Debbie Taylor—novelist, traveller and author—takes us on a journey to meet seven remarkable women. In each of seven countries, she lives with one woman, learning about her work and her family, her fears and beliefs, her loves and losses. Taylor portrays them vividly: Jomuna, forced into backbreaking work hawking dried fish door-to-door, looked down upon and ostracized because she is a widow; Hua, a factory worker whose husband divorced her for giving birth to a daughter; Lydia, who followed her mother into ...
Debbie Taylor—novelist, traveller and author—takes us on a journey to meet seven remarkable women. In each of seven countries, she lives with one woman, learning about her work and her family, her fears and beliefs, her loves and losses. Taylor portrays them vividly: Jomuna, forced into backbreaking work hawking dried fish door-to-door, looked down upon and ostracized because she is a widow; Hua, a factory worker whose husband divorced her for giving birth to a daughter; Lydia, who followed her mother into prostitution after her husband ran off with another woman. Varied though their stories are, these women's lives are made similar by dual enemies: poverty, which pulls them down to the lowest rungs in their societies, and patriarchy, which sabotages their attempts to climb higher. These forces bring about what Taylor calls the Fourth World: families headed by women, now comprising one-quarter of all households in the world. Taylor tells these moving stories with great empathy and insight. Ranging from China, India, and Australia to Uganda, Egypt, Brazil, and Scotland, she brings to life the worlds these women inhabit, meticulously detailing their struggles to secure a decent life for themselves and their children.
Taylor (The Children Who Sleep by the River) traveled to seven countries, from Australia to Brazil, where she interviewed and shared in the lives of seven members of the group she terms ``the Fourth World.'' What she found were women who, despite differences in race, class and culture, are united in their attempts to preserve themselves and their children in the face of poverty, crushing social restrictions and male profligacy. Taylor has the novelist's flair for picking out the little details that give each profile its heartrending force, as when an ailing Ugandan woman with four young sons describes her husband's death from AIDS. An Indian widow, forbidden by the Hindu religion to remarry, eat meat or attend family celebrations, walks more than 20 kilometers a day in searing heat to sell fish door-to-door. Unable to go out except for infrequent shopping expeditions, for fear that her ``looseness'' will mar her daughters' chances for marriage, a Cairo divorce stays in her tiny apartment, obese and diabetic like many of her peers. The little daughter of a Chinese divorce, when asked if she remembers her father, responds: ``He doesn't want Mother any more because I'm a girl.'' These stunningly immediate pieces underscore the fact that, despite their gains in certain societies, women the world over have a long uphill climb ahead of them. (Feb.)
Debbie Taylor is a novelist and journalist. Her books include a collection of short stories set in Thailand, A Tale of Two Villages (1986), and a novel about traditional magic and childbirth in Zimbabwe, The Children Who Sleep by the River (1991).
An advocate for women around the world, author Debbie Taylor has always found her experiences as a journalist informing her writing. But her first career as a psychologist must have certainly influenced her creative writing as well. After all, her first novel, never finished, was about a woman with a frontal lobe tumor. The "very bad first draft of a novel" as she calls it, was written in Africa on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.
The writer, born in Cardiff, Wales, on March 5, 1969, had given up her burgeoning career as a psychologist after earning her Ph.D. in neuropsychology at University College in London, England. She had been a research fellow investigating frontal lobe deficits in brain-damaged patients. But when she was offered a permanent position, she had to decide between writing and psychology. By resigning and going to Africa, she chose writing.
Taylor's time in Botswana was the start of adventures that would not only yield reports for the United Nations, but would lead to books of fiction -- most notably, The Fourth Queen -- published in December, 2004, to critical acclaim.
Although the novel about the woman with the brain tumor was never finished, Taylor worked in such jobs as counseling Zimbabwean refugees. She was even initiated into the local Batlokwa tribe following a month-long women's initiation process.
After returning to the United Kingdom, she wrote about the initiation for The Guardian newspaper and began working full-time as an editor at New Internationalist, an award-winning monthly magazine about social issues.
During her six-year stint, she was commissioned to write State of the World reports for such United Nations organizations as UNICEF and WHO. One of these -- The State of the World's Women -- was published as a book of essays called Women: A World Report (1987).
When commissioned to write factual reports about Zimbabwe and Thailand for the WHO, Taylor wrote a novel, The Children who Sleep by the River (1989), and a book of short stories, A Tale of Two Villages .
In The Children who Sleep by the River, Taylor captures the tenor of modern Zimbabwe. The novel chronicles four generations of women, of whom one is dead and another has not yet been born.
By now Taylor was using her journalism fees to subsidize more fiction writing. In short intense periods, she wrote the early chapters of The Fourth Queen, based on the true story of a Scottish girl who was captured by Moroccan pirates in the 18th Century and ended up in the Emperor's harem.
During this time, Taylor also raised funds to write a non-fiction book about single mothers. The research took her to seven countries, where she lived for a week beside seven single mothers. The book she wrote, My Children, My Gold (1984), was short listed for the Fawcett Prize for women's writing.
When Taylor's daughter was born, she wasn't able to travel freely, so her career as a development journalist came to an end. She was living in Newcastle, and was invited to co-edit Writing Women, the long-running women's literary magazine which she developed into an annual anthology published as the Virago Book of Writing Women until 2000.
Her journalism continued to become more literary. She joined two writing workshops and started working again on her fiction. A nearly $4000 grant at this point re-ignited her stalled work on The Fourth Queen, and she completed a first draft.
In parallel with this she began planning and fundraising for a new quarterly magazine for women writers, Mslexia, which was launched in March 1999 and has now developed into an influential publication.
During these productive years, The Fourth Queen, remained untouched. Finally, in the autumn of 2001, she took out a bank loan, hired a Guest Editor and took a three-month leave-of-absence. Finally, she completed the book.
The novel is set in 1769, when, according to Islamic law, a man may have up to four wives. The emperor of Morocco has a harem of a thousand women, and is looking for a fourth wife. His chief eunuch, the dwarf Microphilus, buys Helen Gloag, a young Scottish woman, from the slave markets of Tangiers. Helen had been traveling to the American colonies on a ship that was taken captive by Barbary pirates.
It is not long before the emperor is enamored of Helen and chooses her to be his fourth wife. But with this great honor comes intense jealousy and grave danger. One of the other queens has mysteriously fallen ill and poison is suspected. Microphilus fears Helen will be the next victim and puts his own life in danger to find the villain.
Currently, Taylor is working on Hungry Ghosts, a contemporary novel about an infertile woman, Sylvia, who quits her job as a hospital pathologist to live on a Greek island. She is trying to purify her body so that she can conceive a baby. On the island Sylvia meets Martin, a secretive young vagrant builder, with whom she has a love affair and become obsessed with finding out about Martin's past.
In an article she wrote on creativity for Mslexia, she talks about "how vital it is to keep challenging your normal perceptions." She said that when her daughter received her first pair of shoes -- turquoise jellies -- she was so besotted with them that she slept with them. "If the child's job is to understand the world for the first time, the writer's job is to help us see the world with fresh eyes."
Good To Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Taylor:
"I live in a converted 18th century lighthouse overlooking the mouth of the River Tyne with the poet W.N. Herbert who I met at a martial arts class."
"My daughter, now aged ten, was conceived following two failed IVF attempts and traditional fertility treatments by witchdoctors and shamans in China, Uganda, India and Brazil."
"My first novel was written while living in a mud hut on the edge of the Okavango Desert, where I underwent a month-long initiation into the local Batlokwa tribe."
"When traveling in Africa I usually lived in the villages I was writing about. In Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe the local woman gave me a name in their language. On each occasion, when I asked what the names meant, I was told they meant ‘honey bee'. The first time this happened was strange enough. When it happened in three different countries in three different languages, it was more than strange. My real name, Deborah, is Hebrew for ‘bee'. If you have read and loved Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, it will be obvious what shape my daemon must have taken."
"I love gardening, walking, swimming. I'm a very energetic driven person and these activities are my equivalent of meditation. I hate tight clothes. My natural blondeish hair has been dyed red for 20 years. When I'm 70 I plan to crop it short and go white overnight."
"I'm addicted to goats' cheese and rocket leaves. I never get drunk, but rarely go a day without a glass of wine."
"In a previous life I was a Greek peasant. With the help of the money from The Fourth Queen we bought a derelict mountain house on the Greek island of Crete, where my next book is set. (I related some of the nightmarish experiences involved in renovating it in Heat and Dust, a column I wrote in the Sunday Times newspaper here in 2003 and 2004). In twenty years' time I plan to retire to Crete with my husband and live on olive oil and tomatoes, and ride sidesaddle on a donkey."