New Territories: Story of an African fracas

19 April 2016 - 02:25 By Tymon Smith

After 25 years covering Africa for a variety of publications, British journalist Michela Wrong, known for the three non-fiction books she's written about the continent, has ventured into fiction with Borderlines.In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz (2001), I Didn't Do it For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation (2004) and It's Our Turn to Eat (2009) established her as one of the foremost narrative non-fiction writers about the continent and its search for identity in the post-independence era.While Wrong admits that people "often used to say of my non-fiction that it read like a novel", this only enticed her towards writing fiction as, "There's always this slight itch that you want to scratch to see if you can actually do the real thing."Set in the fictional country of North Darrar and inspired by the border arbitrations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Borderlines relates the experiences of British lawyer Paula Shackleton who is charmed by a charismatic American lawyer Winston Peabody to come to North Darrar and help him make his case for the country in a border dispute being heard in The Hague.Hardly the most edge-of-your-seat premise for a thriller but Wrong manages to pull off the difficult balance between creating suspense and keeping her audience as interested as she clearly is in this under-explored area of international relations.She ventured into fiction because "I was fed up with checking things and doing all this research and also I had a nice story because the borderline story is based on something that happened to a friend of mine". Around the central court case, Wrong adds Paula's own mysterious past, the colonial history of North Darrar and an exploration of how the battle lines on the continent have shifted since the end of the Cold War towards the War on Terror.Many have asked why with her wealth of experience on the continent she chose to create a composite country rather than set the action in a real one, but she points out there are "more examples of this than you think. Chinua Achebe did it in Things Fall Apart and I did quite a lot of research into African writers who invent African places because I knew this was going to come up and it's often for very practical reasons."She enjoyed writing fiction and hopes to continue but would also like to write a personal memoir, pointing out that "I had a whole other life as a journalist before I came to Africa, but this seems to be my topic and certainly the next few books will be about Africa."Borderlines is published by Fourth Estate, R318

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