“I was going to call the book Paradise,” Kit de Waal tells me of her new memoir, “because we always lived on the Never Never of Paradise”. In her case, this dreamy yearning took distinct forms for both her parents. “My mother believed a new world was coming, when God would rid the world of evil people, mostly the pope, and usher in this beautiful world where everyone has a house, the men are building, the women are gathering the harvest, and the children are playing with a lion here, and a lamb there.”
Raised a Jehovah’s Witness by her Irish mother in 1970s Birmingham, De Waal also experienced the pull her West Indian father felt toward another type of paradise entirely. “His paradise was the West Indies,” she says. “And he was going to get as much money as possible, rock back to the West Indies the conquering hero: ‘Yeah, I went to England, made my money, came back in a good suit.’ So we grew up with this constant promise of something so remote and far away.”
Throughout Without Warning & Only Sometimes — Scenes from an Unpredictable Childhood (in the struggle for naming rights, Paradise lost) this tension is explored through the eyes of a curious, witty child caught between the worldly and otherworldly concerns of the damaged adults around her. It’s a warm and moving trip through a childhood beset by otherings — whether by race, class, nationality or religion — and the practical effects these had on her family from day one.
“Well, to get to either version of paradise you have to be a certain type of person,” she says. “To get to Jehovah’s paradise, you have to never swear, kiss a boy, steal, have a bad thought, never moan about the meetings. And for my dad’s Never Never, you’d have to make sure he’d f**king take you because that was not on the cards. He was going — that’s what he always used to say. ‘I’m going, you can come with me if you want.’ He never said he’d buy us a ticket. So there were sacrifices for either: Mum’s going to be emotionally elsewhere and Dad’s gonna be a mean bastard. So, the two of them were going to deprive you of something for their paradises.”
I think I do my best writing when the rest of the world is asleep. But that’s a luxury because sometimes you can’t, or you’re too knackered
De Waal made a splash with her first novel, 2016′s My Name Is Leon, recently adapted for the BBC in a Lenny Henry-produced TV outing. Its story of foster care, mixed-race childhood and 1980s Birmingham was drawn largely from events she’d seen first-hand (besides her own family and regional background, De Waal worked for years in family law and fostering). It was the subject of a six-way bidding war, and peppered awards lists the year of its release. It was a stratospheric jolt into the mainstream for someone who began her writing career in whatever stolen moments ordinary life would allow.
“I do a lot of writing at night,” she tells me. “I think I do my best writing when the rest of the world is asleep. But that’s a luxury because sometimes you can’t, or you’re too knackered. Certainly, when my kids were young, I’d write ‘til 4am, get up with them at seven and be f**ked for the day, but it was worth it because I’d done some good work. I really only started writing seriously when I was 45, and that was finding my way anyway, when I wasn’t working at anything else — I just had the kids and was trying to write and being crap at it.”
What does “crap” mean? I ask.
“Crap,” she says. “There was just a massive gap between what was in my head and what appeared on the page. This huge gap between intent and execution, and I knew it. I mean a lot of people don’t know it, which at least gives you a little advantage. At least having an awareness that you’re crap is a start.”
Having had such huge success with a debut novel drawing from so many real-life experiences, was she wary of mining her life for non-fiction this time out?
“When someone commissioned me to write the memoir, I was like ‘yesss!’” she tells me, laughing. “Because we’ve all done it, haven’t we? You have 15 anecdotes from your life and you’ve perfected them, so I thought this will just be that and it’ll fall out of me. Well...” — at this, she casts her eyes upward — “oh my God, it doesn’t. And you realise that when you tell those anecdotes at a party, they don’t have to cohere, to make a narrative or a plot. But when you’re writing a memoir you have to make a plot out of your own life and there isn’t one, because I’m still alive. That stumped me. I could have told them a different story about my mum, I could have started in a different place, but this way seemed truest. Even though it’s a bit fractured, it felt honest.”
The book is told in a series of short vignettes that criss-cross through time, telling small, isolated stories which combine to form a fuller picture as things progress. It opens with a chapter listing, in the present tense, all the ways her religion tells her she will die — “I will die when the earthquakes start… the lightning will strike, or the angels themselves” — while also serving as a manifesto for all the commonplace, sinful things for which, we gather, she is herself willing to die: “I will die for a taste of turkey and the imagined feel of the frilly white cuffs around its juicy brown leg.” We are introduced to characters such as her grandmothers — Black Nana and White Nana, as shorthand — long before we are introduced to them as people. We sit with a family beset with unbearable tension and unrest, before flashing back to earlier moments of tenderness and harmony.
“I wanted it to be vaguely chronological,” she says, “so you wouldn’t have a chapter of me being three near the end. But I write every single chapter on its own, as in ‘I’m going to write about Black Nana’, ‘I’m going to write about pub bombings’. I literally put those chapters down however they came to me. Sewing them together was much more difficult. I think I messed around with it so much until I felt the progress of me as a person; here’s this child and this is what happens to her.”
While not flinching away from the dysfunction of this situation, Without Warning stops far short of demonising anyone, and rather paints a rich portrait of people beset by struggles, some extraordinary, some tragically ordinary. De Waal’s mother, Sheila Doyle, was born in Birmingham to a large family of Irish immigrants from Wexford. “They lived in an Irish community,” she says, “so every single person you walked past in the street had Irish accents. She was completely an Irish girl.” De Waal, an Irish citizen, memorably addressed the scope of her own heritage in a 2017 essay for Writing.ie, by saying “[w]e were the only black children at the Irish Community Centre and the only ones with a white mother at the West Indian Social Club”. That same year, My Name Is Leon was named Irish Novel of The Year.
“My mum,” she says, “felt underloved. In a family of nine, there’s going to be a few who feel that way, but my mum really took that to heart and felt… not seen. I think when she met my dad [she] fell very heavily in love. She’d say she married Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier. She’d never seen black men. She sees this black guy and she’s like Oh my God. She became very isolated, because my dad didn’t love her the way she wanted to be loved. I also think she was bipolar, her behaviour was so bizarre, so as well as being very damaged and overlooked, she was an immigrant in a racist society against Irish people.
My mum, with the best will in the world, was ignorant and uneducated, and then she had these five very bright, very cheeky children. And she’s just like, where am I going to be loved?
Yearning for love and fulfilment she felt was lacking in her life, her mother had a doorstep encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness that led to her conversion and, eventually, full submersion within a religion which was predicting, and praying for, a full-scale global Armageddon by the year 1975. We are shown this conversion in real time in the book, as she pores over their literature, marvelling at the heavenly images of people living in harmony in a new, righteous future; well-dressed families in comfortable homes, and children playing with lions and lambs — not as scriptural allegory, but as a jarringly specific promise of biblical literalism. For the rest of de Waal’s childhood, the church’s meetings and events form a staple of her life, as do its proscriptions on celebrating birthdays or Christmas, singing hymns and experiencing dozens of other worldly pleasures.
“My mum, with the best will in the world, was ignorant and uneducated, and then she had these five very bright, very cheeky children. And she’s just like, where am I going to be loved? Kids are just like ‘mum, shut up’, Dad’s not interested, so she falls into this ridiculous cult and that’s where she finds and gives love. She was pathetic in the true sense of that word; she needed sympathy, she deserved empathy. What she got was a lot of scorn, I’m afraid, from her children when we were younger.”
Having left home and the trappings of the church upon finishing school, De Waal rapidly caught up on worldly things: boys, drugs, politics, books. But she acknowledges some of its influence lingered long after.
“I left home at 16,” she says, “and would have said, hand on heart, hooked up to a lie detector, I don’t believe any of that sh*t. However, unplugging from it wholly, getting rid of the stain of it, I’d say, followed me into my 30s. I didn’t believe in it, but I found it very difficult to say anything anti-Jehovah. It was very repressive, and I got to the point where I was like, ‘you’re not going to die — what year is it now?’ It’s not 1975 now, it’s 1980, it’s 2000. Jesus I’m 40 and I’m not dead! It stayed with me a long time. I still can’t believe I’m 62 now.”
The book climaxes with a moving soliloquy on the pleasure and vitality of reading, and on the mind-expanding, world-exploring, life-saving properties of literature. But De Waal says the act of reading her own work has caused a similar mental shift in how she sees her own parents.
“I recount in the book [my father’s] story about fish,” she recalls. “He used to save up some money to buy a tin of sardines that he would hide and eat. I knew that story, I’ve heard it all my life. But then I did the audiobook a few weeks ago, and I spoke in my dad’s accent, so I’m recounting it as him. That was very powerful, I really heard the damage to him, done through poverty. I’m 20 years older than he is when I’m describing these events. And then my mum, with mental illness, five kids, no money and working her fingers to the bone. I see them as people — the revelation to me is that either of them stuck around. I would have left — ‘can’t do it, sorry!’ And they both stuck around. For good or for bad, they were there.”
What then, having written a memoir of her own unpredictable childhood, might an author have discovered about herself?
“I saw some traits that never left me,” she says. “I saw the genesis of the things that still interest me about writing; I don’t really care about big events, they can happen over there. I like the ordinary house and the ordinary people and the micro stories that look so unimportant to others.
“How someone leaves the door open, or buttons their coat, or shoves the bag on their shoulder. I’m fascinated by those little things, the tiny moments and actions that make someone a person.”
— Without Warning & Only Sometimes: Scenes from an Unpredictable Childhood by Kit de Waal is published by Hachette