Mud huts, but not as I knew them: or why I’m writing a novel instead of memoirs
When I first had the idea of writing a book, the obvious thing was to assume that it would be a memoir of my time in Africa.
This is the book I nearly wrote:
I started from the beginning, as most people would – my very first trip to Tanzania in 1999. I got so caught up in writing about the first man I ever loved that I found I had reached my 50,000-word goal – it was a National Novel Writers’ Month 50k challenge – and barely even mentioned Lesikar, let alone the projects that we did together. In trying to write memoirs, I found myself focusing on the parts that were easier to write, either by virtue of being further back in the past, or because the story was just more straightforward when I was only 21 and had no dependents.
But in trying to write memoir, either about my relationship with Lesikar or my earlier relationship, I was so upset about the level of racism in the world already that I felt I couldn’t say anything even remotely negative about any individual who’s ethnically African and living in Africa, in case it fuelled people’s stereotypes. There’s that whole ‘it’ll never last’ mindset: the idea that Africans and Europeans are fundamentally so different that they can never have a successful marriage, which is utterly ridiculous. Some of the comments on the YouTube video were just disgusting, and it was a huge wake-up call to realise that even now, in this supposedly enlightened age, there are still people for whom the colour of someone’s skin is such a big deal that they think a black man who marries a white woman doesn’t deserve to live. Duh.
I was in a position where I didn’t want to say anything at all about Maasai individuals or the Maasai culture that wasn’t 100% positive, and of course nobody and nothing in the world is 100% positive, and we’re always projecting our own issues and insecurities on to other people anyway. I think that’s the reason why, when I first started trying to write memoirs in 2006, I wasn’t succcessful in finding a publisher: there was just too much sunshine and roses, or rather sunshine and red hibiscus, to be interesting or convincing. So, having successfully created this 50,000-word memoir, I decided not to publish it.
My new book, ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’, has given me a safe space for me to work through some of the emotions that I’m still processing, but to do it in a way that doesn’t put the blame on any one individual or on the Maasai as a society. All the characters are fictional, although obviously they have to be based on something and come from somewhere. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think that Lesikar `is’ one of the three male leads in the story, or that any episode in the book is an actual replica of something that happened in my life. It isn’t that at all. But there were certainly aspects of the story that mirror some of the emotions that I went through in Tanzania – not just with Lesikar and with my first boyfriend, but in other situations as well, all sorts of different interactions with people. So one thing that really did exist in a variety of situations was the challenge of trying to work out who people really are, how much is their true face and how much is the mask – the image that they present to the world. And, on the other side of it, whether they really saw and loved me for who I was, or if it was more of a transaction – ‘I’ll give you this if you give me that’.
So, if not Africa, why 672 AD? Why not modern times?
There’s the superficial level, of course, which is that I know far more about what it actually feels like to live in a mud hut than most people who might decide to write a novel set in the Anglo-Saxon era (or the Early Medieval period, as it’s become known in relation to Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, which were all separate countries with a similar culture). That’s true enough: but it goes a lot deeper than that.
Setting my novel in a familiar place and an unfamiliar time has actually been enormously healing for me. It gives me the chance to imagine a setting in which I could be all of myself. It allows me to envisage a way of living what might be termed a ‘Maasai-style’ life (based on a strong sense of community, a deep connection to the land and to Spirit, freedom from the stress and overwhelm of modern Western society, and the opportunity to be creative) but doing that within the sacred landscapes of the UK, places that I’ve come to know and love all over again since I came back from Tanzania. And I’m hoping that this is something I’ll be able to share with my readers, and maybe inspire them to make some changes in the way they live their lives: to start reconnecting with some of those things for themselves, and discovering a healthier and happier way of being. Not that I’m trying to suggest that Maasailand is a utopia; but there’s a lot we can learn.
I have a deeper ‘why’, too. But that will have to be another blog post for another day. Work is beckoning…