Author: Nisi Shawl
Publication date: 2016
Country/culture: Africa (Belgian Congo)
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
Shawl envisages what might have happened if the native population of the Congo, at the time of Belgium’s colonisation of it, had had access to advanced technologies. The book follows the story of white settlers, returning freed slaves and the indigenous people of the region, and their struggles to make their land, ‘Everfair’, a Utopia where they can truly feel at home.
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What did I find out?
The novel is set in the period 1889-1919, when the British Empire was still a force to be reckoned with, and other white nations (such as Belgium and Portugal) also felt entitled to colonise large tracts of less ‘developed’ continents such as Africa. It felt very odd to be reading this narrative of British global sovereignty at a time when we are right in the middle of negotiations to leave the European Union.
I grew up at a time when the Empire had essentially dissolved and been replaced by the Commonwealth. The United Kingdom joined the European Union in January 1973, when I was still a toddler and my husband hadn’t even been born yet. I am half Welsh, half English: I was born and brought up in England, but have lived in Wales for the past 20 years. I lived for a year in France, and have travelled widely to places including the west coast of America and the plains of Mongolia. I feel British, European – and global.
So what am I saying? What did I ‘find out’ by reading this book? I’m not entirely sure. As has often happened during the course of the Book Diaries, I’ve found myself faced with almost as many questions as answers. There was a time when Britain was a substantial player on the world stage – but did that help or harm other nations? We’re now at a point where we seem to be retreating into the isolation of our small island. I guess my question, then, is: while this may not be good news for us, will the world as a whole be better off or worse off without us?
What do I now see differently?
In the book, as part of the process of founding Everfair, hospitals are set up to receive those wounded by King Leopold’s forces in his attempt to maintain control of the country. Terrible injuries are inflicted by the Belgian military on the native population, including the maiming and amputation of limbs, particularly hands.
One of the characters, Tink, brought to Africa from Macao as a slave working on the railways, uses his talent for engineering and mechanics to develop prosthetic limbs for the afflicted. But these are not just any prostheses: his skill is such that he fashions progressively more ingenious and complex mechanisms to replace the lost body parts. Hooks, knives and a variety of tools are all built into false hands that can be replaced at will depending on the need of the owner. Some hands are purely decorative, to be worn on special occasions.
The very simple inference that I take from this is that, when you find yourself missing something you are convinced you need, you have to find a way of using what you’ve got instead. Whether that is something as physically essential as a hand, or something abstract such as an opportunity: if life won’t give you the most appropriate tool for the occasion, you have to figure out what you can use in its place. Because it’s either that or do nothing.
We don’t all have our own personal Tink to manufacture replacement tools (or opportunities) for us; we have to figure it out for ourselves. Sometimes it might be difficult, but it’s very rarely impossible.
How will this inspire my writing?
I said in my last post that, for this final Book Diaries entry, I would return to taking inspiration for my novel writing; and I can happily report that I have gained something very specific from Everfair that I can apply here.
The book features a complex multitude of characters and storylines over a period of 30 years, but it both opens and closes with the same character: Lisette Toutournier. This is a helpful reminder of the importance of ‘voice’ in a narrative: our sense that we know whose story is being told at any given time. The story in Everfair shifts from character to character and country to country, and I’m not certain that Lisette is necessarily the ‘main’ character; but her personal tale certainly reflects that of the country she helps to found and continues to develop. Thus, framing the novel with her perspective seems the natural thing to do.
When I began writing my novel, the first scene I wrote was of a vampire attack; I then wrote a scene featuring my main character, Caroline. My initial intention was to include the vampire attack as a prologue, placing it before Caroline’s scene, but then I changed my mind and inserted it as scene 2, following Caroline’s introduction. I’ve been in two minds about this ever since, but Everfair has reminded me that, yes, my main character deserves to open the show – and, when I finally reach the end, she will also close it.
It feels very strange to have come – almost – to the end of the final entry in the Book Diaries. The intention this year was to be inspired as I write my novel, but the novel has stalled and I will be picking it up again the New Year. So, to give this blog series a fitting conclusion, I will also, in January, write one last post, looking back over 2017 and reflecting on how this year’s reading has helped me, even if the novel didn’t quite go to plan.
Stay tuned for the wrap-up!
A musical interlude
This song has nothing to do with the events depicted in Everfair but, as I was listening to it the other day, I was struck by how well its theme of hope related to Lisette’s (and the other characters’) hopes and dreams in the novel. There may have also been a subconscious connection made between the steam technologies in the book and the ‘Electric’ Light Orchestra; and the fact that the song includes lyrics in more than one language may also have registered as appropriate.
I’m therefore choosing this track as my final musical selection to accompany the Book Diaries: a brilliant song to end what has been a fabulous rollercoaster ride of discovery. I am, very firmly and definitely, holding on tight to my dream.