As a journalist, I’m an editor’s worst nightmare. I’ve never met a word limit I didn’t take with a shovel of salt. I’ve been told, repeatedly, that people won’t read past 600 words, or 800 even. I’ve always thought: that’s grand, but I have more to say. Now that everything is online, I feel particularly peeved when told to cut stories because surely the wonder of the Internet is that it is Infinite – endless space just asking to be filled with lovely, lovely words. Apparently not. Damn those reader statistics with their “average length of time spent on article”.
No wonder I turned my hand to a novel.
When I started my book, I had the kernel of a love story. But I am not a natural romance writer. I have a nasty habit of killing my characters. When I was writing the first draft of Fractured many years ago, I remember having to shamefacedly confess to my husband that I had killed the main guy. “I don’t know,” I replied when he understandably queried why I had done such a thing – in Chapter Four. “It just sort of happened.” So, I was done with romance.
But luckily, there were some other ideas I wanted to explore, and by now I was hooked on the process – that intoxicating rush that comes when what’s in your head leaps onto the page.
Nina turned up first, but as a younger woman with her own story. Somewhere along the way, as I was changing nappies and playing Peek-a-boo, she got older. And suddenly her story was more complicated, and Peter came along and became a stronger voice, another flawed character who has his own secrets and who, like most of us, lives in the grey section of life’s spectrum – not wholly good, not wholly bad.
I wanted to see if I could explore that ground, and the randomness of life in a medium usually meant to impose order and certainty.
Then I met Abdi, the most challenging and satisfying of my characters and, to my mind, the moral compass of the book. I wanted to explore some of the darker motivations of our time through his eyes, and give him a chance to have his say on a different kind of ambiguity.
So these three very different people started to interact and slowly their stories came out. Through them, I was able to indulge in my fascination with the ‘what ifs’ of existence.
Chance is the mercurial little beastie that skulks behind us as we meander through life. I keep a sharp eye on Chance, tracking his movements through those little page-filler stories in the newspapers. He’s particularly busy at times of disaster. Why weren’t we at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi that Saturday in 2013 when Al Shabaab struck? We were there the week before, and met loads of our friends. But on that particular day, Chance was on our side. We were at home, as were our friends. But what if …
Chance is no slacker and he starts working before we are even born. He lays his mark on us before we take that first breath: by deciding where to put us, Chance rules on who we will become. We can’t control the beastie; we can only do our best with what he gives us.
Chance has been busy during this dark year. Millions of people on the move, fleeing complex wars in countries from Syria to the Central African Republic; atrocities carried out in barely-there villages in South Sudan; death in the air, on the ground, on beaches, in bars, in the Bataclan. In all of these, Chance played a part in the personal catastrophes that together create the disaster mosaic.
I’m not saying we can beat Chance, but we can maybe shut off some of his oxygen by remembering that all our stories are the same, we all bleed the same, and we all love the same.
Take Abdikarim, a polite nine-year-old, wearing a red glass ring – the kind you get in children’s party bags. I met him in Somaliland, where I travelled last month (eds: November), outside the village of Gargara where day started with the call to prayer, the bleating of milk-white goats, and the soft shuffle of people heading to one of just three long-drop latrines.
That was my first proper reporting assignment in a couple of years. Since I was last in Somalia – Somaliland is a self-declared breakaway republic in the north of the country – I had moved from Kenya to London and rejoined the metro-boulot-dodo rat race, with its frenetic, get-more impulse.
So the contrast to this parched land was ever greater.
Abdikarim said he wanted to be a minister. I joked that at least he had the right kind of ring. The older people in the group laughed when my words were translated; Abdikarim looked at me in the same way my daughter does when I do or say something to embarrass her.
Like me, Abdikarim is one of seven children. He is just a little older than my daughter. But he has never been to school, and most likely never will have that chance. He still has big dreams – well, what nine-year-old doesn’t? But he doesn’t even have a football to play with. Only stones.
I wrote about Abdikarim and showed the article to my daughters. They read what he said, and my 11-year-old commented: “That’s so sad.” And it is. There are no other words.
It makes me angry that we are still in a world where the potential of boys like Abdikarim is not realised, for a multitude of reasons but ultimately because they were born in the ‘wrong place’. It makes me angry that we are willing to accept the continued existence of all these ‘wrong places’.
I don’t have an answer but that anger – and the injustice behind it – also have a part to play in why and how I wrote this book.
(c) Clár Ní Chonghaile
Peter Maguire has been kidnapped in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. He does not know where he is or what is going to happen to him. The journalist is filled with fear and, as the days go by, this dread of the unknown is shot through with remorse for the mistakes of his past. Peter’s mother Nina comes to Somalia to wait for her son’s release. His plight forces her to relive another trauma the fatal shooting in Liberia of Shaun Ridge, a young photographer she once loved, and Peter’s real father. Abdi, a Somali teenager working with Peter’s captors strikes a tenuous friendship with the prisoner based on a shared feeling of captivity. He decides to help Peter escape. Together and they set off into the barren vastness of a land filled with danger. Three people must journey into one of the world’s most dangerous places, the human mind, to answer the question: are we ever truly free?
Clár grew up in County Galway in Ireland, the eldest of seven children. She left Ireland aged nineteen to work as a graduate trainee journalist at Reuters in London. Clár has worked as a journalist for over twenty years and has lived in Madrid, Paris, the Ivory Coast, Senegal and Kenya.
While in Nairobi, she freelanced for the Guardian and travelled to Somalia to cover the African Union’s battle against Al-Shabaab and the plight of thousands of displaced people. Clár returned to London in summer 2014, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.
Fractured is her debut novel – pick up your copy online here!