Victoria Williamson’s debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, is the compelling story of two frightened girls who are dealing with traumatic circumstances within their own families, and yet through their unlikely friendship, manage to overcome and even banish some of their fears.
When the two girls discover an injured fox and her cubs hiding on their estate, they realise that a friendship between them will help the foxes. Slowly, they discover that they have much more in common than just saving foxes, and soon it is Reema (a Syrian refugee) showing Caylin (a native Scot) how to fit in and belong in their local Scottish community. The power of their friendship gives a stability and a hopefulness to both girls.
Caylin is troubled – the reader first sees her in the role of bully, taking birthday money from a school girl, but the reader is soon aware that although Caylin’s actions can’t be excused, there are reasons behind her behaviour. Williamson draws Caylin with breathtaking empathy.
In alternating chapters the reader meets Reema, a refugee fleeing her wartorn country, and coming to terms with the damage the war has inflicted upon her family and the realities of facing life in a completely different country and immersing herself within its culture:
“Here even the trees speak a different language.”
Caylin is a wonderfully drawn character – distrustful of adults around her due to past circumstances, predisposed to show a lack of effort at school, and yet remarkably likeable, and completely misunderstood. And Reema too, is shown bravely straddling her old and new lives, embracing her new culture whilst trying not to eschew the old. But it’s Williamson’s own grasp of the two cultures that makes for such an effective read.
Here, she explores how she used the sensation of taste and the meaning of food to explore the characters within her novel:
Harissa cake, mint lemonade, tangerines, pears, plums, beans, soup, fish and chips, battered sausages, tea, lamb stew, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, corned beef, porridge, pizza, chewing gum, toast and jam, tabouleh salad, chicken shawarma, baqlawa pastries, ma’amoul cookies, bubblegum, coffee, meatballs, yoghurt, ice cream, custard, sweet and sour pork, crisps, flatbread, chicken casserole, pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate, black pudding, haggis, Irn Bru and deep-fried Mars Bars.
This is just some of the food mentioned in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle. It wasn’t until I was editing my novel that I realised just how many times food and drink was discussed, and how important it was to my characters. For Caylin, chips from the local chip shop are not just a necessity as her mother’s expensive alcohol habit uses up their benefits money, but a treat to be looked forward to at the end of a hard school day. In chapter three she says:
“I stuff the plastic bag with the wrapped chips down my jacket as soon as I get outside, hugging them to my chest and soaking up the warmth and delicious smell. Then I run home, the secret stash of chips protecting me from the wind and the rain like a magic charm.”
For Reema on the other hand, the chips in the school canteen are a greasy reminder that she’s in a foreign country very far from her beloved Syria. Even something as simple as a cup of tea that doesn’t taste the same makes her homesick, as she describes in chapter four:
Mama makes the tea that our neighbour has brought instead of using the packet of tea leaves the mosque gave us along with a big box of food supplies. She is afraid the old lady will not like our strong Syrian tea, and she wants our guest to feel welcome. I try not to make a face as I sip the weak brew. It tastes soft and sad, just like the Scottish rain. I long for a cup of strong black tea and the lashing rain of home.
Victoria in Cameroon
It got me thinking about the time I spent working as a teacher in Africa, particularly my two years in Cameroon. The food was so different from anything I’d eaten before – boiled fufu corn and Njama njama (a kind of fried huckleberry leaf), rice and bean stew, ‘foot cow’ pepper soup, and egusi pudding (ground seed paste with dried crayfish).
And then of course, there was achu.
I thought I would never, ever get used to the taste of achu and yellow soup. It looks about as appetising as it sounds: a grey, volcano-shaped mound of pounded coco yam with a play-doh like consistency, and thick yellow soup with a crushed limestone base. The first time I ate it the only way I could swallow it down was to take a big gulp of water with each bite, fake-smiling at the teacher who’d spent hours preparing it for me and hoping I wasn’t going to look like an ungrateful guest by throwing it up on the table. Try as I might to avoid it over the next two years, it turned up regularly at the end of each long school meeting, prepared by some of the female staff. We’d share a drink and a laugh together over our meal, and eventually I learned to tolerate and then grow strangely fond of the grey goo that I’d struggled to swallow at first.
Towards the end of my time there, I found my mind wandering in class when lunchtime approached, but it wasn’t the rice and beans I enjoyed so much at the local chop house I was thinking about. I couldn’t get the thought of my mother’s shepherd’s pie and cherry scones out of my head. There were times I’d even think longingly of the oxtail soup she used to make for lunch when my brothers and I would come running home from primary school, which was odd, as I didn’t even like oxtail soup!
This is where Reema’s homesick voice comes from, when she asks her little sister in chapter twelve:
“Remember the food Aunt Amira used to make? The tabouleh salads and chicken shawarma and baqlawa pastries? And the Eid al-Fitr feast when we would invite all our family and friends to eat Mama’s famous ma’amoul cookies?”
My mouth is watering at the very thought of my favourite dishes, but Sara is frowning at me as though I am speaking a foreign language.
In the months after I returned to the UK, I got to eat all of the food I’d missed – my mother’s homemade cooking, spaghetti Bolognese, moussaka, chille con carne and chocolate cake. But one day as I finished teaching a maths class just before lunch, I realised a strange thing. Instead of fantasising about the pasta and pizza, fish and chips or baked potatoes in the canteen, all I could think about was a big plate of achu and yellow soup. Two years of trying to avoid the stuff, and there I was missing it like a long lost friend. That was when I finally understood. It wasn’t about the food at all. It was about the people I’d shared the food with that made the memories of it so powerful.
That’s why Caylin loves her chips so much despite eating them every day until her unwashed uniform starts to smell of grease. They remind her of happy times and make her feel safe. In chapter five she describes sharing a meal from the chip shop with her mother:
I snuggle up next to her on the couch and rest my head against her fluffy dressing gown. She puts her arm round me and holds me tight as we laugh at the stupid film and the rubbish acting. This is my favourite time of day – just before bed, when Mum’s slept off the doctor’s tablets to help with her depression, and before she reaches for a bottle to help her through the night. This is when I can pretend we’re a proper family again and the accident that ruined it all didn’t ever happen.
No matter where we are in the world, our thoughts, opinions and memories of the food we eat will be shaped by the people we share it with. Even if at first we struggle with the flavour, texture or smell of a new dish, ultimately whether we come to love and miss it will depend on our willingness to connect to the people who sit with us round the table. Despite missing home so much it hurts, Reema comes to discover a fondness for Scottish food when she makes friends with Caylin and starts to feel more at home in her adopted country. Caylin describes this in chapter twenty-nine:
On the way home we stopped at Michael’s Superchippy. We had a great party eating Syrian food with the Haddads a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to share something from Scotland with Reema and Sara. I asked Brian to get them a black pudding or haggis supper, but he said they weren’t allowed to eat meat that wasn’t halal, from their own Muslim butchers. I was disappointed, but Brian winked at me and asked the guy serving us for a deep-fried Mars Bar each for pudding.
Now we’re sitting on our sofa, eating chips and deep-fried chocolate bars, and I can’t stop laughing at Reema’s impression of a Glaswegian accent when she says “pure dead brilliant!” and takes a swig of Irn Bru from her can.
“Does this mean I’m Scottish now?” Sara asks, licking the chocolate off her fingers. “Am I properly Scottish?”
Brian can see that Reema doesn’t like her saying that, so he says quickly, “You’re Syrian-Scottish, Sara. You get to be two things at once, which is extra special as most of us only get to be from one place, and that’s boring.” Brian’s good that way. He knows how to say the right thing and make people feel more relaxed. I was totally wrong about him. He isn’t a bit like Mum’s old boyfriends.
“Syrian-Scottish? Yes, I like that,” Reema smiles and clinks her Irn Bru can against mine like it’s champagne we’re drinking.
So next time you’re far from home and faced with a strange dish you’re not sure you’ll like, take a look at the people you’re eating with. If you’re willing to let your guard down and make new friends despite language and cultural differences, then chances are you’ll come to miss that food just as much as the friendly faces round the dinner table when you leave.
With thanks to Victoria Williamson for writing with such passion about her novel. You can buy your own copy here.