When you focus on the small picture rather than the big issues, on things that divide people rather than things that unite them, your society can start to crumble. It’s a familiar story in the modern world, and it’s a theme which runs through Joss Sheldon’s latest novel, "Occupied".
“'Occupied' is based on the occupations of Palestine, Kurdistan and Tibet,” Sheldon explains with a look of earnest concern. “But it’s relevant to everyone, wherever they are. Our lives have all been ‘Occupied’; by a small economic elite, a one percent who keep all the money whilst we do all the work. And although groups like the Occupy movement are fighting back, most people are passive; competing with their peers rather than their masters. We’re the victims of exactly the same sort of divide-and-rule that I saw the Zionists use when I was in Palestine, researching 'Occupied’.”
For Sheldon, more than anything, this is a ‘tragedy’:
“I believe that deep down we’re all the same; we all share a common humanity; we all have hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, fears and doubts. That’s a truly beautiful thing. But all too often we focus on the small differences which divide us. And that, for me, is a tragedy. It’s the greatest tragedy of all.”
"Occupied" follows the lives of four main characters; a refugee, native, settler and economic migrant, all of whom are affected by these divisions. At their core, each character is the same; they all face the same challenges, react in the same ways, and feel the same emotions. But their different labels and alternative backgrounds provide barriers which stop them from ever uniting.
It would be easy to focus on this theme, which runs through "Occupied". But to do so would be to miss the artistry of the novel; the characters which often remind us of ourselves, the scenery which bursts into life, and the subplots which fill every page. "Occupied" is a story of individual hope against collective despair, and with that comes a certain sense of optimism; a determination to be the best you can. The four main characters have to battle against the trauma of forced marriages, displacement and physical abuse, but they become stronger as a result of experiencing such hardships.
“It’s not black and white,” Sheldon muses. “It’s not a case of one character being right and another one wrong. It’s not about ‘good actions’ and ‘bad actions’. There are moments of clarity and moments of confusion. The characters do see their similarities and unite, every once in a while, just not often enough to make a real difference. They do grow stronger and wiser but, just like in the real world, their society is too fragmented for one or two individuals to make a significant impact.”
Sheldon rolls his eyes and puckers his lips. It’s as if he’s talking about something close to his heart. A shared experience perhaps…
“Yeah,” he nods. “I’ve been there, done that! I’ve been on anti-war protests with hundreds of thousands of people, only to see the wars we were protesting against go ahead. I’ve spoken up, spoken out, and been totally ignored. I’ve been arrested. And then I’ve been through periods, years even, where I’ve not done anything; feeling apathetic; feeling like nothing I could do or say would make a difference. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think people do see problems around them, and they do want to create a better world, but they feel helpless. They stay silent, the world stays the same, and injustices are allowed to flourish.”
And now we’re getting to the point. This sense of helplessness in the face of injustice is a core feature of "Occupied". It’s a dark novel, far darker than George Orwell’s ‘1984’, and perhaps the darkest novel ever written. But it’s dark because it holds a mirror up to the real world. It strikes a chord.
“For me, it’s personal,” Sheldon says. For the first he seems focussed; his eyes are steely and his voice is confident, although it wavers a little as he speaks – full of subtle emotion. “The Zionist occupation of Palestine is personal because, as a Jew, it’s being done in my name. I feel implicated. I feel guilty. I feel that I need to show the world that there are good Jews who oppose the apartheid and ethnic-cleansing of that land.”
To be a Jew opposed Zionism cannot be easy though…
“History is full of individuals who spoke out against their own people, individuals who were often called ‘traitors’,” Sheldon explains. “But those are the people who tend to get judged favourably with hindsight; like the white people who spoke out against the subjugation of black people in apartheid South Africa, for example, or the citizens of imperialist Britain who opposed the slave trade even though their nation was profiting from it.
“So I don’t have a problem with being called an ‘enigma’ or a ‘rebel’. My family considers me a traitor, as do many other Jews, but I don’t care. As a Jew, I was brought up with stories of persecution; stories about how the Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians, expelled by countless countries, and slaughtered in gas-chambers. I was taught to oppose that sort of persecution. That’s why I oppose the Zionist’s persecution of native Palestinians. I’ll oppose injustices carried out by Jews, just as I’ll oppose injustices carried out against Jews. I feel it’s my duty. I feel it’s what I was born to do.”
Sheldon’s words are accompanied by a steely sort of determination. But then he needs to be determined. He is a maverick. His first novel, “Involution And Evolution”, turned the whole narrative of war on its head; branding soldiers as ‘cowards’ and conscientious objectors as ‘brave’. The style was just as daring – the whole book rhymed! And "Occupied" follows on in that same avant-garde tradition. It’s set in three distinct sections which condense the whole passage of human history into just one lifetime. As structures go, it’s pretty unique. But then again, so is Sheldon. A rebel with a cause, and a once-in-a-generation writer, he sits outside the mainstream literary tradition. His work isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it has critics as well as fans, but with hindsight, history is sure to judge it favourably. And you feel that is all that Sheldon wants.