Anita Sethi is taking me along one of Manchester's inner-city canal towpaths, marvelling at the yellow Erythronium flowers lining the water's edge that seem to radiate the warm April sunshine. "See, it's just like Venice," she quips, before this surprise urban calm is interrupted by honking geese angrily clearing a way for fluffy goslings. They look for all the world that they're embarking on their maiden voyage.
“Look at them,” Sethi says. “Aren’t they cute? A nice metaphor for my book, too. New life, not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. How wonderful.”
The victim of a race hate crime
It's not lost on either of us that once we turn our backs on the canal, we will be looking at the very train line where Sethi was the victim of a race hate crime in 2019, one that would become the starting point for her moving, transformative new book I Belong Here, a blend of memoir and nature writing.
When she politely asked a man sitting near her on the train to turn his music down, he completely viciously lost the plot, asking Sethi if she had a British passport ("the funny thing is, it was actually in my bag – I'd just come back from Guyana"), and hurling other racist comments at her, using strong and pernicious language.
"Go back to where you're from?" she repeats. "I'm from Manchester. I'm from the North of England. I'm British. This country is my home. Ironically, my father worked for the railways his entire life. It was such a traumatic, horrific experience I felt almost immediately I needed to write about it – not just to process how I felt but also to have it written: 'No, I am here, I belong in this place as a brown woman, just as much as a white man does. And this is absolutely the time to hear our stories – as it always should have been."
The attacker was arrested, charged, pleaded guilty and convicted, which gave Sethi momentary relief (not least, she says, because many incidents similar to hers never even reach the courts). But the anxiety, sleeplessness and claustrophobia remained.
And so she planned a journey on foot through the landscapes of "the glorious north", inspired by writers such as Cheryl Strayed and Rebecca Solnit, who found healing and a form of activism in walking through the wilderness.
"It was a journey of reclamation in a way," she says. "One of my favourite moments was reaching the summit of Pen-y-Ghent. I was almost going to give up – it was like being inside a cloud – and then suddenly it cleared. The world born again into colour. That felt like a lesson for life; I didn't turn back."
A nature writer by trade
Sethi published nature writing ahead of her debut, having previously contributed to acclaimed anthologies including Seasons, Common People and The Wild Isles. But she points out that most travel, adventure or nature writing is by privileged white men, which reinforces the prejudice that people of colour only belong in urban settings.
She grew up in a city with a proud history of campaigning for equal rights and justice, and with this book there is the sense that she is part of an esteemed lineage that goes all the way back to British activist Emmeline Pankhurst.
"Learning about plants, grasses, birds as I went was really valuable," she says. "The natural world belongs here, too, and we really need to take more care of it. In that sense I really hope that although it's set in the North of England, in fact this is a book far more universal than that. I wanted it to celebrate the wild beauty that is all around us every day, that we don't spot but is there if only we take time to look – and can also help us find a better balance in ourselves."
And the real achievement of I Belong Here is that it thoughtfully, poetically weaves in most of our concerns in the third decade of the 21st century; it takes on grief through the sudden death of a dear friend, family history, feminism, mental health, Black Lives Matter, colonialism and the social inequalities highlighted by the pandemic.
'I am here because you were there'
More than once she tells me she wants to confront some of these toxic arguments, and in some of the issues the book discusses, it's a companion piece – albeit very different – to Sathnam Sanghera's Empireland, published this year.
“We have to write this stuff so that we can be seen and heard,” she says. “My maternal ancestors were shipped from British India to British Guiana to work as indentured labourers and my mother herself came to England to be a nurse. My father came to Britain when Kenya was decolonised. As [Sri Lankan writer] Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s famous phrase goes: ‘I am here because you were there.’”
In short, walking gave Sethi the perspective and space to reflect on her place in a world with “deep systemic unbelonging”.
As our walk comes to an end, we wonder aloud whether the pandemic will actually change how people feel, act and behave towards one another. There’s been a lot said in the past year, it now needs to transfer into action, a new mindset for those who have the privilege and power.
I Belong Here feels like that clarion call, on a personal and societal level. Yet Sethi's journey with the book does not end with it sitting next to Barack Obama's – which is how I first come across it in physical form, in a bookshop finally open after lockdown. She's also launched the I Belong Here Foundation, which will aim to give inner-city communities access not only to books and writing, but to the countryside, too.
“I know what writing, reading and walking did for my well-being,” she says. “It was a transformative experience. I genuinely believe everyone should have access to that.”