Why I write

Gavin Chait: 'I am free and my word is free'

In light of the refugee crisis, Gavin Chait, author of Lament For The Fallen and Our Memory Like Dust, wonders about the stories that mass migration will produce, and how they have influenced his writing

It should have begun in January 2011 when a then 29-year-old Emel Mathlouthi stood up in Rue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis and, amidst the roars and chants of the fledgling Arab Spring, sang ‘Kelmti Horra’ . . . ‘My Word is Free’

It could have begun with the simple history of my being; an immigrant, the child, grandchild and great-grandchild of immigrants. It is rare to find a family member who lived their entire life in the country of their birth.

Much of that migrancy has been the result of pogroms, discrimination and war. In my case, it was economics. I moved in search of opportunity.

Where it actually began was on the top of an ancient truck in the pouring rain in the middle of an abandoned mine-field in the centre of Mozambique in January 1999. The truck was supposed to be filled with migrants heading south to Johannesburg, crossing most of a continent to do so. Instead it was sinking in the swamp as all of us stood alongside it and watched. It took two days to wade out of the swamp and find another ride. I was struck by everyone’s good-natured optimism. Their hopes for their journey and their complete disregard for borders and the legal barriers required to cross them.

The history of our species is, for good or ill, the history of migration. All the great epic sagas and religious works are stories of people who move, of nations formed by such movement.

Despite this, there are people so rooted in place and tradition, so dependent on permanence, that even the hint of migration causes them tremendous anguish. And that is true whether it be about people arriving or leaving.

My experience of movement is not that I am a ‘citizen of nowhere’, but a citizen of my planet with a deep-rooted fascination with discovery; of what is beyond the horizon.

We now live in an age of fear. Of walls. Of hiding in the shadows from ancient dangers we had long-ago overcome.

As I turned to writing – first with Lament for the Fallen and then with Our Memory Like Dust – I felt the need to understand both my compulsion to explore and whether there is nobility in staying put.

In Lament For The Fallen, I turned to those who will eventually leave our planet to explore and settle elsewhere, contrasting their wealth and optimism with the continuing struggle against violence and poverty left behind on Earth.

In Our Memory Like Dust, I wonder about the stories that mass migration, resulting from climate-caused environmental collapse, will produce. Of how new nations and identities may be forged in the unforgiving journey of these refugees.

I delved deeply into how those who experience that period of migration will be remembered. What stories will people tell each other, how will myths emerge? What will people choose to remember from these days, and who will their aspirational heroes be?

Each novel is a stand-alone story, but each speaks to the other. Of how hope for the future is more important than standing still, of how optimism supports even those who choose to remain in one place, and of how our best, brightest and bravest have always been those who choose to look beyond the known, into the distant glowing vastness of unknown horizons.

Much of our contemporary world is choosing to build walls and retreat to their own mythic pasts, choosing unpleasant familiarity over the strange and hopeful.

And it seems tragic that the only way we will once more experience our human desire for discovery and exploration – which we developed on this, our only planet Earth – will be when we leave it.

More about the author

Our Memory Like Dust

Gavin Chait

Why do we tell stories? To hold on to what has been loved and lost, to create new myths, to explain and teach in ways that seep into memory.
Shakiso Collard leads the evacuation from Benghazi as jihadis overwhelm the refugee camp where she works. On arrival in Paris, she is betrayed by her boss, Oktar Samboa, and watches in despair as those she illegally helped escape are deported back to the warzones of Libya.
Elsewhere, Farinata Uberti – strongman CEO of Rosneft, the world’s largest energy company – arrives in London after triggering a violent insurrection in Tanzania to destroy a potential rival in the oil market. In the Sahara, an air convoy on its way to deliver billions of dollars of drugs and weapons to Ansar Dine jihadis crashes and is lost.
A year later, having spent months in hiding, Shakiso travels to West Africa. She is there to lead the relief effort that are hoping to stop the 200 million refugees fleeing war and environmental collapse heading for a fortified and fragmented Europe.
As the myths of these millions seeking new lives across the Mediterranean intrude into reality, Shakiso is drawn into the brutal clandestine fight against Rosneft’s domination of European energy supplies being conducted by the mysterious Simon Adaro. And, deep within the disorienting Harmattan storms of the desert, a group of jihadis have gone in search of the crashed convoy of planes - and a terror that could overwhelm them all.

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