A china cup of Twining’s Gingersnap Peach Tea would go down very nicely.
My hometown of Blackburn, in the North West of England, is not exactly well-known for its arts and culture scene. Which is why it felt like a really special event when Joanne Harris, of ‘Chocolat’ fame, came to speak about her latest novel and the third in the ‘Chocolat’ trilogy, ‘Peaches for Monsieur le Curé’, at Blackburn Cathedral. She was to be joined in discussion by Anjum Anwar MBE and Dean Christopher Armstrong, and – as the novel deals with issues related to North African immigration to France – the talk had been arranged as part of the ‘exChange’ programme of events in Blackburn which promotes cohesion in the community. Proportionally, Blackburn has the highest population of Muslim residents in the UK outside of London, and issues pertaining to immigration and ethnic heritage are, of course, of a heightened relevance as a result.
I was particularly excited about the talk for two main reasons. Firstly, holding the talk in a cathedral was not only bound to be atmospheric, but given that the Church had famously played the antagonist role in the first book of the trilogy, ‘Chocolat’, it was sure to spark some fascinating discussions and give the audience a different perspective on the book – particularly for those who happened to be atheist, like myself. Secondly, my undergraduate dissertation had involved returning to Blackburn to make a study centered around Blackburn’s Pakistani and Indian Muslims (I won’t bore you with the details), and multi-ethnicity in communities has since been a topic about which I am always keen to hear new thoughts – not to mention the interest I naturally have from having grown up in such a community myself.
It turns out that I had vastly overestimated the relevance of the church angle, as Harris explained that, in ‘Chocolat’, it had never been the point that the bad-guy Reynaud was a priest – the point was that he was in a position of power. My bad. But where immigration and heritage were concerned I was spoilt with things to think about.
Joanne Harris grew up in Barnsley, Yorkshire, as the daughter of a French mother and an English father, and French was her first language. She knows, first-hand, what is is like to be in that ‘outsider’ position and to live with a sense of dual-nationality. Which is perhaps why she keeps coming back to the character of Vianne Rocher, the carefree and independent chocolatier who breezes into places and is subsequently viewed with trepidation by small-minded, traditionalist locals. Although in ‘Peaches’ Vianne returns to her old ‘Chocolat’ stomping ground of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, and is thus less alien, she is still by nature never going to blend seamlessly in with what we Brits would call the other ‘Little Englanders’ (petits Français?). She tries to build bridges between the newly-arrived Muslim Moroccans and the rest of the community using food – much in the way we see her doing in the previous two books, but struggles because it happens to be Ramadan – which again rings bells with opening up a chocolate shop during Lent in ‘Chocolat’. However, Vianne’s outsider status cuts both ways; while you may be wary of strangers, it is often much easier to confide in someone who is completely removed from your social circles and situations, and Vianne is able to use this to her advantage.
Harris mentioned that she had originally planned to write a book about the veil, as she had noticed more and more young women choosing to wear it when in other countries women were desperate to be given the choice not to. It has also been a political hot potato, with debates all over Europe about whether to ban it in schools and workplaces. In order to gain some insight, she went to a Muslim school and asked one of the girls, who took her in to her home and fed her – and funnily enough we have already seen that food is Vianne’s preferred method of bonding with people, too. This one young woman’s story became the inspiration for the main Moroccan character in ‘Peaches’.
Ms. Anwar mentioned the negative press that often surrounds Muslim youth, with claims of ‘radicalization’. Harris eloquently replied that such generalizations are found at the heart of every problem encountered in this series of books; misinformed or ignorant people who make sweeping judgements when they know little about the individual. She went on to say that storytelling is a good way to talk about sensitive issues without just bandying around bare statements or facts (this made me blush at the thought of my own dissertation being just that!), but that her stories were never meant to offer solutions; she aimed to ask questions through the narrative and see how her readers would answer them for themselves. She used a rather beautiful metaphor about her stories’ themes as dandelion seeds; she as the author sent them out there and she had absolutely no control over the ideas, questions and opinions that might consequently grow in her readers minds. And if that isn’t enough to make you want to start reading or writing, then I don’t know what would be!
The book tour for ‘Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé’ took place last year, however you can find much more information directly from Joanne herself here. If you’ve read it, or if any of the issues mentioned have fired up your inner Debate Team champ, then let me know what you thought in the comments!
Artwork credit: The enticing looking snap at the top of the page is taken from an actual recipe, so you can make these and scoff them all while you read for a truly immersive sensory experience. The shot of Blackburn Cathedral is taken from Project: Blackburn Cathedral where you will find lots more pretty shots of the building.
You can also follow Joanne on Twitter: @Joannechocolat