Into the Mouth of the Lion started out as a short story, inspired by a dramatic plane flight I was on in my first visit to Angola. I was working as part of a humanitarian organisation supporting civilians displaced by Angola’s 26-year civil war. The flight, which eventually became part of chapter two of the novel, was an everyday occurrence for people used to working in the conflict zone, but for me as a newcomer, it was terrifying.
The fact was that the Angolan Government had control only over towns and a narrow circumference surrounding these outposts. The rebels held control over the vast plains outside of the towns and had surface-to-air missiles. Planes bringing food, humanitarian workers and equipment thus had to stay high until they were just over the government-held territory. The pilots then made their descent, circling around the safe zone at a nerve-wracking speed. As a passenger, you felt pinned back in your seat by an immense force. All your instincts told you that the plane was spiralling out-of-control, but you could do nothing but trust the pilot and pray that any missiles would miss.
This was “normal,” in the twisted times of Angola’s civil war. As a humanitarian worker, as soon as the plane touched down, I learned that I was supposed to dust myself off and pretend I wasn’t scared. I was a writer, researcher and photographer, having worked short stints in the Balkans and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had also travelled in Asia and West and Southern Africa. I thought I was ready to face these kinds of dangers.
Much later, however, I found that the 18 years I spent working in conflict and natural disasters left me with much to work through psychologically. Creative writing was my way of processing many disparate, dangerous and humbling experiences. It also was a way of making some kind of art from the many landscapes I had seen, and the relationships I had made, witnessed and cherished along the way.
Into the Mouth of the Lion is not autobiographical, but I do draw on my many experiences and observations of human nature that I’ve had over the years. It is the story about Lena, a young photographer, who flies into the final days of Angola’s civil war to try to find her missing sister. It is also a weave of three different cross-cultural love stories that span across Angola, Portugal and London. The book has themes about faith and the limits of faith, what are the ties that bind us to our family, and the need to bear witness.
It was a lot of fun to write. I have been encouraged by early readers who have said that it is a pacey and engaging read.
In 2015, I was facing a kind of burnout from my humanitarian work; I needed to find a way to replenish my energy. I started taking weekend creative writing classes and found that the creative process really energised me. I signed up for a Creative Writing MA at London City University, taking classes in the evenings so I could still continue working and managing childcare. The first full draft of Into the Mouth of the Lion was the result of those two years, and an early draft was long-listed for the Mslexia Women’s First Novel Prize in 2017.
However, getting the book towards publication wasn’t that easy. It is a book that can appeal to a range of readers but doesn’t easily fit in any one genre. It is a mystery, set in West Africa, but not a crime novel or thriller per se. I found readers were enthusiastic, but agents and traditional publishing were a bit closed.
Luckily, I am a member of a network that brings together authors with people across publishing and the technology sector, Byte the Book. They host brilliant events online and in person (such as at the London Book Fair) about writing and the many ways that technology can be harnessed for new ways of storytelling. At an event held at Google’s headquarters in 2019, I met my editor for Unbound, an independent publisher based in London who work from a crowdfunding model. Using technology to directly connect authors with readers, Unbound are able to back quirky books, ones that cross genres, and tell stories that otherwise might go unpublished. For example, they were the first to publish an important anthology about immigration in Britain, The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla, as well as more recently an anthology of working-class writers, Common People, edited by Kit de Waal. Without Unbound, these books, and my debut, might have not have been published.
Crowdfunding was a daunting challenge to start out with, but I found, with the help of friends and family spreading the word and supporting me, it was actually a very positive experience. I reached out, and messages and support came back from across the globe. I had supporters from Myanmar, East Timor, Germany, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, France, Boston, Kansas, California, Seattle, and many places in between. Strangers, colleagues, and other people who know me from different times of my life believed in my writing and backed the book. It was a very powerful, and personal, connection with readers.
At the time of writing this article (April 2021) the books are starting to be delivered to patrons, ahead of Amazon and bookstores on 6 May. I am so looking forward to hearing from people where in the world they are reading my book, and what they think! It’s a moment of truth, but one I’ve been looking forward to for some time.
In the meantime (publishing, even with an independent publisher, is not quick!) I have been writing the sequel to Into the Mouth of the Lion, which I am hoping to publish soon. That is the continuing story of Lena and Kojo, the main protagonists of the book, as they work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan (Darfur) and other places in East Africa. It is also the parallel story of Lena’s teenage son walking the streets of Paris 18 years after Into the Mouth of the Lion is set. I also have written another novel set in London, a quirky story about immigration and friendship, and started a fourth book, set in Boston. I write short stories, some of which have been published during lockdown, and one will be launched in June this year as part of the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology (UK). Creativity continues to be a source of energy for me, as I find different avenues for expression.
(c) A.B. Kyazze
About Into the Mouth of the Lion:
Angola, 2002. In the last days of a vicious civil war, it is a dangerous landscape rife with rebel soldiers, land mines, corruption and deception. A suspicious explosion kills a beloved nurse, while another humanitarian worker goes missing.
Lena Rodrigues, a young photographer, flies out to Angola’s highlands to piece together the reasons behind her sister’s disappearance. But will she have the strength to bear witness to the truth, before she gets entangled in the country’s conflict for minerals and power?
Here are some comments from reviewers of Into the Mouth of the Lion:
An atmospheric jigsaw puzzle of a novel that fits together, stage by stage, from a series of vivid episodes…A memorable debut.
Emily Midorikawa, author of A Secret Sisterhood
Totally gripped… I come away moved, desperately sad, and somehow also hopeful – because, with this story, A.B. Kyazze holds up both the dark and the light of humanity – how, even in desperate, terrible circumstances, there are those touches of love, of kindness.
Julia Crouch, author of Her Husband’s Lover
A.B. Kyazze brings to the story a photographer’s eye, capturing the tragedy and beauty of the people caught up in Angola’s civil war.
Joss Stirling, author of The Silence
The finale is as thrilling as it was unexpected.
Oscar Scafidi, author of Kayak the Kwanza
Into the Mouth of the Lion is published by Unbound, and is available to pre-order as a paperback or ebook now from Amazon, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and all good bookshops. I would love to hear from readers their impressions of the book, and if they enjoyed it. Feel free to get in contact with me via twitter @abkwriting or my website www.abkyazze.com.