Serbian-born author from Ilford publishes memoir telling of her life’s struggles

PUBLISHED: 12:33 29 May 2018 | UPDATED: 12:33 29 May 2018

Author Dee Shaw with her book 'Life is a Gamble'

Author Dee Shaw with her book 'Life is a Gamble'


When Serbian-born Dee Shaw arrived in London at 20 years old, a path toward the better future she so badly wanted was uncertain.

The company that promised to find her a job as a chambermaid had cut off contact. She knew no one, spoke no English and only had 5,000 dinars – the equivalent of £5 – in her pocket.

Still, she remembers how excited she felt about the possibility of a new life in England.

“I was as green as the grass,” Ms. Shaw said of herself at the time. “I’d never seen a place other than Serbia before.”

Ms. Shaw, now a 68-year-old Ilford resident living in Roding Lane South, wrote about her journey from poor child to successful immigrant in a new memoir titled “Life is a Gamble.”

The book chronicles a life of seemingly endless misfortunes, from a wagon accident that almost caused her foot to be amputated when she was 4 to an abusive first marriage, and Ms. Shaw’s determination to find happiness despite her setbacks.

“I gambled to come to this country,” Ms. Shaw said. “Through my life I gambled and survived, really.”

As Ms. Shaw learned English over the following decades, she began to consider writing a memoir.

With a life filled with both struggles and triumphs, she thought publishing her experiences might help other people overcome their hard times. She wanted to teach them how she refused to let the difficult times beat her down.

“I’m a positive person,” Ms. Shaw said. “I will not give in.”

But responsibilities such as work raising her son, David Shaw, took priority.

She would write parts in her head. They’d never quite make it down onto paper. Her story remained untold.

In 2010, Ms. Shaw finally began to write, finding inspiration in the beauty of the Greek seaside where she was spending her holiday.

Half the book was written during that trip, and Ms. Shaw continued to work on the rest of it on and off until 2017.

Then an American editor, Lorna Lee, took over. The two women formed a strong bond, finding a connection in their similarly difficult lives. However, Ms. Lee said reading the book has made her feel more fortunate about her circumstances.

“After reading her manuscript the first time, I realized that my life was nothing compared to all that Dee had gone through,” Lee said. “I gained such respect and admiration for this sweet, kind, humble woman.”

She worked with Ms. Shaw to make sure both the language and story created a clear message, leaning on both the highs and lows to emphasize Ms. Shaw’s determination to succeed no matter the odds.

Then another devastating incident threatened to put the project on hold again: David died unexpectedly of a heart attack in October. He was 40.

It happened not long after Ms. Lee had sent Ms. Shaw the first 10 pages of “Life is a Gamble” to proofread.

David, who had always encouraged his mother to write the memoir, was eager to read them, but Ms. Shaw wanted him to wait until he the book was published and he could have the full story at once.

He died before then.

For a while, Ms. Shaw thought about giving up on the book, but she knew David wouldn’t have wanted her to give up on her dream.

“He was my big inspiration,” Ms. Shaw said. “He said, ‘Mum, you need to do it. Do it. And I know you can do it.’ That’s what gave me kick to carry on and do it.”

She also had support to keep writing from Ms. Lee, who became as much a friend as an editor in those first few difficult months. The help encouraged Ms. Shaw to finally publish the book.

Eventually, Ms. Shaw hopes to complete a second memoir about David, although she doesn’t know when she will finally come to terms with the loss and feel ready to write about it.

In the meantime, she plans to use the perseverance she’s learned over the years to fight her heartache.

“I always saw myself as a tree,” Ms. Shaw said. “People can cut the tree, but the roots are still there.”

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