I didn’t start writing until I was in my 40s. It was one of those middle of the night decisions. I figured maybe it was just time to finally record all those stories about growing up in a small Zambian copper mining town as well as all those trips we took up to the Congo, Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania. The time an elephant chased our car for five miles, forcing my dad to reverse down an excuse for a dirt road before the elephant gave up. The time we spent in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro with a crazy Belgian who kept wild animals for filmmakers’ use. What I didn’t realize was that I intuitively chose writing, “to take fuller possession of the reality of my life,” to paraphrase Ted Hughes. But it was hard.
The poor volunteer reviewer from National Writer’s Association who tried to help me with my 500-page manuscript penciled in the margins: “Oh nooo, not another flashback.” I started over with a library of how-to books. I took classes and learnt about structure, plot, conflict, pacing, and theme. I joined critique groups.
I started with the time I was poisoned by rebels as a six-year old in Zimbabwe and turned my messy tome into a young adult novel and sequel with two teenage protagonists: a black boy and a white girl. The story had political and spiritual overtones, lots of action, but the white girl and her family were essentially me and my family. The black protagonist represented Africa and her people.
Trotting it out to agents, I learnt that I hadn’t found the heart of the story. I kept writing. And then discovered that I hadn’t connected in any meaningful way to my characters. I had plot points, I had a climax. I had my people say words that revealed character and furthered the plot. But I didn’t know how they felt about all the conflicts they were going through. I didn’t know how they felt about each other—not in any meaningful way. That was because I had avoided my own feelings from the past. It was too painful. But in order to find the heart of my story I had to dig deep.
I immersed myself in the past and all those feelings I had suppressed. The white girl became more vulnerable, a little less reactive and rebellious, her mother more loving and sympathetic than my own distant mother had ever been, the father more fallible than I’d believed my own father to be. Overall every character grew, including Africa, a country with which I’ve always had a love-hate relationship. In the end, what I managed to produce was a fully realized coming-of-age story. Both for the protagonists, but especially for me. Through the power of words, I had set down roots in time and explored my own personal myths, uncovered their purpose and grounded myself in a way I might not have been able to do otherwise.