Monday, 7 May 2012

N is for NELIAH

One of the biggest dilemmas I had during the planning of Afrika Reich was whether to include any black characters. I always wanted to but realised there were practical issues. With all the native races shipped to Muspel how would it be possible? And even if a black character had avoided transportation, how would they live? How could they survive in such a racist culture without instantly being spotted?

Given these impossibilities I reluctantly abandoned the idea and plotted the book using an entirely white cast even though I felt uncomfortable with what I was doing. I didn’t want to be accused of being patronising or, worse still, racist.

Gradually the idea of the Angolan resistance took form and, playing against type, I put two girls at the centre; two white girls (Luisa and Arabella, for the record). It was only when I was on the second or third draft of the plot that I realised L&A could be black, that although they engaged with the Nazis it was always in a hit-and-run fashion. So they could inhabit German Africa without the quandary of being the only dark faces in a continent of whites. Indeed, making them black added to how high the stakes were. Having some black characters also allowed me to depict the horrors of the Nazi regime from those who had suffered the most.

So were born Zuri and her younger sister, NELIAH.

I wanted Neliah to be a tough cookie but also a teenager, playing into that idea of the child-soldiers that have fought in so many of Africa’s recent conflicts. She’s also the noble heart of the book. Whereas the white characters are hellbent on murder (Hochburg, Uhrig) or happy to betray and abandon each other (the ‘good’ guys), Neliah is steadfast in wanting to protect her sister and defend her country. Unlike Burton and Patrick she’s fighting for a cause she believes in.

I’ve been asked about her name. As unbelievable as it seems the single word Neliah does actually translate from the Herero as ‘strong of will, vigorous of spirit, level of mind’: an example of how efficient African languages can be! Another thing readers ask me is about her rather open-ended last scene: so I’ll reveal now that not only does she survive the battle of Loanda but she returns in Book 3.


  1. I have to wait till book 3??! Hang on, there's a book 3?! Hooorah!

    Well Neliah is certainly worth the wait as she's totally amazing - easily my favourite character of AR! I am beyond ecstatic you included a tough, spirited and feisty, fighting female of colour in a book brimming with (white) testosterone! Take care

  2. I agree with Kitty. Neliah is a fantastic character, also my favourite! I read a lot of gung-ho thrillers and enjoy them but find they're mostly about male heroes. It's one of the reason why I enjoyed Africa Reich so much. It made a real difference to have a tough, indewstructible woman at the centre. A match for the men. :o) I read your other blog about James Cameron and definitely think Neliah is in the Ripley mold.

    I am so excited to hear she's coming back!

  3. And another vote for neliah! :)

  4. That’s a beautiful picture, Guy. Neliah is one of my favourite characters, too. I liked the way you captured her naivety and vulnerability, as well as her single-minded ferocity. She felt like a real person, and not just an idealised token black character.

    I was surprised to hear that she and Zuri were latecomers – they feel really integral to the book, and both Burton and Patrick learn from them. Actually, I liked Zuri a lot as well (sorry if I’m pre-empting one of your few “Z”s!). There was more to her than met the eye. The scene where Patrick (who has suddenly decided it’s imperative to be reunited with his daughter, having walked out on her when she was a baby) is actually confronted with a real young woman was very funny, and I was touched by their ensuing tentative relationship.

    Couldn’t help noticing that your female warriors not only cooked the dinner on the speeding train, but did the washing up afterwards…

  5. Kitty, Debbie, J - great to know that Neliah has her own fan club! :o)

    I'm also glad to hear that such a 'male' book has attracted female readers. This was always one of my intentions: to have strong female characters so the book would have appeal beyond the 'gung-ho crowd' as Debbie puts it.

  6. PS - Debbie, I'd never really made the connect between Neliah and Ripley, but you're right. An unconscious reference this time!

  7. Catherine – I’m glad you thought she wasn’t just a token black character. That was one of my fears so I worked and worked on getting her to seem real. I’m also glad you got the parallel between Patrick, his daughter and Zuri, something that nobody has mentioned before.

    I wasn’t trying to gender stereotype Neliah and Zuri when they made dinner! Actually, the inference was that Neliah hated cooking for the white Angolans yet was willing to do it for Burton because she saw him as different to other soldiers she knew. The washing up bit was to get in a reference. Neliah drops the bucket of washing-up water when she catches sight of Hochburg (his first appearance in the ‘chase’ proper). There’s a similar scene in THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY where a woman drops a pail of water when The Bad commits his first murder. Should I be giving all this stuff away…? :o)

  8. LOL, my name is Neliah and I just randomly found this page. I've never found anyone else named Neliah, so it was a pleasant surprise :) Good luck with your book.

  9. Hi Neliah!

    What a surprising and unexpected comment! I've never met a Neliah before either... until now. Thanks for taking the time to write. The book's doing pretty well, thanks.

    Best wishes

    Guy :o)

  10. Finished your book over Xmas. I loved Neliah and Zuri! They were my favourite characters. Am so glad Neliah will be back in the sequel. Can't wait :o)