Secrets, Strength, & Sisterhood: Author Gina Wilkinson discusses When the Apricots Bloom
Gina Wilkinson’s debut novel, When the Apricots Bloom, is set in Baghdad during the reign of one of the world’s most infamous ‘strong men’, the dictator Saddam Hussein. But in this story of secrets, motherhood, and friendship, three women from vastly different backgrounds shine a light on what strength truly means.
Q: What inspired you to write When the Apricots Bloom?
A: Back in 2002, I moved to Baghdad, after my husband was posted there as part of his job with UNICEF. It was a year or so before the start of the Iraq war, when the country was ruled by Saddam Hussein. Very soon after I arrived, I was befriended by a local woman who I later discovered was an informant for the regime’s secret police, reporting back on my every move.
I don’t blame my friend for informing on me. In Iraq, if the secret police wanted something, saying ‘no’ wasn’t an option, especially for someone from a relatively humble background, with a family to protect. But I always wondered, were we actually friends or was it just an unpleasant duty for her?
With this question in mind, I began writing When the Apricots Bloom, starting with the moment the secret police arrive at the home of an Iraqi secretary working at a foreign embassy, and demand that she spy on her boss’s wife. The story that develops after that point is fiction, but many of the details and background come from my real experiences.
Q: The novel is told from the point of view of Huda, an Iraq secretary forced to work as an informant, as well as Ally, the diplomat’s wife who she spies on. But there’s also a third woman, Rania, who plays a key role. Can you tell us about her?
The character of Rania allowed me to show a side of life vastly different from what you might have seen in the news during the Iraq war – and that’s Baghdad’s amazing art scene. When I lived there, the city contained more two dozen independent art galleries, and they became a real refuge for me.
Historically, Iraq was at the forefront of the arts for centuries. Artists themselves played an important role in connecting Baghdad with the outside world. To an extent, that was still the case. While most of my Iraqi friends worried that being seen with me in public would attract the attention of the secret police, we could still meet at art galleries, where we had a little more freedom to communicate. Those real-life relationships led to the creation of the character of Rania, raised in wealth and privilege but now struggling to keep her art gallery going, and more importantly, to keep her daughter safe.
Q: In your novel, the woman being spied on is a young Australian, who goes from being an independent journalist with a career of her own, to a house-bound diplomat’s wife, struggling to deal with her new situation…to what extent is that character autobiographical?
A: I used to be a journalist, like the character Ally. But in contrast to Ally’s situation, my husband had followed me to several new countries and postings over the years. When he was offered a job in Baghdad, the journalist in me was intrigued– especially as Baghdad had been sealed off from the outside world for a decade. However, Saddam Hussein didn’t permit foreign reporters into Iraq. So, I went in with a visa for a ‘dependent spouse’ – an awful label – and that’s the same visa Ally uses to enter Iraq. To start, I did feel a lot of the loneliness and isolation that Ally feels. But unlike her, I soon found a job working at the United Nations Oil for Food program – and unlike her, I didn’t go around investigating sensitive matters. I was very careful about that. I knew I was being watched – I didn’t know it was by a close friend – but before the regime fell, I was very careful to steer clear of anything that might get anyone else in trouble with the authorities.
Q: How have your Iraqi friends responded to this book?
A: They’ve been absolutely fantastic. Three of my friends read the complete manuscript and helped with fact checking, and in general they all provided much-needed encouragement to keep going. We went through a lot of heartache together, and that created a bond that’s very strong. My Iraqi friends, especially my women friends, are a real inspiration to me. They’re survivors. They’ve been able to rise above all the terrible things they’ve suffered. And I hope this novel shows Iraqi women as I found them to be – and that’s smart, resilient, warm and loving.
Q: There’s a big push for greater diversity in the publishing world and to read more from ‘our own voices. Two of the three main characters in your book are Iraqi women – what’s your perspective on a white, western woman writing from an Iraqi woman’s point of view?
A: I very much agree that the publishing industry has marginalized authors outside of the white, western mainstream for far too long. In this polarized era, we need more diverse books, written by diverse authors, in settings and situations that reflect the deep richness of our world. At the same time, I don’t believe in setting rigid rules about who has the right to tell which stories, or that an author should only create characters with a similar background or genetic code.
One important point that I aimed to show in Where the Apricots Bloom is that, despite different backgrounds, we share so much in common. I think many women would see aspects of their own lives reflected through the Iraqi characters in my book. They have to juggle the competing demands of work and home life. They fall off the diet bandwagon. They have to deal with rebellious teenagers. I think fiction is a fantastic way to show that while we might pray in a different manner or bake our bread differently – at heart, we want the same things, we laugh the same, and we feel the same pain. I think when done right, books can unite us, and illuminate what we share, not divide us, and right now that’s something we need more than ever.
When The Apricots Bloom is OUT NOW in ebook!