I am delighted to welcome Jane Bwye to hear about her new novel and ask her questions about its inspiration and background in addition to other elements that have formed the experiences of a fascinating lady.
Thirty years of Kenya's recent history unfold through the lives of Caroline, a privileged woman from the fertile highlands, and Charles Ondiek, a farm labourer with dreams of an Oxford education. Charles’s love for Teresa, daughter of a hated settler farmer, leads to a drama of psychological terror fuelled by Mau Mau oath administrator, Mwangi, who is held in detention for six years. On his release, Mwangi forces Charles and Teresa apart, then turns his attention to Caroline. But she has inner resources, and joins with Charles to seek out a mysterious ancestral cave. Against the backdrop of Kenya’s beautiful but hostile desert, the curse is finally broken. But when Caroline discovers the hidden reason for Mwangi’s hatred, she wonders if she'll ever, really, belong in the country she loves.
The novel is published by Crooked Cat Publishing, www.crookedcatpublishing.com and is available from Amazon.co.uk in ebook and paperback format.
Jane Bwye has been a businesswoman and intermittent freelance journalist for fifty years, mostly in Kenya. She cut short an Oxford career to get married, was widowed in her early twenties, and left with three small children – but was lucky enough to remarry. Now her six children and seven grandkids are scattered over three continents, so she’s developed a taste for travel. She has “walked” round the world, buying a bird book in every country.
Her debut novel, Breath of Africa, dedicated to the youth of Kenya, had a thirty year gestation period. The plot and characters are fictitious, but the story draws on Jane’s experiences in a country going through the throes of re-birth.
Kristin : Tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to write.
Jane: Why does anybody write? I’ve always been a bookworm and a dreamer, immersing myself in the make-believe world of others, and conjuring up imaginary situations for myself. I would read anything, and I’m still never happy unless I have a book on the go. My grandparents fed me with Dandy and Beano comics at a young age. I devoured horsey books and read every story I could find about ballet. At school, I fell in love with poetry, especially Shelley, and I still have his complete works. Shakespeare was a bit of an effort, although many quotations still stick in my mind.
But it was Robert Ruark’s Uhuru and Nicholas Monserrat’s Tribe books that focussed my attention on Africa, and got me thinking. I believed I lived in a beautiful, ideal world in Africa. Surely they’d got it wrong? Africa couldn’t possibly be as violently ugly as they described it. Why was everybody so negative about it?
I’d always been good at English, and took Latin as an A-level student, which probably helped my grammar. I used to keep a diary (lost long ago), and then on the eve of my departure for Oxford, the Editor of the Kenya Weekly News asked me to send back
a series of Letters for publication, for which they paid me Shs.50/- each (about £2.50). I’ll never forget the thrill of holding that first cheque.
Kristin: The novel is wonderfully evocative of Kenya and Africa, and really does what it says on the tin: gives you a ‘breath of Africa.’ You obviously brought forth your passion for the place into the novel. Do you miss it?
Jane: Very much. I will always consider it as my home.
Kristin: Was there any particular event that inspired you to write this novel?
Jane: Nicholas Monsarrat is one of my favourite authors, and I have read every word he’s written. His books, The Tribe that Lost Its Head, and Richer than All His Tribe, made a deep impression on me as a young woman, although I could only bring myself to read them once.
I wrote to him years later – on the pretext that there were four pages missing from my copy of his autobiography – expressing my belief that, contrary to what the Tribe books
implied, there was hope in Africa, and a better future in store. Was he perhaps thinking of writing such a book? If not, I might be tempted.
After his death I received a letter from his widow saying that Nicholas had indeed intended to write such a novel, and she wished me luck for the task ahead of me.
BREATH OF AFRICA was conceived on the basis of that hope. The book developed a mind of its own. But
I trust its readers will appreciate the struggles an emerging country has to
endure, while recognising that there is always hope, shining
Kristin: Was the book in any way autobiographical?
Jane: I have drawn from my experiences in Africa, and sometimes included snapshots of scenes that actually occurred, but not in context. I have also made up a great deal.
There’s quite a lot of me in Caroline, and also in Charles, especially when he first arrived in London, and went to Oxford.
I enjoyed weaving the plot, letting it take a course of its own, manipulating events and emotions to see where they would take me. There’s one chapter, though, of a death and a funeral, which actually happened – and
Caroline’s emotions were mine.
Kristin: One of the key aspects of the novel is the interaction of two widely different cultures and how their differing views and cultural outlooks often lead them to misunderstand, clash and at times brutalize each other. Is that a reflection of your own outlook and at times did you ever feel like a cultural interpreter or defender?
Jane: I suppose I felt more like an observer – I can understand both sides. Different cultures inevitably clash, but we are all essentially human. If you probe deep enough, people of every race have similar feelings and emotions. Nobody really wants to fight … unless they feel aggrieved!
The poignancy of a young prostitute touting for business has always stuck in my mind: “Me pink inside, just like white woman…”
I have sometimes found myself confronted with extremism, and to my shame, kept quiet. It is only as I’ve got older that I’ve had the courage to question and try to dampen such bigotry – by offering the other viewpoint. I guess this book is a reflection of that desire.
Kristin: With Kenya’s election making the news recently, do you find that the situation has
improved since your novel’s time period? Are you hopeful for Kenya and the rest of Africa’s future?
Jane: Of course -without hope, there is no life! As green shoots spring from fire-blackened soil, so will Africa always emerge – smiling. That’s what I love about the country I still think of as my home. And the situation has indeed improved since the 1950s – 1980s. The people are free to make their own mistakes, and to learn from the mistakes of others. They can choose their own path, and hold their heads up high. And by and large, they are better off, materially.
Kristin: Are you working on another novel?
Jane: There is one book I want to get off my chest before I tackle the sequel to BREATH OF AFRICA. It is a completely different story of a carer who finds herself in a place she never wanted to be.
Kristin: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Jane: Yes – it is a tip which I’ve heard over and over again. Never give up! It is so true. If I can do it – so can you!
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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