Where did the inspiration come from for The Other Side of Truth? Why did you choose the refugee experience as your subject?
I thought that being a refugee would be a really interesting theme to explore, partly because in some way I had been a refugee myself from South Africa many years earlier. I decided the novel was going to be set in Nigeria because when I first came to Britain from South Africa there was hope that Nigeria would help with South Africa’s liberation. That was in the late 1960s. Sadly, in 1994, at the point at which South Africa achieved its first democratic elections, Nigeria was under the heels of a brutal military dictatorship. Then, in 1995, the internationally known writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by General Sani Abacha. The idea came to me: what about a writer who believes in telling the truth as he sees it and is fearless in doing that? I had a personal interest because, being fairly political (with a small ‘p’) myself, I had been thinking about what it is like for the children of parents who make these kinds of choices. We as parents make choices that our children inherit. So there were a number of reasons that lead me to the particular scenario and characters in the novel. I should add that Abacha’s military dictatorship in Nigeria ended after his sudden death in 1998.
How did you research the book?
I began my research at the Refugee Council in London and from there I started on a trail that included Heathrow Airport and a Detention Centre. I spoke to a lot of people including a wonderful child psychotherapist at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. I spent some time looking at areas around London where refugees usually end up. I was originally thinking of a family coming over together, perhaps with the father being left behind and the mother coming with the children. As I was thinking of that, I was looking at the kind of B&B accommodation where they might be placed. Later I decided to have the children coming over on their own, being smuggled into the country, having to pretend they are someone else’s children. That way the focus was more directly on the children’s experiences. I also went to the Home Office’s Asylum Screening Unit and I couldn’t believe the long line of people queuing up outside there in the freezing British cold. I can’t think of any other government building where people are forced to queue outside. It reminded me of the Pass Office for black South Africans in Johannesburg during apartheid days. The Immigration Office is an enormous building, is there no space to make a waiting room? So I queued up – waiting, watching, observing. I tried to connect myself as much possible to the genuine experience.
What is your opinion of the treatment of asylum seekers within the UK?
I’m extremely unhappy with how asylum seekers are being used as political footballs. Of course every country is entitled to a system of immigration controls but we have an obligation under international law to give refuge to people genuinely fleeing persecution. There is now such a culture of hostility to asylum seekers that I don’t believe we can trust all the decisions about who should enter. Some people, including children, are being sent back to countries where their lives are endangered. It is appalling that Mr Blair’s government should choose to opt out of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child with regard to child asylum-seekers. Our current system lacks a human face. You take someone who has been tortured or persecuted in the country from which they have fled, and push them through a system that sends out the message ‘You are not wanted.’ It is not a system that recognises that asylum seekers are often extremely resourceful people who have qualities that any reasonable society should value. They are people who will contribute to and enrich our society. The system also encourages unscrupulous people to make money out of refugees. You know, this whole business of housing asylum seekers all over the country. Some people are converting terrible accommodation that neither you nor I would want to live in and saying that this is fit for an asylum seeker. Government pays them for this accommodation. They are using our money, our taxpayers’ money, to pay them! That horrifies me. As the government makes it increasingly difficult to seek asylum here, it forces people, with genuine concerns for their safety, underground. As soon as you do that you encourage corruption. In my view our present system encourages ‘people smugglers’.
What is your view of images of Africa in Britain?
Africa is a continent of over 50 countries and great diversity. Over 2,000 languages are spoken across the continent and yet we constantly call it one little word: “Africa.” I even get asked sometimes if I speak “African”! The major image that I find most people, including young people in UK schools, have of Africa is very negative. It’s usually only bad news – famine, war and AIDs – that gets coverage. It is true that there are tremendous problems and that poverty, wars and disease are a reality. There is very little understanding, however, of how these terrible situations have come about and indeed the role that Western nations and companies have sometimes played. I am not excusing corruption and bad government in particular countries. But look at the colonial history. The cruelties and savagery of much colonial behaviour are conveniently forgotten. Look at Western greed for Africa’s mineral resources and the desire to sell arms to whoever will buy them. Look at global trade agreements and how unfair they are to poorer nations. There is a lot of hypocrisy in how Africa is presented. It is rare and humbling to watch documentaries like those made by Sorious Samura where we see ordinary people trying to survive with dignity and humanity despite enormous hardships.
Do you remember when you did become aware of the injustice within South Africa?
I became aware when I was a student at the University of Witwatersrand in the early 1960s. The government had recently passed a law stopping black students attending the university but there were still about 100 black students who had been given permission to complete their courses alongside the 3000 or so white students. The African National Congress and other organisations that were struggling against apartheid had been banned and there was a lot of political activity amongst a minority of students. I became friends with this group and it was the beginning of my real education. I learned more in our conversations outside the library on the lawn than I did within any of the lecture rooms. My brother was also an influence. He was highly critical of the apartheid government and very politically active in underground activity. It wasn’t a time for sitting on the wall and I became involved too. Eventually I was arrested and detained in solitary confinement for a few weeks under the notorious 90 day law. It was important education for a young white South African. My brother was arrested at the same time and was finally charged with a whole group of people. He spent almost 3 years in jail.
Have you ever felt, or had any criticism lodged, that you are unqualified, as a white South African, to write from a black perspective.
I believe we have to be very careful about censoring who writes about whom. Is someone from the 20th century not allowed to write about someone from the 19th century or the 16th century? Is a man not able to write about a woman? Where is the cut off point? What makes us human is that we have actually got imagination to help extend our own experience. The writer must have the freedom to write. The key question is whether the writer writes credibly and well. But of course the political issue still has to be addressed of why more black writers are not being published. There are very few black editors here in the UK. We need to open up the publishing industry, mainstream publishing. It will benefit greatly from a diversity of talent.