It’s easy to forget just how different the world was back in the mid 1970s, when Francesca was set. No mobile phones, no internet, no Starbucks on every street corner. Easier, too, for dictators to keep a lid on their shenanigans. You could take out a town, empty a region of its population without any fear of pesky demonstrators posting evidence of your atrocities on youtube for all the world to see and condemn.
So it’s hardly surprising the Indonesian invasion of East Timor passed me by, even though I was living in the region at the time, an expat teenager whose father worked in the oil business. The local media was strictly censored, whilst foreign correspondents who might have kicked up a fuss were for the most part unable to access the place. Besides, who was interested in what was going on in a backwater most people had never heard of?
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that I encountered East Timor again. I was doing some volunteer work for Amnesty International in London, and kept coming across all these cases from the conflict. The more I looked into them, the more shocked I became, compounded by the more shocking revelation that I had been in Indonesia when this tiny country was gobbled up by its neighbour and large parts of its population annihilated.
Several hundred miles away our lives continued in their cocooned luxury, oblivious to what Suharto’s soldiers were doing. No one mentioned it, no one spoke out, no one did anything that might upset the cosy relationship between the Indonesian government and the western oil companies. Everyone was making money, and besides Indonesia was on our side, a bulwark against communism.
It was the discovery of these parallel worlds that inspired me to write Francesca. In particular, I was interested in people who straddled both, the ones with the fullest picture. Naturally, they would all be invented characters, but that is the freedom and the joy of fiction. As they took on their own lives, they created their own dramas, sorrows, joys, tragedies and triumphs. Out of all this Francesca was born.
Francesca will be published in September 2013 by Betimes Books