As a child I often heard my mother repeating a quote passed on from a local GP she respected highly: ‘When you educate a man you educate an individual; when you educate a woman you educate a whole family.’ The GP emigrated to Antipodean climes, but left those words from sociologist Robert Morrison MacIvor resounding in the Welsh valleys. What you get when you rip a child from his/her loving home and educate them in warfare doesn’t bear thinking about; but it happens. Recently we have seen the Invisible Children campaign, #Kony2012, a series of activities to draw attention to the actions of Joseph Kony in Uganda, head of the guerrilla group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The campaign seeks to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war and restore LRA-affected communities in East and Central Africa to peace and prosperity. By sheer fluke, about a month or so before the campaign flooded media headlines and twitter, Stav Sherez’s third novel, and the start of a new series, A Dark Redemption was published by Faber & Faber. It’s set in London but draws heavily from eastern Africa, Kony’s activities and the aftermath for those who may manage to achieve freedom from the regime only to become dispossessed in another country.
For many years Sherez has had a growing obsession with African news and politics, regularly visiting the BBC’s Africa site, always ‘amazed and appalled by what I read there’. As a writer he is drawn to stories of atrocity and how they are represented. As a crime writer he’s very interested in what happens when law and order breaks down. He also harbours a love for ‘the great sweep of the African landscape, the broken diamond deserts, wild savannah, and arid plains.’ And, adds Sherez, ‘Maybe it’s also a case of reading too many Wilbur Smith books at an impressionable age.’
His interest in Joseph Kony and the LRA has been simmering for quite a while and Sherez is concrete in his reasons: ‘There’s something inherently fascinating (for a novelist, at least) in such a figure, and in the fate of the child soldiers under his command. Also the fact that unlike most other rebel movements, the LRA doesn’t seem to have any discernible ideology or concrete aims intrigues me. It’s structured more like a cult than a rebel army and if you’ve read my previous two novels, you’ll know I’m kind of obsessed by cults, especially ones that dip into the mythstreams of religion but end up with only blood on their hands.’
Half-jokingly, Sherez calls his previous two novels Tourist Noir where both featured British protagonists who go on holiday and find themselves in serious trouble. (The first was set in Amsterdam and the second in Greece.) He feels he may have watched too many episodes of Banged Up Abroad as a student, but this theme fascinates and haunts him. Sherez knew that for A Dark Redemption he would need to shuffle things around a bit and so he had in mind a story that begins twenty years before the main narrative; a story about three idealistic students going on a holiday and inadvertently plunging deep into trouble and chaos.
Where today, so many people wonder about the cost of ebook, why they are not incredibly cheap (or indeed free) on a consistent basis, it’s worth noting the amount of work put in by an author for one book alone. Says Sherez, ‘I knew, almost immediately, that they would go to Africa but not exactly where in that vast continent, and so I spent six months reading about post-colonial African history and trying to find the best place in which to situate my hapless students. I thought about Charles Taylor and Liberia, about Equatorial Guinea and the Congo, but in the end it was the strange, surreal, and frightening world of Joseph Kony that kept calling to me. Uganda in the early 1990s was regarded as a safe place to visit and very few people had heard about the nascent LRA at the time. I thought it would be interesting to have my characters take a wrong turn and suddenly find themselves in an entirely different Uganda, one in which all their sureties and first-world certainties would be ripped asunder.
‘I was also very moved by the plight of the child soldiers in Kony’s LRA and by the fact the world seemed to know so little about them and to care even less. I wanted to represent this story in the only way I knew how.’
One of the noticeable features of A Dark Redemption is the seeing of London with a fresh eye, as a curious newcomer would experience the city. However, Sherez can be considered a true Londoner having spent most of his life in its west and north-west environs, although until A Dark Redemption he has never written about it. So, how did this come into being? Sherez explains, ‘I intentionally avoided London in my first two novels because I’d lost my ability to see the city. I knew it so well (or so I thought) that it had become invisible to me. Amsterdam and Greece forced me into noticing the simple things, made my eyes and brain explode with new images and smells and sounds. But A Dark Redemption needed to be set in London so I thought long and hard about this and about how I could make London fresh and new for myself and, hopefully, for the readers.
‘By writing about illegal immigrant communities I discovered an entirely new aspect of London I’d not been previously aware of and it started me thinking about the city and how all cities were palimpsests composed of different layers in both time and space.’
Did he take on the eyes of an immigrant to achieve this?
‘That was certainly one of the ways, and the one which was most beneficial in seeing London through “new eyes”. Of course, I can only imagine what it must be like and my imaginings are probably a long way from the truth but I asked myself how would this city look to someone who’d just arrived from another country, a country very different to this one, with different cultural norms, different weather, landscape, a different sky?
‘The things you and I take for granted are magnified in the immigrant’s (or visitor’s) eyes. Just as what we experience in a foreign country is necessarily our own otherness to it, be it Amsterdam, Greece, or Uganda.’
Sherez also acknowledges that on another level, exploring London’s underground immigrant communities altered his own perception of London. ‘The city changes so rapidly – we find our own safe patch and normally never stray too far from it. Writing A Dark Redemption forced me out of my comfort zone and into a fresh, exhilarating, and strange new London which existed alongside the streets I thought I knew so well. And this of course goes back to my theme of the city as palimpsest, layers upon layers, each invisible to the other.’
One London area that features in the novel is Chiswick, an area with which Sherez is very familiar, from his youth and from the present. Where memories of ‘the river snaking by, the parks and wide boulevards and the memories of drunken teenage nights and sweltering summer parties, of girlfriends and arguments and lost younger years’ still hold firm, his research took him into new territory and history. ‘I never knew, for instance, that Van Gogh had preached in a church in Turnham Green or that one of the most important battles of the civil war had been fought here,’ says Sherez.
Within the novel, the character of Ngomo is pure fiction and one for which Sherez made up a backstory because he needed a character to fit the necessities of the plot and the themes he wanted to explore. But he adds, ‘Of course, having spent six months researching African dictators and small wars, there was a bubbling repository of bad deeds, evil men, and crazy politics always there at the back of my mind and I drew on that whenever I needed. But I think I modelled Ngomo more on Savonarola, the medieval monk who created the bonfire of the vanities and who trashed and burned Florence. I was interested in how a zeal for religious purity and Year-Zero thinking could lead to unrestrained bloodshed and chaos.’
Many reading the novel may question to extent to which African ex-soldiers are present in the London area and wonder what services are available to help them. Sherez notes that he does not have the figures and is not sure anybody knows for certain, but believes there are probably quite a few scattered across the city. Says Sherez, ‘Uganda, being a former British colony means that many expatriate Ugandans end up in the UK. I’m not sure what is being done to help them though I do know that the social services teams are aware of this issue. In Uganda itself, it’s mainly religious organisations as well as some NGOs, (among them the infamous Invisible Children), who are spearheading the effort to rehabilitate these kids and bring them back to their communities, the very communities they marauded through and reduced to terror. As you can imagine, it’s an incredibly long and frustrating process.’
Finally, we turn to Sherez’s writing style. With A Dark Redemption, and for those new to his writing, some have been reminded of Graham Greene which leads to surprise in Sherez. ‘That’s very interesting! I have to say that I’m not a huge fan, though when I was younger I did read many of his novels. I think I like the idea of his books more than the actual execution. That said, Journey Without Maps is one of the best books on Africa. But I can clearly see the link now that you mention it. Above all, though, I respect Greene for inventing the sweaty, expatriate soul-in-agony tourist noir (cf Malcolm Lowry, Paul Bowles etc) and for being one of the only twentieth century British writers to tackle religion and theology as a serious subject for the novel.’
Where this interview may have focused on the African aspects of the novel and those of an immigrant’s impression of the London landscape, Sherez has also created an intriguing pair of detectives to start a series with DI Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller. In Carrigan we may have a troubled detective, but no cliché exists here as A Dark Redemption explains most of his make-up. Cleverly, for the start of a series, Sherez also introduces us to Miller and leaves us on a hook of the unknown-about-to-happen. This is a superb start to a new series and A Dark Redemption – with pure humanity at its heart – is available at Amazon and all good bookshops now.
With many thanks to Stav Sherez for his time for this interview.