How ‘Burntcoat’ inspired my next novel

Written by Anthony Hardwick, CNN

When Sarah Hall was writing “Burntcoat,” it wasn’t just a subject she was fascinated by. It was also a global economic phenomenon that was affecting every continent.

“Burntcoat” is a 50-year-old novel set on Andorra. The setting is a fictional country of its own. The novel portrays a climate of extreme poverty, social injustice and fierce anti-immigration sentiments.

It’s full of fascinating people. They resort to using cocaine to keep their minds busy. We hear about scenes of cannibalism. And we also discover the political climate. Some politicians are trying to pass legislation that will encourage “fast track immigration.”

This political climate defined the period that the fictional country, Andorra, was being written about. As a result, “Burntcoat” is set at a particularly painful time. This same political climate is now found in the realities of many countries around the world.

“Burntcoat” was first published in 2004, shortly after the September 11 attacks. At the time, we witnessed the beginning of this major invasion. For the first time in living memory, there were anti-immigrant protests across North America.

Border controls were being applied with great vigor. Some countries started using high-tech surveillance techniques, like machine-gun-equipped Predator drones, to crack down on terrorism.

The social consequences of this historic change in climate were devastating. A widespread stigmatization of immigrants followed. Securing our borders was at the forefront of our political agendas.

What comes to mind when you see the word “Apo.” Of course the pandemic part is the last day when the virus starts to appear and the death toll is going through the roof. If the virus is traced back to a white haired English immigrant who came here to work, many people will probably dismiss this.

Even if you do see these people then as part of the more traditionally migrant communities, and think that “We are better off without them,” if they happen to be brave enough to tell their true stories, they will either be ostracized, hated or otherwise demonized.

Sarah Hall works with migrants, refugees and displaced peoples all over the world. Credit: Courtesy Sarah Hall / Leslie Morgenstein

Just imagine then this character being lynched. Imagine why they were lynched. Imagine the imagery of that.

Sarah Hall worked closely with migrant rights organizations. They brought up this moment constantly, because they were terrified about what was happening to them.

“We work in social issues, and we hear about all these people being referred to as “Apo,” which is a terrible racist term. It is dehumanizing and demeaning. It makes everything more difficult for people and feeds into these acts of bigotry.”

This concept that the word “Apo” had become synonymous with the epidemic, and so many were suddenly killed, is why we “burntcoat” our creative selves. In other words, we painted ourselves into a corner.

Sarah Hall’s next book will be “Jane Austen’s Compulsion.”

If we did an intervention in 2016, the number of people thought to be killed by Ebola may have been closer to 7,000. Within those borders there was a program that took these civil servants back to work. It was brilliant. I found it incredible when someone said to me, I can help you.

I feel as though there are so many things going on in the world that people aren’t paying enough attention to. We live in such a crazy, globalized time. Things happen in such a small time span that we can’t control it.

The media goes on holiday for months, and then it is back on again, and now we have our daily lives disrupted again by another terrible crisis. And now we are going to have another little catastrophe. What will our reaction be?

This will drive politicians mad. But it will also, I think, spread like a wildfire in people’s brains, and blow through all of us like a virus.

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