Author Q&A: Georgina Harding

Land of the Living (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

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Protagonist Charlie is home from the Battle of Kohima and the horrors of the Second World War, but struggling to forget about the months he spent lost in the remote jungles of Assam, and those he met there.

What made the Battle of Kohima and the jungles of Nagaland the ideal backdrop for Land of the Living? 
Land of the Living grew out of my previous novel, The Gun Room, in which a young man goes as a photographer to the Vietnam War, driven by a need to discover something of the experience of his father, who had fought on the Burma campaign in the Second World War. As the notion of his father grew in my mind, I realised that I had another book there, going back to the generation before The Gun Room. So I read up on the Burma campaign and the battle of Kohima. The battle itself, and the fighting that ensued across Nagaland and into Burma, offered me an opportunity to look at war from a new angle. In this, perhaps the most remote battlefield to be found in the world, three warrior cultures met: the British and the Japanese, but also the Naga. This twentieth century mechanised imperialist war was fought across a land inhabited by ancient tribes of headhunters. There was an irony in the fact that during the brief period of the colonial presence in this far corner of Assam, British administrators had tried to dissuade the Nagas from the barbaric custom of taking heads; and yet those same civilised British fought a battle there leaving 10,000 casualties behind them, and all the devastation that went with it.

Tell us about your research into the landscape and the Angami Naga tribe.
I’d been interested in Nagaland for many years, but because of the long-running insurgency against Indian rule, special permits had been required for only very limited visits to the area. Travel had recently become more possible, so it was exciting to be able to get there at last. The first thing you think, looking out over the endless tangle of misty-jungled mountains, is what an extraordinarily remote place it is to come and fight a war – or to research a book, for that matter. I spent some time in Kohima and in beautiful villages around Kohima, and then drove with a guide to far more wild villages along the Burmese border where I could still meet old men who bore the tattoos that indicated that they had taken part in headhunting raids. The last recorded headhunting incident that I know of was as recent as 1990. I’d like to make it clear that the Naga tribes in my novel are unnamed, not Angami nor any other tribe, though they may have customs that Nagas themselves might associate with one or other group. I was writing fiction, not ethnography, and I wanted the Nagas my hero Charlie meets to stand out as people, as individuals, as he sees them.

What role can fiction play in encouraging readers to confront the darker aspects of war and empire? 
Fiction offers a wonderful opportunity to focus not so much on the facts of history but on human essentials: on how men and women experienced war or empire, how the war or empire it was customary to speak about at home were perhaps quite different from what they had actually known and seen, and on the underlying moral experience.

Charlie is left suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following his return from the jungle. How does modern research into mental health help us appreciate the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families?
It’s not for me to diagnose my characters or classify their states of mind, but only to imagine them. While PTSD may be an immensely valuable term for psychologists and therapists, and for those they treat, I don’t think it has any place in my novel. Take an ordinary man to war, like my character Charlie, let him experience battle as he does, and the aftermath in the jungle, and life with the Nagas, and what do you think would be an ordinary man’s reaction? Nightmare, isolation from those who haven’t seen what he has seen, depression, guilt, moral questioning? Surely the true disorder is in the war, not the man’s condition? That’s where my focus lay. There is almost a danger that by too glibly labelling an individual’s condition as PTSD, we imply that normality may mean acceptance of the consequences of war.

Why was it important for you to explore the effect war had on women who were unable to fully understand what their husbands had been through?
I was interested in how peace follows war, how a soldier comes home bringing knowledge that either he can’t express or that society doesn’t want him to express. How this might affect a young marriage, in a way which perhaps is typical of the marriages of the 1940s. And then, how this is reflected in post-war society. How in Britain we quickly conjured up a myth of the war, one that developed perhaps naturally from wartime propaganda and morale-boosting. How we greeted our soldiers as heroes (and how could they say that they weren’t?) and for the next few decades wrote stories and made movies that played on the myth, comforting ourselves perhaps for the loss of empire that came with the winning of the war.

You have written extensively about war, exploring the Vietnamese conflict in The Gun Room and wartime Romania in Painter of Silence. How important is it for memories and stories about war to be kept alive through fiction?
Novels can take us back into history and make us see things again and anew, and do this with empathy that gives emotional as well as rational understanding of the past. I think it’s important to do this, going back to think over different pieces of history again and again in different generations, so that we can better understand what makes our present.

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