I’ve spent the past eighteen months ‘being a writer’ and feeling fraudulent a great deal of the time. It’s been like training for a job without any idea what the actual criteria are and without anyone to guide you.
When I was a teacher it was simple – I had the qualifications on paper and several classes of students to prove it. When you say you are writer, the first question that inevitably follows is “oh what have you written?”. Translation: ‘what have you published’. Up until recently my answer has only been “I have written articles and I’m working on a book”. Pathetic! Everyone knows working on a book, actually finishing a book and then actually getting said book published are three entirely different things!
What’s worse is that the response is often either ‘oh, I’ve always wanted to write a book!’ or ‘do you have an agent?’ both of which make you feel all the more pathetic in their own way! And the worst response of all, has to be: ‘What’s it about?’.
Panic! How do I explain this without boring them? It’s a complex web of a story with satirical commentary on our modern times with reference to a host of classic literature, but I’m going to have to tell them first that it’s Sci-fi for teens, set in dystopian fiction… uh oh… lost them! It’s a terrible feeling to sense that person’s interest wander. If I can’t hold one person face-to-face how on earth can a whole book command a loyal mass of fans! Going to have to work on my pitch!
Do I qualify as a writer? No!
A little over a year ago I am embarrassed to remember that I sent out an email to friend of a friend who was high up in the publishing world. It asked him to consider the early chapters of my book and let me know ‘if I had something, or if I was wasting my time.’ He never responded.
I now understand that he did not respond because it was not for him to tell me. If he had told me to give up, would I have stopped and never written another word?
I only knew quite recently that I would not.
Words are around me all the time, I can’t control them, they swirl into sentences that insist on being written. Those are the good days, but even on the bad ones, when I cannot write, I want to write.
Recently something has shifted. On the outside, there have been two, marked, positive developments: first the inclusion of a short story I wrote some time ago in a proper published book (thus making me officially a published fiction writer – even if I am sharing the space with lots of other writers! Here’s the link in case you feel like supporting me/us by buying a copy – sorry have to get al the plugs I can! The Best of CafeLit); and second, watching a select group of teenagers read the first draft of my novel and enjoy it – talking about the characters as real people and worrying about what will happen next. Don’t get me wrong, there were criticisms, suggestions and corrections, that was the whole point of the exercise, but all these have done is strengthen my resolve to work on it further and really get it ready to be seen by agents.
And that brings me to the inside. On the inside something shifted too. A conviction has formed. One that says it doesn’t matter if this book doesn’t work, or if an editor doesn’t commission my article or a client wants to change a sentence – I will write another book, see another editor, do better for that client. Because I am a writer.
There is no qualification, except to write. It is not glamorous or financially rewarding. I am not arrogant in my affirmation of this. I have earned it, I will earn it. But this week I had to share this revelation! Now when people ask be what I do I won’t laugh or hesitate any more, I will simply answer. ‘I’m a writer.’
Living between worlds, as many of you will know yourselves, is a very delicate balance of pleasure and pain. After an eventful but magical month at home in the UK (which of course you only heard the worst of, but did include lots of lovely family time, catching up with friends, Cotswold villages, local pubs, shopping, an engagement, twins, movies, great food, even some sunshine and of course my beautiful new niece!) I have now been back in Mwanza just three days and several things have struck me.
But first, of course, there are always the goodbyes. I have tried them every which way and they don’t ever get better. This time I snuck away in the middle of the night to the airport and had no one to wave me off – but the absence of their impending absence was just as bad as if my family had all been standing there!
And then there are the hellos. It always so great to see everyone again and in these communities, where everyone is used to people coming and going, it is always easy to instantly be a part of it all again. A fact for which I am always grateful.
I arrived back, on a typically delayed flight, to no electricity, no internet, no TV, and no air conditioning – good old Mwanza! But it did not phase me. It has been eight years and I no longer feel the culture shock I used to. I am not sure if that is sad because I have been desensitized or good because it makes the transition so smooth now. I used to stand gawking in stuffed supermarkets when I first arrived in the UK, and then struggle with the poverty and corruption when I got back here, but now there are different, less obvious things that stand out.
I am met at the airport by a taxi driver who is now an old friend and my Swahili somehow magically appears back in my brain and on my tongue. I am surprised by its presence.
On reaching home, there are our amazing staff – each of whom greet me with a hug, ask after my family, and offer sympathy (and even tears) over the loss of our cat who was attacked by wild shenzi dogs one night while I was away (a story that is so un-English and so classically African it startled me to see the contrast in people’s reactions between the countries). The whole house feels different without him and I keep expecting to find him sleeping in one of his usual spots or chasing a lizard around the living room as a special present for me.
Connected only metaphorically, another thing that surprises me is the darkness. Every time I visit England in summer it takes a week or so to adjust to the light evenings, since here on the equator the sun sets at virtually the same time every day. We tell the time by it. So when it is still light at ten o’clock it feels more like seven to me, even thought the actual time difference is only an hour – not enough to warrant jet lag. Not only does it always get dark by 7pm here, but it gets dark fast; the light fading into soot-soft blackness with only the bare minimum of interruption from electricity. The contrast is so striking that it takes some conscious adjustment to your body clock.
The temperature also conspires to keep me awake. Where the sun at 25 degrees in England seems to be working to penetrate the cool air, giving a fresh warming sensation, in Africa the air itself is warm – even at night, even when it rains. It is an entirely different atmosphere that tastes of dust and heat during the dry season. I love it passionately, it makes me want to inhale its life and magic, but I love England’s cooler feel too. England’s colours are somehow sharper in the clarity of the earth-sodden air as opposed that saturated with dust.
And then there are the sounds, all newly alien. Bizarre bird cries, children yelling out, the crescendo of wild dogs barking their gang’s authority over another’s. And the sweeping. Throughout the daylight hours if you listen it seems you can always hear someone sweeping! The whirr of generators, tinny radios, rich Swahili voices. Even the vehicles in the distance sound different since they are travelling on dirt roads.
My body temperature and wits adjust quite quickly, as does my wardrobe and beauty regime (I reduce the make-up, stop blow drying my hair). I miss my family and friends and all things English like a hole where an organ has been removed (something internal, rather than a limb), but I am also ‘home’ again: in my space, with my things, where I can write and make my own schedule, drive my car, cook, create and think. And I am in Africa. The place where dreams are.
What an awful, wretched compromise we make when we choose this life. And it’s one we cannot know fully that we are making when we take that first step. I have chosen to leave people I love; a beautiful country with a rich culture and history; a life without malaria or typhoid, bilharzia or yellow fever. But I also found love, and friendship, and wild experiences. Oh to be a millionaire and be free to hop on a plane whenever I wanted, or maybe buy my own! I did try buying lottery tickets once or twice whilst I was in the UK, but sadly no luck this time around!