Those who have read my book A Garden in Africa always ask me one question – and a few have asked me a second, and more difficult, question.
Question one is this: is the book fiction or non-fiction? And my answer is always the same: “Guess!”
In truth (MY truth at least!) the book is largely non-fiction disguised as fiction for family reasons. Or, as I like to say, to protect the guilty! It’s no secret (certainly among those white people who live or have lived in Kenya) that the story is about my grandmother. But just how much of that story has been fictionalised is my secret (just another secret to add to those in the book!) and I ain’t telling.
It does, I feel, raise the old question of just how much do authors of serious fiction (as opposed to sci fi and bodice rippers) draw on their own lives to tell their stories. It’s been said many times that every person has one book inside them – their own life – and it’s been said equally many times that most of those books should remain just there! Inside! As indeed most of them do. Writing, as we writers know all to well, involves a lot more than just sharing our own lives with the reading world.
Yet I do cheerfully confess that in A Garden In Africa I did draw on my own life. Most of my other books have been about gardening – it’s what I do for a living. And, sure, I drew on my horticultural experience too when writing A Garden in Africa because, as the title says, it does feature a remarkable garden and to re-create it for the reader I had to use not just my memory but my professional knowledge. That was the easy part. The hard part is to find within oneself the language in which to tell the story.
As we all know, writing about our own past is very cathartic. This is particularly true I think of those who have been “exiled” from the place of their birth and upbringing, as I have. If we are born communicators then there is a passionate need in us to articulate our childhood and share it. Just THINK how many great works of literature owe their genesis to that!
When I first started to write, my mother quoted that old adage: write what you know. It irritated me a lot at the time because not only was it a cliche but I was young and desperately wanted to write on great themes that soared far beyond my own life expderience. Yet there is a substrata of wisdom to it. And so, when giving advice to novice writers today, I always tell them to use their own experiences as a firm base for their work if they plan to write serious fiction. If you look at some of the greatest writers of the last century – Patrick White for example, or Hemingway – you will see how much they adhered to that convention. And at the very least, the telling of your own story – or some small aspect of it – will give you a great deal of emotional satisfaction!
I found writing A Garden in Africa a delight because I could go back in time and place to some thing very precious to me that I had lost. And felt disempowered and disgruntled by that loss. As my heroine, Flora, lost so much that had seemed safe and sure and vitally valuable. Of course, as we grow older, we are all losers! We have lost what once was (look for a further post on what I call “the red lamp feeling” – the ultimate nostalgia mystery). Only in memory – and in writing about it – can we find it.
So, young writers, tell what you know to be true. Even if your truth is disguised. Anything else is fantasy.
(As for that second question – read my next Blog posting!)