I’m writing a new book. (Hopefully someone just shouted Hurrah!) The idea came when I was listening to the radio and heard a philosopher, Lisa Guenther, being interviewed about her work on Solitary Confinement. What was a philosopher doing talking about that, I hear you ask. Well, she’s a phenomenologist, and she and other phenomenologists believe that our sense of self and what is real and true in the world are co-created in relationship with others, so her question was, what if there are no others? Fascinating stuff. I ordered her book and waited with baited breath. In the meantime, I googled Solitary Confinement and found some very interesting information about SHU (Special Housing Unit, aka Solitary) Syndrome – a set of psychiatric symptoms that are expressed by some in Solitary and in no other known situation. These symptoms may take as little as a few weeks to start manifesting, and mostly resolve once the person is removed from Solitary.
The book arrived and I read it as quickly as I could, making notes and bending the ears of anyone who would listen to my amazed utterances. For a few days I considered taking a course in Philosophy so that I could deepen my study, but then I started asking myself questions about who might end up in Solitary, and where, for how long and in response to what? My character was born and a plot started hatching. That was all well and good.
And then a strange thing started happening; the plot in my head was hijacked by the characters in the story. I don’t want to give too much away, but the book opens with my protagonist being arrested under suspicion of terrorism just after the London Bombings. She is held in Solitary Confinement for quite a while before being released without charge. In my mind, the experience was so traumatising, and she was so angry about it, that she was radicalised and became the very person that she had been accused of being. My character, however, didn’t want that for herself; she wanted her journey to be one of identity and belonging, not radicalisation. Yes, she was traumatised by her experience in prison, yes, she suffered from SHU Syndrome, but she did not go on to make bombs in her basement. Instead, she wonders where she belongs as a young half Pakistani woman brought up in the UK and now seen by people to be ‘other’ and a potential threat to their security.
We’re still on the journey; Laila, my protagonist, is telling me where she wants to go, and at the moment, it’s Pakistan. She wants to leave England where she no longer feels welcome, and see if she can find a sense of belonging in Pakistan with her estranged father. So at this point, the themes of the book are identity and belonging.
Stay tuned. Laila may yet have other ideas!