Sue Divin talks the courage to build peace in Guard Your Heart
Many of us know about the Troubles. Not many know about the years about the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. Guard Your Heart is both a touching love story and an empathetic exploration of the Northern Irish Troubles.
Derry. Summer 2016. Aidan and Iona, now eighteen, were both born on the day of the Northern Ireland peace deal.
Aidan is Catholic, Irish, and Republican. Iona is Protestant and British. At a post-exam party, Aidan wanders alone across the Peace Bridge and becomes the victim of a brutal sectarian attack. Iona witnessed the attack; picked up Aidan’s phone and filmed what happened, and gets in touch with him to return the phone. When the two meet, alone and on neutral territory, the differences between them seem insurmountable.
We had the honour of chatting with Sue Divin on her thought-provoking tale.
Congratulations on being shortlisted! And thank you for introducing this important part of history to readers. Can you recommend one piece of documentary/news story etc that is related to Guard Your Heart so readers can know more about the backstory/the inspiration behind the story?
Thank you so much! I’m delighted to have Northern Ireland represented on the Carnegie shortlist. That’s a hard question. The initial inspiration came from the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ – a whole series of 100th anniversaries around Northern Irish history. I wanted to tell the story of ‘now’, one hundred years on from that. It’s set in 2016 – the centenary of the Battle of the Somme (WWI) and the Easter Rising (Irish fight for Independence). The book was published in 2021 – the centenary of the founding of Northern Ireland and the partition of Ireland. A party or a wake, depending on your perspective. There’s a great website called ‘Creative Centenaries’ that presents this in an accessible and inclusive way. https://www.creativecentenaries.org/
Which tourist attractions and dishes from Northern Ireland would you recommend?
Well obviously, I’m going to say visit Derry. The book is focused on the city of Derry (also known as Londonderry) and the surrounding area. It’s a stunningly beautiful landscape of mountains, beaches and rugged coastline and Derry is a historic walled city with loads of history, heritage and cultural events. The Peace Bridge, Murals, An Grianán Fort, the Jazz Festival, Carnivals… For dishes, I’ll avoid the clichés of the Ulster Fry, Irish Stew and Guinness – Derry is one of the best ‘foodie’ destinations in Ireland so try our street food or sea food. It’s an easy and affordable city break from Great Britain. Plus, we have Derry Girls – need I say more?
Guard Your Heart is your debut novel. Before that, you were teaching History and Politics. How different is it to teach history via textbook and to tell history through a novel?
To me my novels are set more or less in the present context, they’re less about history than about the legacy of history on today’s generation. History is something we tend to learn with our head. Novels teach us through empathy – through our heart. I’m hoping that readers will connect with issues around identity and human rights as well as building peace and respect – those concepts can apply much wider than just Northern Ireland. For me, the key difference between a novel and a textbook is that a novel doesn’t aim to teach. It aims to tell a story. If it’s done well however, a story may help people learn. And think.
You are working to build peace in the community for the local government. Why do you think it is so difficult to have peace even when the violent days are over?
Building peace takes courage. It also takes time. The scale of deaths and trauma here in the Troubles is comparable in numbers to the impact of Covid. Do we expect society to recover from the impact of the pandemic quickly? I think it’s unrealistic to expect that a peaceful and shared society can be built overnight. Ireland was Britain’s first colony in a sense. The issues that created conflict in Ireland go back hundreds of years. They’re also a complicated mesh of identity, human rights, culture, history, politics, language and more. There’s a tendency to over-simplify it to ‘Catholics v. Protestants’ – firstly because the labels make it easier to understand and secondly because it places the blame entirely within Northern Ireland and lets others off the hook for creating the situation historically. Brexit also blew a huge hole in Northern Ireland’s peace process and stability.
And what do you think is the most effective way in ensuring peace in the local community?
Hope. Our communities here are amongst the most deprived in the UK and Ireland. Unemployment is high. NHS waiting lists are far worse than in Great Britain. People need a sense of purpose. They need to feel they have a hope and a future. They need to matter. In other words, they need to see the benefits of peace in their own lives, families and communities. Investment is key to peace. So is empathy – that’s why I write. Fiction is a powerful tool for empathy and empathy is a powerful tool for peace.
Guard Your Heart by Sue Divin (Macmillan) has been shortlisted for the 2022 Yoto Carnegie Medal. The winners of the Yoto Carnegie Greenaway Awards 2022 will be announced on 16 June. For more information visit carnegiegreenaway.org.uk.
Grab your copy of Guard Your Heart here.