Illustration by Bradley Wind
The stories I write are both real and imagined. They are often inspired by real events, real people and real places. For me there is a certain confidence that comes from writing something you know. But there are also challenges in retelling the stories of others through fictional characters.
My first novel, My Beautiful England, is a work of fiction based on the experiences of female immigrants in the UK. Some years ago I began teaching English to women newly arrived in the north of England. Their personal accounts of life as a foreigner in England were emotional, raw and terrifying. Powerful and moving, their stories were characterised by fear, feelings of isolation and bewilderment. It was after a teenage student broke down in my classroom and began describing her life in an arranged marriage that I started to write a novel from the female immigrant’s point of view. But it was a difficult novel to write, at times harrowing and emotional because I was writing about issues that mattered and issues that were very real. An Asian colleague also warned me that I would be challenged for writing a novel about a culture that was not my own. I continued to write. Asian friends read the book, commented on the authenticity of the voices, convinced me that the novel was important and justified.
In the two years I spent writing this novel, the same life stories emerged again and again. Many women told me they wanted to integrate, but this was impossible because of controlling family members, restrictive gender roles. If they did go out, racism was an issue and language was also a barrier to integration. Others were forbidden from going out alone, prevented from wearing English clothes, not allowed to own a mobile phone. What emerged during the classes I taught was how none of these women were able to ‘voice’ their opinions. Their stories were ‘unheard’ and ‘unspoken.’ During one session on citizenship the women were asked to debate a topic. All fell silent. One woman said: ‘In our culture you do not speak out. You do not debate. You accept everything. You do not say no.’
While the personal accounts of these women were the starting point of the novel, it was a newspaper article that finally prompted me to finish the book. The newspaper article was about the murdered schoolgirl Shafilea Ahmed. At the trial of Shafilea Ahmed’s parents in 2012, it emerged that Shafilea had been unable to be ‘heard’ through spoken language. She had instead turned to poetry to convey her feelings. This was an element I felt I could explore in my own novel and a trend I had noticed amongst the women I was teaching, to express themselves through writing. The issues of Shafilea being trapped between two cultures, wanting to wear English clothes, listen to English music were also described in the newspaper stories, I read. Her story was in many ways the story of many others. And it was a story I had heard hundreds of times.
But always when you are borrowing from reality, you are more conscious of what you are writing, more terrified that those living in a town you are writing about will find inaccuracies in your descriptions of a place and its people. Burnley is a town and landscape I know well, but I chose to create new streets for my main characters. It was a conscious decision. Fundamentally, although my book was inspired by reality, it is a work of fiction. The characters are my own creations. Through these characters I tried to give the female immigrant a voice.
Stories are all around us. They are everywhere. For me it is the stories of people that matter, human stories of love and loss and belonging. It is these ‘real’ stories that inspire and create new stories. Real people, real events are a good starting point for stories. During the writing of my novel I also read the testimonies of real women who had sought help from charities dealing with forced marriages and domestic violence. Whilst I embellish and elaborate on real stories there is always an element of truth in what I write. Writers seek to portray a certain vision of the world. There is always a blending of the real and the imagined, of truth and lies. As Isabel Allende once said, ‘You can tell the deepest truths with the lies of fiction.’
Michelle Flatley teaches English as a foreign language in the North of England, where she lives with her husband and children. She was inspired by her students to write My Beautiful England, her first novel which is released on the 4th July by Cutting Edge Press.