“Communicating the Unfamiliar: Writing the Underbelly in Africa” (by Meg Opperman)

Meg Opperman’s first story for EQMM was published earlier this year, and she has another tale coming up for us in 2016. Both stories take place in Tanzania, a country the author knows intimately. A former Fulbright scholar, she’s a cultural anthropologist and Africanist by training, and has lived in Tanzania, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. She tells EQMM that her work as an anthropologist and researcher often informs elements of her fiction, but as you’ll see from her post, writing crime fiction based in other cultures presents unique challenges. Meg’s short stories have appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Weird Tales, and several anthologies, in addition to EQMM. She currently lives in the U.S. and writes a column (Write Side Up) for the Washington Independent Review of Books. —Janet Hutchings

I love to write crime fiction set in Africa. I’m particularly fond of Kenya and Zimbabwe, but my favorite country to write about is Tanzania. Why Tanzania? Because there’s so much material. An endless amount, really. That, and I’ve spent the majority of my adult life working on and researching various issues in Tanzania. Some story ideas I’ve actually witnessed firsthand, others are suggested to me, and other ideas I get from reading the Swahili and English newspapers. I particularly like crimes that would be unlikely to happen in the U.S., or at least wouldn’t happen in the same way. Those are an absolute delight to write. But the stories are also very challenging to get down on paper. And perhaps not for the reason you might think.

Africa is a huge continent. It is approximately two and a half times the size of the U.S. and currently contains fifty-five internationally recognized states (and a couple of unrecognized ones). Each country has its own language(s), culture(s), and socio-political environments. And don’t even get me started about the variation in landscape and how that can affect the setting for a story. When I taught African Studies, a sizeable majority of students came into my class calling Africa a country. I’m proud to say that none of them left my class under that misconception. But I still get asked on a regular basis whether there are cities in Africa (Hint: There are), and I’ve even had one student ask a very indulgent guest speaker whether she had ever worn clothes before coming to the U.S. (Hint: She had). For me, these are cringe-worthy moments, but I recognize that most Americans, me included, had almost no education about Africa—or any of its countries—in high school. I think I had to memorize some capitals for a geography quiz. But that was about it. I’d like to think it’s getting better—and really, it couldn’t get much worse—but I’m skeptical.

News organizations don’t help us fill in the blanks in our knowledge either, or at least not in a meaningful, well-rounded way. Much like in the U.S., the news coming out of Africa tends to be negative and sensational. Wars, famines, HIV, Ebola, malaria, female genital mutilation, and let’s not forget terrorism. When I look at that list, it’s amazing I ever spent time in Tanzania. Why not stay in safe, comfortable, first-world U.S.A.? Because, of course, that’s not the whole picture. Any more than it is when we listen to the news of horrible happenings in the U.S. Serial killers? Check. School shootings? Check. High rates of incarceration? Riots? Gridlocked Congress? Check, check, check. These are facets of life in the U.S., yet most of us wouldn’t define ourselves by these “benchmarkers.” Most likely we would say, “Yes, but . . .” and offer a more balanced account of life in the U.S. And there definitely are more balanced accounts on Africa. But we have to look hard to find them unless we’ve been lucky enough to spend lots of time with our boots on the ground.

Crime fiction, however, creates an uncomfortable dilemma when writing about Africa, because it generally focuses on the underbelly of society. Happy, well-adjusted, rational protagonists—and especially antagonists—do not a good crime story make. Focusing on dark desires, desperate situations, and conflict, conflict, conflict . . . well, now you’re talking. When Michael Connelly writes about LA, I love all the dirty little details and the big hidden secrets. I like that LA’s beautiful, colorful sky is often the result of smog. What a great analogy to get at the underbelly. Yet, I know that isn’t all of LA. Maybe only a small part. Most people go on their merry way, living their lives the best way they know how. Allison Leotta, a former federal sex-crimes prosecutor, writes about crime in Washington, DC. There’s gang violence, the sex-slave trade, and corrupt politicians (yeah, okay, that one is probably more fact than fiction). But having lived in the greater Metro DC area for almost a dozen years now, I can tell you that there are also many warm, generous people who aren’t actively strategizing how to cover up brutal crimes . . . unless they’re crime-fiction writers too. It leads to some interesting discussions on the Metro. But I digress.

Because so much of what we know about Africa as a whole is negative, it’s problematic for me to then add to that perception knowing that most Americans don’t have a well-balanced picture to begin with. This isn’t true of just countries in Africa, by the way, but is true of many places around the world where people seem very “Other” to us. And let me be clear on this: I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life on a country (Tanzania) and its peoples if I didn’t love and respect them deeply—warts and all.

So I continually ask myself, what’s my responsibility as a crime-fiction writer? Certainly not to get up on my soap box in the middle of a story. Too much of that quickly throws the reader out of the tale. I’m a storyteller first and foremost. But what about context? I do think providing context is key, so that the reader gains a little insight into why certain people do things a certain way. But that’s easier said than done. In a novel there is more space to play with the context, add it in piece by piece, a little here, a little there, but short stories don’t leave a lot of room for extras. Each word has to count. I don’t always feel as if I’m totally successful in making the unfamiliar, well, familiar. But I keep trying.

Additionally, my own academic work—which focused on human rights and violence in East/Central Africa—lends a very particular lens to how I approach a crime story. It certainly isn’t the only lens. Alexander McCall Smith takes a whimsical approach and tone to Botswana. His Botswana has an almost magical, going-to-the-Shire feel to it, which I love and visit often. I’m also a huge fan of Deon Meyer, a gritty, South African thriller writer who writes in Afrikaans, but is also translated into English. I adore his protagonist, detective inspector Bennie Griessel, and I enjoy reading Meyer’s understandings of race, class, and privilege in South Africa and how he weaves those dynamics into a killer story. McCall Smith’s and Meyer’s depictions of countries in Southern Africa couldn’t be further apart, and yet they both bring to their stories a note of truth that has earned them countless fans. I strive to write my own truth, my own stories that readers will enjoy.

For me, staying true to the story I’m telling has everything to do with character. Years ago, I wrote a first draft of a mystery novel set in Tanzania. At the time, I was so certain I was going to be a novelist—I would have laughed if someone had told me then that I’d become a short-story writer instead—that I rushed ahead and wrote the novel without giving much thought to who should be telling this story. Unfortunately for me, I chose the wrong protagonist. While there were some gems in that manuscript, it will remain in a drawer, never to see the light of day. It was discouraging, and I moved on, writing about other places, other peoples, leaving Tanzania behind.

Then one day, a character spoke to me. She said, “I have a story to tell,” and at first I didn’t listen, pushed her away. As most writers can attest, sometimes a character refuses to be ignored. This was the beginning of Mwanza’s finest, police constable Kokuteta Mkama. Her first story, “Twilight Ladies,” appeared in EQMM’s March/April 2015 issue. The crime was one that spun notions of gender relations and power on its head; a young woman mugging wealthy men. When I began writing, I realized that Mkama was pregnant and had a philandering husband. Tanzania is a polygynous society, where even Christian men may have more than one wife, so dalliances with outside partners are rather the norm. Girlfriends are called nyumba ndogo, small houses, and while no wife likes for her husband to stray, it is, if not expected, then at least not unexpected. Besides her family life, I quickly learned that Mkama is resourceful, tactful, and has an admirer. Her partner, police constable Lubadsa (he didn’t even have a first name in this story), is clearly sweet on her, although too decent to act on his crush with a married woman. I hadn’t intended that to happen, but again, I heard him whispering things in my ear. . . and probably sweet nothings to Mkama if I’d let him.

Jamhuri—finally, a first name!—Lubadsa kept talking to me long after “Twilight Ladies” was written, submitted, and accepted. He had a story to tell, too, and also refused to be ignored. Lubadsa’s character reveals himself in the upcoming EQMM story, “Murder Under the Baobab,” where his voice now tells the story instead of Mkama’s. Lubadsa is an honest man and a true gentleman. He wants to be an actual detective, which is still a relatively new concept in policing in Tanzania. Police are generally peacekeepers, not true detectives, but Lubadsa is determined to change that. When his story unfolded, I didn’t realize how perfect the juxtaposition between witchcraft beliefs and his own would be until I’d reached the end of the tale. That is all I will say on this story since it hasn’t made its debut yet and I don’t want to give anything away.

Even with my two protagonists talking to me, I still argue with myself a lot because while I don’t want to stereotype Tanzania as backward, superstitious, or violent, I also am unwilling to overlook its very real underbelly. Violence, crime, and cruelty are facets of life in Tanzania . . . as they are in the U.S. So my challenge is to also show the kindness, community, and humanity that exist alongside the crimes I write about without making it sound like I’m giving an African Studies lecture, and, at the same time, stay true to the story I’m telling. Mkama and Lubadsa are part of that truth, and as long as they keep talking to me, I’ll keep writing about them and their truths.

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This entry was posted in Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, International, Police Procedurals, Setting, Story, Writers, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Communicating the Unfamiliar: Writing the Underbelly in Africa” (by Meg Opperman)

  1. Kaye George says:

    I love this post! Thanks, Meg. Very interesting–I’ll look forward to the story and now I’ll know so much more about the background as I read.

  2. Josh Pachter says:

    Well done, Meg! This is a fascinating read, and I’m looking forward to your next story!

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