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Open to Ghosts: Writing The Optician of Lampedusa

Posted on 1st November 2016 by Sally Campbell
Our Non-fiction Book of the Month for November, The Optician of Lampedusa, is a volume that has the power to provoke true change. It is the sum of desperate, human horror: an ordinary man suddenly pitched against unimaginable circumstance. Award-winning BBC journalist Emma-Jane Kirby was no stranger to the misery of the migrant plight, but something in this account – which began, as was usual, as a piece for radio – simply refused to fade away. Exclusive for Waterstones, Kirby looks back on the book’s beginnings.

£5 of every copy sold will be donated to Oxfam in support of their work with refugees.
The Optician of Lampedusa started life as a BBC news report but whereas most reports fade away naturally into the airwaves when the programme ends or when one switches off the radio, the Optician’s voice grew louder.  When I slept at night I could hear his mewling seagulls and I could feel his dark and oily shadows stealing into the crevices of my dreams, tugging at my hands. Each morning as I surfaced back into wakefulness, spluttering and breathless, he was still there looking at me mournfully from his boat.

“I never wanted to tell you this story,” he’d told me. ‘Because it’s not a nice story.”

I think the optician knew I’d be haunted by it. But I think he also knew that his was a tale that needed to be told. So here he was now, watching me night after night, waiting for me to tell it again; that, I understood, had been the unspoken deal. That is the deal with the optician’s story. Once you hear it, you have to pass it on. 
I’ve realised that you have to be open to ghosts when you’re writing a book; you have to agree to be visited by the past and to allow spectres and visions you’d long ago exorcised to float out of the bottle. Journalists survive by actively trying to filter out much of the horror they see, fastening a virtual flak jacket to their memories to protect them from too much in-coming fire. Writers have to ditch all their body armour and wait for the hits. 

I like writers who punch hard and who can bring the natural world swirling, roaring or creeping into my sitting room. The first time I read Per Peterson, I could distinctly smell Norwegian pine forests in my West London garden and autumnal loss on the spring breeze. When I read anything by Tim Winton, I swear I can feel my skin prickle and tighten with sunburn and salt as I plunge into the ocean with him. I will never be able to wash away the wistful, haunting prose of John Banville’s The Sea; or the heavy imprints that William Golding’s Pincher Martin’s sea-boots sank into my mind as a teenager.

I’ve always loved the sea. I grew up on the Blackwater estuary, thirsting for salt water. The sea’s hold on me is almost atavistic – if I’ve been away too long from the ocean, I feel obliged to get in it, whatever time of year it is. A full moon at midnight in November on a private beach on the Isle of Wight saw me dive head first into the blackness and when I finished writing my book in April, it seemed absolutely necessary to offer myself to the ice cold waters off Iona, even if it had snowed the day before.  I knew I needed to be in view of the sea to be able to write the book; I was offered the use of a wonderful house in St Tropez that overlooks the bay but I chose instead to write in an hotel in Eastbourne where my room had two glass walls from which I could watch the grey water from my desk or my bed and through which the omnipresent sea watched me. At night, I took refuge in the stuffy seaside boarding houses of early Susan Hill novels, choking on the spite and the smell of brown Windsor soup.

I fear the sea too; it has nearly claimed me a couple of times; once many years ago on a rip tide in the Atlantic, and again a few summers back in the seemingly benign Mediterranean when my partner and I had to rescue four Senegalese friends, all non-swimmers, who had got swept out of their depth on a rogue wave.  I cannot know, of course, what it’s like to be faced with a sea full of dying people but I do know what a drowning African looks like. I will never forget how my friends’ skin drained grey as the salt water invaded their lungs, how the whites of their eyes filmed over with yellow. We saved them, but only just. Only just. I am still frightened by the terrible calmness that engulfed me when I thought I couldn’t fight any more.

When I sat down to write the book, all these memories swirled onto the page and were sucked into an undertow beneath the optician’s own words.  Sometimes as I was writing I wondered whose tale I was telling? Because it’s not just the optician’s story; in many ways it’s as much yours and mine. I’m often asked how to read The Optician of Lampedusa – as factual reportage, as fiction or as a modern day parable? When you open the book, you take the optician’s place at the helm. It’s up to you to decide whether what you’re seeing is a vision or reality. 

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