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.