Writing Across Cultures – Guest Post by Michael Stanley

MichaelstanleyPortrait 300 dpi

Today I welcome to my blog the authors of ‘Deadly Harvest’, a crime fiction novel set in Botswana which I review here. I enjoyed reading this book but noted in my review that I felt a little discomfort at two white men creating what seemed to me to be stereotypical, uneducated black Africans. I am therefore delighted that, in this guest post, the authors address this issue in such a cogent way.

I travelled around southern Africa, although not Botswana, many years ago and have never forgotten the contrast between the poverty in which too many of the indigenous people lived and the breathtaking beauty of the place. ‘Deadly Harvest’ brings to life many of the challenges that must be faced in modernising such a country whilst providing a darkly entertaining and compelling read.  

 

Michael Stanley is the pseudonym for the writing partnership of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. We write police procedurals set in Botswana with a Black detective from the Criminal Investigation Department as our main character. A question we’re sometimes asked is: “How can two White guys from South Africa write a Black protagonist from Botswana?”

This is an intriguing question that has different pieces to the answer. First, why Botswana? We picked Botswana as the setting for our first book mainly because that’s where we had the idea for our first mystery, and our opening scene worked better there than anywhere else. We also knew the country well and liked to visit it a lot.

Second, why a Black detective? The answer here is a bit more complicated. Once we’d written the open scene where the murder is discovered, we needed a policeman to conduct the official investigation. So we dispatched Assistant Superintendent David Bengu from the CID in Gaborone to drive into the Kalahari where the body had been found. Since he’s a detective in Botswana, he’d be Black. (We actually never entertained the idea that he’d be White.)

This is why we have a Black detective, but it doesn’t, of course, answer the question “How can anyone successfully write about someone who is culturally different?”

Many authors have protagonists who are substantially different from themselves. Men have women protagonists; women have men protagonists; English have Russian protagonists; Americans have English protagonists, and so on. So how do they do it?

First, it’s important to know the different culture as well as you can. We’ve visited Botswana many times and have read a lot about the country and its history. Michael worked with a company that had extensive involvement in Botswana. Having been born and raised in South Africa gives us a feel for southern African Black culture in a broad sense. Certainly diverse Black groups have differences, but overall there are more similarities. For example, all have a great respect for their elders; there are strong extended families; communities are very supportive; there is still a belief in the powers of witch doctors; and colonization has brought Western ways to the region, often sitting uncomfortably with the traditional cultures. For authenticity, a Motswana protagonist would need to conform reasonably closely to these behaviours, thought patterns, and beliefs. Part of the enjoyment for us was learning much more about the culture than we’d known before we started working on the books.

Second, on a day-to- day basis, different cultures do things differently. For example, when Batswana (people from Botswana) shake hands or give or take something, they extend their right hand and touch their right arm with their left hand. It’s a sign of respect. Similarly, it is common to address someone as “Rra” (“Sir” or “Mr.”) or “Mma” (Ma’am” or “Mrs.”). A Motswana protagonist would do these things naturally in the correct context.

Third, a story takes place within a broader cultural context, such as the politics of the country, the structure of the government and police department, and the major events of the past decade or two. Your characters need to know these things because they would pop into conversation when appropriate. So you need to know them too. This typically comes from reading, travelling in the country, and talking to locals.

Ultimately it is readers who will pass judgement on whether a writer has done a good job of developing the character. Our Western readers enjoy our depiction of Botswana and its culture. Perhaps more importantly, our books have been well received in Botswana itself, with the latest one even being used as a theme at an annual cultural festival held in the town where we set much of the action. We were delighted by that!

This post is a stop on the Deadly Harvest Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

Deadly Harvest Blog tour    Deadly Harvest A/W.indd

Deadly Harvest is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: Deadly Harvest

Deadly Harvest A/W.indd

Deadly Harvest, by Michael Stanley, is a crime thriller set in Botswana, a country that is modernising yet struggling to shake off the superstitions and prejudices of its traditional past. The story takes the reader to the heart of this struggle. Young girls are going missing, vanishing in broad daylight close to their homes. They leave no trace. The concern is that they are being taken for their body parts, believed by many to enhance the strength of potions known as muti which are created by witch doctors. Little can be proved as no bodies have been found.

This is the fourth adventure in the Detective Kubu series, and the first to be released in the UK by Orenda Books. Kubu is joined here by a new recruit, Detective Samantha Khama. Khama is a feisty if somewhat impetuous addition to the force. She is determined to prove her worth and be treated as equal to her male colleagues, many of whom still believe that a woman’s place is in the home.

Against the advice of her superiors, Khama has requested that she be allowed to reopen the cases of the missing girls, closed because no new leads could be found. Kubu meanwhile is sent to interview an upcoming politician, Bill Marumo, who has discovered a severed dogs head left outside his home and claims he is being threatened by his political opponents. Kubu suspects this may be a publicity stunt but the man’s public profile requires that the police be seen to act.

The investigations collide when there is a murder. Soon after another person is reported missing. As Kubu and Khama try to piece together what few clues they have new information comes to light. Their source demands anonymity, to protect his reputation and for fear of a witch doctor’s revenge. Kubu must decide if he is willing to risk his own career and that of a colleague to seek justice.

As with any system of belief, the witch doctors trade on hope and fear. They have their costumes and their rituals to ensure they appear apart from mere men. Their followers are willing to pay a high cost when promised personal gain.

The dramatic denouement demonstrates how difficult it can be to overcome ingrained beliefs. Even the most rational can waver when what is before their eyes is difficult to process and explain.

The writing is a wonderful mix of colourful imagery and brooding undercurrents. Kubu provides humour but also a depth of character with the obvious pleasure he takes in his family, his concerns for his aging parents, his immense love of food, and the intuition he brings to the case. I felt a little discomfort at two white men creating what seemed to be stereotypical, uneducated black africans, but the authors have lived in their setting. I did not question their ability to create females so perhaps am being overly sensitive on this score.

It is always good to explore a new country through fiction and I enjoyed my introduction to Botswana. This is a darkly entertaining and compelling work of crime fiction. A fine addition to the Orenda stable of books.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.