[Interview] Delia Jarrett-Macauley

Delia Jarrett-Macauley is a writer, academic and broadcaster with a career spanning over 20 years. Her books include a biography of the Jamaican feminist Una Marson and Reconstructing Womanhood, Reconstructing Feminism: Writings on Black Women (Routledge, 1996). The latter was the first British feminist anthology to examine concepts of womanhood and feminism within the context of "race" and ethnicity

Jarrett-Macauley's first novel Moses, Citizen and Me, (Granta Books, 2005) is a haunting tale about Sierra Leone's civil war, which forced guns on an estimated 15,000 children between 1991 and 2001.

In 2006, Moses, Citizen and Me won the George Orwell Prize for political writing. The annual prize is awarded to writers judged to have best achieved George Orwell's aim "to make political writing into an art" and seeks to recognize good accessible writing about politics, political thinking or public policy.

In their comments the judges said, "Anyone who has spent time in Africa can immediately recognize the power and truth of her descriptions. It is a work of great intimacy and moral complexity, the kind of writing that sheds light on a world we barely understand." Andrew O'Hagan, a member of the judging panel, added, "the book is one that Orwell himself might have liked."

Moses, Citizen and Me became the first novel to win the Orwell Prize for political writing since the award started 16 years ago.

Delia Jarrett-Macauley spoke about her writing.

What is your connection with Sierra Leone?

I was born in England to Sierra Leone parents, and had visited the country as a child.

When did you decide you wanted to write about Sierra Leone?

On the day I heard the report on BBC lunchtime news about a child soldier, Citizen, who had been compelled to execute his parents, I knew immediately that I would have to write about him. The Sierra Leone I knew as a child was still inside me, so to speak, and I felt passionately about the country's plight.

Also genocide is a great classical theme in literature from Oedipus onwards, and when the perpetrator is a child, the writer is pushed into considering the toughest emotional and moral questions imaginable. I had worked in Central and Eastern Europe during the 1990s and seen the results of close inter-ethnic conflict, now I had to look at my parents' country where something similar was happening and imagine what a family's response might be to that tragedy.

I dared to proceed, even at the risk of making a complete fool of myself, to tackle the war because it raised such important literary challenges: the peculiarly human talent for re-inventing the self, the question of colonial history in Africa, the variations of African cultural life. I threw myself into writing and then into a period of research because although I was not concerned with documentation of fact, I had to grapple with it in order to understand the moral complexities of what had happened.

How did you research the novel?

If I had had the money and other resources I might have traveled back to Freetown to 'research' the novel, but I did not. I had to conduct most of my research in London and to imagine the responses of different family members. In any event, I believe that imagination thrives on minimal data, and so perhaps I was better off not going back.

I did, however, go to Paris in April 2001 to see the premiere of the film, Nouvel Ordre Mondiale by Phillipe Diaz, and to talk to people at Monde Contre Faim who had been working in Sierra Leone. Only a handful of people turned up for the premiere of the film, a brilliant and graphic depiction of the atrocities of the civil conflict.

At the end of the film we huddled together in the foyer. We were all upset, but we talked about it. One man encouragingly said it would be good if I could write something bearable, something which would enable readers to see the truth of the conflict, without just being shocked. His thoughtful words stayed with me.

How did all this influence you?

I wanted to write something beautiful and strong. Moses, Citizen and Me is a passionate book about family and 'lost home': it is not a tale about atrocities. By being removed from the physical Sierra Leone, I was able to re-create my own, and to develop characters using both memory and imagination.

Many African countries including Sierra Leone and its neighbours are not sufficiently well known in Europe or America to encourage mature literary treatment: write from the inside, and there are bound to be new challenging elements, but it is important to write nevertheless without footnoting, without patronizing and without debasing oneself to the level of meaningless generalizations.

I am pleased to have heard from readers in different parts of the world who recognize the themes and characters. For example, a Jamaican wrote to comment on the names. Bemba G is clearly a different and very African name, whereas Moses and his family all have Christian names.

Another general theme being talked about is the toughness of rural life in Africa compared with life in Freetown itself.

What were your expectations of Moses, Citizen and Me and did the novel live up to these?

Of course I wanted the novel to do well: I hoped for critical and some commercial success, but nothing could have prepared me for the feelings of elation and appreciation that came with winning the Orwell award.

The prize means many more people will share the story and, I hope, feel with the people of Sierra Leone.

I'm delighted to have won the Orwell Award for political writing: it is perhaps the most elegant acknowledgement of the novel's intentions, accessibility and merit. Coming at the end of a hard road to publication, the award has been a great serendipitous gift.



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