Monday, May 26, 2008

Interview with Jim Bowen, Author of Just Another Mzungu Passing Through (Parthian Books, 2008)

Explain for our readers what a mzungu is? Definition.

A mzungu is a term for white person in kiSwahili which is the tongue most commonly used in East Africa. Mzungu is used in a slightly dismissive way, like gringo in Central America or honky elsewhere.

Tell us a bit about the semi-autobiographical nature of the book - how did a nice Welsh boy end up in Kenya?

I was working as a part time cricket coach for the London Inner City Schools cricket project about 13 years ago for want of anything else to do. I didn't want to come back home to my family's farm at that stage and didn't feel driven to do anything very much. I was living in a tent in a friend's garden in Eastbourne on the south coast using the cricket coaching to pay the bills and having a jolly old time. A friend showed told me that the Nairobi Provincial Cricket Association were advertising for a development officer with the help of the VSO, which is the British equivalent of the Peace Corps. I was lucky to be the only person to apply for the job in over a year so, got the job and off I went in January 1996 with a two year contract to teach cricket in Kenya.

My novel is based upon my experiences there, the things I saw and the things people told me, but it is very much about Kenya rather than about me. I wanted people to know about Kenya--that is why I wrote the book. I wanted my friends and family (and later, the readers) to understand why Kenya is as it is, what the average people face, what we in the west have imposed on them and really quite how incredible the people and the country are. It is a novel, and I hope a good read, but it is informative too, I hope, like The Grapes of Wrath is a good read and is also a fantastic way of learning about what the Great Depression meant to the US and people then. Steinbeck could have written a factual account of what he witnessed, but I'm glad he didn't. I wrote my story from the first person 'Griff', and the general narrative follows his time there, but Kenya is really the main character in the story.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing Africa today and how can literature help to educate people about same?

Wow, I've tried answering this question about twenty times but deleted them all as can't seem to get it down right. I don't want to claim I know any answers.

The issues are vast and numerous. Open any international paper and you can read about HIV, famine, corruption, genocide, poverty... These are all massive issues in Africa today and one would hope the rest of the world knows about them and that we are REALLY trying to help instead of taking advantage and using their suffering to boost our own worth.

Literature has a place today, as it always has done, in letting people know about social injustice everywhere. Chinu Achebe, Charles Dickens, Harper Lee, Laurens van der Post, Mark Twain, George Orwell, James Baldwin, Ngugi wa Thiongo... Many writers have helped educate and bring about changes through their writing. They tell important stories brilliantly.

Today we are so clever that we can cause massive injustice to many people from many thousands of miles away, and we can then close our eyes to it, think about something else without ever having to face what we have caused ourselves. There are many, many examples, and one could mention the people who are still suffering from the Union Carbide industrial disaster in Bhopal, India. Over twenty thousand people were killed after that explosion and children are still born seriously deformed over twenty years later. Union Carbide were bought out by Dow Chemicals in 2001 and Dow Chemicals say they have no duty to clean up the mess as the plant is on government land and while the legal battles over who is responsible go on, the shareholders forget all about it and the poor still suffer as a result.

To the north of Cardiff, here in Wales, over twenty years ago, seventy five different toxic substances were brought from a Monsanto factory near Newport and dumped in a quarry on the Brofiscin Farm . 80,000 tonnes of contaminated produce were buried there. Chemically unstable, non-degradable carcinogens that no one would take responsibility for leached out of the quarry, contaminating the local area. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons and acrylonitrile, dioxins created during the production of PCP which had been banned in the US years before were knowingly dumped by one of the US's most bullying companies. A vast number of cattle on neighbouring farms started aborting shortly afterwards . Some lost muscular control while others became lethargic, sterile and suffered from flaccidity. Local people now have highly toxic, unusual pollutant substances in their fatty tissue. They are very ill. And yet no one will take responsibility. Monsanto have fourteen similar dumping sites around the UK all full off dioxins and virulent toxins that they claim are safe but which the Environment Agency consider far too dangerous to open and analyse. And what happens...

I go on too much, and I'm sorry. These are the sorts of stories that are in the newspapers one day and then forgotten about the next.

Some could say that writers have a duty to write about these sorts of stories, to bring them to the attention of the general public who will hopefully one day bring to account those that have benefited through the suffering of others.

To me, good writing should be attractive and inclusive but educational too and if it can make a difference, like the writers I've mentioned earlier, then I believe it can be world changing. Big Business is clever enough to slip free through the courts, but a truthfully told story is always there to point the finger of guilt. I think writers, musicians, artists in general have an important role to play in this. Let's not go softly softly. Pen is stronger, and all that!

Writing coming out of Wales right now is truly extraordinary (same amazing young writers) - why do you think this is so (if you agree, of course)?

Wales has always been a heartland of artisitic expression. We feel affinity with our land and our place in it more than people in many other parts of Britain, I believe. People of my generation were brought up listening to amazing music from people who were proud to be Welsh and who were keen to demonstrate their art through their Welshness. The Super Furry Animals, Catatonia, The Alarm, Manic Street Preachers, even Shakin' Stevens and Bonny Tyler are all proudly Welsh first and foremost. We also have a massive back catalogue of Welsh writers to inspire us. Dylan Thomas, of course, Raymond Williams, Alexander Cordell, Dannie Abse, Bernice Rubens, Gwylon Phillips, WH Davies, RS Thomas and so many others that I really don't know enough about. If only there were more hours in the day...

I think the past has given our generation the courage to be active in our creativity now, and we are lucky that there are publishers willing to give our jottings air. I was very fortunate to have my first story taken up by Parthian Press who are based in the small town of Cardigan just down the River Teifi from where my family farm. Parthian is an excellent publishing house--the stories they have produced over the past few years speak for themselves, stories by young writers like Lewis Davies, Cynan Jones, Rachel Trezise, Tristan Hughes, Lloyd Robson and many others too, are set in a Wales the writers know of as home. The stories are not always that flattering of the place, but that doesn't mean we don't love it! Stories can be more powerful when they are constructively critical of things we care greatly about.

Being Welsh is important to me. My family have farmed this piece of land for over 250 years and we have lived within twenty miles of here for over a thousand. I am not alone in this feeling rooted. It means a great deal.

Do you believe there is a difference between Welsh authors and American authors? If so, what is it?

I don't know. There are links with some writers in both places writing of a sense of pride and love for their plot of land.When America was opening up the writing seemed to wow about the place and the wilderness and the adventure. Writers like Stephen Crane and Jack London... That seems to have changed a bit now maybe. We don't have the vast spaces here in Wales in the same way, though we do write lovingly about the wild places that we have.
I'm afraid I don't know enough about either to have much of value to say.

Influences? Why?

My grandmother wrote stories. She had nine novels published in the 1940/50s under the name Parr Cooper. She is an influence even though she died when I was a young child. She let me know that it was possible to write long stories. She did it, so so could I! Why not? I still love her writing. I can hear her voice in the words. She wrote about India during the war and what it was like coming back to Wales afterwards. Very powerful stuff some of it but she had such humour and decency in what she wrote.

Other influences include:
-John Steinbeck for his clarity, focus and lines like (in East of Eden) 'her smile flashed and disappeared the way a trout crosses a knife of sunshine in a pool' which make me go yeah, that's it! That's why people write!
-Jack London and Jack Kerouac meant a lot to me when I was younger and travelling. London published too much, but a lot of it is brilliant in its simplicity, its brutality and, boy, did he have good material to write about. As for Kerouac, I loved On the Road, Maggie Cassidy, Dharma Bums and one or two other, while the long wibbly ones went over my head a bit. I had a first edition Maggie Cassidy but somebody sole it.
-As a child I loved London, Twain, Victor Canning, Tolkein. Stories with things happening all the time. There were so many others--Richard Adams, William Horwood...
-Graham Greene, William Golding, Dervla Kirwan, Solzhenitsyn, Conrad, Hemmingway, Achebe. I read them when I was in Kenya and unable to go out all that much especially after dark when it wasn't safe. They took me away from the present like a teevee never could have. Good stories, simply told. Something to say. And then there are the Les Norton stories by the Australian Robert G. Barrett who is occasionally worth a read when you're a young fellow with the blues!
-I love East of the Mountains by David Gutterson.

Future Plans?

We have a one year old daughter, I am farming and running a holiday centre for people with disabilities so there isn't a lot of time for writing at the moment. I'm working on a story called Welshrats which is about a horrible man who is the director of social services in a Welsh coastal city which I think might be quite good when I finally get it done. Apart from that I have a bunch of short stories that need a good polish and... well, if only there was more time.

1 comment:

topspinner said...

Great book! I just wonder if Jim still has a copy of the interview I did with him in Nairobi for Wisden Cricket Monthly in January 1998 - it appeared in the May 1998 issue. I have lost my copy, alas. The piece was headlined 'A Good Man in Africa'. How appropriate!
Colin Macbeth