My writing inspiration: a battered book and an old photograph

Saturday, 8 July 2017

On my writing desk sits an old, battered copy of Beloved by Toni Morrison. It is the only book that I have there and its purpose is to inspire me when I write. I wrote five DI Jack Brady books, the latest one, The Puppet Maker (2015) with Beloved within reach; always close enough so my fingers could touch it. A constant reminder of why I wanted to write. Why I wanted to be storyteller.
Published in 1987,  Beloved’s exploration of family, trauma, repressed memories and ultimately, the resilience of the human psyche to fight oppression – regardless of the personal consequences– is why this book is so inspirational. The racial themes of black/white relations founded in such an inequitable past as slavery, struck a personal chord with me as my Algerian grandfather was raised in Dundee by a white family in the early 1900s and suffered unspeakable racism throughout his life. At the age of thirty-seven he was deployed at the outbreak of the Second World War to France. Physically, as a 6’1’ black man he was a conspicuous figure; finally captured, he proceeded to escape three times during his five year imprisonment. He even survived a “death march” into Germany at the close of the war by feigning death and then made his own way home through Europe, arriving months after the end of the war. My grandfather ironically died shortly after being reunited with my grandmother from an intracranial brain tumour, believed to have been the result of trauma to the head after being beaten repeatedly by a German soldier’s rifle. My black-skinned mother grew up fatherless with no reference to her racial heritage; one which had caused her to suffer being called the “N” word (amongst other racial insults) – a slur I had heard as a child growing up in reference to her.
Morrison dedicates Beloved to the “Six Million and more” Africans and their descendants who had died during the transatlantic slave trade and pulls no punches as she asks the reader to suspend disbelief as she takes them into a world of two narratives; one set during slavery and the other after the end of the Civil War. The narrative is powerfully alluring and lyrical and at the same time, harrowing as it exposes the unspeakable insidious ills of slavery and she tells it as it was – regardless of how unpalatable. But it also speaks of human survival and resilience against adversity which is why it speaks to me of my maternal family.
However, Beloved is not the only item on my desk that inspires me as a writer. An old photograph of Harriet Ann Jacobs sits beside Beloved and was my inspiration when I wrote The Last Cut (2017) which is the first book in a new series and features DS Harri Jacobs who is the victim of a horrific attack and transfers to Newcastle from the Met in the hope of leaving her past behind. Her assailant left her alive, with the promise that one day he would be back. And she ran. But a year later, with a serial killer stalking the streets of Newcastle, horrifically altering his victims, she soon realises that he has followed her. But the hunter soon becomes the hunted as DS Harri Jacobs refuses to become his victim for a second and final time and decides that it is time to take her revenge.
The photograph so inspired me to the extent she is DS Harri Jacobs’s namesake. Harriet Ann Jacobs was an African American slave who escaped by hiding in a crawl space above a storeroom in her grandmother’s house in the summer of 1835. She remained in that “little dismal hole” for the next seven years. She went on to become an abolitionist and publicly spoke against the ills of slavery, racial and gender inequality. She then wrote an autobiographical novel, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl which was published in 1861 and exposed the horrific insidious sexual abuse inflicted upon women and girls within the confines of slavery.
However, Harri is clearly not an escaped slave, nor an African American novelist, but she is a survivor of sexual abuse and oppression who through her job fights for the freedom of other female victims. There are parallels that link my fictitious character to her namesake, such as the fact that Harriet Ann Jacobs hid in a crawl space for seven years watching and waiting before seizing her liberation. DS Harri Jacobs effectively locks herself up in a glass prison – a fifth floor warehouse apartment – where she watches and waits for her attacker to return, as promised. But both women break free from their confines, one from slavery and the other as a rape and potential murder victim – both ultimately living with the threat of being hunted down; Harriet Ann Jacobs as a fugitive slave and DS Harri Jacobs as a victim whose assailant was never caught. Both have the threat of men claiming and destroying them and yet both women are ultimately victorious warriors who chose not to live in fear.
The Last Cut deals with female victims, but instead of having them as part of a body count, I wanted them to be survivors; to transcend victimhood and metamorphose into warriors who ultimately save themselves. The abolitionist, Harriet Ann Jacobs used her novel to fight against slavery for the victims who endured its ills, and so, as a feminist and a Patron of the charity SomeOne Cares which counsels victims of rape, child abuse and domestic violence, I wanted my victims to fight back. To resist. To refuse. And if at all possible, to save themselves.
by Danielle Ramsay (@ DanielleRamsay2)
Danielle Ramsay is a proud Scot who gave up an academic career to write creatively after being shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2009 and 2010. She was then a New Writing North 2011 Read Regional author. She is the author of five DI Jack Brady books set in the North East of England and her latest book, The Last Cut which is the start of a new psychological thriller series with the female protagonist, DS Harri Jacobs was published in June and described by Martina Cole as: “A really cracking good read!”
An advocate against domestic violence for personal and political reasons, Danielle is the Patron of the charity SomeOne Cares which counsels survivors of domestic violence, rape and child abuse.
This post has been kindly written in support of #Rebeccas24HourReadathon. SomeOne Cares is a charity that helps support survivors, young and old, who have suffered of rape or some form of abuse at some point in their life. 

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