How They Do It

Michela Wrong on writing non-fiction

Michela Wrong is the author of three non-fiction books on Africa. Her first, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, told the story of Mobutu Sese Seko, the second, I didn’t do it for you, focused on the Red Sea nation of Eritrea. Her third book, “It’s Our Turn to Eat”, tracked the story of Kenyan whistleblower John Githongo. Her first novel, “Borderlines”, is due to be published in August.

 In an email interview, she spoke to Sooo Many Stories about her experience as a non-fiction writer.

Michela Wrong (Courtesy Photo)
Michela Wrong
(Courtesy Photo)

You spent a number of years as a foreign correspondent covering events across the African continent for Reuters, the BBC, and the Financial Times. Why Africa?

I’ve been writing about Africa for more than two decades now. My interest in Africa developed accidentally. I had lived and worked in Italy and France, writing about elections, terrorist attacks, the fashion industry and the film world. I had covered the revolution in Romania and the refugee exodus out of Iraq. Then Cote d’Ivoire became my third Reuters posting, after which I moved to Zaire, and by then I was seen by employers as an Africa expert, and my course was set. But it was never planned that way.

What has surprised you the most about the subjects you write about and how has this influenced your own notions about particular African countries?

The more you travel the continent, the more you appreciate the huge differences between various African societies and cultures. It’s ridiculous, really, that we constantly generalise about “Africa”. But we all do it. A country like Eritrea probably has less in common with Nigeria than the US has with Norway. I try and remind myself of that.

In your book It’s Our Turn To Eat, you write about your family and yourself. How do you inject personal experiences and memories into a non-fiction narrative without diluting the story of the other person?

That’s the first time I’ve done that in a book. It seemed relevant, because I was trying to explain how different cultures have different relationships with the state and how that dictates their definition of what counts as corruption. My mother is Italian, my father was English and they had very different approaches. Italians are very African in the suspicion with which they regard the state, and there are good historical reasons for that attitude. Brits tend to believe the system is benign, and will work.

In the case of John Githongo, you could have stopped at giving him refugee and helping him stay alive, but you decided to write about it as well. When/how do you know that this is a story that must be told?

Maybe I’m a bit thick, but it only occurred to me that there was a book in the John Githongo story after he had moved out of my London flat. It was just a gift of a story, and obviously important: how many whistle-blowers of John’s calibre and status have we seen in Africa?

I discussed the idea with him and said: “Look, this is your story and you can tell it, because I know you’re a very good writer. But if you decide you don’t want to tell it yourself, I’m volunteering.” I fully expected him to write it, but he felt he was too close to events; he didn’t have the necessary distance.

In It’s Our Turn To Eat you speak of how resigned most people were about the corruption in Kenya. They were aware of it, and how tribalism fuelled it but they were resigned to their fate. How do you tell the story of people that have not asked to be spoken for?

You tell it the way you see it, that’s all you can do. I’m not Kenyan and I can’t pretend to be, all story-telling is moulded by the identity of the storyteller. What was very satisfying after the book came out was the number of Kenyans who felt I’d got it right. Even those who hated the book because they felt it was exposing Kenya’s dirty laundry were essentially saying: “This is the way things are.”

As for people being resigned to corruption, don’t forget that John is a Kenyan and he obviously wasn’t resigned to it. There are lots of Kenyans like him, who are really angry about the way the system works but they don’t know how to break out of it. That’s one of the things I took away from the research: the extent of the moral disgust in Kenya.

How long did it take you to write these books?

Each one is different. My Congo book took 11 months, but it was based on five years of reporting and first-hand experience. The Eritrea book took four years. The Kenya book was meant to take 18 months but ended up more like four years. Books just take a very long time.

Did it make it easier, being a journalist, to write and market your book? Is writing non-fiction a thing only trained journalists can do?

Not at all. Anyone can write a book and market it. But if you’ve spent your working life as a journalist the move into non-fiction is a natural, obvious one. You know how to research and interview, you know how to persuade people to talk to you. You know how to motivate yourself when you’re sitting in front of a blank screen and a keyboard – a frightening experience – you are familiar with the loneliness of a solo project. So it’s not as big a stretch as it would be for someone who hasn’t written for a living.

In reference to writing memoir and truth, what is the price you have had to pay for telling some of these truths? Was it worth it?

I was warned to stay away from Kenya for a few years after the John Githongo book came out, and I know I’m not welcome in Eritrea, the subject of my second book. If you say critical things about an African government, you become a figure of controversy and lose your anonymity. That’s something I mind. Writers need to be part of the wallpaper, invisible watchers, and it gets harder to be that if your book has stirred controversy and become hot property.

I once read about Somalis who were acting as Pirates in Kenya as a scam to make money from foreign journalists. How do you sieve the truth you are trying to tell and who is telling it? 

You ask around: locals, other journalists, NGO workers, local officials and taxi drivers.  Lying is quite difficult to pull off, you know, people who do it are often very transparent to outsiders. You may have heard of journalists interviewing fake Somali pirates but there have also been cases of Western journalists who were held hostage by the pirates they set out to interview, so I guess those ones were the genuine item!

Few Africans are writing non-fiction. Is this because of the existing weaknesses in the African media?

Writing non-fiction comes with risks attached in many African countries: say something unpopular and you could be beaten up, killed, sued, have your career wrecked, your life blighted. Because I’m foreign, I’m automatically protected from a lot of those things. No wonder writers shield themselves behind the cover of fiction.

What other factors lie behind the disparity?

One of the issues is the incestuousness of the system. The political and business elite in most African countries are often one and the same. In other countries, writers can afford to alienate the political elite because they can earn a living independently, in the private sector. In Africa, the politicians they have annoyed also have major stakes in the economy and can do them great damage. The very limited number of readers doesn’t help. It means African writers can’t depend on the relationship they form with their public, they need a day job if they are to survive.

What steps can be taken to encourage future non-fiction writing in Africa?

Newspaper editors need to cherish investigative reporting, which is where the ideas for long-form non-fiction originate. They need to give their journalists the time and space for investigative feature articles that do justice to the subject matter. In the US, every editor wants their newspaper to scoop the Pulitzers, British editors get excited by a range of press awards, so they give their star reporters the time to dig deeper. That’s the scenario that leads to eventual  non-fiction books. We also need Africa’s millionaire entrepreneurs – because there are quite a few of them nowadays – to start emulating the likes of Bill Gates and George Soros by setting up philanthropic foundations that pour money into film and literature, funding things like the Storymoja festival and the Caine Prize. At the moment, too much of that funding comes from Western players.

As the literary director of the Miles Morland Foundation, tell us about the writing scholarship and what kind of stories the judges are looking for.

We’re looking for writers – both in non-fiction and fiction – who have a great story to tell but have perhaps been prevented from telling it by having to  support their families, earn a living wage. Our scholarships give them the freedom to do nothing but write. We give out four or five scholarships and they are generous: £18,000 for the year. All we demand in return is 10,000 words a month. Anyone who is interested should look at www.milesmorlandfoundation.com. The new application rules will be up there in June.

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