My audio novel, A Turn off the Path, is set in the Pays Basque, the French Basque country, in the beautiful Pyrenean hill town of Saint Jean Pied de Port, or Donibane Garazi in Basque. I wanted to set it there not only because it is at the beginning of the famous Camino Frances, or French Way, to Compostella, but also for family reasons. On my mother’s family’s side, we have Basque heritage and though they’re not from Saint Jean, but rather from Biarritz (where my uncles, aunts, cousins and extended family still live) and also, further back, from the Spanish Basque side, from childhood onwards we have roamed across the beautiful Pays Basque, including several visits to Saint Jean, like this one to the markets there. As well, my sister Camille, who’s an artist, lives and works in Hasparren, and is a proud member of the Institut Culturel Basque.
Though we were not brought up speaking Basque ourselves, and we had other very important ethnic heritages–French (which dominated), French-Canadian, Spanish and Portuguese–our Basque heritage strand was always a rich and valued part of our family tapestry. It lived not only in our DNA but in our cultural references and lived experience. All of it fascinated me: the gorgeous landscape, the tumultuous history reaching way back into the millenia, the ancient culture whose ancient, non-Indo-European language still flourishes, and people both clannish and dynamic, tenacious and adaptable, traditional and innovative, fierce and businesslike, imaginative and reserved. And it influenced my writing: my first ever published piece was an article in Vogue Living on Basque cooking, which combined glimpses of Basque culture and places with delicious recipes. Over the years, I’ve sprinkled Basque references and characters in several of my novels, but in my alternative history YA novel The Hand of Glory, a Basque character is at central stage: a young undercover detective called Anje Otsoa. Through him, I was able to explore some aspects of Basque folklore, history and mythology. And now, in A Turn off the Path, I am exploring that Basque heritage again, not only through my main character Helen getting to know the region, its history and culture, but also through another character, another Australian, who’s come to investigate his family history and his Basque ancestors.
It’s an interesting challenge, both to include those elements yet not make it into some kind of Basque tourist guide or explanation of Basque culture. And in a novel like this one, where you always have to think of the auditory aspect as well, I have to think carefully about how I can present those important strands without overwhelming dialogue with information or having too much description. It’s very much about glimpses, and also emotion. For example, one of the scenes I’ve written recently has Helen walking through the streets one evening and suddenly hearing music floating from an open window: it’s a local Basque male choir practising. For like the Russians, the Welsh, Corsicans and others around the world, the Basques have a long-standing tradition of male choirs, and hearing a really good one is absolutely spine-tingling. That scene is only brief, but it anchors the action in something that is both concrete yet elusive, and emotional all the way through. (If you’re interested in hearing what such a choir sounds like, here’s the website of one, Gogotik, from Saint Jean Pied de Port itself)
Below is a composite photo of my mother’s maternal side, on the Basque lineage. Going left to right, far left is my mother, Gisele; then her mother, Anna (both born in the French Basque country); her mother Antonina, and her mother Ama (both born in the Spanish Basque country, though Antonina came to live in the French Basque country as a young woman). And below that is me, as a teenager in the late 1970’s in the French Basque country, near the village of Ainhoa. Yes, you could still see the occasional ox cart there, back then!