things that writers’ websites tell you to do: I bought The Artists’ Yearbook, I trawled through it and made a hitlist of agents and publishers to which I should submit my book; I went on these agents’ and publishers’ websites and noted their particular submission requirements; I carefully prepared submissions for each; I received endless rejections – I did not count them; I did a Finish Your Novel writing course in the Irish Writers’ Centre and the tutor, Conor Kostick, suggested that he would be happy to recommend my work to Vulpine Press; and so it came to be.
Somewhere in the midst of this a friend told me to believe and even imagine that my book would be published and to park any negative thoughts in this regard. I think this way of thinking helped to focus my mind and actions on the end result and reduce the chances of me getting in the way of myself!
How do you decide who to dedicate your books to?
Dedicating my book to my immediate family was simply the natural thing to do, they truly are the best in their many great ways, including their perfect imperfections!
It was also natural to dedicate my book to All the Displaced People in the World. In Sudan, thirty years ago, I witnessed the hardship, hunger and squalor imposed on innocent people internally displaced by war in what is now called South Sudan. Horrifyingly, now more people than ever are displaced by conflict and disaster: in 2019, a total of 50.8 million people around the world were recorded as internally displaced.
What was the inspiration behind your latest release?
These days if you’re planning to go somewhere new, you google it. In 1989, when I signed up to go to Sudan to work as a volunteer there was no google and my level of research ran thin: I’d holidayed in Zimbabwe; Zimbabwe and Sudan are both countries in Africa and are former British colonies; both are/were ruled by despots and controlled by military; I thought, I know what to expect!
In truth, I was ignorant in the extreme. This realisation hit me when I got as far as London for my onward flight to Sudan and one of the airport personnel asked me about Sharia Law and the war in Sudan. By the time I disembarked from the plane and walked into Khartoum airport, I was terrified. My terror was greeted with an airport teeming with military carrying rifles of unknown age and pedigree. In Ireland we had ‘The Troubles’ but guns were a very rare sight and I had never seen so many guns up close before. And I was to smuggle ten thousand dollars past these guys! That was a lot of money in Irish terms but a hell of a lot of money in Sudanese terms.
Clearing security and getting through the airport took a number of long hours and pushed my nerves to their sweaty limits. I sighed with tentative relief when I made it. In the weeks and months that followed, I rolled from new experience to tentative relief many times. Gradually, I became accustomed to Sudanese bureaucratic, Muslim and military ways. I got to engage with people, mostly women and children, who had survived the adversity of war, including hunger and exhaustion; they taught me to believe in the miracle of love and determination. At that time, over one million people were internally displaced in Sudan; they lived in squalor on the outskirts of Khartoum, having sacrificed everything to make the one thousand mile, arduous journey to escape the war that engulfed their homes in the south; I came to understand the lengths to which these people, especially mothers, would go to to care for their children; I was in awe of their spirit.
My time in Sudan was a growing up experience for me. When you go away from friends, family and all the people who think they know you, you really get to find out who you are. The experience was an eyeopener to me; living in a hot, Muslim country under a military dictatorship was a far cry from any previous experience.
Also, I am fascinated by memory and how we all have our own version of events, the version we believe is usually the one that best suits our own purposes. A friend told me a story of memories denied that sowed a seed for Martha’s story and Sudan seemed the natural place to set it. Martha has memories of her family she struggles to make sense of. In Sudan she meets an old neighbour who can shed light on these events, a light that may validate or undermine Martha’s memories
Did you find it hard to let your characters go when you finished writing the book?
Martha is the main character in Deniable Memories and her story is continued in my second novel, Beneath the Image, which hopefully will be released next year. Naturally, in the scheme of life, some other characters remain part of her story and some do not.
What was your favourite read of 2019?
I cannot choose between two brilliant and very different books: The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen and The Choice by Edith Eger.
There is something very special about The Unseen that is hard to put words on. It is the tale of one family facing toil and hardship on a small Island battered by sea and weather; they are dependent on that same sea. Without the humour and humanity that Jacobsen weaves into it, the story might have had me wishing to leave the misery of the island before the tale was told but Jacobsen’s writing kept be gently hooked to the end.
The Choice is a book of hope, a truly inspirational memoir and a good read packed with words of wisdom that I go back to time and again. Edith Eger didn’t just survive Auschwitz; she took many lessons from it; lessons she has used to create words of wisdom and comfort for everyday life. For example, after their mother has been sent to the gas chamber and her sister’s hair has been brutally shorn: ‘“Your eyes,” I tell my sister, “they’re so beautiful. I never noticed them when they were covered up by all that hair.” It’s the first time I see that we have a choice: to pay attention to what we’ve lost or to pay attention to what we still have.’.
Later in the book she says something that really resonates with Martha’s story in Deniable Memories: ‘To heal, we embrace the dark. We walk through the shadow of the valley on our way to the light.’
Who is your favourite author?
I simply do not have a favourite author. I read a variety of books and different authors appeal to me at different times in my life. My favourite books include: The Choice, The Unseen, Italian Shoes, All the Light We Cannot See, Out Stealing Horses, Pillars of the Earth, The Shipping News, A Man Called Ove, A Gentleman in Moscow, The Rosie Project.
Was there a point in your life that a book helped you get through, if so which one?
I read Susan Jeffers’ book, End the Struggle and Dance with Life maybe twelve years ago and I found it liberating and packed with a philosophy of positive thinking, love, living in the moment and gratitude that I try to embrace.
In suggesting giving up the need to change or control other people she quotes an unknown sage: “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” This really resonated with me because perhaps I was inclined to waste time teaching pigs to sing, when I couldn’t sing myself!
Is there anyone that you would like to mention and thank for their support of your writing?
In my acknowledgements I have thanked the key people on my journey but if there is one person to be singled out, then it is my husband who has always supported me and believed in me in my pursuit of various endeavours. He has wisely never tried to teach me to sing! Although this is probably because, as he would say, I have twice as many notes as him; I have by his reckoning two! In truth we have both changed and grown together and we are grateful for it.
If you had the power to give everyone in the world one book, what would it be and why?
As someone who cannot pick one favourite author or one favourite book, it is difficult for me to answer this question. The Choice is an obvious answer as it is book that will always give hope and comfort in the darkest moments. Edith Eger survived Auschwitz and yet is so positive and compassionate that we know that we can trust her wisdom; it comes from a depth of darkness.
I also want to say The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy which is a beautifully illustrated book packed with great food for conversations with children, conversations that are worth having for the children’s sake and for the adults’ sake. For example, I would have loved to have asked my children what they think is meant by “Most of the old moles I know wish they had listened less to their fears and more to their dreams.”
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on my third novel which will bring Martha’s story up close to the present day; how close I don’t know yet as every time I write, I learn that the story I had planned gets changed by the characters or by events. Will covid-19 change the story? I don’t know yet.
Lastly, do you have any questions for your readers?
Have you ever compared memories of an event you were all at with siblings or close friends?
Have you ever considered that if the rich and powerful had the will to solve world hunger then it could be solved?
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