There are three interdependent things that shape a writer’s lifelong subject matter: His childhood experience, his experiences in later life and his literary upbringing. And for me, those three pillars have been touched and white-washed by that nascent phenomenon, Africa. And so, a novel set in Africa was predictably inevitable.
When I was a child my imagination was not captured by literature. That came surprisingly later. Instead, perhaps like most children, my mind was captured by the aesthetic complexities (I didn’t call it that at the time) of the natural world. I was in love with animals, fascinated by the way they acted, killed and made their homes in pristine landscapes. Even as a child I was travelling. My mind was travelling all over the world, to where leopards lived atop trees, eagles nested on the roof of the world and sharks swam in deep dark oceans.
But the recurring theme for my prematurely imaginative mind was the landscape dominated by the kind of animals that interested me most, predators. Africa was the land of the largest, smartest predators, from lions to hyenas to wild dogs. And a stand-out memory I have from my childhood was clearing away the dining table of all its vases, lace and bits and pieces, to set up my own savannah. I had a box-full of toys, mostly Lion King memorabilia, and I would create my own scene with lions chasing antelopes, cheetahs running from lions, hyenas and vultures scavenging together and of course, the figure of a man somewhere in there about to be eaten by something or other. I would spend hours lost in my world of naturalized fiction. As I still do.
Then when I grew into the confusion of adolescence I briefly left behind that world and sought out a new kind of fiction, which was literature. So I had my own Out of Africa period. But then two things happened, two discoveries which took me back to the land of my childhood: falling in love and Ernest Hemingway.
I couldn’t remember which came first. If I tried to tell you I would probably be lying: memory can be very fickle and manipulative, I don’t trust it all the time. But either way, both of them helped to return me to my own primordial affinity for Africa. Love, through the form of Chloe Waterfield. She had had her own nature-inspired upbringing, but unlike me, she was never distracted from it. Her art drove her even deeper into her childhood wonder. And I picked up on it like a wonderful virus.
Listening to her muses, to her explorations into long-lost jungles and the biology of animals I had loved so well was like a gene activating a new anatomical function. I was in dreamland again. I went back to Africa and I began reading things like Richard Dawkins, watching David Attenborough, and, maybe it was then that I took up Hemingway. I can’t be sure.
I am pretty positive that my first attraction to Hemingway was the Spanish connection; The Sun Also Rises, Pamplona, and the like. But then I began to read about his travels to Africa and that clinched it: if my favourite novelist was also immersed in Africa, then I had to be as well. I recently began reading True at First Light, his posthumously published novel about his safaris in Africa, and the inevitable was brought to the fore that much quicker.
From the trio I mentioned earlier I lack perhaps the second most important factor: experience. Tragically I have never yet been to Africa, have not yet made my life’s biggest full-circle. This is all down to practical, mostly financial reasons, and in time this too will be remedied. But before then, I have begun writing my first novel dedicated to the continent I have loved for so long.
Specifically it is a novel set in Tanzania. A majestic country that contains the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, the Ngorongoro Crater and Gombe National Park. One of those wonders gives the novel its name. Serengeti comes from a Masai expression which means Endless Plains. And I couldn’t resist the evocative allure of the phrase. And while I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot yet – writer’s prerogative – I am desperately excited to get immersed in this new-old landscape. Luckily, or call it what you will, despite the novel taking place in a country I have never been, it is to be my most personal book yet. Almost autobiographical. It is my way of emigrating my life and dropping it into the core of that youthful dreamland.
And by the end I hope to feel something along these lines:
In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.
Ernest Hemingway – True at First Light