There was a treat for fiction-lovers at the Book Festival on Thursday when a sell-out crowd attended a pre-launch event for Tracy Chevalier’s new novel, A Single Thread.
Reading from the novel in public for the first time, Chevalier explained what led her to the subject, a young woman who joins a group of embroiderers making kneelers for Winchester Cathedral in the 1930s.
The event was warmly chaired by Clare Hunter, a banner-maker and author of Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle, who knows more than most about the power of sewing to bring calm, release creativity and create community. Chevalier’s character, Violet Speedwell, one of a generation harshly termed “surplus women” who were left without suitable matches by the First World War, finds all these things and more with the stitchers, whose work can still be seen in the cathedral today.
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Chevalier, an American who has lived in the UK for 35 years, is still best known for The Girl With The Pearl Earring, which is currently being made into an opera, but has written nine books, ranging across subjects and historical periods. She favours hand-on research, and in the course of her life as a writer has learned to paint, quilt, identify fossils and now embroider. She added that she hopes to learn glass-making for her next novel, which will be set among the glass-makers of Venice, but counselled patience: it will take some time.
Stories was very much to the fore earlier in the day when novelist Dina Nayeri and journalist Nick Thorpe addressed the subject of refugees. Nayeri, who fled Iran for the US with her family in the 1980s, weaves her own story into her new book, The Ungrateful Refugee, along with those of others she encountered on visits to present day refugee camps. Thorpe, who is the BBC’s Central Europe correspondent, followed those he met on the “Balkan road” into Europe, who had fled the Middle East and Africa, through to their destination countries.
A refugee needs a story, and will need to tell it again and again flawlessly to the authorities if they are to be granted asylum. Yet stories of a different kind are also told in the countries through which migrants travel and in which they hope to settle, nationalist stories which can be twisted by populist politicians to prompt local people to close their doors and their borders.
Language can tell us a lot, Nayeri pointed out. Migrants are described in terms of “swarms” or “floods”, words that evoke plague and disaster but which are not accurate reflections of their numbers. Yet stories are also the best hope of those who speak on behalf of the displaced because they can separate the individual from the “swarm”, demonstrate that the refugee is not so different from ourselves, and call upon a common humanity.
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The day began with Scottish author John Burnside celebrating a writer little spoken of these days. Henry Miller’s semi-autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer – banned in many countries until the 1960s for its explicit descriptions of sex – changed hands among Burnside’s teenage friends at school for all the obvious reasons. Post MeToo, Miller has been branded a misogynist, criticised for his treatment of women both in his books and in real life.
Burnside – while determined not to apologise for him – argued that “chunks of gold” could yet be found “amongst all this other stuff”: Miller’s critique of masculinity, his commitment to anarchist ideas, his ability to take a fresh angle on everything he wrote about, and his shrewd and persistent questioning of modern life. His 1946 novel, The Air Conditioned Nightmare, is a critique of capitalism gone mad and the cult of celebrity, long before these came to be the blight which they are today.