Sue Divin describes her Young adult book featuring a star-crossed young couple born on the date of the Good Friday Agreement as ‘Across the Barricades on adrenaline for a new generation’. Linda Stewart talks to the award-winning debut author
It's bad enough having to get your tonsils out when you're just eight-years-old, but for Sue Divin, it was her first brush with sectarianism.
The debut author says she was baffled when the other children in the ward of the Dungannon hospital refused to play with her.
"They asked me questions about my religion and when I couldn't answer them, they assumed I was the wrong religion," she says.
"I was brought up Presbyterian, although I don't see myself as Presbyterian any more - I would just describe myself as Christian. At the time I kept completely quiet - I internalised it."
Years later, as Sue found her horizons opening up at university, studying European Studies in England and France, she found herself reaching a turning point - whether to return to Northern Ireland or not.
"I decided to give it one last chance - with a secret condition attached. In my heart, I would only stay if I could help to build peace," she says.
And she did - Sue has been working in peace and reconciliation for more than 15 years and her path has now brought her in a new direction as the author of an award-winning debut novel, Guard Your Heart, a Romeo and Juliet tale set in Derry in 2016 with two protagonists both born on the date of the Good Friday Agreement.
A young adult tale of love across the divide, Guard Your Heart inevitably attracts comparisons with Across the Barricades, the ground-breaking Joan Lingard tale that became a mainstay in schools during the Troubles.
"People point out Joan Lingard and Across the Barricades as a young adult book about the Troubles, but it was written in 1972, before I was born. It's now two generations on from that and I felt it was time to tell this story," Sue says.
"It's about two children, both aged 18 and born on the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed, who had not lived a single day during the Troubles. I wanted to show the impact of the legacy of the Troubles and its complexities."
Born in Armagh, Sue now lives in Derry's Waterside, and is mother to a 15-year-old son.
Her late dad Herbie, a self-employed management consultant, and her music teacher mum Grace encouraged their children to challenge boundaries in a way that was sadly all too unusual at the time.
"The key thing for me that is relevant in the book was that my parents brought me up always to cross the boundaries and live in a very cross-community way, despite the Troubles," Sue says.
"I was quite into music - I played the flute. I did classical music and also traditional music with Armagh Pipers Club, and I played tin whistle and had a stab at the Uilleann pipes.
"I was always very interested in different people and cultures. I loved languages at school - I loved the idea of travelling to different places.
"Armagh was a lovely place to grow up in, with wonderful people, although there was very little to do for teenagers. There was no cinema - it had been burned down as far as I remember, and at sixth form you made sure you passed your driving test and your A-levels so you had a bit of freedom after that."
Sue describes how her mum, a peripatetic music teacher who taught in many of the schools in the area, came home one night with tin whistles for her and her sister, and that's how she came to be learning tin whistle in the local Gaelic club at the age of 11.
"I'm not sure that any other people from my background were learning to play the tin whistle at Armagh Pipers Club in the Gaelic Club - my mother drove me to the other side of town every week to do it. They were so welcoming," she says.
"I was also in Armagh Youth Drama Group, which was a cross-community group - it was those cultural experiences that took me to meet people from all backgrounds."
As part of the Erasmus scheme - which is now ending for UK students as a result of Brexit - Sue was able to study for part of her degree in European Studies at the Institut de Science PO at Grenoble in the French Alps where many of her friends came from African and Caribbean countries.
"It's so sad nowadays to see the UK Government ending Erasmus - it was a fantastic chance to broaden your horizons and experience a totally different culture," she says.
On her return she trained as a teacher before doing an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies at Magee College. After seven years as a teacher, she became the city council's community relations officer.
"It's been wonderful working in that role - it's engaging with diverse lovely communities from all identities and seeing the common interests to move everything forward. There is a lot of leadership in our community and voluntary sector and it has been a wonderful challenging role to be in," she says.
It wasn't until she became a single parent 12 years ago, caring for a two-year-old son, that she began writing Guard Your Heart.
"I was working full-time with no family support in the area and in a sense it was like being a prisoner in my own house - it was hard-going," she says.
"Because I was working full-time, I was coming home and doing childcare and I was too tired to read, but writing was a kind of company.
"I wrote the whole first draft without telling another human being that I'd started to write."
Guard Your Heart doesn't go on sale until April 1, but has already been shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2019 and was a joint winner of the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair 2019.
Sue is already working on the first draft of her next book, working title Truth Be Told, another young adult novel set in Northern Ireland in 2019 and led by two 16-year-old girls from Derry and Armagh.
As for Guard Your Heart, it's set in 2016 - Iona is a Protestant girl from the Waterside with family connections to the police, while Aidan, from the Creggan, is living with his brother because his father has gone and his mother has died.
"Both have finished their A-levels in that summer of coming of age and they're waiting to see what life brings," Sue says.
"Aidan has had a couple of years of being a bit off the rails after his mother's death - he's spent a couple of years off track and he's hoping his exams will be his ticket out.
"Near the start he's in St Columb's Park and is the victim of a brutal attack. It's set during the Euros - at the time there were a number of sectarian and assault incidents in St Columb's Park.
"The story comes from the fact that Iona was in that park and witnessed the assault…. That's the context for how they meet."
Sue recalls reading Under Goliath by Peter Carter and Jennifer Johnston's books when she was young, the impact they had on her and the drive she felt to draw on her own experience to write.
"I liked that there were books set in places that I understood," she says.
"I felt from my life experience that I could write something about the legacy of the Troubles and the peace - the mantra is you write what you know.
"I felt there was a gap there, that nobody was writing for the young adult audience - part of my story was that I didn't know I was writing for young adults at the time.
"What I have is the broad experience of being able to set out something that people will love to read, but that challenges mindsets as well.
"One of the key things I've learned in peace work is that empathy is a key tool. If people can learn to empathise - they don't have to agree - with somebody else's story, it goes a long way to creating a foundation for peace. That empathy is one of the most powerful tools in fiction."
Despite the complexities of peace, she says she is a glass half full kind of person.
"I think I feel encouraged in general. I think in the communities of the north west, there has been such hard work - they have been creative and proactive and there has been so much leadership in civic society," she says.
"For me, peace is about a lot of things, but it's not about everyone being the same, brushing the past under the carpet and polite avoidance of tough conversations. It's about understanding and respecting diversity, listening and talking, changing unfair systems and engaging with the issues. Failure to do this hands the space over to extremists and propaganda - don't take peace for granted."
Sue says she is glad that her son isn't growing up in the environment that she grew up in.
"I remember many of the stories - the shootings… My next door neighbour was blown up in a car bomb. But it was more often about being quiet about your identity, that fact that you'd watch the news every night with the funerals and bombs. My child doesn't have to experience that - we are in another place now," she says.
"I remember the feeling of pure joy when the Good Friday peace deal was signed. The deal marked the end, to a large extent, of violent conflict here. Put another way, it changed how conflict happened - moving it from violent to non-violent, guns to democracy. What it didn't do overnight was to build peace.
"The issues are still there, although they're not the same as they would have been when I was a child, and they're not the same as when Joan Lingard wrote about them."
Despite the weight of that legacy, however, the key thing about Guard Your Heart is its straight-up readability.
"In a sense, Guard Your Heart is a Romeo and Juliet story and it's packed with tough issues, but what I would like people to read it for is that it's a good story and a gripping story," Sue says. "What I like to do in my writing is make people think.
"It's a good story and I hope people fall in love with Aidan and Iona and the struggle they have in trying to move beyond the legacy of their family histories and make a life together."
Guard Your Heart is published by Pan Macmillan on April 1, £7.99, and is available for pre-order
Sue Divin describes her Young adult book featuring a star-crossed young couple born on the date of the Good Friday Agreement as 'Across the Barricades on adrenaline for a new generation'. Linda Stewart talks to the award-winning debut author