A much-anticipated book I managed to acquire via NetGalley and the last of my NG books I managed to complete and review in June (I have missed two, which I will try to cover in July).

Anita Sethi – “I Belong Here”

(27 February 2021)

My journey is one of reclamation, a way of saying, to adapt the Woody Guthrie song title, ‘this land is my land too’ and I belong in the UK as a brown woman, just as much as a white man does.

Anita Sethi is subjected to a racial hate crime on a TransPennine train, and she works to heal herself by walking the Pennine Way, claiming her place as a person of colour, her belonging in Britain. That much is made clear in all the PR I’ve seen – however what we’re not told when reading about this book is that Sethi stood up for herself when she was abused, went and got the train manager, gave statements to the police, and the perpetrator was convicted of a hate crime. Very fair play to Sethi for that, not an easy thing to do.

As I read in her essay in “Common People“, Sethi only got to experience proper countryside once growing up, on a visit to the Lake District her single mum accessed via her nursing job. But, as she expands on that here, she saw the birds then, and she always imagined herself flying above her Manchester home to freedom in nature again. She was on her way to a reading for that book of essays when she was attacked by the racist.

Instead of the linear narrative you might expect, from damage to healing, this book takes what is probably a far more realistic view on the process of healing (and also of grieving, which there is quite a lot of in the book, too). She spirals around the subject of the attack and also other topics, whether that’s the life-giving properties of sphagnum moss, the intricacies of a limestone pavement, her difficult and abusive childhood or the theme of spines and resilience. At first I kind of pushed against this, slightly resenting spiralling off into another musing on spines, skin, grass when I wanted to get on with the walking, but I feel I might have been institutionalised by the other nature/travel writing I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot of it – primarily but not always written by men, and more linear, maybe more confident, maybe less questioning (Sethi remarks several times that a bird has gone too fast for her to ID it, or she just can’t recognise a species – not that common in the more standard works). So again, massive fair play to her, writing this as she wants to, claiming her place, thinking her thoughts, writing her words.

There’s a lot of excellent work in this book linking biodiversity and human diversity, caring for nature and caring for people. Themes we find elsewhere in memoir, nature and travel writing, whether that’s “we’re here because you were there”, the evils of Empire, the need to tread carefully on the fragile planet, the mental health effects of being in nature or a myriad of other topics, are woven together to form an organic, slightly dreamy at times whole that offers a radical new look at how we should be treating our communities of people and of creatures. For example, talking of Empire she talks about how humans were exploited in order to exploit nature, when exploring the banana trade.

I do think on reflection that sometimes the links were a bit obvious – she walks over a bridge and we’re on to bridges across cultural divides – and there’s a bit of extra detail in the info dumps on all sorts of topics that could maybe have been slimmed down slightly by an editor. But this is a small point, it only interrupted my enjoyment occasionally and I liked the discussion of word meanings that some people on NetGalley found more tedious.

Sethi offers strong calls to action, requesting those who witness discrimination to speak up for the victims of discrimination, requesting schools to educate pupils on protected characteristics and calling for feminism to work intersectionally. But the book ends more softly, as post-pandemic she makes another journey, along Hadrian’s Wall, and, encountering dandelion seeds blowing in the wind, makes silent wishes for “a world in which we can all mkae a safe home and feel at home in ourselves, in which all bodies and minds are valued”.

A remarkable and lyrical book, where we see nature and the wild countryside through the eyes of someone learning to navigate it, but someone who’s an expert in her own pain and in the divisions of British society. The narrative structure does take a bit of getting used to, but adds a strong degree of authenticity and is able to bring in so many diverse topics, settling around again and again to clarify and strengthen.

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this available to me to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review. This book was published on 29 June.

In a nice link to another book I’m currently reading, Sethi mentions David Olusoga’s “Black and British” – however, I was expecting that to crop up somewhere so I can’t say it’s particularly surprisingly serendipitous!