Written by Katherine Scholes
An ordinary family photo – the kind we pin on our fridges – was one of the inspirations for Congo Dawn. The people in the picture are strangers to me but I’ve been haunted by their faces for as long as I can remember.
The photo, showing two adults and four kids, is in a book belonging to my parents – the memoir of an English nurse who was kidnapped by Simba rebels in the Congo in 1964. She survived her ordeal but all the missionaries she worked with were killed. As a child I used to stare at the chilling caption printed beneath the family snapshot: Hazel and Stephen were in England at the time of the uprising and so escaped massacre.
I was born and spent my childhood in Tanzania, so it was easy for me to identify with this tragedy. Alongside the horror, I felt a sense of confusion. As far as I could see, my parents – a doctor and an artist – devoted themselves to helping others. Why would anyone want to kill a family like ours? A child like me.
Many decades later, when I set out on the journey that would eventually lead me to Congo Dawn, I hoped to finally discover the answer.
At the same time I wanted to fill a gap in my writing. I’d already published four novels set in Tanzania – my African writing has been a way of interpreting my past. I’ve often drawn on the romantic appeal of Africa that is so widely enjoyed. Even in 2017, if you travel to Tanzania you will see tourists dressed in safari linens with leopard print accessories, looking as if they have wandered from the set of a Hollywood film. Tour companies offering glamorous tented safaris borrow the names of the hunter and writer Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa. This part of Africa’s history seems to be something we can’t let go – as much a part of the Serengeti scenery as lions and zebras. In Congo Dawn I really wanted to explore the dark underside of that romance, and see what colonialism meant to the African people.
The Congo was the appropriate setting for such a story as it had experienced one of the most brutal regimes in history, immortalized in Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness. I chose the time of the Simba Rebellion not just because that was when the massacre of missionaries had occurred, but also because it took place soon after the country became independent. It was a potent backdrop – a time of high hopes and idealism, followed by bitter disappointment as groups including the Belgium military, the CIA and the mining companies all conspired to ensure that the Congo would not really become free.
The early sixties also happened to be the time of the Beatles, of London fashion designers raising hemlines (and eyebrows), of activist students talking about free love. It was a season of revolution, all over the world. A novelist loves contrast, and I could see it all here. Luxury and poverty. Dreams and nightmares. The darkness would make the themes of love, reconnection and hope shine out more brightly – and vice versa.
One of the challenges of writing a research-inspired novel is to make sure that facts and information don’t dominate the story. To me, the human story must always be kept at centre stage. And regardless of where or when one of my novels is set, I always explore something that is of interest to me, right now, in my own world.
Around the time I started thinking about Congo Dawn, I had encountered several rifts in families, involving fathers and daughters. I could see how fundamental this relationship is, on both sides. I was struck by the idea that a young woman should be able to look to her father as the one man who will always love her, and believe in her, and stand up for her, come what may. I began reading from psychology texts about what happens to the female psyche when this key bond is broken, or never formed. And what happens to a man denied his fatherhood.
I had this material in mind as I researched the Simba Rebellion. I soon learned that the missionaries who survived the massacre had been rescued by mercenary soldiers. I expected they would play a minor part in my novel. From the little I knew about mercenaries I had no desire to get too close to them! But as I read the memoirs of Mike Hoare, the man who recruited the commandos and fought alongside them, I found myself surprisingly intrigued. Why did these men – including at least one Australian – take on such a dangerous job? Sure, it was highly paid and a guaranteed adventure. But the chances of being killed or maimed were so high that I knew there had to be more.
Gradually, the voice of Dan Miller emerged. He is a man of my age (mid-50s) with a tragic reason for wanting to fight in the Congo. I never expected half of the story to be told from his point of view – he just demanded more and more of the action. In the end I became completely absorbed by him.
When I want to take a reader into a world faraway from their own experience I like to have a character that can be their eyes and ears. Anna Emerson, the young secretary from Melbourne plays this role in Congo Dawn. The other half of the story (interleaved with Dan’s) is from her point of view. She hardly knows anything about the Congo. It was her childhood home but she has few memories of the place. She’s naïve and innocent – and she becomes transformed by her journey, in a way that perhaps we would like to be changed ourselves.
Because to me, this is the point of writing – and reading – a novel. To go on a journey that will take us out of our ordinary worlds into somewhere amazing, where we might experience every human emotion from despair and fear to joy and inspiration – and from which we can return to the here and now with some small treasure in our hands.