Sex Scenes, Made-Up Countries, and Letting Go of Facts
A longtime journalist details the travails of writing her first novel about Africa.
It probably says something about my friends and former colleagues that the first thing they’d ask whenever I mentioned I was trying my hand at a novel after a quarter century of writing journalism and nonfiction was, “Are you putting in lots of sex scenes, then?”
At first, the joshing slightly puzzled me. Then I came to the conclusion that the query was really a mangled form of the question all writers (along with their nervous publishers and literary agents) ask themselves as they negotiate the transition from one genre of storytelling to another. Namely: “You’ve spent your career conveying facts, presented in as appetizing a form as possible, sure, but essentially you’ve served as a sophisticated information delivery system. Can you now make the imaginative leap of entering into someone’s very soul?” What greater test of that empathetic feat of wizardry can there be than the sex scene?
In truth, though, empathy was never the big problem. I’m not boasting at my capacity for emotional ventriloquism. It’s just that if writing my novel Borderlines, published in the United Kingdom this August, felt like a transgressive act, with a shrill voice shrieking, “Just stop that, stop that right now!” in my head throughout the process, the anxiety originated elsewhere, in setting and in context. Defining the limits of the stage on which the characters performed — as you tend to have to, with fiction — was the painful bit.
That discomfort is rooted in my professional past. The years I spent as a foreign correspondent for Reuters were explicitly designed to drum out any fabulist leanings. As a young trainee at the wire service’s neoclassical headquarters on Fleet Street, I learned that “How do you know that?” and “What’s your source?” were the two most important questions any reporter could ever ask. The most valuable time spent on a news story, I came to realize, was probably the 20 minutes just before pressing “send” to my editor, when — with one index finger, often as not, pressed against each successive gobbet of information on the monitor screen — I forced myself to methodically check every fact. Later on, at the Financial Times, where I worked as the Africa correspondent, I was allowed to stray a little, to aspire to opinions and intellectual argument, but only when said analysis was supported by the facts — facts one was somehow expected to summarize in 800 succinct words. Like most journalists, I developed an instinctive sense of what was permitted. It was a bit like learning to dance the tango in a pencil skirt: uncomfortable, but when you succeeded, how rewarding it felt.
Anyone who has spent nearly two decades trussed up in that kind of a conceptual straitjacket comes to pine for the freedom in which, they tell themselves, their talents will finally unfurl. The urge to slip under the skin of verifiable fact and probe unarticulated motives and subconscious thoughts: It was that hunger, that need, that originally prompted me to make the move into fiction. Borderlines is the story of a grief-stricken British lawyer, Paula Shackleton, who flies to the Horn of Africa to work for the government of a small country embroiled in a border dispute with its much larger neighbor. Sure, I was intellectually intrigued by the question of how a country legally proves where its frontiers lie. But what I relished was exploring what prompts traumatized, idealistic, or damaged Westerners to flee to Africa in the first place, and their dawning realization of the gulf between their romantic visions and the perspectives of trapped local citizens.
Truth is, though, I found that in writing the book I immediately missed the constraints of journalism I had sought to escape. Because when you can say anything and everything, where do you start? Where do you stop? Why, in fact, say anything at all? The infinite variety of possibilities fanning out before you overwhelms and silences. This, you realize, is why so many painters stuck to the miniature or relished the inflexibility of watercolor as a medium. We all need walls against which to bounce.
A friend, another former journalist, once showed me his desk in a remote farmhouse gazing across the plains to Mount Kenya, the perfect place to work. On the wall were tacked plot lines and character lists, but the novel to which they belonged, he admitted, was in trouble: “I’m finding that if it didn’t actually happen, I can’t care very much about it,” he confessed, “which means I don’t care much about my characters, either.”
At its very weakest, after all, any work of nonfiction does at least possess the virtue of being true. Mobutu’s surreal final years in a Chinese-built palace in the Zairian forest, or the gritty privation of life in the rebel trenches of Eritrea: These things, you can tell yourself in your darkest hours of writing, actually happened, and the world just might be a slightly better place if more people knew about them.
To cope with my anxieties, I developed a technique familiar to any rider who has blindfolded a horse to coax it across a stream. Perhaps I could fool myself into fiction, I reasoned, by approaching the project in the same way I had my journalistic articles and nonfiction books: interview any professionals involved in the real events that originally triggered the idea, delve into library archives, study photos, and trawl through press cuttings. Stick as religiously to reality for as long as you can, only veering off at the end: That way you muffle that badgering voice.
The problem with this approach is that it leads all too easily to the court case and libel suit lodged by those who think — not without reason — that they recognize themselves in the end result. Bruised egos and severed relationships, denunciations on Facebook and Twitter: the very things you originally assumed you were shedding in opting for fiction.
So as I became more confident, I began reworking my material, ensuring that the rivulet dividing what really happened from my novelistic account became a dark blue sea. Initially, each step felt like a taboo broken, an outrage committed. “You mean, you can just…. Make it up?” asked my incredulous internal voice.
Take the tricky issue of location. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that raged from 1998-2000 over the contested border village of Badme was one obvious source of inspiration for Borderlines, though not the only one. However, I knew enough about the drawn-out arbitration process that followed the conflict to sense what a viper’s nest of official accusation and counter-accusation I’d be thrusting my hand into if I stuck to reality. My initial plan was to tell the story without ever identifying the countries concerned; William Boyd cleverly does something of the sort in Brazzaville Beach. But a large part of my novel’s story takes place in a courtroom in The Hague, and it was vital for readers to understand which side’s lawyers were arguing what. No names made things impossibly confusing.
So that meant inventing two countries and a few key cities and towns. I’ve never been a fan of made-up African states. I knew I’d be opening myself up to accusations of intellectual neocolonialism. The “Ishmaelia” of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and the “Kukuanaland” of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines both came to mind. It was a relief to discover that Chinua Achebe, who penned some celebrated anti-imperial blasts, had himself felt the need to resort to the same tactic, not once but twice, baptizing his West Kingdom state in Anthills of the Savannah “Kangan” and the fictional village in Things Fall Apart “Umuofia.”
In the end, I took the plunge and opted for “North Darrar” and “Darrar” as my two countries, and I invented a legal case that is an unashamed potpourri of international negotiations of the past, both on the African continent and beyond.
The decisions at least got easier as the months ticked by, because the clichés about fiction writing, like all clichés, proved true. Once imagined, my characters immediately possessed their own three-dimensional reality. In any given situation — whether stuck in a traffic jam, caught up in a plane hijacking, attending a Sunday church service, having sex (which, it turns out, didn’t claim much place in the narrative) — I knew instinctively how Paula and her slightly ludicrous African-American boss, Winston Peabody, would react. I realized I could switch settings and circumstances around them like some tiresome experimental theater director as much as I liked, but they remained steady at the core, always themselves.
This was so much the case that when someone I’d interviewed while doing the initial research at one point said, “But this is obviously me,” of a protagonist, I felt deeply offended on the character’s behalf. How dare this person deny the character his autonomous integrity? How could he or she show such a lack of respect?
“This is obviously me.” Sorry, but no.
The book has been out a fortnight, and, ironically, I’m coming to slightly regret some of the fictional camouflage I protectively adopted. Europe is watching the Biblical flood of desperate migrants from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa with mounting, fascinated horror. The themes of state imprisonment, claustrophobia, and exodus run through Borderlines from the opening scene — in which Paula is detained while trying to smuggle out documents for would-be migrants — to the end. Yet because I ended up using fictional countries, many reviewers aren’t picking up the topical echoes.
I hope that changes. Because if my decision to write fiction was prompted by a curiosity to get inside my protagonists’ brains, it was also fueled by a desire to reach a different audience than the one touched by my nonfiction — a readership more interested in character and back story than fact-filled history and politics. But that shift shouldn’t mean turning one’s back on issues of horrible, pressing relevance, either. Fiction, blissfully, can have it both ways.
Adam Berry/Getty Images
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