What do you expect a best-selling novelist to be like? Perhaps with an inflated ego and over-conscious of their new celebrity status, somewhat condescending. Marina Lewycka certainly defies any such expectations; she is disarmingly modest and cordial with a Northerner’s down-to-earthness. On the other hand, it is perhaps not so surprising, as she found success as a novelist only in her late fifties, after years of hard work as teacher and lecturer. She’s clearly not letting things change who she is. She has kindly agreed to give the Morning Star an hour of her time to talk about her writing before taking her train back home in Sheffield.
After dozens of rejections from publishers for her previous attempts at novel writing, she decided to stop trying to write for a publisher and just do it for fun. The result was A Story History of Tractors in Ukrainian. It was not only published, but became an overnight best-seller and has been translated into 32 languages. She went on to write a second successful novel, Two Caravans. Both deal with the experience of immigrants to Britain. But they are not heavy political or social tracts; she prefers to let ideas trickle down through the lives and adventures of her colourful characters. Her novels maintain a fine balancing act between subtle irony and gentle humour allied with a keen sympathy for the underdog, and a sensitivity to human foibles and weaknesses, and she gives expression to people’s hopes and dreams.
How did she start writing? Even as a child she enjoyed making up stories with her dolls, she tells us, then later, as a mother, she would fabulate bedtime stories for her daughter and now wishes she’d written them down.
Marina came to Britain as a small child. Her Ukrainian parents had been deported by the nazis from the Ukraine to work as forced labourers in Germany, where Marina was born in a British refugee camp in 1946. Soon after, the family moved to Britain. So, as immigrants, how did her family experience Britain? ‘We were given a very warm welcome by most people’, she says, ‘but I did suffer some taunting at school. It was the early fifties and memories of the war were still very much alive and the Soviet Union having been our ally, meant that we were associated positively with them. The Cold War had not yet taken a deep psychological hold; people were curious rather than oppositional.’ Today’s immigrants undoubtedly encounter a more hostile and challenging environment, vividly reflected in her novels.
Many Ukrainian émigrés to Britain after the war were anti-Communist and staunchly conservative, so how comes that she has a very different outlook? She explains that her family come from the Eastern Ukraine, where there is an Orthodox, rather than a Catholic religious tradition and where the population has felt closer historically to Russia than western Europe. And, after all, her family had been victims of nazi persecution themselves. But her progressive ideas were also forged in the turbulent sixties, when as a student at Keele University she became radicalised by the feminist movement and student politics. ‘It was a wonderful time to be alive,’ she says, ‘we had a real sense of empowerment and felt we could change the world’. At the time, she even began a PhD on the Diggers and Levellers and the English Revolution because, as she puts it, ‘that was also a time when ordinary people felt a new sense of their own power’.
Is she still a radical? ‘Well, my ideas have changed over the years. I’m a member of the Labour Party but severely disillusioned with New Labour and the ballot box political system. It has disempowered people. I now feel a better way forward is perhaps through single issue campaigns rather than through formal political party structures. The great Stop the War march, before the outbreak of the war on Iraq was a tremendous coming together of people with so many shades of opinion and from diverse cultural backgrounds; it was an expression of widespread public anger, but it didn’t stop the war and that was a big disappointment.’ Despite it all, she still, remains an optimist and retains a basic faith in people which shines through the pages of her books.
In the blurbs, her novels are described as ‘hilarious’ and ‘uproariously funny’ and there is no doubt they do make you laugh, but wouldn’t a better description be ‘tragi-comic’ we ask? She agrees: ‘We all have our tragic and comic sides and I try to capture those in my characters. No one wants to be depressed by a novel, they want to be cheered’. And her novels certainly do that without descending to the banality of a TV game show ‘life is just one big laugh’ mentality.
Are her novels primarily for entertainment or is there a more serious purpose? ‘Novelists can’t solve political problems, nor make policy, but they can bring about a change in the human heart and where better to start doing that than with fiction? Converting experience into narrative is a human instinct,’ she feels. What she tries to do is to show a side of reality through her own experience or knowledge that many of her readers will not know about and in this way allow them to see through the eyes of others or even, as she does in Two Caravans, through the eyes of a dog.
A supreme example of this different vision is her description of a battery chicken farm in Two Caravans. It is a graphically horrendous picture. Immigrants form the core of the workforce and the way they are treated is, in a way, mirrored by the treatment doled out to the chickens. It forces us to draw uncomfortable comparisons. One or two readers have been so horrified by this description, she says, that they have refused to continue reading after this scene. But even here she is able to alleviate the horror by picking out comic moments in what is, essentially, a barbaric situation.
In the book’s acknowledgments she pays tribute to the work of the TUC on immigrant workers and even has a small but significant character part for a trade unionist in the novel. That is certainly unusual if not unique for modern British novels, which invariably ignore the trade union movement. Perhaps the fact that she married a trade union official played its part, but she fully realises, she says, that trade unions play a life-saving role and are certainly vital in defending the rights of immigrant workers.
While doing research on the internet for her first novel, which is a portrait of a Ukrainian family living in post-war Britain - and clearly has strong autobiographical elements - she discovered other family members in the Ukraine. She visited them and found great pleasure in hearing Ukrainian being spoken on a daily basis. She also discovered the realities of life in the post-Soviet era. ‘People in the former Eastern Block realise that while they have gained new freedoms, they have also lost some positive aspects that a socialist society offered, things they would like to regain but don’t know how’, she says.
She is also perturbed by the rightward trend being taken by the new governments in Eastern Europe and sees the siting of US military installations there and the drive to incorporate former Soviet states into NATO as a dangerous and unnecessary revival of the Cold War. She hopes that a fuller integration into the EU – one in which Russia should also be a part – can provide an antidote to this trend.
So, is there a new novel in the pipeline? Yes, a big departure from her previous two in the sense that it will not be about Eastern European immigrants this time. It is a novel that deals with the intractable problems of the Middle East, but centres on an old woman with a dark secret, living alone with seven smelly cats in a crumbling old house in North London…but we’ll have to await publication to know more.