In the second of a mini-series of interviews conducted by Nigerian poet and novelist Timothy Ogene, journalist and author Michela Wrong is the guest. Wrong spent six years as a foreign correspondent covering events across the African continent for such respected news outlets as Reuters and the BBC.
Last year, at the airport in Entebbe, I saw a man reading Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn To Eat, her book on a Kenyan corruption scandal and a whistleblower called John Githongo. I wasn’t surprised. I’d seen a copy at the airport bookstore, and knew the book was popular in Kenya and Uganda for the subject it addressed. Wrong herself was on her way to Kenya that same day, after co-facilitating a writing workshop in Uganda. I was on my way back to the UK, after attending that same workshop.
Between the impulse to say to the stranger, ‘I know that writer,’ and my recollections of Wrong’s modest remarks about her popularity in East Africa, I began to consider the possibility of interviewing her. I was curious to know what she thought of her visibility in a space where she was an outsider but also an expert. Her experience as a journalist covering politics and conflict in Africa spans two decades. And from that experience she has written three books of non-fiction and a novel. Half-British and half-Italian, she’s aware – as she says in this interview – of her outsider status in a continent fraught with the legacies of empire.
Back in the UK, I re-established contact, and over several weeks we exchanged emails, exploring that question, but also considering the role of the writer and writing itself.
Timothy Ogene: Thinking about this interview, I reread Borderlines, a novel that adds to your extensive body of non-fiction work on Africa, and wondered why the switch to fiction?
Michela Wrong: The move to fiction had two triggers. One was to try and universalise an issue, a conundrum that could too easily be seen as having a very narrow, limited relevance: a border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia. If I had written the non-fiction account, it would have had a minute audience. By fictionalising, I hoped readers would realise the questions raised in the story — are the fiddly technicalities of legal arbitration the right way to deal with questions of sovereignty and identity? Can a court ruling ever prevent a war? Is the quest for universal justice serving Africans well, of just another Western notion inappropriately foisted from outside? — didn’t only apply to two specific countries.
The second trigger was a desire not to distance myself from my own lived-in experiences, but enter them more fully, more emotionally. If your non-fiction voice is usually cool, crisp and balanced and your stance external, there are many areas you simply never get to explore. How people actually feel, what it is like to walk around in their shoes. Some writers can do this in non-fiction, entering the minds of their protagonists. I’m thinking here of books like David Remnick’s “King of the World”, about Muhammad Ali. But while I enjoy reading others who write non-fiction in this way, I can’t do it myself. So having decided that I wanted, for once, to be right inside a character’s head and heart, feeling what she was feeling, the only way I could work out how to do that was through fiction.
TO: I’m intrigued by that second ‘trigger.’ How, for instance, did it feel to let go of the detached language of journalism, to suddenly find yourself in the ‘head and heart’ of your characters who are mostly drawn from real life? How about the sheer panic of exploring a new territory?
MW: It felt like a relief, to be honest. As a journalist and non-fiction writer, I’ve spent most of my working life carefully removing myself and my emotions from the written account. The most I would occasionally allow myself was a certain wry humour, a touch of analytical cynicism. That’s dry pickings. With Borderlines I enjoyed being allowed to wallow a bit. I found it hardest to conjure up and convey the sensation of being in love: a sad reflection on my own personal life, clearly. But I had no problem at all with bereavement, alienation and loneliness! Piece of cake. Pain is easier to capture and express than joy. It lingers, leaves a trace in a way happiness does not.
TO: ‘Alienation’ is the word that jumps out to me here. Do you feel like an outsider when you’re back in Africa? Do you struggle with a sense of inauthenticity when you write, that you might be ‘called-out’ for mis-representation?
MW: I’ll always be a foreigner. I don’t kid myself that will ever be different. The terrain is too vast, my trips to any individual country too infrequent – at the moment I’m very interested in Kenyan politics and recent Ugandan history, but I still only manage to get to either country less than twice a year – and then there’s the brutal fact of my skin colour.
It’s sensible to admit you are alien, an outsider, from the get-go, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing of interest to say. I’ve been writing about a dozen African countries – and certain Africa-related themes – for nearly a quarter of a century, so I have some insights worth sharing. The current debate about cultural appropriation certainly ensures any white person writing about Africa constantly questions their interpretation, the solidity of their evidence, and the appropriateness of their tone. I’m always being “called out” – that’s absolutely par for the course! But, you know, when I was working as a journalist in France, Italy, Bosnia and Kurdistan, I had the same concerns and misgivings.
Anyone who becomes a professional writer accepts a fundamental premise: that the differences between races, sexes and cultures aren’t unbridgeable chasms. That a reader can understand just about anything and empathise with almost anyone if the writer does a half-way decent job. The idea that you can only write about an experience if you’ve had it yourself is obviously a nonsense.
TO: I agree: ‘a reader can understand just about anything and empathise with almost anyone if the writer does a half-way decent job.’.
MW: Isn’t that why most of us read? To think ourselves into other people’s worlds?
TO: I couldn’t agree more, those differences ‘aren’t unbridgeable.’ Is that, then, the function of literature, to help us empathise without claiming authority over the experiences of others? Is that what you try to achieve when you write? Should writers obsess over the socio-political function of their work?
MW: British playwright Alan Bennett puts this very nicely in “The History Boys”, when he talks about good writing being like “the hand of a dead person coming out to take yours”. A great image, it perfectly captures that almost electric thrill you can experience connecting with another writer’s mind, if the voice is compelling and true. I’ve just finished reading The Wife’s Tale by Aida Edemariam, and it left me briefly feeling I had absolute insight into how a child bride growing up in feudal Ethiopia during the era of Haile Selassie looked at the world. For me, yes, that’s a key function of literature. It’s a form of telepathy, allowing us to live parallel lives. As a child I read for hours, curled up on the floor next to the radiator in our house in Highgate (that was the warmest spot). I had quite a sedate, dull life but I worked my way through my parents’ collection of books and it left me wise beyond my years.
TO: There’s also the ‘telepathic’ relationship between writers across time and space, when a writer finds and forges connection with the style and voice of another writer. The title of your first book, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, is a close metaphor for this kind of connection, which makes me wonder how much influence Conrad’s work has on your own writing.
MW: Not much, to be honest. My father, a very well-read man, was a huge fan of Conrad’s – I still own all the editions he loved and cherished. I tried them in childhood, but always found Conrad quite heavy going. If any of Conrad’s writing had an impact, it was not Heart of Darkness, but the shorter, mournful shipping stories. I do believe that what you read earlier on in life has a lasting impact on your own voice. But for me the influences were probably writers like Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, above all, George Orwell.
At one stage I read a great deal of Georges Simenon. I used to buy a lot of the slim old Penguin editions second hand, planning to read them on my journeys and then dump them. Then I realised I couldn’t dump them, they were too precious. Oh, and let’s not forget Georgette Heyer! I’m not sure it’s the done thing to admit to having read as much Georgette Heyer as I did growing up. But how many writers are witty? She was.
TO: Speaking of journeys and books, I’m curious to know where and how you write. On the go, as you travel. Or back home in London? I once spoke to a writer who said summers are for research, and winters for writing. Do you find yourself falling into any kind of routine, or resisting it altogether?
MW: Authors seem to have this impulse to run away from home when the terrifying moment for writing comes. I’m intrigued by this idea of writers’ retreats. Why, after all, should you need to go somewhere unfamiliar, without all your usual props and comforts, with all the various inconveniences and disadvantages involved, in order to start getting the words down? But we all do it.
I write well on trains. Planes are no good, if you’re sitting in economy your neighbour gets to read it all, which would be excruciating. Chapters of my various books were written in a tented camp outside Naivasha in Kenya, a studio in the Canary Islands and a variety of budget holiday lets in former Yugoslavia and Greece. The problem when writing non-fiction are the notebooks full of interviews: you end up lugging very heavy suitcases to these places, when everyone else is packing bikinis and sandals.
I have a writer friend who researches an entire book for several years and then sits and
does nothing but write it all up. I can’t do that. I tend to do research in bursts and then write in bursts, because I’m scared of the material going stale in my mind if I leave it all to the very end of the process.
The moment to start writing, with non-fiction at least, is when you begin to feel, either talking to people or reading through files and archives: ‘Oh, I’ve heard this before.’ At that stage, you begin to believe that what you’ve been told really is the truth, and that you have the authority to say it.
TO: And what would you consider a distraction to a perfect moment of productivity?
MW: I find I only ever experience a few days of ‘perfect productivity’. You hit your groove and are thinking, ‘OK, I’ve got it now, this is easy, now it’s just about keeping going’ and then you grind to a complete halt and can’t write a thing. So then you need to go to the cinema, or a hike, or a yoga class, or see friends, just take a complete break. So distractions are necessary.
Timothy Ogene is the author of The Day Ends Like Any Day (Holland House, 2017).