'Diary of an Asylum Seeker': Anatomy of A Work In Progress

I’ve taken a leaf off George Bernard Shaw’s book and have written a very long introduction to my work in progress, the Diary of an Asylum Seeker.

The introduction is really a ‘back story’ in that it shows part of how the Diary came about; it shows part of how I’ve been working on the Diary and it shows part of the reception the Diary has received so far.

I started working on what is becoming the Diary of an Asylum Seeker in late 2004 or early 2005 after coming into contact with the Assist Service, a medical practice which provides specialized primary health care for asylum seekers in Leicester. There, one of the people I was and still am in dialogue with is Jan Moore, the practice therapist, who suggested that I keep a diary. Which I did. For about a week or two.

I wish I’d kept the diary more religiously. I wish I’d kept it like medicine. I didn’t. I tell myself that the reason for this was because, soon afterwards, I started writing a lot about asylum seekers, about who they are, about the pressures that force them to leave home and country, about the countries they claim asylum in and the reception they receive in those countries. Some these articles have been published in places that include UK Indymedia, Worldpress.org, OhmyNews International, Labour Left Briefing and the British Journal of Occupational Therapy.

In both the fiction and non-fiction writing that I do, each time I focus on a subject, I do a lot of reading around it and I make extensive notes on it. In some cases, the subject dominates or takes over and I start living for it. Writing about the subject becomes the reason why I’m here, it becomes the reason why I’m alive. It becomes difficult to stop thinking about it and I start talking about it incessantly. Aspects of the subject also invade my dreams when I sleep and I start living them intensely that way. Because of this, the diary became a journal and then it became a notebook on asylum seekers and aspects of the immigration and asylum system and then it became a journal and then it became a diary. And then I thought, “Instead of writing newsy stuff about all this, why not a short story or a novel that will focus of a day, a week, a month or a year in the life of an asylum seeker?”

The Diary of an Asylum Seeker was born out of these questions.

While I can’t think of a novel focusing on the life of an asylum seeker or a group of asylum seekers, that’s been written in the form of a diary, I’m aware that there’s a body of work out there which, each in its own way, sheds light on how dehumanizing the asylum process can be. One of these works is the highly original and influential play, The Bogus Woman by Kay Adshead. Another is the novel, Refugee Boy by the indefatigable Benjamin Zephaniah.

The Diary of an Asylum Seeker is a work in progress. I intend to push the narrative as hard as I can and see if I can’t turn it into a novel.

Because it’s a work in progress, it’s not static: a sentence will change, here, and another one will change, there; paragraphs will be added, others will be moved; new entries will be made while other entries will be removed… such is the life of a work in progress.

If I manage to pull it off, I think the Diary will be a double-first in Zimbabwean literature. It’s already the first attempt at a novel in the form of a blog by a Zimbabwean writer. If I pull it off, it’ll be the first such novel by a Zimbabwean writer.

Even though it’s a work in progress, the Diary has been well received.

Its very first version received a commendation in the 2005 Leicester and Leicestershire Library Services Annual Short Story Contest. A year later, a slightly different version was published on both the U.S.-based Glimpse Abroad website and in the Glimpse Foundation’s quarterly magazine. This year, extracts from the Diary were published in the second issue of Tripod Magazine. Another extract, "Living on Promises and Credit" (which was written in 2002 and which I intend to integrate into the Diary) was published in Writing Now: More Stories from Zimbabwe (Weaver Press, 2005).

I’ve also received some very interesting and encouraging comments from some of the world’s finest writers. For example, Maurice Suckling, the versatile computer games scriptwriter and author of the collection of short stories, Photocopies of Heaven (Elastic Press, 2006) said, “Crickey… That’s pretty [fill in appropriate adjective here, since I don’t know how to sum that up in one word].

“When do you think this novel might be finished?”

H. Nigel Thomas, author of the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Spirits in the Dark (House of Anansi Press, 1993) and Why We Write: Conversations with African Canadian Poets and Novelists (TSAR Publications, 2006) said, “The writing is forceful. It takes skill and experience, I think, to produce excellent fiction using the epistolary mode, and the excerpts you posted attest to this.”

Gordon Hauptfleisch, in his review of Writing Now: More Stories from Zimbabwe, described “Living on Promises and Credit” as “earnest and affecting.”

To go back to Maurice Suckling’s question -- I have every intention of finishing the novel.

Although I haven’t been updating the version of the Diary which appears on the blog, Immigrant Diaries, I’ve been working on it in earnest since about February of this year. In April, the winds rose and it’s been taking a lot of energy to just stay on my feet. When the winds settle down, as they are bound to, the novel should start moving more markedly. Until them, I’ll continue doing what I always do… my best. The material is there in my own life and in the lives of the asylum seekers I’m in contact with. The challenge is to see if I can tell this story in 50,000 words or more and still be able to hold the reader’s attention right through to the end.

This article was first published by Blogcritics.org.


Popular posts from this blog

[Interview] Rory Kilalea

writers' resources

[Interview] Lauri Kubuitsile