Too Loud A Silence by Jo Jackson
A secret held, a fear unspoken. Green gates and a flame tree – just as her mother described. The bolt screeches back …
It is 2011. Egypt is in the grip of the Arab Spring as journalist Maha Rhodes flies to Cairo.
Born in Egypt but raised in England, Maha no longer knows who she is. Finding out becomes important.
Events draw her into the political mayhem. She experiences the passion and violence of the revolution and is confronted by her own naivety.
How will her life be changed as a web of lies and deceit unfolds?
Too Loud A Silence will take you to Egypt. A beautiful, poignant and, at times, brutal story based on real events.
Q) Can you talk us through your background and the synopsis of your novel?
A)I always loved to write. My junior school typed, illustrated and bound an adventure story I had written and it was put in the school library. It was my first success. I was very proud. At grammar school, I was fortunate to have an inspirational English teacher but despite all her efforts I chose a career in nursing at Guy’s hospital over reading English at university. Following qualification, I went on to train as a midwife and enjoyed every minute of it. It was whilst practicing midwifery that I became fascinated in how all of us exist in relationships and how these impact on us as individuals and on family life. I chose to study for an MSc in systemic psychotherapy and for the remainder of my career I was a family therapist with a private practice as well as working with companies, in schools with young people and staff and latterly in a boarding school for boys with autism.
None of this, coupled with bringing up 3 children, gave much time for writing and although the inspiration for my novel arose out of living in Egypt in the 1980’s it wasn’t until I retired that I began to write again.
Q) Can you talk us through the journey from idea to writing to publication?
A) My story was inspired by two little Egyptian girls. I have no way of knowing what became of them when the orphanage they were in was closed to visitors, suddenly and without explanation.
I was an expatriate wife living in Egypt with my husband and three small children. I wasn’t allowed a work permit so instead found other things to do. One of these was to take twin babies from an orphanage out for the day. I did this every week for almost two years. I would bathe them, dress them, feed them and play with them, offering them the stimulation they so lacked.
As a family, we watched them grow and we became very fond of these children. Although we eventually left Cairo to return home we never forgot them.
I began writing this fictional story shortly after returning to England and still have the hand-written manuscript from that time. Career and family got in the way and it was never finished. On retirement I joined a writing group and the story I had always wanted to write for the twins resurfaced. With great sadness I had watched the events of the Arab Spring unfold in Egypt in 2011 and knew then that I wanted to make the political mayhem the backdrop of my novel.
It took me two years to complete a draft that I was happy with but I was determined that if it was going to become a published book then it would be something I could be proud of. I had it professionally edited and copy edited. The process was invaluable.
I sent the manuscript to twenty agents and heard from five of them. I planned to give the traditional publishing route six months then if no-one had taken it up I would self-publish. This is what I did and my book was launched in November 2016. Over a hundred attended the launch and the whole evening felt quite surreal. I couldn’t believe I was an author!
Q) Who are your favourite authors and recommended reads?
A) My best ever book, for the sheer joy of its language, is God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. My other favourite authors are Gerbrand Bakker with the Twin and Ten White Geese and Marilynne Robinson the American author. I love the sparseness of their language and the sense of place they invoke in their novels.
I also read a lot of non-fiction with Frances Osborne –Lilla’s Feast and The Bolter and Joanna Olczak, In the Garden of Memory being books I would recommend.
Q) What were your childhood/teenage favourite reads?
A) As a child, I read all the Cherry Ames and Sue Barton series. I’m sure these stories were why I wanted to become a nurse. I had a more eclectic taste as a teenager but John Steinbeck had the greatest impact as well as a book called The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.
Q) What has been your favourite moment of being a published author?
A) I was recently invited to give a talk in a local library. Before the talk began an elderly lady came in with a notelet. She couldn’t stay for the evening but she wanted me to know how much she had enjoyed my book and to thank me for writing it. I thought that was so kind. I will treasure the card.
Q) Who has been your source of support/encouragement, throughout the writing process?
A) So many people but particularly my writing group, Wenlock Writers on the Edge. Without their feedback, their encouragement and support this may never have been written. The author, Sarah Vincent was my professional editor and Colin Taylor my meticulous copy editor. A wonderful local artist and friend Catherine Downes painted the beautiful cover.
And of course, my husband and children who knew why I needed to write the story.
Facebook: JoJacksonauthor @Steppingintobooks
Tackling the cultural issues.
The Arab Spring was a wave of unrest that spread across north Africa from Tunisia through Libya and into Egypt.
I watched the scenes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the television. I saw the passion of the demonstrators and their determination to bring about change. All Egyptians were represented: Muslims, Christians, men and women, rich and poor; the doctor and the road sweeper marching together with one voice.
I was living in Egypt in 1981 when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by a breakaway militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sadat’s economic policy had sent inflation soaring and introduced corruption at the highest level. Hosni Mubarak was hailed as a modern leader who would put Egyptians first. Thirty years later millions were calling for him to be deposed. He had betrayed them by preferring to align himself with the west. Loans flowed into the country but the wealth bypassed the people and was squirrelled abroad. The cost of basic items such as bread had risen by 70%. By 2011 the population was poor and desperate.
Too Loud a Silence is a novel I wanted to write for two little girls whose fate is lost to me. I knew I wanted the Arab Spring and the politics to provide the backdrop. I questioned my ethical right to make it so. I wasn’t there; I hadn’t been back to Cairo for decades. Was it presumptuous to think I could even begin to understand the complexities of the politics, capture the essence, portray the problems? Should I use such a momentous turning point in Egyptian history as the background of a fictional novel? This was my dilemma. I was determined to try, with integrity and credibility always to the forefront of my writing.
My aim was to use my characters and their human stories to portray the situation. Maha, the main protagonist, an Egyptian born journalist with a British upbringing, experiences the violence personally, alongside the people she meets and those who befriend her. She is caught in the cross-cultural trap of never quite belonging. Through Hosni, a taxi driver, we feel the tragedy of his country’s collapse, see the effect of widespread unemployment and the inability of the government to provide basic services. He strives to safeguard his family and avoid his father’s and brother’s path into extremism. Behind all this is a backstory set thirty years before.
Conflict, through the ages, has always been an excuse for abuse This was no less the case in the Arab Spring. Violence, beatings and imprisonment were the underside of the revolution. Peaceful demonstration was hijacked by thugs. Those in charge used authority to perpetrate crimes.
The revolution was significant in that women played an important part; both sexes demonstrating alongside each other. Many women were arrested just for being present. They were threatened with prostitution charges and subjected to virginity tests. All of this was designed to intimidate and reinforce more traditional narratives around women. Some perpetrators have since faced trial but human rights campaigners say the general situation in the country is now far worse than before the uprising.
2 / 2
Women’s issues were not given value in the aftermath of the revolution or in the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011/12 They were not allowed representation, their role in bringing about change largely ignored. Was this an attempt to maintain the status quo?
When I lived in Cairo it was a safe place. My family and I experienced first-hand Arab hospitality and friendliness. This will not have diminished but where Muslims and Christians lived side by side in harmony a by-product of the revolution was that political groups and religious extremists sought to introduce suspicion, distrust and discrimination. Coptic churches were burned, individuals targeted. Fundamentalists wanted to see the introduction of Sharia law.
Despite the violence and the chaos millions of protestors displayed incredible discipline and dignity along with the will to hold wide ranging debate about how to reshape their country. Egypt’s culture of deep communal bonds and trust was never more apparent than in adversity.
I am not positioned to judge the success of the revolution. Others more qualified have spoken of the price of seeking freedom in Egypt. History will tell its own story.
Too Loud a Silence is based on real events: those of Egypt’s Arab Spring and my own story of living in the country. I describe the book as a web of experiences woven into words. First and foremost it is a work of fiction with all the license that implies.
Audiences and book reviewers continue to tell me that until they read my book they knew little of the Arab Spring; it stimulated their interest and they have sought to discover more. For me that is a small vindication of my decision to tackle it in the way that I did.
Meanwhile the revolution still lives in the heart of the people. For them it is the cause they believe in.