Emma Craigie on the Inspiration behind ‘What Was Never Said’
28th May 2015
I started writing the novel What Was Never Said in 2012 after meeting an amazing group of young people in Bristol. They were school students who belonged to an organization called Integrate Bristol and they had just won a prize for their film, Silent Scream, which highlighted the issue of Female Genital Mutilation. I met them as they were preparing for the first British National Conference on FGM, and I acted as a practice audience as they geared up to addressing a big audience of FGM survivors, medical experts, charity leaders, politicians and lawyers. The conference was opened by a fantastically brave 14-year-old boy who admitted that it felt weird to be speaking in public about women’s genitals, but he continued: “Too many people have been quiet for too long. But the point is if FGM is to stop, and it has to stop, then everybody, regardless of gender or race, has to take a stand.”
People have not been quiet since. In the three years between then and now hundreds of politicians, lawyers, medics and charities have spoken out about FGM. In 2012 I found that every time someone asked what I was doing I had to explain what FGM stands for. That very rarely happens nowadays. The powerful voices of the young people from FGM affected communities, like those of Integrate Bristol, have liberated others to overcome historic qualms about criticising an ancient cultural tradition. There has been a shift in thinking across the globe. This month Nigeria became the most recent country to criminalize the practice. In Britain FGM has been illegal since the 1980s, but only since September 2014 has it been mandatory for medical professionals to keep records, and only in June 2013 did the NSPCC launch their FGM helpline which has since referred over 1700 survivors to specialist clinics in the UK.
People have not been quiet since. In the three years between then and now hundreds of politicians, lawyers, medics and charities have spoken out about FGM. In 2012 I found that every time someone asked what I was doing I had to explain what FGM stands for. That very rarely happens nowadays.Since 2012 the young people of Integrate Bristol have themselves been on an incredible journey. Since that first conference they have have been interviewed in the national press; successfully lobbyed ministers and met with key figures such as United Nations head Ban Ki-moon and the Pakistani campaigner Malala; they have taken part in documentaries and debates and even appeared on Newsnight. They now send teams into schools across the country to promote sensitive and effective education about FGM and Violence Against Women and Girls more broadly. Their work has not been appreciated in all quarters. When their film Silent Scream was shown in Bristol’s Arnolfini Centre, the students received so many threats that they were given a police escort. But threats haven’t deterred them, as Muna Hassan explains in this clip: they faced down opposition and have engaged the older generations in their communities in their campaign.
What Was Never Said was inspired by these students, but is not a polemic, nor does it tell the story of any of the young people I’ve met. It’s a work of fiction – the story of a young girl who is struggling to protect herself and her younger sister from the cutters who killed their older sister. It’s a story about growing up and overcoming threats and difficulties and taking control of your own life. In very different ways this is exactly what the young people of Integrate Bristol have done. Their determination and resilience is an example to all of us to fight for what we believe in. What Was Never Said is a story about the strength and power of young people and, for that reason, I hope it is a story which will connect with young people facing all kinds of different issues, from all kinds of backgrounds.
Emma Craigie is a writer and teacher. She is the author of Chocolate Cake with Hitler (Short Books) and Who Was… King Henry VIII (Short Books). She lives in Somerset with her husband and four children.