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Andrew O'Hagan Interview

Andrew O'Hagan is the author of 'The End Of British Farming' and 'All Our Fathers' which was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. He recently travelled to war-torn Sudan as part of a group of writers contributing to the short story collection 'The Weekenders'. The story 'Fish River' is his response to the trip.

How did you get involved in 'The Weekenders'?

I got a letter some time ago from Bill Deedes -- the ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph and globe-trotting journalist par excellence -- asking me to consider visiting Sudan with a view to writing a short story. I was intrigued: the idea of writing a fictional story that was occasioned by real, observed circumstances and characters appealed to me, and I got on the plane.

How much did you know about the area before you went out there?

I'm a bit of a saddo research junky, so I mugged up. Sudan is a vastly complicated place, not only in terms of its recent political and economic history, but in terms of what you might call its colonial history -- the presence of the British, especially -- and I tried to understand why it has been a place of almost continual warfare. But what caught me most, as a writer, were the folk tales I was able to find, all of which seemed very pure and very resonant, involving landscape and weather and the procedures of daily life there. Those folk tales had a big impact on how I saw things and eventually on what I wrote.

To what extent is 'Fish River' based on experiences you had while you were in Sudan?

It was curious the way some of the things we saw and noted down -- what you might call reporters' detail -- was transformed in the writing of the short story. For example, I spent some time with three boy soldiers. The redness of their eyes, the way they ate the sweets we gave them, their fearlessness, the odd way their childishness sat beside their war-hardenedness, all of these things remained with me, but I found myself, when writing 'Fish River', combining my image of each boy into one boy, and making him peaceable. All of the village scenes in my story are built from things I saw there -- schooling, herding cattle, the look of a town after a massacre, the way people spoke about it. But it was mainly the way villagers spoke: I wanted to capture the strange, simple-seeming mixture of domestic practicality and Christianity that existed in what they said.

Could you have written the piece without travelling out there?

I think you could have written a piece about Sudan without going there. That's what writers often do. (A novel was published recently set in a very interesting China, but nevertheless the real China was never visited by the author.) In 'The Weekenders' there's a piece by Giles Foden which wasn't occasioned by a visit. But I think I gained something really crucial by going -- the story's temper, if you like, would have been very different if written wholly in the dark, without having made the journey. I gained a strong sense of how people described their lives. And the heat: I could never have properly imagined what the heat does to the look of the land.

'Fish River' focuses on the destruction of a village by Northern marauders. Why did you choose this aspect of the conflict?

When I visited Malual Khon, I couldn't get over a story that people kept telling me, about a train that came down the long track from Khartoum every Spring, a train surrounded by marauders on horseback, who came into the south and abducted women and children as slaves. Amidst the glare of modern things and the mechanics of international relief aid, a kind of medieval slavery was taking place, and I couldn't get over it. So I went in pursuit of that story I suppose. I wanted to try and write that horror story from the inside.

The story has a tribal storyteller style to it and is almost ritualistic in places - what prompted this?

Listening to their tribal storytelling manner and watching the way they seemed to have a unhysterical stance with regard to their lives, I think these things prompted me to want something more than an omniscient, all-seeing, impersonal 'Western' voice telling the story, which is the kind of voice that works well for some writers, but I didn't fancy it. I listened to their stories and wanted to capture not only the detail they described but the spirit of the telling. I thought a lot of the very human business was to do with silences and rituals in their lives, and I wanted to make that central, so I built the voices from there. I suppose when I think about it I wanted the story to have something of the quality of the Sudanese folk tales I started out with.

In their non-fiction pieces, both Tony Hawks and Victoria Glendinning pick up on the precise security precautions as a way of coping personally with the danger of the situation. Did you feel you were in a dangerous situation?

It was a dangerous situation. There was fighting on the other side of one of the villages we stayed in and the security grading was level three -- four being the highest, when you are actually being shot at. One day Alex Garland and I arrived at a place and were immediately approached by an American aid worker, who told us, in no uncertain terms, to get back on the plane and get out of there. There's a lot of free-falling anxiety in a place like Southern Sudan, the violence being so unpredictable and so total.

It is difficult and perhaps dangerous - from both a literary and a political point of view - coming into such a complex situation and writing about it. Was this something you were wary of?

We were very aware of it, and that awareness -- that doubt -- became a central preoccupation for some of us. Africa, perhaps more than anywhere, has a long history of being subjected to the 'wisdom' of visiting parties, and I know that some of us struggled to make sense of what we were there for, and how we could make sense of it as writers. But again I say that is what writers do: you can become over-timid and over-politically correct in these situations, and I thought we were obliged to just reach into the experience with what we had, and allow the flaws, if there were any, to become part of the narrative. Short-story writers, in my view, aren't necessarily in the business of offering the right answers, but perhaps in asking the right questions. At any rate, 'The Weekenders' was not a policy statement and it holds no brief: it is a series of examples of what happens when you take a bunch of writers out of their natural milieu and make them think.

The merits of giving aid to a country in the situation of Sudan has been a matter for debate - with some saying that aid is actually sustaining the war and more should be done politically before it is given. This is something the book examines and there is a sense of unease in many of the stories about your role out there. What do believe should be done in Sudan?

I think the West has a dreadful way of thinking about Africa and what are sometimes called developing countries: we offer them pity and funds but we also exploit them and ferment grief in those places, and then we find ourselves surprised when chaos or war ensues. Most of us -- even unwittingly -- still have a colonialist attitude about it; we act as if those places were really just dark, untameable places full of oil and unreason, and we live in a world that hasn't moved towards properly considering the problems of those nations to be our own problems too. Aid agencies do a good job in a horrible situation: they give vaccinations and seeds, water wells and parcels of flour, but they can only put a series of fingers in a series of holes in a series of dykes, for the global economy does not answer to their bugle call. Western interests have exploited the oil fields in Sudan with no regard to the horrible lives people live there. We continue to do so. And yes, aid agencies too can become a factor in these wars -- again, they are not an answer, but a question -- and if they were to pull out there would be holocaust upon holocaust before the matter was in any way settled. For some, this is the way forward. Not for me.

Which short story writers do you enjoy?

All the obvious ones, I suppose. Hemingway I've always liked for the suppleness of his style and for his fearless inhabiting of strange territories. I like Alice Munro: I think she writes perfect little sentences, and James Kelman's stories are his best work, filled with moments of consciousness and life. I love Henry James too: he puts pattern and balance into a short piece in a way so concentrated it makes the short stories of many others just look like blab.

Did you write the story while you were out there?

No. I'm bloody slow, and I have to sit in my office for a long time before anything seems right. Irvine Welsh wrote a lot of stuff out there.

What do you remember most about the trip?

I will always remember sitting under a tree on a very hot day talking to some villagers who had been terrorised by invaders. They spoke so calmly. At the end of the day they came to us with two live chickens -- a traditional gift, and it felt so strange to take them away, squawking in the back of the van.

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