About The Author
Suzanne Joinson lives on the Sussex coast and works part-time in the literature department of the British Council, which allows her to travel widely across the Middle East, North Africa, China and Europe. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London.
In 2007 she won the New Writing Ventures award for Creative Non-Fiction for 'Laila Ahmed', a short story based on a box of letters she found in Deptford Market. (You can download the story here.)
She cites as amongst the writers she admires most Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, Lawrence Durrell, Marilynne Robinson, Janice Galloway, Carson McCullers and Olivia Manning.
Her first novel is A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar. It is 1923 and Eva is joining her sister Lizzie and the headstrong Millicent on a missionary expedition to the ancient Silk Route city of Kashgar. However, Eva's real intention is to write a travel guide to the area, which she intends to explore on her new-fangled bicycle. Not long after their arrival, their assistance of a young woman who dies in labour puts them under suspicion amongst the local community, but Millicent remains undaunted.
In present-day London, Frieda, recently returned from a research trip to the Middle East, finds a young homeless Yemeni man outside her door. The two, both adrift in their lives, form an unlikely and wary friendship when Frieda offers him temporary use of the flat in which a woman unknown to her has recently died, but to whom she has been named next-of-kin.
The remarkable debut novel sheds light on the parochial attitudes of England between the wars and the search for an identity in a rapidly expanding world both then and now. In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Suzanne talks about being caught up in riots in China during her research, the early travel writers whose books inspired her and why she was surprised to find herself writing about a Yemeni.
You can also see a short video of Suzanne discussing here book here.
Questions & Answers
You've travelled extensively in the regions you describe in your work in the literature department of the British Council. Is there much of the Kashgar of your novel still in evidence today?
I have travelled a fair bit in China for my British Council job but for Kashgar I was lucky enough to get a research grant. I went in July '09 and my trip coincided with a serious uprising in Urumqi and Kashgar with clashes between Uighur Muslim communities and Han Chinese. When I arrived in Xinjiang Province the entire region was in shut down, with no international calls allowed and no internet. It was intense and scary, but also in research terms hugely useful.
The Uighur Old Town part of Kashgar felt, to my Western eyes, as though much of it indeed would have been there when my novel was set (1923). I took photographs of doors, alleyways, old bread ovens, mosques, tiles, carts and ramshackle buildings. I feel privileged to have wandered around it -despite the riot police in evidence - because the Chinese authorities are currently in the process of demolishing the area and relocating inhabitants to modern tower blocks. Of course, I realise that I might romanticize the old souq area and I have no doubt there are huge safety, sanitation and health issues, but at the same time this ancient city is being entirely eradicated apart from a tiny section which will be artificially kept going for tourist purposes.
Check out this documentary for more info.
Were there any travel writers whose books gave you the idea for Eva's own attempt?
Yes, I was inspired by Isabelle Eberhardt, a wonderful Swiss explorer and desert wanderer.
Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming travelled together from London to Peking in the 30s and it is hugely entertaining to read both accounts and compare them; you would hardly believe it was the same journey. A spiritual starting point to my book was the missionary writings of Mildred Cable and Evangeline French. Originally I planned to write about them specifically but once I accessed the China Inland Mission archives at SOAS and missionary papers and letters at the British Library I realised that it was the women who applied to missions for perhaps not quite entirely religious reasons who were the most interesting.
I also read a lot of the marvellous thick tweed skirt brigade, colonial women travel writers such as Freya Stark, Vita Sackville-West and Gertrude Bell.
The travellers are put under arrest when they assist a young woman in childbirth, successfully delivering the baby but unable to prevent the mother from dying. Is it simply superstition about strangers that makes the locals so suspicious of their involvement?
Suspicion regarding foreigners in China at that time was extremely high and the Boxer Revolution was fresh in minds so to some degree I was referencing that. More importantly, though,I wanted to highlight the curious nature of missionaries and how they appeared to locals. Prior to World War One, single female missionaries were placed in married households, the assumption being that the woman must be under the protection of a European male. Chinese locals often assumed that the additional missionary was a second wife and that was understood, even if erroneous. After the war, with men scarce and dealing with a surge in applications from young women, the missionary boards began to set up what were known as 'ladies' houses'.
These spaces were in many ways extremely radical and revolutionary. Usually in remote locations, the women-only domestic arrangements operating outside of usual society codes and confines, unsurprisingly they aroused much suspicion and curiosity: where were the fathers and husbands? What on earth were these women doing?
Millicent's religious beliefs seem very dogmatic and inflexible, but she's also capable of being highly manipulative. Is she deluded about her own motives or simply hypocritical?
She is both at different stages of the story. She certainly believes in her powers to convert and do noble works in the name of God and the British Empire. The clever paradox at the heart of missionary work is that a woman could be seen to give the self, devote a life to the greater good, offer a life of servitude etc, all good old fashioned womanly traits yet in reality she was queen of her own domain, able to live a life of freedom and adventure and to shun the whole world of childbearing and marriage for an independent life. Millicent exploited the opportunities fully for her own gain.
Eva is often critical of Millicent's missionary attitudes, but also has fairly fixed moral views of her own: she says of her sister Nora that she "has become a liar who cavorts with artists and consumes gin". Is Eva caught between Victorian values and more modern attitudes?
That's exactly right. She travels this enormous distance and when she gets there finds herself in charge of a baby and the kitchen. She has a personal sense of conflict around the desire to escape - flee, run and keep moving - with the need for a home, or perhaps more accurately a drifting return to a sort of home. In some senses it is her sister Elizabeth who is the more radical, certainly in what she attempts to reach or attain through her photography, relationship with Millicent or spirituality flawed as it all may be.
The attitudes and actions of many of your characters, in both the past and present-day threads, are in opposition to the beliefs of the culture in which they were brought up. Which of them to you feel coped best with adapting to a different culture?
Tayeb is a character who surprised me. If I'd have said to myself 'I'm going to write about a Yemeni in London' I would have assumed I couldn't do it (or have no right to attempt it) but he came out of nowhere, almost, and kept growing. He never really adapts to England, just as Eva never adapts to Kashgar. Likewise my present day character, Frieda, is at sea in her own life. The novel is the story of their struggles with just that: the search for a place of ease. None of the characters fully arrive at a place of safety.
Where did you find the magnificent map which makes up the endpapers [reproduced below] of the finished book?
I was researching missionary maps online and came across a book called You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. A wonderful book, it has various 19th Century missionary maps included.
Can you tell us anything about what you ll be working on next?
I'm working on a novel about an English architect in Palestine at the beginning of the British mandate era. It involves studying lots of aerial photography maps from that time - great fun.
'Falls of Eternal Despair' (1895), artist unknown, lithograph, 32" x 26"
Courtesy of Eleanor Dickinson
Photo by Megan Geer