Twenty-two years ago, I felt compelled to write a book. Not something I’d always wanted to do. Maybe it was just time to finally get down all those stories I’d heard over the years about my ancestors who had been in South Africa since the 1800s. And then there were my own experiences growing up in a small Zambian copper mining town, as well as those two years we lived on a Zimbabwe sisal plantation. This was when Britain ruled, when the bush was full of animals.
There were all those road trips my family took to the Congo, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya. The time an elephant chased our car for two 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, as well as that episode in Kenya when rebels attacked the cattle ranch where we were staying with a family my dad befriended along the way. I had a lot to write about. What I didn’t know was that I had intuitively chose writing, “to take fuller possession of the reality of my life,” to paraphrase Ted Hughes.
I started writing, most days after work and on weekends. I agree with Kurt Vonnegut when he said writing made him “feel like an armless and legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” Three years later, I ended up with an rambling 500-page memoir of flashbacks. The poor volunteer reviewer from the National Writer’s Association I joined penciled these little round 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, thinking I would restart my memoir from there. Instead I found myself wanting to dive into my past in a more multidimensional way, I wanted to give voice to the African point of view. With this in mind, I started writing about these two adolescents, a white girl and a black boy, and ended up with two young adult novels: Monkey’s Wedding, and its sequel, Mine Dances. The story had family drama, political and paranormal elements, and lots of action.
An interested agent told me that the story was a good one, except that it lacked a unifying purpose and that the story had no heart. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know 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 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, other than in cursory ways. I didn’t know how they felt about each other. It took a lot of writing and a lot of introspection to make me realize that this was because I had avoided my own feelings from the past. It was just too painful. In order to find the heart of my story I had to allow myself to become vulnerable to those feelings.
Heart first, I dove into the past. Bit by bit, I made the girl a little less reactive and rebellious, the mother more loving and sympathetic than my own distant mother had been, the father more fallible than I’d always believed my own father to be. Overall, every character became more complex, including Africa, a country with which I’ve always had a love-hate relationship. In the end, what I came to 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.