Chanette Paul Guest Post
on Writing in Africa
Writing a novel set in one’s own country and comfort zone comes natural whether the comfort zone is comfortable or not. My comfort zone is South Africa, a country as complex as it is beautiful; a country where Western values meet and fuse with African tradition – often not very happily. It was therefore a huge challenge when a Belgian agent asked me whether I would consider writing a thriller set partially in Belgium – a challenge I couldn’t resist. The result was the novel now translated into English as Sacrificed and its sequel – the latter as yet not translated.
My knowledge of Belgium was scant, so research was essential and Google wasn’t the answer. I needed to go there to try and understand the people, the mindset, the lay of the land. A month was all I could afford timewise and financially.
Trying to get to know Belgium and Belgians in a relatively short time, however, turned out not to be the biggest hurdle. Once I started writing, it dawned on me that I wasn’t so much a novelist attempting to set a story in a foreign European country, but rather a novelist from Africa writing from an African perspective.
I realized early on I needed to find some common ground between Africa and Europe, and specifically between South Africa and Belgium. The Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and previously Zaïre, proved to be the ideal nodal point.
To use this peg to hang my story on, I had to move back in time to 1961, the year after the Congo became independent. I had to try and understand the zeitgeist and both sides of colonization issues at that point in time. This is quite ironic as we in post-apartheid South Africa currently have huge issues with the effects of colonization and the hatred, misgivings and misunderstandings it spawned.
This interconnectedness proved to be fortuitous for my story, but alerted me to another problem. The historic and political context needed clarification to an international audience without stunting the flow of the story –which is difficult enough – but I also had to avoid boring my South African readers.
The balancing act didn’t stop there. Whereas most South Africans have a rudimentary understanding of mystic elements peculiar to Africa, like the belief in ancestral spirits, this is not necessarily true of international readers. This aspect too had to be bridged credibly without lecturing, and again without wearying my existing readers.
Although my novels are not detective driven, writing about crimes naturally brings the police into the picture. This led to another gauntlet to run. Police efficiency, forensic skills and related matters in (South) Africa is not on par with most Western countries. Our police often lack forensic facilities as well as skills and/or training and corruption is rife. I had to subtly inform readers from countries used to efficient police services that South Africa is a crime Mecca ill equipped to fight crime, while South Africans are all too aware of it.
Writing from a cultural background different to that of one’s prospective audience is hardly exclusive to (South) African writing, but it was more of a challenge than I had anticipated. In hindsight though, I feel enriched by the experience. It gave me the opportunity to portray my world to others and in the process, I also learned to look through intercontinental eyes and rediscover the mystery and uniqueness of the continent I live on and love.
Sacrificed by Chanette Paul is reviewed by the Hound here.
Dijle, Leuven, Belgium
Tijl Uilenspiegel - Damme, Belgium
Graslei, Ghent, Belgium