“Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” - Ian McEwan
As a writer I’ve always been interested in human stories and the journeys that change people’s lives, alter society and make history. My family came to the UK in 1972 from East Africa, where they were part of Uganda’s Asian community, forced to flee the country they had never once doubted would always be their home.
Resettling in unfamiliar territory, like many exiles, they fought to preserve their old identity while integrating with the new. Growing up surrounded by their fond recollections of a life confined irretrievably to another era, and catching the occasional glimpse into the pain and suffering they reluctantly disclosed, I became increasingly aware of the idea of belonging – what and who defines our identity, what is the role of memory in exile, and how do we reconcile our hopes and dreams with the reality in which we find ourselves and over which we have little control?
Whilst working at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (since re-branded as Freedom from Torture), helping refugees fleeing persecution to tell their otherwise unheard stories, I became even more convinced of the power of human testimony to affect change – the stories that matter most are those that inspire empathy and compassion, causing us to surrender judgement in order to understand.
I am currently working on a book that documents the lives of people forced to leave their homes and livelihoods when they were expelled from Uganda by the country’s former dictator Idi Amin. The book explores how journeying across continents and cultures changed them, and how they changed the social constructs in which they found themselves, charting how some went on to thrive while others continued to suffer.
It’s a constant challenge, as well as a privilege, to have people share with you their most intimate reflections on the past. But it’s also of vital importance to listen, and to retell those stories in the hope of evolving our intellectual and emotional understanding of the lives of others – perhaps that’s a slightly idealistic notion, given the capacity of us all to use information for ill as well as good.
For me though, it’s a source of continual fascination. Whether fact or fiction, the telling of tales is one of the most compelling ways to connect.