Karen Campbell on reimagining Glasgow to write a novel about refugees

Karen Campbell. Picture: Contributed
Karen Campbell. Picture: Contributed
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IMAGINE arriving in Glasgow, your few belongings clutched in a single bag. You are a thousand miles from home, having fled from events you don’t want to remember, but cannot forget.

The voices around you don’t match the few words of English you’ve picked up along the way. You search in brightly lit supermarket aisles for foods you recognise.

You walk everywhere. The buses make no sense, whizzing along streets you don’t recognise with names you can’t read. Perhaps you pause outside Kelvingrove Museum and gaze at its palatial frontage. You wonder if you might go in, but guess that you’ll never afford the entrance fee. You glimpse a uniformed security guard, and uniforms were never good where you come from. You turn away.

Novelist Karen Campbell has spent the last two years imagining what it is like to be an asylum seeker in Glasgow (the city is home to some 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers). “It’s my city, I know shortcuts, I know nooks and crannies, I know where the buses run. I had to rethink my city from the point of view of somebody who is surrounded by this forest of sandstone buildings and doesn’t know which way is up.”

“Unimaginable” is a word that comes up several times in our conversation. But Campbell is a writer, it is her job to find the chinks in a story which enable us to enter it, glimpses of common humanity which make it possible for us to share another’s experience. Her new novel, This Is Where I Am, a departure from her previous police novels, is the story of a Somali refugee in Glasgow and the local woman who befriends him.

Campbell, 45, a former police officer, is the author of four previous books, all set around the force. Her publishers were happy to sell her as a cop-turned-crime-writer, but she says she was never comfortable with the label. “All the books I’ve written have been about social issues, that’s been the driver. It’s about the different lives that coexist side by side in a place you think you know. Some of that was from when I was a young police officer, seeing what went on behind closed doors.

“What interested me about the police was putting on a uniform, and how people respond to that, and what it’s like being behind the uniform. I guess with the asylum seeker story it’s something similar, it’s about the face you present to the world, and what you really are like inside.”

When her husband Dougie, also a former policeman, started volunteering at the Scottish Refugee Council – a one-stop shop of help and advice for refugees and asylum seekers – she was given a glimpse into the world next door, “people who walk past everyday, that we know are maybe not from here, but we’ve no idea what brought them here, or even if they wanted to come, or if they will be allowed to stay.”

When Dougie started helping on the SRC’s mentorship programme, where a volunteer befriends someone who has been granted refugee status, with the aim of helping them settle in the city, she realised she had the framework for a novel. Twelve meetings, over 12 months, in different Glasgow attractions, around which a relationship could weave, stories could unravel.

And soon she had characters to populate it: Deborah, Glaswegian, mid-forties, widowed, and Abdi, a Somali refugee with a young daughter, who has fled from circumstances he cannot bear to relive, with a flat in a grimy tower block and a chance at a new life.

“I tried as much as I can to focus on the here and now. Both characters have got back stories, but it’s about ‘This is where I am now, how do I find it in me to get on with life?’ After what is in some cases years of being in limbo, I wanted to understand how you then begin to pick yourself up and think, ‘My life has started again’.”

She was wary, she says, about writing from the viewpoint of a Somali man, though she does it very well. Alternate chapters weave the story of Deborah, gradually opening out from her grief, and Abdi, thoughtful, measured, showing us our own culture through fresh eyes as he gradually gets to grips with Glasgow speech, with the oddities of Scottishc culture.

She did interview asylum seekers, she says, but the stories in the book are completely fictional. “I didn’t want to appropriate anybody’s life, I didn’t want to take stories and regurgitate them. I was interested in little details like the moon being bigger in Somalia than it is here.

“I think every writer inhabits their characters in a book, I can take a detail like that and write round that experience, imagine how my character might feel about it.”

The trick to imagining the unimaginable was to concentrate on the detail, like thinking about what it means to take public transport in a city where you don’t know the language. “And that’s just being on holiday, quite relaxed, and you still feel a bit scared. We don’t go on holiday without having researched where we’re going, and that’s for two weeks, and if we don’t like it we can go home.”

But the nature of the story she is telling means that a journey into the back story is inevitable. Abdi must confront the atrocities his memory has half-buried, and when his little daughter Rebecca, at first too traumatised to speak, comes up with a different version of events, the crisis deepens. Deborah is propelled to leave her comfort zone and travel to Kenya, to the vast sprawl of Dadaab near the Kenya-Somalia border, sometimes described as the largest refugee camp in the world.

Here, again, we are in the territory of the unimaginable, an immense holding facility which covers 50sq km, and holds perhaps 500,000 people, though the number is still growing. Crammed together in poor conditions, people queue each day for food rations. A situation which was intended to be temporary has turned into permanent life for many; people live and die within its borders.

Campbell watched documentaries about the camp, read United Nations reports and the blogs of aid workers and refugees. But again the key to imagining it was to home in on the detail. “All the time I tried not to make the story global, it was about how these individual people feel in their surroundings. If you’re in a crowd, you 
don’t need to know how far a crowd stretches, you just know you’re surrounded by people, there’s dust, you’re hungry, and you’re lost.”

I can’t vouch for her description of Dadaab, I haven’t been there, but I love her descriptions of Glasgow, the snapshots of life which she illuminates, from the uppity barrister’s wife to the Big Issue vendor who befriends Abdi (to Deborah’s disgust) and brings him a gift of a Christmas tree of dubious origins. There is a sense of contrasting worlds, rubbing up against one another, cheek by jowl.

Campbell, who has recently moved out of the city to rural Galloway, studied English literature at university, and then followed her parents into the police force, working for five years as an officer on the beat in Glasgow. She quit when her children were small, and says her early short stories, written during that period, were often about capturing the job she missed.

She applied to the MLitt postgraduate creative writing course at Glasgow University, where tutors encouraged her to capitalise on her inside knowledge of the police in her writing.

“But I didn’t want to write police procedurals, that wasn’t what interested me. Right from the outset that I wasn’t comfortable being branded as crime, not for any reasons of snobbery, but just that I think it then defines the story, the main narrative drive has then got to be the solving of a crime.”

In This Is Where I Am, she has managed to write a novel about a contentious subject without making the book into a polemic. She has also avoided the pitfall of trying to open up too many threads in a situation which is multi-dimensional and complex. At the same time, when you look at a situation in such depth, you can’t not have an opinion about it.

“So I suppose when I was writing the book, I could have gone down all those avenues. I don’t know enough about it, I didn’t want to be trying to sort out the ills of the world,

“This story is part of a bigger picture. We label people asylum seekers, but an asylum seeker could be a mother who has left three of her children back in Zimbabwe because they’re too old to come with her, and she’s here with two others, and terrible things have happened to her. Or it could be a doctor from Iran who is destitute here. You can’t tell all those stories.

“Every single person who had wound up on our shores has a compelling personal story.” And, for a novelist, that is a world of myriad possibilities.

• This Is Where I Am by Karen Campbell is published by Bloomsbury, priced £12.99