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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors to add to your summer reading list.

In 'Blue Desert,' A Woman Kidnapped In 1910 Finds Her Independence

“Blue Desert” is the first novel by Northampton, Massachusetts, writer Celia Jeffries.

It's the story of Alice George, a young English woman who is abducted by a Saharan tribe, the Taureg, in 1910. But over seven years in the desert, she is given more autonomy than she’s ever had before.

Sixty years later, Alice receives surprising news from the tribe – and looks back at her days in the Sahara.

Here is an early scene from the book:

In the desert, the sky was tissue, a thin, vulnerable casing for a pulsing hot earth. it covered the heat with a cool blue membrane that kept us from losing ourselves. When the heat and dust threatened to overtake me, I focused on the sky, staring straight through the blue veil of my Tuareg headdress. More than once, that line at the horizon where the sky and sand met had kept me sane. When Abu turned to look at me and I sensed it, I did not look at him. I kept my eyes on that line and something in the clean geometry of the desert straightened my spine, filled my lungs and allowed me to inhabit this place on earth more fully than I ever did in the security of my family and friends.

Karen Brown, NEPM: How did the plot come to you?

Celia Jeffries, author: The book began with the voice of an older woman looking back, and actually it was a writing prompt in response to a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of the desert. And I remember the first line I wrote was, “I am a thousand miles from home.”

The cover of "Blue Desert," designed by Lisa Carta.
Credit Courtesy
The book's cover was designed by Lisa Carta.

And then, eventually, I was writing in another workshop, and when I read my piece, a French woman turned to me and said, ‘Oh, you're writing about the Blue Men?’ I said, ‘Who are the Blue Men?’ And she said, ‘The Tuareg.’ And of course, the French know this much more than we do because they colonized a lot of the Sahara.

I was curious, as you were doing research into the Tuareg people, what questions did you ask yourself about being a white woman, writing about this culture through the lens of another white woman. Especially in this day and age, that probably raises all sorts of literary, ethical, you know, nuanced questions.

It certainly does in this day and age. And what's interesting is, I started writing this quite a while ago. I put it away for two years after 9/11. It's like, ‘Forget it, I'm not going to write about this.’

But once I got into the story, it's the story that matters. I think that I've tried to write it respectfully. I've certainly done a lot of research. I am not an authority on the Tuaregs. I did not live in 1910. But, to my mind, the story is more important than trying to deal with the zeitgeist of whenever it was written.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you knew about the Sahara and this culture before you started writing, and how you had to educate yourself about what you didn't know?

I mean, the Sahara is land mass larger than the continental United States. And of course, as with all deserts, it used to be an ocean. So I read about the flora, the fauna, the history. I was fascinated by the colonization of the Sahara, which took place mainly around the World War I.

So the more I researched the Tuaregs and then discovered that it's a matriarchal society that actually values women and gives them power, well, then the story became very interesting to me.

So do you see this as a feminist story? Because on the one hand, she was kidnapped and there's a lot of brutality towards her. But this is, as you say, a matrilineal society. And she remains pretty strong willed.

What we have to do is understand that this is 1910. And so, how she was abducted was part of being white people in an alien country. But when she became part of the Tuareg caravan, she was given a lot more freedom than she ever would have had in corseted London.

And I read this as a woman who had to overcome trauma and find a way to create a world for herself within the strictures of her own society, particularly when she returned to England. She didn't really fit in with the Tuaregs and she didn't really fit in in England.

Check out more of NEPM’s summer fiction series here.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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