Reflecting on work you have created yourself is always going to be hit and miss. Trying to explain how you came to imagine a work in a particular way must involve some speculation. So this piece I am writing about the opening chapter to my novel The Other Side of Truth will only offer glimmers of some aspects of how I came to write it the way I did.
In 1997 I decided to write a novel that would be largely set in England. It felt the right time to turn my antennae to the country that had given me and my family a home when South Africa had denied us one. I knew that on the streets of London I would find themes that explore our potential for humanity and inhumanity as readily as on the streets of Johannesburg.
From the start I knew that my central characters would be refugees and that they would come from Nigeria. When I first arrived in England, one of the few people who understood where I was coming from - and my dislocation - was a Nigerian academic at the University of York, studying for his PhD in Linguistics. His wife later joined him to do her ‘houseman’ year in a British hospital. It was the beginning of an enduring family friendship.
We had endless conversations about South Africa and shared our idealism. My academic friend would joke how, if he ever went into politics, he would push for Nigeria to help liberate South Africa. Later, he did take time out from university life to enter Nigerian politics. He was elected a senator. But his integrity got in the way. He was the subject of an assassination attack. Thankfully it went awry and the gunmen didn’t find him. Their intended victim survived to return to academic life.
As Nigeria slid from one coup to the next, I became painfully aware of how difficult it was for people of honour to survive when corruption becomes a way of life. Nigerian friends in London told the same story. There was the awful irony of Nigeria experiencing its most brutal dictatorship, under General Sani Abacha, at the point when South Africa achieved the near miracle of its first democratic elections. Abacha’s execution of the internationally known writer Ken Saro-Wiwa in November 1995 carried special resonances. Making Papa a writer, in my novel, felt natural. My brother had been a journalist in South Africa and after his release from prison he, like other writers critical of the regime, had been banned from writing. Some of my own work, written outside the country, had been banned. Writers featured constantly in my research into Abacha’s repression.
I also instinctively knew that I wanted to see this story from the viewpoint of a girl of twelve with a younger brother. Seeing events, personal to political, through the eyes of a young person encourages a freshness of vision. It forces me to research from a particular viewpoint, to be extremely observant and to make leaps of imagination. The child’s perspective often throws up sharp contradictions between what the child’s expects and what happens. What child getting ready for school, preparing her schoolbag, expects to hear her mother screaming, followed by gunshots?
Looking back at my files, I am surprised to find how early on in my research I drew a diagram outlining a possible structure for this novel. Novelists work in different ways. Some choose to write freely and see where the work takes them. I tend to begin with a longish gestation that involves wide ranging research and plenty of thinking about characters and action. Plotting is a discipline for me, making me question where the novel is going. But my plots and synopses are never cast in stone. They are rather like sounding boards. In the process of writing, I feel myself more deeply into my characters and new aspects emerge. Below is the opening of my first synopsis for The Other Side of Truth, writtenonly a few months into my research:
12 year old Sade and her 10 year old brother Femi witness their mother being shot in broad daylight as she throws herself in front of their father when gunmen pull up in a car outside their house in a suburb of Lagos. Their father, Folarin Solaja, is a political journalist who has been openly critical of the military government. It is the time he regularly sets off for work. Their father carries Mama, who is bleeding profusely, into the house. When he lays her on the sofa, they know she is dead. Neighbours rush in to help and call a doctor. When the phone rings shortly afterwards, Sade answers. A man's voice tells her to give Folarin a message: "If we get the family first, what does it matter?" When Uncle Tunde arrives, their father insists that he arrange for the children to be got out of the country immediately, "by any means"….
[This introductory scene to be told sparsely and shown in the form of images imprinted on Sade's mind e.g. in first person present tense and possibly italicised: their mother falling, children racing towards father cradling their mother, snatches of conversation etc.]
When I came to write the first chapter, instead of Sade directly witnessing the shooting, she hears the sounds. As I imagined myself into the situation more fully, that seemed more powerful. We can be profoundly affected by what we don’t directly see - and when imagination takes over. Memory becomes an important theme in the novel as Sade experiences the loss of mother, family, home. I am intrigued to see the note I made to myself in this early synopsis about how the opening scene should be told: ‘sparsely and shown in the form of images imprinted on Sade’s mind.’ I ended up using the technique throughout the novel. The images in Sade’s head play an important part in creating her interior life.
She also holds onto voices. In England, recalling Mama’s favourite proverbs helps Sade survive. The threads of how she remembers her parents’ words are already being woven in to the first chapter. For instance, when Papa is quiet in the face of Uncle Tunde’s exhortations, Sade recalls what he might have said in other circumstances:
‘The truth is the truth. How can I write what’s untrue?’
I don’t believe this was a conscious decision when writing: to begin this weaving of memory. I was simply beginning to find out about Sade. Discovering the depths of one’s characters is something for which the novelist aims. I was also interested to see in this early synopsis that I had Papa immediately wanting to get the children out of the country. In the first chapter, however, Papa’s emotions are far more complex. He is involved in a tussle with Uncle Tunde and with himself.
Writing a novel is such a many-layered process. If we create characters in whom we believe and in whom others can believe, can we ever get to know them fully? Perhaps that is what leaves a novelist sometimes feeling there is unfinished business… and then a sequel has to be written. That is how it has been for me.
This reflective piece was written for the British Council Crossing Borders website in 2004. The Other Side of Truth was awarded the 2000 Carnegie Medal. Its sequel is Web of Lies.