In late 1989, when I signed up to go to Sudan to work as a volunteer my level of analysis ran thin: I’d been to Zimbabwe on holidays; Zimbabwe and Sudan are both in Africa; both countries are former British colonies; both are/were ruled by despots and controlled by military; ergo I thought I had a fair idea of what I was letting myself in for.
In truth, I hadn’t a clue. This realisation didn’t strike me until I got as far as London for my onward flight to Sudan and one of the airport personnel asked me about Sharia law and the war in Sudan. By the time I disembarked from the plane and walked into Khartoum airport, I was terrified. My terror was greeted with an airport teeming with military carrying rifles of unknown age and pedigree. I had never seen so many guns up close before; in Ireland, guns were a very rare sight. And I was to smuggle ten thousand dollars past these guys! That was a lot of money in Irish terms but a hell of a lot of money in Sudanese terms.
I made it to the other side of the airport with tentative relief and in the weeks and months that followed, I rolled from new experience to tentative relief many times. Gradually, I became accustomed to Sudanese bureaucratic, Muslim and military ways. I got to engage with people, mostly women and children, who had survived the adversity of war, including hunger and exhaustion; they taught me to believe in the miracle of love and determination. At that time, over one million people were internally displaced in Sudan; they lived in squalor on the outskirts of Khartoum, having sacrificed everything to make the one thousand mile, arduous journey to escape the war that engulfed their homes in the south. I came to understand the lengths to which these people, especially mothers, would go to to care for their children. I was in awe of their spirit.
Many years later, a friend of mine told me a story that set the seed for my novel Deniable Memories. It felt natural to set Martha’s story against the backdrop of a fictionalised version of my experiences in Sudan. Martha has memories of her family she struggles to make sense of. In Sudan she meets an old neighbour who can shed light on these events, a light that may validate or undermine Martha’s memories; I am intrigued by memory and how we all have different versions of the same event. There are times when we need someone to give us the comfort and reassurance that our version is valid because others have denied it.
I am relatively new to writing as through a series of incidents and accidents, not least of which was my father dying in the last year of my degree, I became an unwilling accountant. I cannot complain too much about this; I had to work long hours in PWC but they supported me when I chose to travel to Sudan and Kenya, first as a volunteer and then as a consultant; when I became a mother, being a self-employed accountant combined well with the demands of motherhood. However, I genuinely never wanted to be an accountant and after thirty years, I decided it was time to try something different. I love people and I’m fascinated by how we tick and what lies behind the image we present to the world; writing allows me to have fun pursuing this fascination.
My putting sentences on paper to create stories began with a Wild Women Writing course with Magi Gibson as part of the Bantry Literary Festival. Magi has a very special touch; we wrote, we laughed and we cried. After Magi’s course, I did a number of other great writing courses, including one with Claire Hennessy of Big Smoke who gave excellent individual feedback. My last course was with Conor Kostick in the Irish Writers Centre and I owe Conor major thanks for his sound direction and support in getting me to this point and in particular for suggesting that I submit my manuscript to Vulpine Press. Over the previous year or more, I had submitted my manuscript for Deniable Memories and for my second novel, Beneath the Image, to numerous agents and publishers without success; before doing so, I had tediously trawled through The Artist’s Yearbook trying to work out who to consider submitting to and gone through those relevant agents’ and publishers’ websites to try to tailor my submission to tick their very particular boxes. Despite my systematic and thorough approach, it felt getting off that slush pile was going to be an impossible task; I did not keep track of all my rejection emails. By the time Vulpine Press offered me a contract, I had such a deep appreciation of how difficult it is to get published that it took me weeks to believe I was actually going to get published!
With the contract signed, I wondered what the experience of having my work edited would be like; would it undermine my confidence in my writing and drive home to me how much I still had to learn? But Sarah Hembrow of Vulpine Press has been a dream to work with. She is always supportive and gives me wise and valuable feedback that I know is just what my writing needs.
To be honest, I still find it hard to believe that there is a book out there that has my name on it as the author. It is still weird to say that I am a writer but now I can say it with a bit more confidence.
(c) Vanessa Pearse
About Deniable Memories:
When asked why she is heading off as a volunteer to war-torn Sudan, Martha’s stock answer is, “I’ve had a good life, it’s time I gave something back.” But the truth is buried in a muddle of memories distorted by her so-called family.
From the moment she lands, trembling into the heat of a run-down Khartoum airport filled with armed guards, she realises that she is ill-prepared for the dusty, military-controlled Muslim country.
Amidst the unsettling, and at times terrifying, experiences that await her, the dignity, humanity and resilience of the Sudanese people who face unspeakable loss resonates with her. As she finds joy in an orphanage, witnesses unconditional love in bare hovels, learns to embrace new friendships and the possibility of romantic love Martha is drawn to face her memories.
Africa will change her, as is its way.
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