At 49 I felt compelled to write a book. Not something I’d always wanted to do. I figured maybe it was just time to finally record all those stories about my ancestors who had been in South Africa since the 1800s, as well as my own stories about growing up in a small Zambian copper mining town, plus a two-year stint on a sisal plantation in Zimbabwe. This was before the two countries were independent, when colonial power held sway, when the bush was full of animals. And then there were all those road trips my family took to the Congo, Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania. The time an elephant chased our car for over 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 film-makers’ use, as well as that episode in Kenya when the Mau Maus attacked the cattle ranch where we were staying with a family my dad had befriended along the way. I had a lot to write about. What I didn’t know was that I intuitively chose writing “to take fuller possession of the reality of my life,” to paraphrase Ted Hughes.
So I started writing, most days after work and on weekends. I agree with Kurt Vonnegut who said writing made him “feel like an armless and legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” Three years later I ended up with a 500-page memoir of flashbacks. The poor volunteer reviewer from the National Writer’s Association I joined penciled these little Charlie Brown faces with downturned mouths in the margins, complete with dialogue: “Oh nooo, not another flashback.” The other reviews I received convinced me just how much I had to learn about writing. Starting over, I bought and read a library of how-to books and took classes; I learned about structure, plot, conflict, pacing, and theme. I joined critique groups and re-wrote.
This time I started with an incident when 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.
An interested agent told me that the story was a good one, except that it lacked a unifying purpose; I hadn’t found the heart of the story. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know how to pull it all together, how to find that elusive heart. I kept writing. Only now I began to realize that I hadn’t connected in any meaningful way to my characters. I had plumbed the depths of the story’s message and meaning, I had plot points and 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, 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 do so.
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 always 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.