All four of Michela Wrong’s books are about Africa, but Borderlines, her latest, is both of and beyond the continent in which she is deeply invested.
Setting her first novel in North Darrar, a fictitious country in the Horn of Africa — a very real region — was a bold and some might say provocative move given Wrong’s past experience with I Didn’t Do It for You: How The World Betrayed a Small African Nation, a fond, yet critical reportage on Eritrea. Since its publication in 2005, she has been made to feel quite unwelcome there.
Wrong, a former Reuters and Financial Times journalist and skilled reporter and writer, is no stranger to strong reactions to her work. It’s Our Turn to Eat, the story of whistle-blower John Githongo and corruption in Kenya, kicked up a storm when it was published in 2009, giving rise to equally strong praise and vitriol. It is still not readily available in Kenyan bookstores.
It is not banned, but booksellers apparently fear possible libel suits for which they would be liable under current Kenyan law.
Her first book, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, is a mostly affectionate work about Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) where she began her journalistic career. Social media was not yet the critical force it has become — both in praising and damning — and Mobutu Sese Sekou was dead and buried when it appeared in 2001.
So why did she return — literarily at least — to Eritrea/North Darrar? Because that’s where Paula Shackleton, a young British lawyer on an emotional rebound, finds herself doing legal research for the once-revolutionary government for its case before an “independent” commission at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
An enigmatic African-American attorney, Winston Peabody III, has beguiled her into working to secure a favourable determination of the boundary after an agreement was finally reached to end a punishing two-year war with its larger neighbour and former ruler, the Federal Republic of Darrar.
Pretty dry stuff, it would be fair to say. But Wrong succeeds in weaving disparate strands into a taut and affecting narrative about geographical, political, historical and emotional boundaries — a subject to which one would not ordinarily be drawn.
Some of the current and most remarked-on fiction by African writers, especially by women, seems quite intimate and directed towards the interior, a sort of discovery of self and family that is not found in earlier writing, mostly by men, that was more society-oriented, directed towards the underpinnings of new nations and how they would face the future.
Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road, Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters don’t remain in the mind for their characters as much as for their atmosphere of apprehension and dismay.
Whether bound by her substantial journalistic underpinnings or intent on avoiding overly romanticised drama, Wrong keeps her characters on a fairly tight rein.
Some are recognisable as the diplomats, intelligence-gatherers, boorish peacekeepers and cynical expatriates she has pilloried before in non-fiction. But lead lawyer Peabody and the North Darrian ensemble with whom Paula interacts, are portrayed with empathy.
Dawit, the disillusioned freedom fighter who still has the strength to dream, Professor Berhane, whose loyalties may be divided, and Abraham, the initially taciturn factotum, are complex and compelling, making us want to know more, and perhaps wonder whether they or those like them are part of the present great exodus out of North Darrar, not so long ago referred to as “the little country that could.”
And then there is Paula’s backstory involving Jake, a well-off American who is neither a stand-in for a category nor a fully developed — in the photographic sense — character who nevertheless exerts a strong influence although his physical manifestations maddeningly fade. He has nothing to do with Africa.
It is apparent that Wrong is drawn to write about things that take place in Africa. Although she no longer lives on the continent, what she writes about is very much of it. But for this she has faced no little criticism, almost as though a non-continental must seek a visa before embarking on such a literary journey.
Of late the terrain seems to have become somewhat rough for non-continentals writing about things about or that take place in Africa. The works of writers not of the continent may find great favour with other non-continentals but elicit dismay or even scorn from some in the continental literati and in the burgeoning African social media.
Woe be to those non-continentals who comment on the width and breadth of the sky when they write about Africa or who point out things that denizens appear to find commonplace.
But for those whose initial horizons were defined by the dictates of a northern latitude, the sky over the Horn really is big and wide, and looking down on the clouds that shroud a place like North Darrar’s capital city Lira is startling. And emerging from the stifling confines of an aeroplane into a night than can only be described as velvety is a singular and wonderful sensation.
Michela Wrong will be at the Storymoja Book Festival this weekend at the Nairobi Arboretum, where copies of Borderlines will be available.