New Voices: Louise Allan, Carrie Callaghan, Ruqaya Izzidien, and Glenn Skwerer
Louise Allan, Carrie Callaghan, Ruqaya Izzidien, and Glenn Skwerer share insights into the challenges confronting their protagonists and the impact of living in different historical periods and places.
“When my soul needs some balm,” Carrie Callaghan explains, she goes to “the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. There’s nothing like wandering those halls to reassure me that humans can do marvelous things. In 2009, I came across a small exhibit about a painter born four hundred years earlier. Her name was Judith Leyster.
“When I first saw Judith’s self-portrait, I stopped and stared. She’s wearing a stiff lace collar as wide as her shoulders, and her lips are parted, as if in conversation. How had I never heard that there had been a woman who attained master status in a painters’ guild in the time of Rembrandt? And more importantly, who was she?”
As a consequence of Callaghan’s discovery, “Judith latched onto my heart and didn’t let go.” Her debut novel A Light of Her Own (Amberjack, 2018) is the result. She points out, “The historical record on Judith’s life is sparse, but we have reason to suspect she studied with Frans de Grebber. Frans had a daughter, Maria, who was a few years older than Judith, and Maria also painted. They were friends, I thought. But Maria never joined the Haarlem painters’ guild. Her goals must have differed from Judith’s ambitious ones. What did that mean for their friendship?
“At the same time, I imagined that no matter how progressive the 17th century United Provinces (as the Netherlands were then called) were about gender roles, there must have been opposition to Judith’s ascent.”
This led Callaghan to want to “explore how much we owe one another, and how we know what to sacrifice, and how far to go” when faced with a situation similar to the one Judith faced.
Ruqaya Izzidien is an Iraqi-Welsh writer, living in Morocco, who lived and worked in Gaza and Egypt. In her novel The Watermelon Boys (Hoopoe, 2018), set in Baghdad during WW1, she focuses on the challenges faced by her characters in a setting that many readers may have preconceived ideas about. As she says, “When you think about Iraq, or Baghdad, it probably conjures up images of war, conflict and political catastrophes, but it wasn’t always like that. Long before, Baghdad was associated with the arts and sciences, with trade and literature. So, when I wrote The Watermelon Boys, I hoped that it might strip back the one-dimensional narrative of the last couple of decades and focus on how Iraq once was.”
Izzidien continues, “I also wanted to ensure that my novel was centred on local protagonists. There are scores of books that already exist––usually set during the 2003 invasion or colonial Baghdad––but, overwhelmingly, they focus on British or American protagonists and their experience of Iraq, neglecting local voices, perspectives and history. Although The Watermelon Boys features a major Welsh character and takes place during, and after, the British conquest of Mesopotamia, it is, deliberately, a story about a local family, and explores universally identifiable struggles through an Arab lens.”
Her novel is “set during a period of history that is largely neglected or misrepresented,” she says. “In Britain, we tend to view our history with a nostalgia that allows us to distort or neglect the very brutal price paid for Britain’s empire. Few people are aware of Britain’s role in conquering, subjugating, and shaping Iraq, and, while The Watermelon Boys is at heart a tender novel about a family that has difficult choices thrust upon them, it takes place during a fascinating period of history that, as Brits, we should know more about. Primarily, I would love my readers to think it is an interesting, touching and accessible story, but I would also like it if they felt they learnt something about Iraq’s history that helped them to see the country as more than its headlines.”
Glenn Skwerer’s The Tristan Chord (Unbound, 2018) explores the nuances of an unusual relationship in a period turmoil in Europe. Skwerer, who is a psychiatrist living and practising in the Boston area, and who has been interested in European history since his undergraduate days at Yale, drew the inspiration for his novel from “two aspects of August Kubizek’s memoir The Young Hitler I Knew.” This, he says, made him “want to turn it into fiction.”
“The first, and more obvious, was the depiction of the adolescent Hitler. I knew the Hitler of the better biographies and of Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, which may be the best glimpse one can get of the adult Hitler. But Kubizek’s Hitler was a real surprise. Both fifteen, the two met at the opera in their hometown of Linz, Austria, and saw each other almost daily for four years; at nineteen, they shared a tiny room for six months in Vienna, where Kubizek was a first-year Conservatory student and Hitler was ‘studying’ art. You see Hitler’s character before it rigidified into the fanatic and ideologue of history––the grandiosity, egoism, intolerance of criticism, etc., are all there, but at a time when Hitler was still recognizably human; he is also lonesome, grief-stricken, deeply isolated and rather pathetic at times. I wanted to take Kubizek’s depiction one step further and dramatize it.”
Skwerer explains: “The second aspect of the story which interested me was the situation of the narrator. Kubizek was a talented musician but had a rather thwarted life. He graduated from the Vienna Conservatory, but the First World War destroyed him professionally––he lost his job, he had no real opportunities to play and conduct, and he ended up a municipal clerk in a small Austrian city; he channeled his artistic energies into organizing the town’s musical programs. His entire life was shadowed by his early friendship with Hitler. The two met again on the day of the annexation of Austria in 1938; Hitler took Kubizek with him to the Wagner festival in Bayreuth in 1938 and 1939, and Kubizek became a minor celebrity, ‘The Friend of the Führer’s Youth’. Then he landed in an American de-Nazification camp for sixteen months after the war. Kubizek was enamored of music, and pointedly apolitical; being ‘the Friend of the Fuhrer’s Youth’ was a strange and morally equivocal role. And of course Hitler must have been a constant reminder of Kubizek’s own time in Vienna and his defeated ambitions.”
In Skwerer’s story, “Hitler and Kubizek became Hitler and Rezcek. This gave me license to explore the friendship and its potential conflicts––Hitler, for example, was rigid, uncompromising, moralistic about sex, a misogynist; Kubizek was a Conservatory student, a more “normal” adolescent male, a provincial exposed for the first time to the sensuality and high art of Vienna. In Linz, Hitler was the dominant of the two, with his monologues and opinions on everything under the sun; in Vienna, Hitler becomes an art school reject as Reczek enters the glittering world of the Conservatory and its patrons. This reverses once more as Rezcek’s loss of his career coincides with Hitler’s political rise. Eventually, Reczek ends up in an American internment camp, where he is forced to confront his friend’s astonishing criminality. There was a lot to work with.”
The Sisters’ Song (Allan & Unwin, 2018) by Louise Allan is set against the backdrop of rural Tasmania. It is “about two sisters,” the author says, “one of whom dearly wants a family, while the other dreams of being an opera singer. However, neither sister’s dream is realised, and the rest of the story is about how each deals with their loss and grief.”
Allen relates: “I drew inspiration for this tale from my family history and stories I’d heard growing up. I based the character of Ida on my paternal grandmother, who came to our house each weekday, from eight o’clock in the morning until about six o’clock in the evening. She was there when we came home from school, with afternoon tea already set out on the kitchen bench. She was never angry with us, even when we were misbehaving, and was a gentle influence over my childhood.
Allan now lives in Perth in Western Australia, but while growing up in Tasmania, she says, “I heard about her three stillbirths before she gave birth to my uncle and father by caesarean. As a child, I accepted such things without thinking about them, but when I became a mother, I imagined how hard it must have been for her to feel her babies alive inside her for nine months, only for each one to be crushed on the way out. A couple of years ago while searching online, I found the cemetery record of one those stillborn babies from 22 March, 1937, and it felt particularly poignant.”
As a result, Allan made a decision: “to put all of this into my story to pay homage to ordinary women like my grandmother, who bore the heartbreak with such courage.”
The other sister in Allan’s story, she says, “is based on my maternal grandmother, who felt the opposite about children—she had eight of them but resented each pregnancy. She was an intelligent and creative lady who, these days, would have been able to go on to university. However, things were different back in the 1920s and she really didn’t have much choice other than to leave school early, marry and have children.”
Debut novelists Allan, Callaghan, Izzidien and Skwerer have all painted word pictures depicting the intricacies of human relationships and how living in different historical periods and countries can have powerful consequences for both ordinary and famous people.
About the author: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate Fellow at two British Universities and a creative writing workshop designer. Please do email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you discover any debut novels you would like to see showcased.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 86 (November 2018)