OPINION Mandy Sutter

NWR Issue r10

A Stranger Comes to Town

My family spent two years in Nigeria in the 1960s, when I was about seven. I based my memoir-travel piece, ‘Bush Meat’ (published in extract form in the autumn edition of New Welsh Reader on 1 September), on two events that happened during that time: my mother’s employment of a man who came to our door claiming to be a chef, and my adoption of a duck that flew into our garden, lived in a pond I made then disappeared.

Both events became anecdotes that my parents repeated to friends and family down the years. The phrases they used quickly became set in stone. As I got older and fell under the twin influences of psychology and literature, I wanted to know how people had felt at the time and what had driven them to act as they did. It was difficult for Mum and Dad to answer such questions. I often wonder if ‘Bush Meat’ – and the other pieces I’m working on from that time (to be published in book form in our New Welsh Rarebyte imprint) – is my retelling of the anecdotes with the gaps filled in.

Going back to the chef and the duck, in real life their arrival was unrelated. But I wanted to include them in the same piece because they belonged together story-wise, both being examples of the age-old plot of the stranger coming to town. Will the stranger stay? What change will he/she/it bring?

To combine the two events effectively, I needed to massage the truth. As far as I know, meat wasn’t in short supply that particular year. But meat could be scare after a long dry season, so it was a credible addition and one that made my piece work better. In real life, the chef wasn’t Christian. But by making him Christian I could highlight a truth about the influx of white people into Nigeria, and indeed other countries. So I regard those fictions the way the comedian Eric Morecambe once described his piano playing to Andre Previn. ‘I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.’

I rewrote the piece many times and considered different viewpoints. I’m not a planner when it comes to writing, and redrafting is my way of discovering the heart of a story. I pare back until a scene feels ‘true’. Then sometimes a chime reverberates through it, revealing a piece’s hidden core. The core in ‘Bush Meat’ was my mother’s loneliness. I hadn’t understood or even thought about it before but through writing, I discovered the young wife trying to bring up her only child away from her own mother and all else that was familiar.

I was once advised to always write scenes from the point of view of the character who has the most at stake in it. When I realised that ‘Bush Meat’ was driven by my mother, I understood that it needed to be told from her viewpoint and preferably in the first person, if I could get the voice right. Writing in the first person is like writing entirely in dialogue, because everything has to be in keeping with how that person sees things and the way they describe the world to themselves. Mum died in 2007 but I remember well how she spoke, and her voice in my head helped me to imagine how she thought and felt all those years ago. My dad’s dialogue was fairly straightforward to write, as was mine (Sarah’s). I knew the kinds of things we would say, even if I couldn’t remember exact sentences.
But when it came to the Nigerian servants, I had nothing much to go on. I remembered Chidike’s warmth and kindness but only as an atmosphere, and I didn’t remember Michael at all.

Babawilly’s online Pidgin English Dictionary – and others like it – was a godsend. He says in his introduction, ‘Pidgin English... is a language made up of elements of the Queen's English and the local dialects... it is a comical language [sic] and spoken with spirit, emotion and a lot of gesticulations. It is indeed a Nigerian fabrication.’

That element helped me enter into the Nigerian way of seeing the world. Just as I could imagine my mother’s thoughts and feelings from the way she spoke, so I tried to imagine Chidike’s and Michael’s from reading Pidgin English. Languages are helpful like that, I think.

Perhaps every piece of writing has its own language. And if that language rings true to the writer, there’s a good chance that it will ring true to the reader, even if the story is entirely fictional.

Mandy Sutter won the New Welsh Writing Awards 2016 University of South Wales Prize for Travel Writing this summer with ‘Bush Meat: As My Mother Told Me’. Her work will be published under the magazine’s book imprint, New Welsh Rarebyte. The prize was co-judged by travel author Rory MacLean and New Welsh Review editor Gwen Davies. An animation of Mandy’s reading of the section concerning meat shortages is here. A talk by Mandy and a separate reading and animation of the scene about new chef Michael’s cooking skills is here. Rory MacLean’s adjudication, ‘In Search of Wonder’, states:

To my mind, travel writing's role above all is to bring to life the Other, to help us to know the Other. In this – and much else – Mandy Sutter's 'Bush Meat: As My Mother Told Me' triumphs, in its lean prose and true dialogue, in its disarming humour, in its evocation of a family divided by sexism and racism in 1960s white [ex-pat] Nigeria. In this touching story, Mandy stitches together the threads of memory to create a moving tapestry of lost life, building bridges of understanding across time and place, enhancing literature's ever-changing, ever-supple genre.


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