Article published: Friday, March 26th 2010
MULE’s Tim Hunt caught up with writer and activist Sarah Irving about her influences, politics and new book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs
MULE: What brought you to this great city?
SI: I was born and raised in south London, and hated it. My family are from the North – York and Birkenhead – so I always intended to come north, although Manchester itself was a bit of an accident. I had friends here, so that gave me a start. I know in some ways I’ve missed out on jobs and connections by not being in London, but I’ve also been able to have a better life – doing loads more voluntary work and activism – than would have been possible if I’d been paying London prices.
MULE: Did you always want to be a writer?
SI: I’m not sure I ever felt empowered enough, in my teens or at university, to want to do anything so fancy. I’ve sort of fallen into most things I do by accident, and am always a bit surprised to find I’m okay at something. I’m constantly convinced that someone is about to rumble me and send me back to school.
MULE: What inspired you to get involved in political and social justice issues?
SI: The really specific things that got me involved were, firstly, at the age of thirteen seeing a Choose Cruelty Free campaign ad in Just Seventeen, and thinking that testing makeup on animals was really wrong. Then I got involved in conservation volunteering locally. And then when I was about fifteen my mate Ayesha got me involved in the Anti-Nazi League in South London. And then when I went to university I discovered direct action – it was the mid nineties, so there was Reclaim the Streets and Newbury and anti-arms trade demos going on.
MULE: Who has been the biggest influence on your thinking?
SI: My mum introduced me to feminism in my teens – that had a bit impact. Writers like Edward Said, June Jordan and Eduardo Galeano gave me a grasp on how vast and interconnected different oppressions are. Friends and people I’ve campaigned with in Manchester and beyond have shaped me and my views and values. They know who they are!
MULE: Tell us about your new book.
SI: Gaza: Beneath the Bombs is based on Sharyn Lock’s writings from Gaza, mainly during the massive Israeli invasion in December 2008 and January 2009, when 1,400 people were killed, mainly children and other civilians. I’ve known Sharyn for about ten years, initially through Earth First! and other campaigning, and she was part of my affinity group on my second International Solidarity Movement visit to Palestine, in March 2002, when there was another major invasion of the West Bank and Gaza. Because of her work with ISM she was blacklisted from entering Israel so she helped found Free Gaza, taking boats through the Israeli naval blockade. I already had a contract with Pluto Press for another book, so when I realised how powerful Sharyn’s writings were and what an important story they told, we approached them about editing the blogs and adding background material and information to create a book.
MULE: Why do you feel that the Palestinian issue is so important?
SI: A lot of it is simply personal. I have wonderful friends there, I love the place, I’ve seen terrible things and been injured there, so the emotional connection is strong for me. On a wider political scale, it’s impossible to disconnect the West’s support for Israel and our governments’ apparent blindness to Israeli human rights abuses and also to the massive theft of land for settlements, the discrimination meted out to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Palestinian citizens of Israel, from issues like control of the Middle East and its oil, racism and anti-Islamism, and global hatred and hostility which feed religious fundamentalism – Christian and Jewish as well as Islamic.
MULE: Have you visited Palestine many times?
SI: Since 2001 I’ve spent a total of about a year there, spread over 7 visits.
MULE: Was writing the book a cathartic experience?
SI: Not for me, since I’d experienced most of the events at second-hand. The actual editing process was sometimes tough, as some of the book is quite harrowing and I had to read it several times, in minute detail, trying to detach my instinct to cry from the need to think about things like which transliteration of which Arabic placename we were going to use. But overall, I feel really privileged to help get some marvellous, moving, important writing out into the world.
MULE: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
SI: Given the failure of governments and international institutions to act on climate change and the apparent confusion and disempowerment of ordinary people – extremely pessimistic, for humanity and most life on this planet.
Gaza: Beneath the Bombs is published by Pluto Press. MULE’s review of the book can be found here
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