Scotland's Toni Davidson speaks at the Edinburgh Book Festival 2012
‘I wrote in huts, by the beach, in hotel lobbies, in train stations’
This article is from 2012.
As Toni Davidson launches his new book about child soldiers, he says cheerier times may be around the corner
Scotland’s Toni Davidson is a self-confessed ‘slow writer’. In 1999, his debut Scar Culture was acclaimed for its innovative and unflinching portrayal of child abuse. And though there was the short story collection The Gradual Gathering of Lust in 2007, his fans have had to wait 13 years for a second novel – My Gun Was as Tall as Me -- which will be released a week after the author’s upcoming festival appearance.
Like Scar Culture, Davidson’s new book is a harrowing depiction of children being used for adult ends; but this time, they’re child soldiers in a vicious ethnic conflict in South East Asia. The particular country in which the conflict takes place is deliberately left unnamed but any politically aware reader will quickly recognise its inspiration.
‘Some of the research that I did was based in Africa,’ Davidson explains. ‘Sierra Leone in particular and Liberia. The lack of identifying the country, to me broadens it beyond the barriers of that particular country. All over the world, 30,000 child soldiers are being used. The book highlights that and it’s very much a “without borders” idea. Having said that, if people read it a little bit and have any familiarity, they’ll start to see that in terms of names, in terms of places, in terms of even the army being called the Tat which is short for Tatmadaw, they’ll begin to realise that this sounds like Burma.’
Davidson was born in Ayr but happened upon the idea for My Gun Was as Tall as Me while living in Vietnam. ‘I knew I wanted to write a book about being in two places at once,’ he says. ‘Having come from Scotland to Vietnam, the contrast was very strong and very vivid. I also wanted to go to Burma but I didn’t know much about the country apart from it being quite inaccessible in some ways. And then I discovered more about its politics and as I got into that, the research just took me off in the direction of much of where the novel now is.’
Davidson’s research has been so meticulous, parts of the novel read almost like first-hand accounts from both NGO workers and victims of ethnic violence. The story follows Tuvol, a disillusioned European who, after a botched suicide attempt, travels to South East Asia with the NGO worker who rescued him. There, he meets young twins Lynch and Leer, whose village has been annihilated in an army attack led by a child soldier recruited from the very same village, and with whom they played in childhood.
Ultimately, Tuvol makes a decision that raises solemn ethical implications for conflict management and the protection of children who have been internally displaced. But the solution he chooses isn’t one that the author necessarily advocates. Instead, Davidson says it’s, ‘exactly the kind of moral dilemma and moral decision that I’d leave up to the reader’.
Essentially, the novel is a fictional story that’s suffused with the authenticity of non-fiction. But it’s based entirely on reports and video accounts from NGOs working with internally displaced persons, rather than any first-hand research conducted by Davidson. ‘This was a bit of a dilemma,’ he admits. ‘I spent some time in Thailand, close to Burma, but I made a decision not to go there. At that time, the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, was asking tourists not to go because they believed, very credibly, that tourist money was going straight to the government, which was then oppressing people. I felt it was a bit disingenuous for me to be interested in Burma and writing about it and then going on some tourist junket there. So, I thought, let research and imagination do the job, and that’s what I did.’
It’s taken Davidson five years to complete the book which has jumped from place to place, accompanying him on his travels to Switzerland, where he now lives with his wife and daughter. ‘It’s never been a statically written book in my study. It’s been written in huts, by the beach, in hotel lobbies, in train stations. It’s had a portable quality, and looking back on it I think that served it well.’
My Gun Was as Tall as Me will be published by Glasgow-based Freight Books, a young publisher whose attitude and dedication Davidson commends. But although both his novels have focused on distressing subjects to date, he promises that his next book, on which he’s currently working, will be a less traumatic read. ‘It’s more like a mystery novel set in the Alps with no killing and no violence,’ he laughs. ‘I want to explore a different side of the human condition; perhaps something lighter, but definitely something different.’
Toni Davidson (with Madeleine Thien), 12 Aug, 8.30pm, £7 (£5); Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers Series, 12 Aug, 5.30pm, free. Both events at Charlotte Square Gardens.