Damian Barr is an award-winning British writer and columnist who will be appearing at this year’s Spring Literary Festival on May 2nd. He will talk about his new novel, which debuted early April, entitled You Will Be Safe Here. This will be Barr’s third published work, but his first fictional novel – he has previously written Get It Together: How To Survive Your Quarterlife Crisis, in which he interviews dozens of ‘twentysomethings’ as they navigate life after University, and Maggie & Me, a memoir of his childhood.
Get It Together addresses an issue familiar to both me personally and to other students about to graduate; our safety net of university has been yanked away and we’re faced with a big wide world in which we have no idea where we fit in. ‘I was 24 when I started writing this book, based on a series of columns I wrote for the Times,’ Barr told me over email. ‘Then, people scoffed at the idea of the QLC but now it’s as accepted as the mid-life crisis. It’s real! And everyone else is facing it to a degree.’ The main piece of advice Bar would pull from Get It Together to share with students is ‘talk about your anxieties with friends and share solutions and don’t be embarrassed to check in with a proper therapist. Facing your QLC should save you from a MLC.’
Barr was born in small-town Scotland in 1976 and grew up during the Margaret Thatcher years. Maggie & Me is a memoir about his formative years spent navigating an abusive and divided home life and discovering an identity whilst under the shadow of Thatcher’s political climate. Watching Thatcher walk away unscathed from an attempted assassination by bomb in 1984 is one of Barr’s most significant memories, and throughout his memoir he explores what it is like to both dislike Thatcher for her actions and admire her for her strengths; ‘You created Channel 4, which showed me my first gay kiss. You hated where I was from and I did too so you made it OK for me to run away and never look back. You offered me certainty, however grim, when I had none at home.’
‘It was wildly freeing,’ he says of writing Maggie & Me. ‘Diana Athill told me it would be cathartic and I doubted that, having had lots of therapy. But I found it freed me of shame I wasn’t aware I was carrying and freed me to be happier. I couldn’t have written it without support from my husband and friends. It was hard to relive a lot of what I shared but also joyful too. I don’t regret a word.’ Barr is also the creator and host of his own Literary Salon, where both established and emerging writers are showcased at venues around the world. The Salon gives writers an opportunity to debut their work, sometimes before it even has a title, and offers a unique storytelling experience.
Barr’s third work and first novel, You Will Be Safe Here, set in South Africa, focuses on multiple narratives that weave together; the first is of adolescent Willem who, when sent to New-Dawn camp by his mother and stepfather in the hopes it will turn him into their ideal of masculinity, discovers how the camp is being run by a white supremacist. Jumping back, the second narrative focuses on the strong voice of sixteen-year-old Rayna in 1976 Johannesburg, pregnant and married at a young age. Rayna’s daughter, Irma, also marries young, resulting in the birth of Willem. The third narrative thread goes back even further, following Sarah and her son Fred, who are being held in a British concentration camp in 1901, at the height of the Boer War, as the British destroy conquered territory and a huge number of civilians die in camps.
‘Because we all see things differently, I wanted to show how one event or experience viewed by three different people is really three different experiences,’ Barr explained. ‘I wanted to show the gaps in meaning and how history is not a constant but constantly renegotiated.’ Inspired by true historical events, Barr’s novel is rich in characters and voice and description, a trait shared through all his work, and is an honest and brutal exploration of violence and survival in a changing and unsafe world, and what it is to be an outsider.
Damian Barr will be in conversation with James Robert Carson at the 2019 Spring Literary Festival on May 2nd.