Talking Location With .. Venetia Welby – OKINAWA
Talking Location With… Fiona Valpy – Casablanca
21st September 2021
#TalkingLocationWith … Fiona Valpy, author of The Storyteller of Casablanca – Casablanca.
The email arrived out of the blue. It was from a gentleman in America who’d read some of my books and kindly written to say how much he’d enjoyed them. He added a throwaway line at the end of his message saying he wished someone would write down the story of his wife’s experiences as a refugee in Casablanca during World War Two. Intrigued, I wrote back and gently enquired whether he’d be prepared to tell me more. I received no reply, but my interest was piqued. I’d already written several books set during the war, based in France and Scotland but, apart from having watched the iconic movie starring Bogart and Bergman, the North African strand of history wasn’t one I knew much about at all.
As I began to dig and delve, reading books and internet articles, I discovered the stories of an extraordinary cast of characters, part of the tide of refugees escaping as the Nazis over-ran Europe, who washed up in Casablanca as they tried desperately to arrange onward travel to Portugal and America. Travelling by boat from Marseille to Algeria and then onwards by whatever means of transport they could find, their journeys came to an abrupt standstill when they reached the Atlantic port. Here they were forced to remain for months – and sometimes years – as they tried to apply for entry visas to the USA, exit visas from Morocco and transit visas through Portugal, queuing at consulates and embassies for hours on end. Some of the refugees were relatively well-off, while others had nothing. All were forced to stay in makeshift camps until they could find accommodation in the city, either in the French-built Nouvelle Ville or in the Jewish Quarter, known as the Mellah.
As the novel took shape in my imagination, I was excited to have a research trip to Morocco organised. But, after forcing it to be postponed twice, the global pandemic finally and definitively stymied those plans. So I had to find other ways to fill in the gaps and ensure I could still transport the reader to that other time and place. I studied travel guides and pored over maps, but also read more widely around my subject, including novels by Driss ChraÏbi (The Simple Past), Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky) and Anthony Doerr’s Africa-based short stories (The Shell Collector). Meredith Hindley’s book Destination Casablanca offered a wealth of insight into the city during the war years and Hal Vaughan’s FDR’s 12 Apostles was a useful source of detail about the establishment of espionage networks in North Africa prior to the US invasion in November 1943.
Videos on YouTube helped me to visit the sights and souks, and the internet offered up additional information on some of the real-life historical characters that appear in the book, including Josephine Baker, the inspirational singer and performer, and the human rights lawer Hélêne Cazês-Bénatar. Other such characters, like the Englishwoman Dorothy Ellis who worked as a courier for the American intelligence network in Casablanca, proved to be frustratingly elusive despite all my research efforts, so I did the best I could and imagined the rest. My characters, both fictitious and real, took on lives of their own and helped my story unfold.
Storytelling is one of the key themes of the book and I’ve included it in many different forms – there’s everything from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the murder-mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers, La Fontaine’s Fables, and traditional African and Berber Folk Stories, to the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. I wanted to explore how the stories we tell are such an important part of our history and at the same time can inspire and shape our future, as well as illustrating the common ground between different cultures in the past and the present. There’s a universality in the human need to tell our stories and make our voices heard that transcends borders, cultures, race, religion, age and gender.
I’m now working on a novel set in Italy during World War Two, as well as revising my first three books (The French for…series of contemporary novels) which are to be re-issued in the coming year, so my writing continues to keep me busy. The courage and determination of women in challenging times continue to fascinate and inspire me, and I’d like to explore some different historical and geographical contexts for future books.
But there’s one bit of unfinished business that I’d also like to conclude once travel becomes safer and easier again: that still-elusive trip to Morocco.
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