Derry author Sue Divin pens Across the Barricades-style novel for a new generation

Jenny Lee talks to Sue Divin about her new novel, which deals with issues such as sectarian hatred, drugs and young love as two Derry teenagers try to move beyond the legacy of their families' political and religious histories and make a life together

Derry-based writer Sue Divin, who is originally from Armagh, also works as the PEACE IV manager at Derry City and Strabane District Council

THE story of forbidden love between two young people from opposing religions in Northern Ireland isn’t new for young adult fiction. But 49 years after Joan Linguard’s Across the Barricades was published, a new contemporary novel tells the complex story of two 18-year-olds from opposing backgrounds trying to overcome long-rooted prejudices.

The recent violence and rioting on the streets of Northern Ireland has shown that 23 years after The Good Friday Agreement was signed, ending decades of fighting, peace is still very fragile and generation after generation are still being caught up in battling the ghosts of our past.

Set in Derry, Sue Divin’s novel, Guard Your Heart, tells the story of two young people, both of whom were born on the day of the Northern Ireland peace deal. Protestant Iona, from the Waterside, has a brother and father in the police. Aidan, from the Creggan, is Catholic, Irish, and republican. With his ex-political prisoner father gone and his mother dead, Aidan’s hope is pinned on exam results earning him a one-way ticket out of Derry. At a post-exam party, Aidan wanders alone across the Peace Bridge and becomes the victim of a brutal sectarian attack. Iona witnesses the attack, picks up Aidan’s phone and films what happened, then gets in touch with him to return it.

When the two meet, alone and on neutral territory, the differences between them seem insurmountable. But each is intrigued by the other and as their friendship grows Aiden and Iona must negotiate their relationship through the minefield of divided communities and the lingering effects of sectarian violence.

Divin began writing Guard Your Heart in 2016, the year in which the coming-of-age romance is set. The Armagh native, who moved to Derry more than two decades ago to study Peace and Conflict studies at Ulster University, Magee, said that she began writing “out of boredom”.

“I became a single parent and with no family to call upon to babysit my son in the evenings I got bored watching telly and started to write my story and enjoy the company of my characters.

“There is so much brilliant writing set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles but today’s generation have a new story to tell.”

The novel was snapped up by a literary agency after it was shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award, an international novel competition based in Edinburgh, and was a winner of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair.

The book quickly garnered interest from a number of publishers and was acquired by distinguished publisher Macmillan.

The 46-year-old combines her writing with working as the manager of the EU-funded PEACE IV initiative with Derry City and Strabane District Council – a role which often tackles subjects around diversity and reconciliation in contemporary Northern Ireland.

“Over the past 15 years I have worked with a wide range of community groups from all perspectives – unionist, republican and ethnic [minority] groups.

“There are a lot of factors impacting today’s generation and the legacy of the Troubles is massive. One hundred years after the creation of Northern Ireland, there is still great segregation in instructional structures such as education and housing, which need addressing.

“But working on the ground you do get the sense that people want to move forward and I hope ultimately that Guard Your Heart is a story which provides hope and encourages mutual respect.”

She also hopes that people, wherever they are reading in the world, will learn something about the complexities of peace here and apply some of that understanding to their own lives.

While many books have been written about young couples determined that their love can conquer all obstacles, what sets Guard Your Heart apart is there are no trite resolutions where everyone decides their differences don’t matter.

Divin is unapologetic about not simplifying the complexities of a relationship full of secrets on both sides, set against a backdrop of historical hurt.

“The book isn't about offering answers but about wanting people to understand that this stuff is complicated and that peace and reconciliation can in some ways be harder than war.

“I think we all have a responsibility to try and work for peace, whatever that looks like within our own circumstances. It's not someone else's job, it's up to us.”

One of her favourite lines from the novel is when Iona says ‘Adults remembered our past. Would they ever remember our future?'

“It's about saying we need to recognise the complexity of peace building. I write because fiction is a powerful tool for creating empathy, and empathy is a powerful tool for creating peace."

As a teenager and young adult, Divin choose to “build peace” through personal and career choices. She is particularly grateful to the upbringing and values her parents instilled in her while growing up in Armagh city.

“Like many in Northern Ireland I don't count myself a victim or survivor. I didn't have a direct member of my family killed but, that aside, I think everyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s and 90s in Northern Ireland didn't grow up in a normal environment.

“What was different for me was that my parents made a massive effort to bring me up in as cross-community a way as they could.

“My parents emphasised common humanity and taught me that it was more important to see and respect the person, rather than the labels attached to them.

“I was the only person from my identity that learnt to play the tin whistle with Armagh Pipers Club at the time,” Divin – who went on to learn the Irish language and even joined a Gaelic-football-for-mums team in her 30s – proudly recalls.

After studying European Studies at university in England and France she came to a critical decision as to whether to return home to Northern Ireland.

“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,” says Divin, who before working in community relations was a history and politics teacher.

Divin’s next book, with a working title Truth Be Told, continues to explore the contemporary issues that affect young people. Set in Derry and rural south Armagh, this tale of identity features three young girls from very different communities who meet on a residential course and find that they look very similar.

:: Guard Your Heart is published by Pan Macmillan and is available now.

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