Chameleon in my garden
Interview with the author
An Interview with the author Nita Nicholson
by Dr. Bob Donaldson,
on reading her debut novel Chameleon in My Garden
BD: Your writing seems to get stronger as the novel progresses? Would you agree?
NN: My first drafts did evolve a lot, that is true. I gained new insights as the writing progressed. Essentially, I wanted to understand what I had been through, but to do so without bitterness; though there was always anger mixed with sadness. There were many varied influences over the many years of drafting and redrafting. It was a long and probing process of discovery, that took more than 30 years. I suppose my writing skills were extended with the new discoveries, factual and psychological, that surfaced.
When a single novel takes so much time to incubate, its creation is transforming. I had time to hone my comprehension of the dystopian world it was set in. Sometimes, I practised by having conversations with an imaginary Colonel Gaddafi, while I washed the dishes. I tried to reason with him. I tried changing ‘voice’ to mirror the contradictory perspectives that made up the complex whole of his psyche.
Then, success in freeing my husband from political detention brought about another twist. It was not safe to return to Libya and join him after my exposure in the campaign. I saw how much danger the fictional Sally would have been in, with her husband still not free. This suggested a new trajectory towards an ending I had not envisaged at the start. I imagine the complexity matured me as a writer.
BD: Are the characters real people or are they based on real people whom you knew?
NN: I selected just a few people whom I knew, in order to meet the scope of the novel. I blended some into a single character. Fathia was real and wholly herself, unchanged in her humanity throughout. There were no characters from real life whom I knew to be openly opposed to the regime, apart from Saad. Everyone was submissive, subdued and restrained, unless they were favoured and operated as informers. There were many who were possibly clandestine critics. I could not have known who they were, so I created them as the story demanded. Hassan was one of these, a character fashioned with some qualities borrowed from a real person and some partly imagined. The secret police were everywhere, very real and generally obvious, as were the fortune-tellers.
BD: Who is Sally? Is she you?
NN: Yes, I suppose she is a fictionalised me. I had difficulty choosing a name for her or giving her any justified purpose in the context of Benghazi. She was alien, a sort of misfit who wanted to belong. I could have adopted a Libyan name for Sally but it would have confused her identity for the reader. At first, Sally was central to the plot. Then, at other times, I wanted to erase her completely. But the novel wouldn’t have worked without her. Sally existed because I was there and experienced the trauma from the inside, not as an expat outsider. So she remained as a permanent fixture, toned down, disempowered and possibly seeming too passive as a result. I am glad she stayed. She creates the tension. However, she remains a conundrum for me.
BD: Why was Hassan in so much trouble? He didn’t seem to do much that was openly rebellious.
NN: Well, remember there were informers in the family and you could never know how far their influence stretched. There was suspicion. There was reasonable paranoia. Hassan knew he was under surveillance. Even so, he was reckless and did dangerous things like fishing along the coast where there was smuggling in the coves. He was inconsistent, usually restrained by fear and outwardly cautious, but also impulsive. He took risks. He protected Sally, in his own distinctive way. He jeopardised the safety of the family.
Hassan carries the main theme of trauma, the challenge of surviving with integrity in the repressive conditions of an authoritarian state. He needed stamina, and to be constantly alert to the danger he was in. He knew there was a surveillance network but he was too disengaged to detect the intelligence links.
BD: What is the function of the chameleon in the novel ? Is it an avatar?
NN: Oh, well spotted. ‘Avatar’ is a good word for it. ’Chameleon’ translates in Arabic to a meaning linked to ‘war’, a semantic link I didn’t make at first. But there was something about chameleons that intrigued me. They belonged in the story. It is a hybrid kind of avatar, because it stood for many things. It symbolised both danger and the search for safety – for itself and for others. It stood in for the intelligence police because it could hide and yet be seen in plain sight, if you knew where to look – now you see them, now you don’t, sort of thing. Even the chameleon’s long tongue was akin to the long reach of the antennae, as the intelligence police were termed. They could reach and threaten you in a number of ways, by radar or telephone tapping, and kerb-crawling. The chameleon was a reminder that no one was immune from surveillance. The chameleon was both a blight and a blighted thing hiding in a garden that was meant to be a safe haven.
The Bosnian war influenced my writing. I remember the words of a Bosnian woman telling how her neighbours, having been their guests at weddings and other festivals, suddenly came over the hedge to kill her family. One of the words for ‘garden’ in Arabic means a place surrounded for its protection. So it had to be Chameleon in My Garden.
And so, I guess, the chameleon is an avatar. Quite a wonderful creature, I think, the way its eyes swivel round to see everything. An alert, apprehensive being thriving in an uncertain world. Also a distraction for the children, as was the feral cat. Maybe the cat is an avatar too. Perhaps she provided the prospect of survival on the fringes. I suppose that was where Sally was.