The latest young adult novel by award-winning Derry author Sue Divin delves into the legacy of The Troubles
“Good things can’t be forced – love, hope, reconciliation. Thirty years of war and people think peace can be built overnight? Not everything heals so fast.”
These poignant words are contained in Derry author Sue Divin’s new novel, which looks at the cross-generational impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland on three generations of women.
Intertwined with dry wit, emotion and self-deprecating humor, The truth must be told doesn’t shy away from tackling tough topics – paramilitary punishment shootings, suicide, legalizing same-sex relationships, abortion, and even gay conversion therapy.
Set against the backdrop of events in Northern Ireland in the fall of 2019, it tells the story of two teenage girls who live on opposite sides of the political divide and who apparently couldn’t be more different.
Tara was raised Catholic by her mother and grandmother in the city of Derry; Faith lives in rural Armagh with her strict evangelical Protestant parents.
But when they come face to face during an intercommunity residency, they are shocked to discover that they almost look alike. And as they search for the truth about their own identity, the teens uncover a past that undermines everything they’ve ever known.
The hallmark of Divin’s writing is that she writes in “a real context”. “This one took place in the fall of 2019 when a lot was going on – the impact of Brexit and the absence of a Stormont government for almost three years and the debates over people’s rights LGBT, women’s rights, and pension for victims and survivors,” she says.
“The impact of the Stormont collapse has been glossed over, but it is still visible in people’s lives today in terms of many of the health, education and poverty issues we face.”
A theme of forgiveness runs through everything The truth must be told on a personal, historical, religious and community level.
“It fits with the difficulty of politicians in Northern Ireland dealing with the past and forgiving each other,” adds Divin, who will speak at the Belfast Book Festival in June.
With a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies, Armagh-born Divin combines her writing with day work in community relations and youth work in Derry.
She has used this experience of leading reconciliation and diversity projects to inform her writing.
“I wanted to address the complexity of the issues we’ve seen here over the past few years. I also wanted to address some personal challenges in this novel,” she explains.
“The first was to write strong female characters, and obviously I have two of them as the main protagonists.
“Second, I wanted to tell a story that didn’t fit the mainstream narrative here. Although the book is about these two girls who look alike and go on a journey to find their parentage, it also deals with a lot of gray areas. in our past conflict and the resulting transgenerational trauma.”
In The truth must be told Divine also refers to how men here hold onto past hurts and are often told that “real men don’t realize that.”
“One of the things I did as part of my job was attend an anti-patriarchy type training course on the development of patriarchy in Northern Ireland following the Troubles, and that helped influenced my thinking in terms of content around this book. This stereotypical view of what a man should look like is also part of the problem.”
She also confesses that the internet has aided in research on topics contained in the novel, such as mental health, DNA testing, and alopecia.
“I’m sure anyone looking at a writer’s Google search history will find the most random collection,” she laughs.
Divin’s first children’s novel keep your heartearned him a spot on the shortlist for the prestigious 2022 Yoto Carnegie Medal, the UK’s oldest children’s book award.
Set in Derry in the summer of 2016, it is at first glance a forbidden love story between two 18-year-olds of opposing religions in Northern Ireland, both born on the day of the Good Friday peace accord. At a deeper level, he is interested in issues related to the legacy of conflict and the complexity of peace.
The winner, who received a specially commissioned gold medal, £5,000 and £500 worth of books to donate to their local library, will be announced on June 16 at a ceremony at the British Library, but Divine is “just delighted to go to the party”.
“I was blown away when I heard I was one of eight shortlisted. When I realized it was a prize of the significance that CS Lewis had won, I actually thought quite hard to understand that I had been shortlisted. It’s extremely rare for a first novel to come this far in the competition, and it’s the only Irish one.”
This isn’t the first accolade she’s received for her writing. On World Book Day in March, the Waterside author’s novel won the Great Reads Award (Ireland). The award, which aims to shine a light on new authors and diversify reading for young adults, is shortlisted by Irish school librarians but voted for exclusively by students.
Divine’s powerful and compelling writings on contemporary issues appeal to teens and adults alike, as she’s discovered from a wide variety of commentary.
“It’s definitely crossover books. I see it as if you’re seeing a movie rated 12, does that mean adults just can’t go see it?” says the mother of a 47-year-old child.
“In addition to workshops with local schools, I’ve spoken to students at the University of Philadelphia and generated interest from people in Switzerland who use the book as a way to learn more about the North Ireland.
“I even got an email from a 70 year old couple from New Zealand. The woman who was originally from here emigrated to New Zealand to escape the Troubles and related to the book.”
Truth Be Told is published by Macmillan Children’s Books and is available now.
Sue Divin and fellow local authors Byddi Lee and Olivia Fitzsimons will appear in Triple Booked, an evening of reading, banter and Q&A with the public at Aonach Mhacha (Irish Cultural Centre), Armagh on Saturday 23 April. Free tickets at Eventbrite.com/e/276082629577.