An Interview with Marina Lewcyka
Marina Lewycka, author of two wonderful novels: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and Strawberry Fields (titled Two Caravans in the UK) generously agreed to an interview with Guy Savage from MostlyFiction.com.
MARINA: In a sunny strawberry field in Kent, England, a group of migrants from all over the world live in two caravans – a men’s caravan and a women’s caravan. After a disastrous incident one night in the strawberry field, they are forced to leave their idyllic setting and set off on a rollercoaster ride that takes in some of the worst aspects of migrant labour, and gives us a fascinating view of life seen from the bottom up that is gritty and hilarious in turns. We follow their adventures as they try to earn a living, fall in love, improve their English, acquire a dog, and find their journey’s end.
MARINA: Many of the jobs the characters do in Strawberry Fields are jobs I have done myself, including picking strawberries, waitressing, cooking, and though I’ve never worked in a chicken packing factory I have worked in a sausage factory, which was pretty bad. I also found a lot of information on the internet – the incidents in the chicken factory are based on court cases in which people were prosecuted for doing the things I describe. I had a lot of help from an organization called Compassion in World Farming. Finally I also had a lot of help from a trade union organizer and a journalist, who kindly provided me with detailed information, and I’ve thanked them in the acknowledgements. The funny thing is, it’s not until you start writing a book that you discover what it is that you don’t know. So for example I had to do a lot of research on what kinds of fish can be caught in the English Channel at what times of year, and I also found out a good deal about dogs.
MF: What was the inspiration for STRAWBERRY FIELDS?
MARINA: I’ve met many of the characters in Strawberry Fields, and been curious about their stories, so writing this book has given me a good excuse to indulge my nosiness. For example we have a lot of Polish people living in Sheffield, and I met people very like my Ukrainian characters on my last visit to Ukraine. I have taught a lot of Chinese students in my "day job" at Sheffield Hallam University. My daughter works in Malawi and on my visits there I met the prototype for Emanuel. Even Dog is based on a dog I sometimes go walking with, who, like the dog in Strawberry Fields, has a secret past which he is unable to share.
After I’d finished A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, I still felt very close to my Ukrainian roots; at the same time, I realized how much had changed since my parents came to Britain. There’s a new wave of migration now, in some ways very similar and in some ways totally different, to the wave that washed my parents up on these shores. Looking at these new immigrants, who are very much in the news in Britain, I realized that there was a story to be told – and that I was the person to tell it.
MF: In many ways, STRAWBERRY FIELDS is a novel which examines the clashes of contrasting worlds: the Ukraine vs. Russia, illegal immigrants vs. employers, eco-warriors vs. capitalism, and the clash of classes as seen in the relationship between the upper middle class Irina and Andriy the miner from Donbas. What are your thoughts about that?
MARINA: Clashes and conflicts always make for a good story – if we were all the same, novelists would struggle to find anything to write about. I was also interested in the difference between "north and south" in relation to the Malawian character, and the difference between Chinese Chinese and Malaysian Chinese. But I hope the novel also brings out how much we have in common as human beings, as well as the things which divide us.
MF: A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRAINIAN involves an Octogenarian widower who meets and romances Valentina, a much younger Ukrainian woman. Valentina exploits her husband in her zest to acquire a better life style, but in STRAWBERRY FIELDS, we see a different side of the picture—the exploitation of illegal immigrants in the U.K. Was this decision to depict another side of the immigrant question--exploited and exploiter deliberate?
MARINA: Even A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian makes the point that the exploiter is herself exploited, and again, I think this is a common theme in human relations – after all, we learn how to behave towards others from the way we are treated ourselves. I want to get away from the idea that some people are wholly good or "‘innocent" and others are wholly bad or exploitative. We’re all much more complex than that, and different situations bring out the best or worst in us – that’s what makes us interesting.
MF: This would have been a very different novel if you hadn’t applied humor to almost every aspect of the story. How difficult was it for you as a writer to use humor to some of these very serious scenarios?
MARINA: I’m afraid that’s something that comes naturally – again, I think it is a common human characteristic. We survive hardship and horror by joking about it. When you turn a tyrant or a villain into a comic figure, it brings him down to size. Certainly it’s a feature of Ukrainian humour, and is very much part of the culture in Yorkshire in England, where I live. I also think that humour allows you to venture obliquely into areas which might be too horrible to face directly.
MF: Using multiple narrators in STRAWBERRY FIELDS complements the story well. Did you intend to write the novel with this structure or did the multiple narrators develop over time?
MARINA: Actually, when I started out, I just had a single all-seeing narrator, but I found that narrator’s smart-arse voice rather irritating. I thought it would be much better to let the characters speak for themselves. Developing all the different voices was great fun, but quite a challenge, and I had to get over the difficulty of how they would all communicate with each other. It was also important to have quite clear markers to flag up each change of narrator within the first sentence, so that readers wouldn’t get confused. So only one voice is in the first person, others use different combinations of past/present tense and viewpoint, including "stream of consciousness;" one communicates through letters; and the dog just barks – I had to invent a new dog-language.
MF: At one point in the novel, the workers are shipped off to a chicken slaughterhouse and we read first hand some of the horrendous aspects of factory farming. Have you had any complaints or negative feedback about including such intense (and accurate) descriptions of the conditions? And what made you decide to include these details?
MARINA: When I did public readings I used to read from those chicken passages, because they’re quite fast moving and hard hitting, until once a number of children had to be led out in tears. After that I was more careful. I have had a number of complaints about how horrible it is, but no one who says I shouldn’t have done it. I think we all know that these things go on, and just prefer not to think about it.
MF: What sort of feedback, if any, have you had from the immigrant community in the UK?
MARINA: On the whole people of my parents generation and those who, like me, have been settled for some time, have really enjoyed both the books, and I’ve had lots of lovely letters. For people who have arrived more recently, I think I do press on quite a few sore points.
MF: Has the Orange Revolution impacted the illegal immigrant situation in the UK?
MARINA: I think the biggest impact has been not so much the Orange Revolution, but the accession of a number of other Eastern European countries into the European Community – but not Ukraine. It means that Poles can now work legally in Britain, but Ukrainians cannot, and with this new influx of "legal" cheap labour from countries like Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, the Government has started to crack down on employment opportunities from outside the EC, including Ukraine. So I think we will be seeing far fewer Ukrainian workers. But I hope they will continue to come.
MF: How did your background contribute to the creation of your novels?
MARINA: I think being an "outsider" is a great advantage to a novelist – it means you listen and observe very carefully, and are often aware of the quirks and oddities of your adopted country in ways which are not apparent to those who have grown up with them.
MF: Writing in broken English presents a challenge for the novelist. The last thing you want is for a reader to painstakingly read aloud the dialogue in order to understand what the characters are saying. You somehow avoided this pitfall, and your way of writing broken English is both readable and yet crafted individually for each character. How did you manage this?
MARINA: I spent many years as a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, as well as many students from overseas, so I developed an ear for the "mistakes" my students made, and learned to distinguish between the different types of errors. I speak a number of languages myself, not terribly well, but enough to get a feel for the different types of sentence construction. I think English is a most wonderful language, because although it’s very subtle and complex, it’s also very simple grammatically, so it’s possible to make yourself understood even when your grasp is quite poor.
MF: In STRAWBERRY FIELDS, several characters arrive in England ostensibly to attend colleges that in reality serve as front operations for exploitive, illegal employment. Just how rife is this in Britain?
MARINA: It’s hard to say how rife it is, because obviously people go to great lengths to cover up the fact. But there’s no doubt that it does happen. Often there’s a large grey area – students do attend courses legitimately, but they also work illegally for more than the permitted number of hours. And they may stay on after the end of their course.
MF: In STRAWBERRY FIELDS, we catch a brief glimpse of Nikolai who played a prominent role in your first novel, A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRAINIAN. Somehow I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Irina and Andriy. Any comments on that?
MARINA: No comment at this stage – but it’s amazing the surprises that life can throw up. Some of the characters from Strawberry Fields do get a mention in my next novel, but not a starring role.
MF: Lastly, any new projects on the horizon?
MARINA: I’m currently deeply immersed in my third novel, which like the previous two brings humour to bear on sad and even tragic situations – in this case the conflict in the Middle East. I’ve a feeling it’s going to make me a lot of enemies. It’s about an old lady who lives in a crumbling semi-derelict house in London, with seven smelly cats – and a secret. I don’t want to give any more away, except to say that there are no Ukrainians, and no vehicles in the title.