Sunday, 13 May 2012

H is for HERERO

I’ve always been fascinated by the great Victorian expansion into Africa and from my previous reading was dimly aware of the HERERO and the fate they suffered under the Germans.  However, it wasn’t until I was fleshing out Neliah’s character and ethnic background that my memory was jogged. 

The Herero are a tribe from South-West Africa in what is modern day Namibia. At the end of the 19th century this region became a German colony (DSWA, part of the Second Reich) and after years of encroachment on their territory the Herero finally rebelled against the European settlers. The Germans responded with unbridled savagery: slaughtering thousands, leaving many more to starve. Between 1904 and 1907 it has been estimated that 80% of the Herero were wiped out. The parallel between this and Hochburg’s plans for the continent seemed obvious – hence why I made Neliah a Herero.

(NB: this is a very simplified version of events, those seeking a more detailed account can find out more on Wikipedia. I would also recommend the book The Kaiser’s Holocaust, published by Faber.)

A couple other details that might interest:

1.      Several unexpected threads can be drawn between events in DSWA and the Third Reich. For example, the colonial governor in the years leading up to the Herero uprising was Heinrich Göring, father of the notorious Nazi. While one commanders of German forces was Franz Ritter Von Epp who went on to found the KPA, the administrative body that would have ruled Africa had the Nazis conquered the continent

2.      I taught myself a smattering of Herero while writing the book so all the lines Neliah and Zuri speak in their native tongue are correct (I hope!). However, my study-source was a book published in the 1890s which meant some words – helicopter, for example – didn’t exist. In these cases I had to neologise, creating new words from combinations of existing ones

Curiously, some of the first readers of Afrika Reich thought the Herero massacres were a fabrication; one publisher cited this as a reason for rejecting the book (i.e. he felt it was a strand of alternative history ‘too far’). I think this demonstrates how poorly known this genocide is while also proving the dictum, ‘Those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat’. Many historians believe what happened to the Herero was a precursor to the Holocaust, indeed the BBC even made a documentary called From the Herero to Hitler, which rather neatly leads me to...

H is also for HITLER

One of the first decisions I made with the book was that HITLER would not directly appear in it. The same went for other well known Nazis.

Some readers have told me they would have liked a cameo, or even a more substantial role, but personally I felt it a bit crass. It also misses the point of what I’m trying to do. (I had a similar reaction to those who suggested I include people such as Nelson Mandela or Ben Gurion.) I think alternative history works best if these real figures are like shadows: their darkness falls across events without their physical presence.

Having said all that, I do have a scene in mind (the prologue of Book 3) where an on stage appearance from Hitler might be necessary. We’ll see...

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.