Flash Frontier

Interview: Catherine McNamara – from Ghana to Bandiagara

Interviews and Features

Flash Frontier: Your bio opens: Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris, and ended up in West Africa running a bar. Tell us how you landed on the African continent, and why you stayed.

Catherine McNamara: Although I studied African independence movements at university, I expected to work in Southeast Asia, much closer to where I grew up. But life being life and Paris being Paris, I met an Italian economist and first landed on the African continent in Mogadishu, long before anyone knew where it was on the Western media map. We lived and worked there for three years. I was an embassy secretary on a local contract and my colleagues were Somali and Italian women, so the experience provided an excellent (damning) insight into the workings of the diplomatic world. We were young and inland travelled broadly until pregnancy slowed me down, and we had to leave when the environment became unstable. Several years later my then-husband was posted to Ghana in West Africa – a completely different world. I stayed on for nine years in Accra, travelled to various countries including Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Mali. By this time my family configuration had changed, and I gave birth to my fourth (half-Ghanaian) child in Accra, which I considered home. It was there that I co-ran a bar and art gallery with my partner – truly hectic and exhilarating days.

FF: Many of your short stories have been set in Africa. Can you tell us about the challenges and joys of writing about this place? What do you most want to capture when you sit down to write about an African landscape, with all its complexities and histories? And which parts of Africa are you most connected to?

CM: The obvious challenge is that I am not an African, and no amount of years or experiences will ever change that, so I am aware that I have to be careful with voice and place so as not to offend or be charged with appropriation. I’m also wary of writing about classical foreigner-in-Africa topics, or presenting West Africa as either an exotic postcard or a poverty-stricken landscape. Life is vastly normal as it is anywhere, and the joy of telling stories, the search for authenticity and voice, is what drives me through each story.

Having studied colonial movements and the scramble for Africa, I’m also keen to delve into the effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism upon the resources and the psyche of the continent, and as mentioned above, the years that followed independence. The history of each African nation is fascinating – its heroes and heroines, not to mention the riches of music and art of each group – but I feel I can only accurately attempt to explore the West African context, though I’ve written about characters both from the East and West. I am also very keen to explore the stories of Africans in Europe – migration and displacement, racism and tolerance.

In the 80s I discovered the searing stories of Dambudzo Marechera and was greatly influenced by his language and power. Having lived in Somalia I read the works of Nuriddin Farah and one of the high points of my stay in Ghana was meeting the great writer. I have greatly enjoyed the works of Ken Sara-Wiwa, Naguib Mahfouz, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others.

FF: Place occupies a central role in most of your work, almost as if the place itself is a character that is explored, developed, cared for. And yet your work moves all over the world – your stories are set in so many far-flung places: Italy, France, Australia, West Africa. Does the place come to you first, when you sit down to write, or do the characters who occupy the space? Or something else entirely?

CM: As much as the stories ‘travel’ to different settings, for me, place does not establish the beat of the story at the outset. Rather, place is an aspect of the character/s I am compelled to write about, or it is behind the tone of the first sentence – these are the two elements I would say that draw me into the story. The first sentence for me is the hinge of the story – it sets both writer and reader on the path to the eventual resolution or transition; and the first paragraph introduces essential elements – character and place – that will carry the story ahead.

Like many writers, I find it difficult to set work in the place where I am living – probably it is a question of authenticity, a fear of being caught out. And yet I think it is also a reluctance to confine the work to what is visible and immediate. Recalling and reconstructing ‘place’ makes one reach deeper into the territory of the work, I feel, so it becomes real in perhaps a more hard-won, conscious way, that serves the story. You must convey the essence of the place, rather than its trappings.

FF: Tell us a bit more about where you live, and your writing space.

CM: I’ve been living in northeastern Italy for the past fifteen years, where I’ve finished raising my kids and tried to write as much as possible. We live in a big messy farmhouse originally built for three families, who worked the fields belonging to nobles who owned the land and lived in the villa on the hill. Heating is always an issue, though the house is delightful in the summertime. I work in a downstairs office filled with books and West African sculptures during winter and summer, or in the upstairs attic, also full of books and sculptures, away from everyone in autumn and spring. Or sometimes outside in the portico in the heat of summer. I’ve recently started having writing retreatees stay in the old renovated dairy attached to the house and they enjoy the peacefulness and say they work well.

FF: Any plans to go to Africa again soon?

CM: I’d always wished to return to Ethiopia although I have no definite plans. Ethiopia is enchanting and the landscape is dramatic and biblical. Addis is 2000m high and one of the most unusual cities I have visited – both ancient and calming, and yet bustling with old war wounds and on the brink of a hopeful present.

I hope to go to Morocco this winter, although over the past few years I have spent more time closer to home, exploring Corsica, central Italy and Greece.

FF: Your new collection, The Cartography of Others, closes with a story called ‘The Cliffs of Bandiagara’. Can you tell us more about this story – the setting, the way the geography here matters, the questions you explore…?

CM: I once made a buying trip to Mali to source objects for our art gallery, and this story came from the places we saw on our journey, especially Bamako and the Bandiagara escarpment. I knew many photographers and journalists through my gallery work so the characters came together easily – a woman, her young son, her photographer boyfriend and a trader. One of the things I wanted to explore was that it used to be possible to drive north without worrying about kidnapping or theft, but now I’ve been told by Malians themselves that these journeys have become highly risky, and life in the villages repressed. So I’m glad I managed to see the mosques of Mopti and Djenné, one of which is described in the story. The piece also attempts to investigate the time-old celestial beliefs of the Dogon people, and the many layers of history cast over the landscape that the embattled couple traverse.

FF: Thank you, Catherine – always such a pleasure!

CM: Thank you for having me, Michelle!

The Cartography of Others is available internationally through all good booksellers, both in paperback and kindle editions. Published by Unbound UK.

Facebook: Catherine McNamara
Twitter: @catinitaly
Instagram: #catinitaly

Share this:

You may also like