If you have nothing much to do on Sunday the 24th of July, at 3pm, and happen to be in Devonport, and you really want to see two people talking about books, and you really want the two people who are talking about books to be called something like Robert Glancy and Fiona Sussman - then, man oh man, have I got the event for you.
Just to prove I still have my VHS tape 'approved by the Malawi Censorship Board.' You'll notice they stamped it 'A Rating'. Damn straight - the A-Team rules, even the Malawi Censorship Board appreciated that!
This was just something I mentioned in my Better Reading interview about the good old bad old days in Malawi.
Author Q&A: Robert Glancy on his new novel Please Do Not Disturb
July 6, 2016
‘Bwalo is a thinly veiled version of Malawi. Tafumo, the fictional dictator, is based on Banda, Malawi’s real dictator. Power corrupted Banda completely. Near the end of his seemingly endless rule he was madder than a bag of snakes.’
Robert Glancy’s second novel is a wonderfully funny, often poignant book set in a fictional African country, Bwalo. On the eve of the ‘Big Day’ when Bwalo’s glorious leader, King Tafumo will appear, there’s heady anticipation at the Hotel Mirage. Amid the excitement, the Scottish hotel owners’ son Charlie eavesdrops on hotel guests and finds out more than he bargained for.
Author Robert Glancy talks to Better Reading about following up on his successful first novel, Terms and Conditions, life in Africa and combining comedy and terror to great effect.
Better Reading: Congratulations on your latest novel which we thoroughly enjoyed. In Please Do Not Disturb, the oft-inebriated teacher/writer Irishman Sean is struggling with his second novel. Did this reflect any struggle on your part after the success of your first novel Terms and Conditions?
Robert Glancy: Ah, yes, the curse of the second novel! In fact, in a way, Please Do Not Disturb is technically my first novel; it’s the first book I ever started. Terms & Conditions was my second book, but it was finished and published first. I’m always juggling books waiting for one to rise above the rest.
Please Do Not Disturb has been bubbling away for longer than I care to admit. What was a shock was to suddenly have a deadline. Before that I’d been flirting with it, occasionally taking it out on dates, dumping it again. But then I got a book deal and Bloomsbury gave me a year, and let me tell you – there’s nothing like a deadline to spur a writer on! Douglas Adams has a great line about deadlines, ‘I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by,’ but I’m not so blasé, and I was keen to keep Bloomsbury happy and hit the deadline.
That year was less about me writing the book and more about finally making the million decisions required to finish it. I had so much material, so I sat in a shed in France and I let that deadline crush me, panic me, motivate me. All books are hard to write, but I love writing, and I loved writing this book. From the moment I realised I wanted to be a writer this is the book I always wanted to write.
And, yes, I made the deadline!
BR: The African country Bwalo is fictional as are its crazy dictator and his ministers but how much are they based on real events and dictators in real countries?
RG: I stole liberally from reality. Bwalo is thinly veiled version of Malawi. Tafumo, the fictional dictator, is based on Banda, Malawi’s real dictator. Power corrupted Banda completely. Near the end of his seemingly endless rule he was madder than a bag of snakes. He didn’t let women wear short skirts, didn’t let men grow their hair. He once banned a song by the band Madness called Cecelia because that was the name of his first lady.
Banda banned TV and all media, bar the BBC World Service, which whispered in on the airwaves. When VHS players came in all VHS tapes had to be sent for approval to the censorship office. I still have a VHS of the A-Team with – Approved! – stamped on it. He also didn’t allow anyone else to own a Rolls Royce; that was his presidential entitlement. He created a school based on Eton where Latin and Greek were the main subjects and pupils caught speaking the local language, Chichewa, were kicked out.
So really I borrowed a lot but, importantly, there is only so much people will actually believe. Many writers use fiction to free themselves from the truth, however, in the case of this book, I used fiction to tame the truth, to frame it in a way that made it believable.
Sinister minsters always orbited Banda and Josef is a composite of the men I researched.
Some of the scenes are simply things that happened. The buffalo hunt was one of my first scrapes with death. Also Independence Day was huge, everything was made perfect – roses painted red – so that Banda would see only perfection. The country stopped for the day in order that we could give him the full, unadulterated focus he required to keep his ego inflated.
BR: You grew up in Africa. How much in the novel is from your own experience and do you identify with one of the most sympathetic characters of the novel, the young boy Charlie?
RG: I sympathise with all my characters. Life is not simple, and I never judge my characters, they are not symbols, nor are they moral metaphors. They are just people – messed up, confused, at times not always influenced by the better sides of human nature.
But, yes, young Charlie is me. Charlie’s parents are my mum and dad, but I just made them into managers of a hotel rather than a teacher and a nurse. And for simplicity’s sake I made them both Scottish (sorry Mum! (She’s actually Irish!)).
Sean, the drunken Irish man was a friend of my father’s, who is now sadly passed. He was not a writer but a musician. He was a terrific guy but a bad drunk and more often than not his incredible potential was lost to debauchery, women and whisky.
Hope is based on my mother’s Malawian nursing friends, and my mother too. Hope is a good woman who has been blunted by reality, cynicism has polluted her innocence, but at her core she still personifies her name. So yes all the characters have roots in reality.
BR: Many of the white colonial characters, such as Sean and Charlie’s parents, have a love-hate relationship with Africa. We understand you’re now a New Zealand resident, but do you still have a strong connection with Africa?
RG: I have lived in a lot of places but because I was in Africa for my first formative years I feel very connected to it. I was born in Zambia and raised in Malawi until I was 14, so Africa and my childhood are tightly interwoven; we share a muddy history together.
Then I studied African history at Cambridge – Boer War, Mfecane migrations and colonisation – and so that clash between my innocent, childish view of Malawi and my more academic understanding of Malawi infused this book. In simple terms the book can be cracked into two perspectives: Charlie’s naivety and Hope’s blunt reality.
I have returned a few times, when I was 20, and more recently with my parents in 2015, which was a bittersweet experience. My parents volunteered in Tanzania in 2014 – hence the fact I was living in their French cottage, cat sitting as I wrote PDND – so, yes, we still have lots of friends there and are still connected. Twee though it sounds: once you’ve been in Africa for a while it’s in you forever. It’s truly like nowhere else on earth.
BR: There’s a lovely blend of poignancy and humour throughout this novel. Was this difficult to balance?
RG: Difficult to find the tone but once I found the tone, then the balancing act came naturally. To paraphrase Don DeLillo, with the right tone you can do anything, without it nothing. The balance of fantastical and factual is always hard with places as distinctive as Malawi.
But once I found my old diaries from when I was young – and after I’d laughed my arse off at the way I used to write, think, and spell with such imaginative extravagance – then I knew I had Charlie’s voice. Something naïve, funny, and ultimately entertaining.
Every book is a reaction to the last, and Terms & Conditions was intentionally ‘placeless’. It was set in London but I wanted it to feel global, generic, corporate. I wanted to emphasise that globalisation is homogenising everywhere to be like everywhere else, and also I didn’t want the setting to get in the way of the pace of the plot or the jokes. Please Do Not Disturb was the opposite; it was all about the place, the setting, so I wanted it to look, feel and smell like Malawi.
BR: The novel is told – very successfully – from many different points of view, such as the lovely but sad figure of Hope, who is dictator Tafumo’s nurse, and the doomed Minister Josef. This works well but was it difficult to achieve?
This comes back to tone. I arrived at the right tone via a very simple technical decision. I didn’t want to have my voice in it, that classic sort of distant omniscient presence. So the day I decided to write all five character from first person was a day of great happiness, I literally smiled all day (oh, the tiny triumphs of writers! Ha!).
To avoid proclamations about Malawi or Africa in general – the world is full of those already – I wanted it all to be tightly woven into the point of view of very different characters. There is not one Malawi – there are millions of Malawis, all seen from the point of view of different people. That’s what I wanted to reflect.
Some authors are critical of first person as it is too tight, you can’t spread your wings and float over everything, filling in plot holes, but for this book it made sense. It was the key to everything; it gave my characters what I call Reality Blindness. Which is rather like Snow Blindness but less cold. It means you only know what the character knows.
Then I had lots of fun splicing and gently overlapping the characters as they experience the same events from different angles. It’s a book rich in dramatic irony; in the end, by gluing together the fragments of all the characters, the full picture is revealed only to the reader.
BR: There’s a lot of humour surrounding Westerners’ behaviour in Africa – Horst and his drunken wife Marlene and their tacky hotel, the celebrity American singer and his entourage of dancers and publicists. Is there still a form of colonialism happening even after countries have gained independence?
RG: Banda sold the illusion of sovereignty as he sustained the structures of colonialism. How much sovereignty do you have when not a single election is held and when no one is allowed to oppose him without dire consequences?
You have to keep in mind how British Banda had become. Banda returned after decades in England where he had lived and worked as a General Practitioner. There is film of him arriving back in Malawi dressed in a three-piece suit and a Homburg hat. So when he returned he had a very English sensibility. He was a chimera; he was part Chichewa Malawian part posh British GP. Banda had been away so long he didn’t even remember how to speak Chichewa; he had to have a translator. So as Josef says of Tafumo – ‘He had travelled so far to the other side he could no longer see where he began.’
And Banda’s rule was autocratic, often brutal just like the British. He was not all bad, he is sometimes described with that awful oxymoron,benevolent dictator – for he was no Idi Amin with the heads of victims in fridges – but he was still on a smaller scale repressive, a man who locked up and ‘vanished’ people who opposed him.
As for the drunken white people – well, without being too stereotypical I think expatriates are a sort of breed of person. Expatriates are always torn; rather like Banda becoming British, I think people abroad naturally become a part of their new home but always feel the tug of their roots. Sean says, ‘a long stint in Africa prepares you for only one thing: a longer stint in Africa.’ That conflict often tears people apart – maybe it leads to heavy drinking too! – but it is a strong source for interesting friction and therefore entertaining fiction.
BR: Who are your literary influences?
RG: For this book I was influenced by my mum and dad’s bookshelf, literally the books I read as a kid. We had lots of Chinua Achebe, lots of Paul Theroux. Although, in fact, Theroux’s books were banned in Malawi. Theroux lived there for a while but did something to upset Banda, so Banda banned his books. But my parents had a few illegal copies stashed away – illicit books hidden in brown paper bags! Gosh, the intrigue! No wonder I became a writer. Also William Boyd, Nkem Nkwanko, Giles Foden, Ayi Kwei Armah, and, more recently, the wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and NoViolet Bulawayo. Plus expatiate writers, or Third Culture Kids as I call them, such as the superb Peter Godwin and Alexandra Fuller. My humour comes from the great American comic writers, Heller, Vonnegut, and I also adore the immaculate British stylists, Edward St Aubyn, Adam Foulds and Jim Crace.
“Unbridled despotism sprinkled with stage-managed political visits and the circus of celebrity philanthropy, are really what most people see of African nations.” To read Robert Glancy’s essay Painting the Roses Red click here
Check out my article about when Madonna, Margaret Thatcher and the Pope visited Malawi - not all at the same time obviously!
Essay: Painting the Roses Red by Robert Glancy
July 6, 2016
Robert Glancy was born in Zambia and raised in Malawi. At fourteen he moved from Africa to Edinburgh then went on to study history at Cambridge. His first novel, Terms & Conditions, was published to critical acclaim. He has recently been awarded the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship in New Zealand, where he currently lives with his wife and children. His latest novel is Please Do Not Disturb set in the fictional African country Bwalo. (See our recent interview with Robert Glancy here.) In this essay, Painting the Roses Red, Glancy talks Africa’s dictators, Margaret Thatcher and growing up in Malawi.
PAINTING THE ROSES RED by Robert Glancy
At the dawn of Zimbabwe’s independence, Samora Machel told Robert Mugabe, ‘You have the jewel of Africa in your hands.’
Tragically we know how that ended. But many forget that moment of hope. The great hope of independence, the first opportunity for Africa to stop being a colonial outpost for megalomaniacs like Cecil Rhodes, and instead, for Africa to be shaped by Africans. My parents volunteered smack bang in the middle of that hope, as the Empire’s grip was finally slipping. And they often tell me of the thrill and joy of Kaunda taking power in Zambia, Banda becoming the first Malawian president, Mugabe being Zimbabwe’s great hope. Those post-colonialheroes held the dreams of their people in their hands – only to squander them.
Africa is far from a hopeless place but it’s had its fair share of great expectations followed by breathtaking disappointments. What become of that hope?
I left Malawi at 14, so my childhood and Africa are tightly interwoven. When I left in 1989, on the surface at least, Malawi was a successful post-colonial nation – The Warm Heart of Africa. So much so that both Thatcher and the Pope made official visits that year. Perfect PR campaigns with waving crowds and smiling politicians.
Malawi was considered such a success that Thatcher, ever ready to steal credit, went so far as to not only praise Banda’s efforts, which – ever the schoolmarm – she called, ‘very impressive’, but to describe herself as ‘the midwife’ of Malawi. Her logic being that she was a Member of Parliament in 1969 when Malawi was fighting for independence, and therefore she had some hand in its birth. Logic so tenuous as to be borderline insane.
Thatcher probably envied Banda’s total control, for he had no parliament, nor opposition. And, for those not looking too closely, Malawi was the perfect post-colonial nation. A plucky young country making the best of it with the support of both its prior oppressor, the British Empire, and Rome no less. What I didn’t know, couldn’t know – because I was too young and the media was so tightly controlled – was that it took a lot of terror to achieve that much peace.
As a boy these visits thrilled me. I lined up and sang my heart out when the Pope and Thatcher came; it was exciting to have big people come to our little town. Everything, at least everything the dignitaries saw, was fixed: potholes filled, shops painted, everything made immaculate. Malawi became a stage in which Banda was the star and his people the actors.
Or maybe it was a nightmare for citizens cast in the dream of their dictator. For these perfectly orchestrated visits were studies in propaganda and control. As I grew older I came to appreciate that there were two Malawis – the utopia of my childhood and the dystopia of a dictatorship.
Distraction is an essential tool of dictatorships. Invite dignitaries, host huge celebrations and keep your people distracted from their own poverty. The documentary, When We Were Kings, charts Muhammad Ali’s fight against Foreman, but more fascinating than the fight is how Mobutu, Zaire’s dictator, exploited the event as a PR coup.
There is a story Norman Mailer recounts in the documentary: before the event, Mobutu rounded up many criminals, then randomly – that’s the key word – picked a hundred of them and, in front of the others, executed them. Which was Mobutu’s way of saying, no connection, no family, no blood makes you bigger than me, and that while the world is watching nothing will disrupt the perception of perfection.
Official visits are ambivalent affairs. On the one hand they absolve dictators by showing a perfect version of their nation, where no blood trickles from backstage. On the other hand they can sometimes shine a spotlight on nations in need.
Most important is the question of who is holding the spotlight. And when talking about special visitors to Malawi we can’t forget Madonna. When people ask where I was brought up I tell them, and they respond with a vague look. When I make the joke, ‘It’s where Madonna finds her babies,’ they shriek, ‘That’s it! I knew I knew it from somewhere!’
More than the Pope and Thatcher, Madonna put Malawi on the map. Not always for the right reasons. For though she came with the best intentions of opening a school, it fell apart due to mismanagement in which funds were allegedly squandered on cars and golf memberships.
Geldof proved that it takes a lot of pop stars to force us to look beyond our homes. And the celebrity method is not all bad. It’s good in that we donate money and – even with the attrition of corruption – aid saves lives. But it’s bad in that, though entirely unintentional, celebrities add to the absurdity of tragic situations, which is more damaging than it sounds. Because all that shining hope squandered by the ‘heroes’ of independence, has the potential to sour into something incredibly harmful – and that is farce.
Unlike tragedy, farce is easy to laugh at, shrug off, turn away from. Farce is a useful trope for fiction but a trap for countries struggling to be taken seriously. Watching Madonna’s good intentions go awry; watching Mugabe scoff cake at his extravagantly expensive birthday; seeing the unveiling of an expensive monument to Banda in a place where many are starving – all of this makes a farce of what is in fact tragedy.
Unbridled despotism sprinkled with stage-managed political visits and the circus of celebrity philanthropy, are really what most people see of African nations. This is particularly bad at a time when even the relatively affluent West is struggling with refugees, financial crisis, and the immanent peril of its own farce-monster – Donald Trump. And charity is a finite resource, there is only so much people can afford to care. All of which makes many of these places in need that little bit easier for weary people to ignore.
I was published in the Scotsman this weekend, in their lovely weekend magazine.
The article is all about being brought up in Malawi, about my parents volunteering to 'save the world' and about how crazy life was in the good-old-bad-old days.
And we have lift off!
My second book, Please Do Not Disturb, is a crazy ride through a country falling apart at the seams. Dictators, hip-hoppers, drunks, whores and buffaloes – it’s spilling with colourful characters.
Inspired by the country I grew up in, Please Do Not Disturb, has a lot of Malawi and a lot of me in it.
Malawi is a magical place known as the Warm Heart of Africa, but made famous as the place where Madonna finds her children.
To celebrate the launch I’ve posted some funny photographs of my sepia family back in the sweet 80s, when we were all sunburnt by The Warm Heart of Africa.
Back when my hair was blond and my skin was brown. Back when I had a heart full of hopes, and a head full of dreams (and hair!); back when I thought it was normal to have a crocodile languishing outside the school library, its greasy eyes reflecting all the sumptuous children strolling past; back when I thought it was normal for a country to be run by one man who never held elections, or went anywhere without a hundred dancing women praising him. Back when I was a boy, in more innocent and twisted times.
Hope you enjoy the book.