Truth be Told is a perfect coming-of-age story about two teenagers discovering their identities and we can always rely on Sue Divin to tell us some fun tidbits about Northern Ireland. Last time, we chatted with Sue on Guard Your Heart, which was nominated for the Yoto Carnegie Medal. We have the honour of having Sue with us again, this time on Truth be Told.
Tara has been raised by her mam and nan in Derry City. Faith lives in rural Armagh. Their lives on opposite sides of a political divide couldn’t be more different. Until they come face-to-face with each other and are shocked to discover they look almost identical. In searching for the truth about their own identities, the teenagers uncover more than they bargained for.
We start off the novel with Tara snapping the neck of the Child of Prague. Can you tell us what other versions of this belief are there?
Well of course any viewers of Derry Girls will know that they had an incident with an attempted kidnapping of a Child of Prague statue but that may not be as traditional. The only custom I’m aware of around it is that for Irish Catholic weddings, some people believe if you put the Child of Prague in your garden before your wedding the big day will be filled with glorious sunshine. Variations on that include it being placed under a bush or beheaded – the latter being what happens in Truth Be Told.
Any fun memories from The Roaring Meg Bike Show and Halloween at Derry to share with us?
I love the annual Roaring Meg Bike Show. Cue tourism ad… come visit! Derry has a complete set of historic city walls. During Roaring Meg, the walls are crammed with hundreds of bikes and trikes, music, stalls, entertainment and, of course, crowds of leather and denim. Hallowe’en is colossal. Derry~Londonderry is the ‘Hallowe’en capital of the world’ with the largest Hallowe’en festival in Europe attended by an estimated 90,000 people. If you don’t dress up, you’re the odd one out.
The mad thing for me about both of these featuring in the Truth Be Told was that I’d gone to both festivals in 2019 with my writer’s notebook in hand. (I’m sure I must look like an eejit scribbling notes with crowds milling about me.) My writing is often inspired by places and events, but at the time I wasn’t sure what I’d use these notes for. Turns out, without my scribbles from 2019 it would have been almost impossible to write those scenes into the novel because by 2020 when I was writing it, Covid cancelled all festivals. Writers – Always take your notebook!
Last time, you mentioned that you are working on community peacebuilding. Are there many activities that are funded only if both Catholics and Protestants are involved? What kind of activities are these, other than youth groups?
Funders are as diverse as people. Not all focus on ‘cross-community’ or peace-building work. EU PEACE funding, one of the biggest reconciliation funds, specifically requires sustained cross-community contact. Ask the question a different way: If you want to heal and build relations between different identities or races, and tackle issues that cause prejudice or discrimination, to what extent is that possible if everyone sitting in the room is from similar identities?
Peace-building uses every approach possible: Arts and culture, heritage and history, human rights, dialogue, community development, environment, regeneration, women’s groups, men’s groups, early years work, sports, training… literature, novels…
Northern Ireland is increasingly diverse. Many young people aren’t religious or (party)political and are more motivated by issues like the environment, Black Lives Matter, poverty, LGBTQ+ rights and mental health.
Truth be Told touches on a lot of issues, from gay marriage to abortion. How do you ensure you are unbiased when writing about these issues?
I’d say it’s a matter of opinion whether I fully achieve that or not. An Irish Times review of Truth Be Told said I avoided ‘demonising or sanctifying anyone’ and that the novel ‘makes space for the messy complexity of human existence, and gently offers, but does not preach, hope.’ I loved that review because at my core I suppose I am trying to walk a tightrope of setting out perspectives on controversial issues but asking the reader to draw their own conclusions. Perhaps it’s about allowing the complexity and the messiness of humanity to be real, even though I’m writing fiction.
We always learn about people finding long-lost relatives after doing a DNA test, and that they feel connected to each other very quickly. Why do you think Tara and Faith can form a strong connection quickly?
Tara and Faith are both hurting – in different ways. They both have questions. It’s the quest to find answers that unites them. I think what bonds them is when they start to see each other’s humanity – in peacebuilding that’s often when prejudices and barriers break down.
Instead of attending regular therapy, Tara seeks help from art therapy. Why do you think art therapy works especially well for her?
Firstly, with the NHS waiting lists in Northern Ireland being 100 times worse than England (fact-checked in 2019) Tara would be unlikely to get medical therapy in time. Truth Be Told is set in Autumn 2019, when the NI government, ‘Stormont’, had collapsed for 3 years. (We’re currently back in that scenario again since February 2022.) Key decisions weren’t being made by our politicians and that included budgets and strategic planning for health services.
Often, community groups pick up the pieces. Tara’s art therapy is community-based. Different approaches to trauma work for different people. Tara is very creative, and Ingabire, a wonderful role model and facilitator, supports her to express her feelings, build confidence and release the bottled-up stress. It’s the freedom, informality and self-expression that helps Tara to heal.
Tara and Faith’s families have very different approaches to teaching them about the IRA. What do you think is the best approach to teaching the future generations about this history?
Faith’s family overload her with everything. Tara’s family try to protect her by telling her nothing. Essentially that’s the debate – to move into a peaceful future, how much of the troubled past does the next generation need to know? The question is more universal than Northern Ireland. For example, to understand racism, how much of colonialism and slavery needs explored? What about justice? Do we need truth to heal? (The clue’s in the title…)
Interestingly, the question focuses only on teaching about the IRA. Truth Be Told also references loyalist (pro-British) paramilitarism and state collusion (through policing and the British army). The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation Bill) that is going through Westminster right now, proposes to ban ‘Troubles-related’ prosecutions. Should someone who’s relative was murdered not have the right to seek justice? Victim’s groups and experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council have been very critical of this draft legislation – will the UK make it law?
Specifically on teaching history, there are important ethical principles. Start from historical facts. Understanding different perceptions and interpretations. Use history to deepen understanding rather than division. In summary: Remember in Context. Remember the Whole Picture. Remember the Future. Remember Ethically. Remember Together.
What’s the main difference between writing Truth be Told and Guard Your Heart?
Readers who enjoyed Guard Your Heart, should hopefully love Truth Be Told. They’re a similar style, but unrelated. Truth Be Told isn’t a sequel (I know. *sighs* *Apologises to everyone who fell in love with Aidan and Iona*) Do however expect that same dry wit, self-depreciating humour and voice that is the trademark of this wee corner of the planet – I still love characters who bounce off the page into your heart; and I still adore writing teen protagonists. Do expect a page-turner. Do expect it to make you think.
Up front confession – whilst Guard Your Heart was primarily a Romeo and Juliet, Truth Be Told is more of a quest. I promise though, there is still sizzling romance woven in there too…
Another key difference is that, in some ways, Truth be Told challenges the dominant narrative / main story of Northern Ireland. Though Guard Your Heart showed the complexity of peace, it still fitted more or less into the ‘Catholics versus Protestants’ telling of Northern Ireland. That’s the story people are most commonly told of here (and possibly most comfortable with hearing) – it fits our box. In recent years across the world, more diverse stories and voices are being heard. In my book, that’s a really good thing. Instead of just the traditional voices saying, ‘This is the way it is, was and always will be’ other voices are rising to ask, ‘Is this the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?’ Truth Be Told digs into those other questions of here. Identity is diversifying and changing. Conflict issues are not always clear-cut. Truth can be messy – and hard to hear.