Author Interview: Joan Lewis

In the 1970s in Britain, a disproportionate number of immigrant children were put into E.S.N (educationally subnormal) schools, considering them subnormal regardless of who they were or what they could achieve. This particularly affected the children of the Windrush generation who were from the Caribbean islands and had moved to England. “Because You Were There” is a powerful novel by author Joan Lewis is about the treatment of the Windrush immigrants. Although it is a work of fiction, the facts behind the story are very true. And Joan Lewis should know – in the early 1970s she was a young teacher at an E.S.N school in Bath. I caught up with Joan to find out more about her novel and her teaching career…. but first, here’s a quick book summary.


A stirring and compelling novel about the scandalous treatment of Windrush immigrants. In the 1960s and ‘70s a disproportionate number of black children who came to Britain were sent to special schools for so called educationally subnormal (E.S.N.)  children whatever their talents, starting their life in Britain at a disadvantage because of their race. This introduction to racism would haunt them throughout their lives.

The failure to encourage one particularly talented child, Tina, is seen through the eyes of Felicity, her special needs teacher who would have liked to help but didn’t. Fifty years later Felicity returns to the same town and realises that Tina has suffered from discrimination throughout her life, and her family too. Is it possible to make amends, or even to say sorry?

A book about belonging. Tina left Jamaica, where she was loved and valued, for a country that treats her like dirt. In spite of all this, she feels a strong attachment to Britain. Felicity, who was born British, is alienated and feels that Britain no longer represents her values.

Tina, a bright and rebellious ten-year-old from Jamaica, leaves her homeland in 1968 to join her mother in Britain. But instead of receiving a warm welcome, Tina is forced to attend an ESN school, where she is treated as inferior due to her Jamaican heritage. Eventually, in desperation, she writes a cry for help in the form of a poem, giving it to the one teacher she trusts. But her teacher, Felicity, ignores her hidden plea, though as the years go by she remains haunted by the memory of the vulnerable teenager.

Fifty years later, Tina and Felicity cross paths again, and as Felicity grows closer to Tina’s family, she is drawn into a racist hate campaign conducted by her neighbours against Tina’s daughter. Can Felicity ever make amends for all that Tina and her family have suffered?


Hello Joan and welcome… please introduce yourself….

Hello. I’m Joan. I suppose my adult life can be divided into two parts: pre-France and post France. I was a teacher and primary school headteacher in the U.K. for thirty years. During that time we brought up two sons, first of all on our small holding in West Wales where we had a much loved Jersey cow called Mildred, as well as sheep, geese and chickens. We then moved to Marlborough, in Wiltshire. I loved teaching, but sadly, the job has been made overly stressful. I’m not sure I’d choose that career path again, although I very much miss the inspiration of young children. We now live in the middle of a national forest, in a stunning part of Southern France. We had to work hard to establish a living from two gîtes, but it has been enormous fun, and we have made some lasting friendships. We now have more leisure, and enjoy spending time on our boat. I have always loved to write, and at long last I now have time to do so. ‘Because You Were There ‘is my first published novel. There will be more!

“Because You Were There” is your powerful novel – a fictional story based on very true facts, about the treatment of Windrush immigrants in Britain.   What inspired you to write a novel in the first place? Why this particular subject?

When I taught in Bath, I was young and impressionable. I have so many memories from that time. It was exciting to live and work in a beautiful Georgian city. Also the children with their special needs made such a mark on me, and I  remember  every single pupil with affection.  They were all so much more than their ‘handicaps.’ One particular pupil did not have special needs. Like a lot of pupils from the Caribbean at that time, she was wrongly categorised, and removed from her neighbourhood friends. She wrote a poem for me…just imagine! It was a cry for help. But I did nothing about it. This has haunted me ever since. Recently, I was shocked to learn about the Windrush scandal, when bona fide British immigrants from the Caribbean were cruelly threatened with deportation. Could that have happened to my ex pupil? This inspired me to write a story, so that everyone could see how wrongfully we have treated this group of people throughout their lives.  It is pure fiction, but it is based on real events.

Who were the hardest characters to portray?

Perhaps the hardest character to portray was my arch villain ‘The Colonel.’  Although in real life, most of my fellow teachers at the special school were very kind, one teacher was particularly harsh towards these vulnerable children. He was also very misogynistic towards me. Obviously ‘The Colonel’ is purely fictional and much exaggerated, but I do think that I created this character in order to wreak my revenge.

Were there any aspects of writing your novel that surprised you, either by being harder or easier to write about than you expected?

I was surprised at how quickly my story was written. I think that my memories were so powerful, that they all came tumbling out. It was also as if the characters I invented took me over and said: ”Look, Joan. This is how we feel, and this is what happened.”

Hypothetically speaking, if “ Because You Were There” was made into a film, who would you love to see portraying the characters, especially Tina and Felicity?

Obviously Felicity, the teacher, is very loosely based on me. How about Penelope Cruz?(I joke!)  Letitia Wright is an exceedingly powerful and intelligent actress, who moved to Britain from Guyana when she was only seven. She would be amazing in the role of Tina as an adult,  although she would have to age quite a bit.

Have you always wanted to have a career in teaching or writing or did you have other career aspirations growing up?

I always wanted to be a teacher from the age of four, like my mum. 

Are you a bookworm? What is your favourite genre and/or authors? Kindle or actual book? 

I have periods when I love to read exhaustively, but the conditions have to be right. Kindle for me, though books are definitely more precious. I mainly read contemporary literary fiction, mostly by women such as Rachel Cusk, Claire Keegan, Zadie Smith, Maggie O’Farrell, Anne Enright , Ali Smith, and others. I recently met Natasha Brown, who is the author of a startling new book called ‘Assembly,’ and am keen to read any novels she may write in the future.

Is Because You We’re There available to purchase worldwide?

 ‘Because You were There is available through Amazon, Waterstones, and The Gurdian Bookshop.  

Personal now – what outfits and shoes would you normally be found wearing?

I got married in the seventies in a pair of jeans, and have never given up on them, though recently I have discreetly started to wear denim joggings. It’s always been casual for me: trousers rather than dresses, and boots and trainers, rather than heels: and maybe linen trousers, or a short denim skirt and sandals in the increasingly hot summers here.

Do you have any favourite shops or online sites?

I always shop on line: Uniqlo, M+S maybe. I find that clothes I bought from Boden years ago have aged well. I still have an ancient pair of Boden velvet trousers for special occasions that I adore.

What’s next on your clothes/shoe wish list?

My leather baseball type boots from Rieker which I wear non- stop in winter, are wearing out. If the soles can’t be replaced, I’ll have to find similar ones. I love the side zips and they are soooo warm.

Boots or Shoes?

Low boots or trainers definitely!  We take daily walks into the forest , so that’s a must. 

Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook etc

I love to blog. When I’m not writing something longer, it kind a’ scratches that itch. I can be found on:

Thanks to Joan for the copy of her excellent book “Because You Were There” for reviewing. Also thanks to Cameron Publicity & Marketing.

All photographs have been published with kind permission of Joan Lewis

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