x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A passage to Kashgar came about through travel with the British Council

Suzanne Joinson tells of how travelling the world with the British Council inspired her novel.

Suzanne Joinson has travelled in the Middle East, China and North Africa. Courtesy Simon Webb
Suzanne Joinson has travelled in the Middle East, China and North Africa. Courtesy Simon Webb

It's a novel partly inspired by a Victorian manual called Bicycling For Ladies - although not that much cycling actually happens in it. Its heroine is a devoted cyclist who is part of a Christian mission to China in the 1920s. And yet its author, despite being a young mother living on the very English Sussex coast, has somehow written the hugely enjoyable A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar from harsh, eye-opening and dramatic experience.

"I got a research grant to go to Kashgar in 2009," says Suzanne Joinson - and yes, she is a keen cyclist. "I was reticent to go because I'd just had a baby. And when I got there, the Uyghur Muslim community were clashing with the Han Chinese. There was no internet, my phone was being bugged and I must have looked like some kind of spy, walking around with this notebook."

In the end, Joinson was asked to leave Xinjiang Province, but not before it had opened her eyes to a particular Islamic community in China.

"It was really intense but incredibly useful. In so many senses Kashgar is the same as some of the places I've been to thanks to my work with the British Council, such as Cairo and Damascus. There are mosques and souqs. But walking around the old town, it did feel like it perhaps hadn't changed since the 1920s. And seeing as my character Eva was in a similar uprising in the 1920s, I could certainly try to empathise with how she must have felt."

Eva is the intriguing young woman at the heart of the book who joins her sister Lizzie and the domineering Millicent as a trio of missionaries. But she is less concerned with trying to "root out the hidden wells of ignorance and superstition", and more interested in writing a two-wheeled travelogue "filled with insights about the Muslims". Instead she is caught up in death and intrigue in a turbulent Kashgar.

"I wanted to try to see if I could track some thread between the past and present," says Joinson, and Eva's story is deftly interwoven with that of Frieda, a woman in contemporary London. Freida finds an illegal Yemeni immigrant outside her door, who has drawn a long-tailed bird on the wall alongside a line of Arabic script. Luckily for him, Frieda's research job is what she calls a "thankless, limitless" task: to interview the youth of the Islamic world "to surmise their concerns neatly" for a European-funded think tank. The pair strike up a relationship that eventually provides the neat connection to Eva's travels.

It's not, then, the typical tale of pompous missionaries trying to convert the "natives".

"No, but if you read the amazing archive of diaries and letters from the missionaries in the British Library, it quickly becomes clear that this huge surge of women who applied for service after the First World War didn't do so because of a singular religious impulse," she says.

"Usually there was some trigger, something that made them have a life crisis that impelled them to escape, to see these amazing places - which they could under this guise of being feminine, devoted and respectable. I found it fascinating."

In a similar sort of way, Joinson's role with the British Council, which has taken her to the Middle East, China and North Africa, has the whiff of missionary work about it.

"Well, it's not the same, but I do get your point," she says. "We use different language, terminology and of course it's not based on religion, but some of the assumptions British people make in the way that we negotiate with the world haven't changed that much.

"That's why I was very conscious of the portrayal of the desert in the 1920s, Kashgar, the souqs and so on... it's a very 'exotic' setting to western eyes so I had to make sure I used the contemporary elements of the book to counter that dated idea of orientalism. I felt very comfortable writing about Islam, actually, because I've been so absorbed in working in that part of the world."

To that end, Joinson hopes that her publisher's sister company, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, might translate the book into Arabic soon - and that she might eventually see it published in Mandarin.

"I know it's a stupid dream, but I hope that maybe one person will read this book, look up Kashgar, maybe even go there and see what an amazing part of the world it is."

Maybe they'll even take their bike.


A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar (Bloomsbury) is out now. Visit www.ladycyclistsguide.com