When I was first told that a prison incarcerating gay men during General Franco’s regime in Spain, I was a foolish twenty-seven year old with aspirations of becoming a writer and not a clue how to go about it. The year was 1989. Back then, the true story of the prison was a dark secret whispered among locals and no one else. The Canary Islands government was silent.
It took me almost thirty years to feel equipped to tell this story. By then I was living in Australia, I had three novels set in the Canary Islands and I knew I needed to write a fourth. I felt torn as I also wanted to produce something literary, a work set entirely in the Canary Islands in the 1950s. Trouble for me was I no longer lived there, I was not born there, my Spanish was adequate but by no means sufficient to chat with locals, and above all, I am not male and I am not gay. I am also not rich! The research needed for such a literary approach would have cost many thousands in travel and accommodation. Twice I applied for funding but was unsuccessful. So I resigned myself to the notion of positioning the novel alongside the two mysteries I had already written, knowing that approach would constrain the way A Prison in the Sun could be told.
I felt apprehensive. I had a lot of conversations with numerous respected authors and publishers. There was talk of the inappropriateness or lack of my fitness for the task, being neither male, gay nor from the islands. Lionel Shriver was mentioned along with political correctness. Most encouraged me, championing my efforts and bravery. I took this very idea of appropriateness and also of contemporary conversations around sexual preference and created a conflicted character, millennial ghostwriter Trevor Moore. I decided I would have him tell the story of the prison. After all, he wants to write a novel with his name on the cover for once, and there is the small matter of his ghostwriting gigs winning prizes for other writers. I had so much fun being Trevor. Best of all, I popped him in a holiday let which was a house I was poised to buy back in 2017. The only reason I didn’t was the owners took it off the market. I think they did me a favour, as you will find out if you read the book.
As for the prison in Tefía, Fuerteventura – or rather concentration camp for that is what it was – I spent many many hours brushing up my Spanish so that I could read newspaper articles, blog posts, doctoral theses and academic books. I read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. I took copious notes on the economic, political and social history of the Canary Islands from the 1920s. I watched YouTube videos. I read everything I could find on the prison. I am indebted to former prisoner Octavio García, whose testimony and activism helped raise awareness, in Spain at least, of this ignominy. Also to Professor of History Miguel Ángel Sosa Machín who interviewed Octavio and produced a novella, Viaje al centro de la infamia (which I read). His efforts gained much publicity in the noughties. It would have been impossible for me to write this novel prior to efforts of these two men. I read up on what it was like to be gay in Spain. I recalled my closest friends of that time, who were both local to the islands and gay. The result is as authentic as I, a humble female author in her fifties, could make it. I did not shy away from the brutal truth of prison life. I put myself there. I lay down in the prisoners’ cots. I trudged up the hill in the searing sun and the raging wind to assemble in the quadrangle. I imagined what it would be like to break rocks all day. To be starving.
Not wanting to give Trevor an easy time of it, I put him through his paces. And what he goes through provides relief from the harsh reality of Fuerteventura in the 1950s. To say more would spoil the novel. Here is what one reviewer has to say:
“The author has used her deep knowledge of landscape, politics and history on the Canary Islands to give us a page-turning juxtaposition of savage past events with present-day drama, mystery and murder.
The book weaves two stories together over decades: a present-day author uncovering revelations of sadistic and gut-wrenching homophobia in the past while anguishing over his own sexual orientation. Matters heat up as he finds himself battling for his life, caught in the crosshairs of a murderous drug deal.
The result is a tapestry of events that will keep you reading to the last page.” – Veronica Schwarz.
You can find A Prison in the Sun here : http://mybook.to/prisonsun