How to Write About Love and Atonement in the Midst of a Humanitarian Crisis

Jenny D. Williams discusses aid work in Uganda and South Sudan and the long road to a novel set within a misunderstood crisis

Kitgum, Uganda (2009) Photo by Jason Nolte, via Flickr.

I first met Jenny D. Williams in 2009. We were in the same class at the MFA program at Brooklyn College. Shortly after arriving, I found out that we’d been at the same high school at the same time — which felt like a pretty big coincidence, considering the small (15 people) size of our program. As the two years progressed, I always looked forward to reading Williams’ work. Her writing had a lyrical precision to it, and a sense of pacing that felt unusual for an MFA student, where most writers are still finding their footing. She had traveled widely, and it was always refreshing to read about her fictionalized experiences in places that mostly only existed on maps for me, and she’d spent enough time in them that the work felt truly rooted in the locations, rather than the experiences of a thrill-seeking tourist.

Her first novel, The Atlas of Forgotten Places, is an extension of that writer from eight years ago — lyrical sentences, an empathy for both the places and people in her novel, and a pacing that makes the book hard to put down. She’s managed to make one of those rare gems — the smart, well-written page-turner, an escapist read that is far too nuanced to be a guilty pleasure.

Juliet Escoria: I know that this book was not a straight shot from writing to publication, and that there was a point where you thought it might be shelved altogether. What were some of the obstacles and blocks you had to go through before the book found a publisher?

Jenny D. Williams: I’ve heard writers talk about how difficult it was for them to find an agent, but once they did, their book sold really fast. I had the opposite experience. I queried three agents with an unfinished manuscript in early 2012 and signed with one almost right away. I finished writing that draft the same year, and it went on sub and got some very encouraging rejections, including a revise-and-resubmit. But I had a kind of revelation, where I felt like — I don’t want to just revise. I wanted to widen the scope of the story in a radical way. So I set that manuscript aside and started from scratch. Strangely, I felt energized by this decision rather than discouraged. I had this feeling that I couldn’t “break” the novel; the only way to fail was to not try at all.

When I finished the second version and my agent sent it on submission in early 2014, we both felt that the wait was worth it. Three days later, my agent called me and said, “Have you seen today’s New York Times book review?” There was a terrific, lengthy review of Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls, which was eerily similar to mine: both set in northern Uganda centering on the LRA, both with dual narratives following a Ugandan protagonist and a Western one. I had no idea her book was coming out. It was a tough blow for my novel. Editors were unlikely to take a chance on a debut writer covering territory already explored by a seasoned novelist. My agent and I decided to put Atlas on hold for a while.

“A while” turned into a year and a half. And then more rounds of submissions, and more rejections. At a certain point I accepted that the novel might never find its way into the world. I began to make peace with that. Then I came across Quressa Robinson’s profile on Manuscript Wishlist; she said she was interested in untold stories from Africa featuring strong women protagonists. (At that time she was an editor with Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press; she’s now an agent at D4EO.) I thought, “If she doesn’t want this novel, no one will.” Happily, she loved the book. The offer came five months later.

Altogether it took four and a half years from the time I got my agent to the time we got the offer, and another year-plus for the book to be published. And that doesn’t include the five years I’d spent researching and writing “around” the novel before that, or the year and a half between offer and publication. When we’re starting out as writers, we hear these “horror” stories of books being a decade or more in the making — we hear about writers throwing out hundreds of pages, years of work — and we think, “That’ll never be me.” And then it is, and it’s OK. It’s maybe even better this way.

JE: I love that story. It seems helpful to other writers — to know that good things come in their own time — and it also has a happy ending. I’m curious what the earlier version of the book, and the writing you did “around” the novel looked like.

JW: My experience could have just as easily ended up without a happy ending — that’s also important to remember. Really, there’s nothing separating me from any other writer with a manuscript that hasn’t found an agent or an editor, except that my pages managed to make their way to the right person at the right time. There’s so much in this process that’s subjective, and so much more that’s just plain luck. Of course, Atlas would never have been read by Quressa if we’d stopped submitting one round earlier. Maybe the lesson is to be stubbornly persistent until fortune falls your way. It’s not a very romantic way of looking at it! But I think the magic has to be in the writing itself. Publishing is a business. Writing can be whatever you make it.

“Publishing is a business. Writing can be whatever you make it.”

As for writing “around” the novel, I spent five years or so after leaving Uganda trying to find a way into the material. I wrote a handful of short stories set in northern Uganda and East Africa more generally. I wrote a few bad poems, had a micro-essay published in The Sun, and created a “graphic novel”-style illustrated memoir about volunteering in South Sudan. Instead of feeling satisfied with these smaller pieces, I felt like the stories I was interested in kept getting bigger and bigger. I needed more space to explore them.

Finally, when I moved to Germany, I gave myself a year to draft a full novel. That was the first version, which I was calling “Birds of Africa.” Most significantly, that version is structured as a diptych, with the two perspectives (Western and Ugandan) “facing” each other instead of braided. The aid worker protagonist leaves Uganda because of a failed love affair; the Ugandan protagonist is a young, male Internet cafe owner. There’s no disappearance, not a single mention of the word ivory. So many divergences! The only thing that survived in the second version was the swan scene from the opening chapter.

JE: That swan scene was one that has really stuck with me, and also seemed to be a metaphor for so many things in the book, but not in an overt or forced way. Was that something you saw in Germany?

JW: Pure invention, I’m afraid. My husband told me stories about how firemen in his hometown of Aachen would go around the city in the winter rescuing birds stuck in the ice. I found the image so compelling that I knew I wanted to find a way to put it into the novel. The beginning seemed like the right place for it — I think if it had come later, it would have felt too obvious.

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JE: One thing I really admire about the book is the care you took to tackle the potentially “problematic” aspects that might come from a book written by a white American woman about African issues. You don’t paint aid work as some sort of perfect crusading force. Rose, a Ugandan woman, is a central character, and rather than having her be some sort of stereo- or archetype, she’s dealing with the complex social and physical repercussions of a civil war. I assume these decisions were intentional, right? What sort of research did you do to ensure that you weren’t going the way of exclusion or stereotypes?

JW: I first began thinking about this novel in 2006 while I was a long-term volunteer for an aid organization in Uganda and South Sudan. I came into aid work already disillusioned — I’d read The Road to Hell and Lords of Poverty and The White Man’s Burden — but I was also moved by the stories I heard and the people I met, especially in northern Uganda. The experience surfaced a lot of difficult questions about my role there — broadly, as a representative of the West’s development agenda, and specifically, as a person cognizant of my intrinsic complicity, yet also hopeful that there were ways to respond to humanitarian crises with understanding and compassion.

Fiction has always been a way for me explore things I don’t understand — I love what Jacqueline Woodson has said: “I write because I have questions, not because I have answers” — and so I began to envision a novel that would purposefully expose those questions. A dual narrative presented the most interesting possibilities to do that.

For research, I read a lot of nonfiction — academic publications, NGO and governmental reports, journalism, local newspapers, accounts of formerly abducted children — and fiction, poetry, and memoirs by Ugandan authors and writers from across the African continent. I had my personal experience to draw from as well; during my time in Uganda I’d interviewed and worked closely alongside Ugandans who had been directly affected by the LRA. I returned to northern Uganda twice after 2006: once in 2010, when I ended up in Kampala during the World Cup bombings, and again in 2013, when I got a grant that enabled me to cross the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and visit Garamba National Park, an LRA stronghold. I also had friends and acquaintances — both Western and Ugandan — read the novel at different stages to keep me honest.

All of these things helped provide a structure for creating characters who would feel authentic. But it still required a leap of invention to write Rose, specifically, and not just any Ugandan woman with a particular set of experiences. That’s where I had to step away from the facts of research and slip into the fiction of an imagined life. I’ve tried to do so with curiosity and empathy, as I do for any character I’m getting to know. In the end, I hope that readers don’t just see this as a Ugandan story or a story about aid work — but instead as a story of family and atonement and love. And perhaps it will encourage them to sit with the same questions, and engage in more self-examination around activism and humanitarianism. The questions are messy and deeply personal, and I think that’s a good thing.

JE: All the work you did behind the scenes really shows. That’s amazing that you were able to travel to DRC. I’m jealous. I was Google Earth searching the various locations in the book as I read it, and from my barely-ever-left-the-US perspective, it seems crazy that it would be possible for an American to go to those places. What was that trip like? What was the ratio of “scared” to “excited”?

JW: I kind of feel like “scared” and “excited” are different interpretations of the same fundamental state — “anticipating the unknown.” When we expect the unknown to go badly, we’re scared; when we expect it to go well, we’re excited.

When I was planning my trip to the DRC, I’d just spent months immersed in research about the horrifying atrocities committed by the LRA in exactly the places I was traveling to, so my expectations were definitely infused with a strong dose of fear. At the same time, I’d traveled to “dangerous” places before — South Sudan in 2006, Haiti in 2010 — and I knew that while risk is real, it’s also rare. For every story of violence and terror that gets broadcast to the world, there are many more stories of people going about their lives: bickering with siblings and falling in love and haggling over the price of a tomato and laughing in the streets. The opportunity to experience the latter in a place so central to my novel outweighed any misgivings.

“For every story of violence and terror that gets broadcast to the world, there are many more stories of people going about their lives: bickering with siblings and falling in love and haggling over the price of a tomato and laughing in the streets.”

JE: What are some Ugandan writers or works you’d recommend?

JW: Abyssinian Chronicles and Snakepit by Moses Isegawa, Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana, Song of Lawino by Okot p’Bitek, Waiting by Goretti Kyomuhendo, and Kintu by Jennifer Nansubunga Makumbi (which has been getting lots of press lately!) are all fantastic. Monica Arac de Nyeko, an Acholi writer, has published several excellent stories in AGNI and elsewhere; I’d love to read a novel by her if that’s the direction her writing takes her. The Caine Prize for African Writing publishes a collection every year, which is a great introduction to lots of upcoming writers.

For nonfiction about the LRA, I Am Evelyn Amony is the memoir of one of Joseph Kony’s wives; When the Walking Defeats You is the story of one of his bodyguards. Both are gripping, powerful accounts. Atlas was already written by the time they were published — I wish I’d been able to use them much earlier in my research. But that’s the nature of the process, too. At a certain point you have to let the work be done.

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