In early summer 2019, Anita Sethi was sitting in a packed carriage on the TransPennine Express train from Liverpool to Newcastle when she was racially abused by a man who, among other abhorrent things, told her to “go back to where you are from”. Only one passenger intervened. Sethi, who partially recorded the attack, immediately reported her abuser to the train guard, and the man was later met by the police and arrested. He was charged with a racially aggravated public order offence and pleaded guilty.
In the weeks that followed her abuser’s conviction, Sethi was haunted by the trauma and, as she walked the city streets, began to feel claustrophobic. The thought of travelling alone caused anxiety and she began to experience panic attacks.
“I saw the man’s face flash through my mind. I felt a crushing pain at the suggestion that I had no right to exist in a place that is my home. At my lowest ebbs I wanted to cease existing.”
After the attack, someone suggested to Sethi that she should no longer travel alone due to the dangers she faced. But she was intent on “not letting a hate crime stop me moving about freely and without fear in a country where I belong”.
She writes: “I was eager to continue travelling alone as a woman, asserting my right to exist”.
This act of resistance sparked I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of England, a memoir depicting Sethi’s journey through the landscapes of the North. The book, which is the first instalment of a nature writing trilogy exploring the themes of identity, place and belonging, is a story of reclamation, a way of Sethi asserting that she belongs in the UK, in the North, as a brown woman just as much as a white man does. The book is filled with reflections, observations and rousing calls to action. It’s an inspiring story of perseverance and one that transforms a tale of hate into something more hopeful.
I Belong Here is also an extraordinary piece of place writing, not least because of Sethi’s talent for describing the Northern landscape that she encounters. Sethi’s nature writing is relatable and accessible, owing to her status as a novice walker. She references the difficulties of hiking across tough terrain and having to contend with water-logged boots, aching bones, and a strange sense of loneliness.
It’s a searingly personal book, but its themes are universal with Sethi considering topics such as loneliness, grief, what it’s like to walk alone as a woman, history, politics, freedom, protest and identity. This range is no easy task for a memoirist, and I am simultaneously engrossed in Sethi’s personal story and called to question my own relationship with the natural world.
While nature doesn’t necessarily quell Sethi’s anxiety, her confidence continues to grow. She also realises that spending time in the natural world, with its space and solitude, can be a useful tool when attempting to drown out the noise of the modern age.
Sethi writes: “Walking through such wild, ancient landscape brings a strong awareness of how we are all temporary guests on this earth. We take nothing with us.”
Her words have encouraged me to assess my own relationship with the place that I call home and how, when I’m walking in nature, I feel peaceful, smaller and somehow closer to something far bigger than myself. Sethi also explores timely fears such as how we treat the natural world, which is especially poignant considering the post-pandemic reality that we’re currently navigating.
During certain passages, I was reminded of the American memoirist and novelist, Cheryl Strayed, and her bestselling book Wild which detailed her 1,100-mile hike in 1995 on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon–Washington state line. It told the story of the personal struggles that compelled her to take the hike. I realised that both writers are unflinchingly confessional and write about nature with an almost lyrical tone.
Towards the beginning of the book, Sethi writes: “My journey is far from over. I will not be silent. I will not stop speaking out, and I will not stop walking through the world, my home.” I felt her power and emotion searing through the page.
Not only is I Belong Here an original piece of nature writing, it’s also a moving read. It’s powerful, vulnerable and, above all, truthful. The perfect recipe for a memoir.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain is published by Bloomsbury and available to buy now.