A Conversation with
Acts of Faith
Q: Thirty years ago you crossed the deserts of Sudan in a trip that inspired your novel Horn of Africa. How much time have you spent in Africa since and what inspired you to revisit Africa in Acts of Faith?
A: Several months altogether, spread over time. There was a gap of 25 years between my trip to Sudan and Eritrea and my next visit to sub-Saharan Africa in 2000, when I went to Kenya on an assignment for National Geographic Adventure magazine. A year later, for the same publication, I returned to Kenya to cover the airlift of humanitarian aid into southern Sudan. In the course of that assignment, I also flew into Somalia with bush pilots who were delivering both aid and khat to that country, an interesting juxtaposition of missions. Dope on the morning flight, food, water, and clothes in the afternoon. Well before I arrived in Lokichokio, the Kenyan border town that is headquarters for the UN-sponsored airlift (which was dubbed Operation Lifeline Sudan), I’d heard rumors that some aid pilots and non-governmental organizations were smuggling arms and ammunition to the Sudanese rebels, disguising the shipments as humanitarian assistance. I was able to confirm the rumors. Representatives from one European NGO, which shall remain nameless, told me how they concealed AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers in deliveries of non-lethal aid. Two pilots showed me videos of their planes bringing in tons of mortar and small-arms ammunition. They would fly out of Lokichokio with empty or partially-loaded aircraft, giving false flight plans to the UN authorities at the airfield, then land at clandestine airstrips in Sudan, pick up the weapons, and fly on to rebel base areas. It was supposed to be very hush-hush, and I was made to understand that I ought to keep this information to myself. Of course, as a journalist, I could not do that, and told my sources that I could not. The story appeared in the December, 2001 issue of National Geographic Adventure, and was the inspiration for Acts of Faith.
Q: What kind of research and personal experiences informs this novel?
A: Some of my personal experiences, as described above, went into the writing of the novel, considerably transformed by my imagination. I flew in C-130s on airdrops over Sudan, in planes contracted by independent NGOs on other aid missions. Because Sudan is an immense country and its civil war a complicated conflict, relying on first-hand experiences alone would have required me to spend not weeks or months but possibly years in the country. That was impossible. Therefore, I did a lot of research, interviewing around twenty people — aid workers, pilots, rebel leaders, Sudanese civilians, and UN officials. I also read roughly thirty books about Sudan, most in their entirety, some in part.
Q: Douglas, Wesley, Fitzhugh, Quinette, Diana and the whole cast of characters are so fully realized it seems they must be in some ways modeled on real people you have encountered in your travels. Without naming names of course, were any of them inspired by people you know?
A: To somewhat arbitrarily assign percentages, I would say that Douglas, Quinette, and Diana are 90 percent imagined and ten percent modeled on real people. With Wesley and Fitzhugh, the split might be closer to fifty-fifty. To expand on this a bit, Quinette was born wholly out of my imagination. In my original conception of Acts of Faith, I had her falling in love with, and eventually marrying, Douglas. I was perhaps 50 pages into an early draft when, in the notes and journal I had kept in Sudan, I came across a story a source had told me about Emma McCune, a young, aristocratic British woman who had married Riek Machar, who had been second in command of the Sudanese rebel forces. It occurred to me that my American, non-aristocratic Quinette would be more likely to fall for a Sudanese rebel officer than she would for Douglas, and that this would make a more satisfying story. And so I changed her lover from Douglas to Lt. Col. Goraende.
Q: The level of misery wrought by the war and famine in Sudan is so unbelievably difficult for westerners to comprehend. Was it a challenge to try and convey the complicated politics and history of the region?
A: Challenging would be an understatement. It would have been much easier if I had been writing nonfiction, but it was very hard to explain Sudan’s tangled politics and history, which were central to the novel’s action, in a way that avoided over-simplification, made things clear to the reader, and satisfied the demands of art. I did not want my research to show. As much as possible, I tried to steer clear of writing expository passages or disguising exposition as dialogue. The information had to be woven, seamlessly, I hoped, into the narrative fabric. I must have rewritten some pages and paragraphs a dozen times or more before they sounded right.
Q: There have been so many grand scale tragedies in Africa and yet it seems they have never gotten the kind of attention in the U.S. that they merit. Why do you think that is?
A: The conventional wisdom would answer, “Racism.” I don’t think so. If racism were the reason for the lack of attention you allude to, why have so many African-American politicians, commentators and civil rights leaders been as inclined to ignore or to give short shrift to Africa’s plight as whites? To my mind, there are two explanations: one is realpolitik — Africa is not, or at least is not seen to be, central to America’s vital interests; two is more or less emotional — Africa's problems (endless tribal/ethnic conflicts, pervasive corruption, AIDS, and horrendous leaders) seem intractable, breeding a kind of despair in people who would like to help Africans resolve these issues but cannot see how. For that reason, I deeply admire former Senator and UN ambassador John Danforth, who spent an enormous amount of time and effort helping to broker the armistice agreement in Sudan that was signed only a few weeks ago. He did the damn near impossible.
Q: The idea of exile, of strangers in a strange place, has recurred throughout your work. The characters in Acts of Faith are drawn to Africa for different reasons–greed, opportunity, adventure, idealism. What is it about people out of their home territory and caught up in forces beyond their control, that fascinates you as a writer?
A: As we used to say in Vietnam, “This is where you find out who you are.” Most people spend their lives in what is commonly called their “comfort zone.” They fashion personas for themselves, which they presume to be their true characters, sets of attitudes, which they presume reflect their deepest beliefs, and modes of behavior, which they presume express their morals. Seldom are their presumptive characters, beliefs and personal morals put to the test. They might be compared to vessels that sail only in calm, safe waters. It has been my experience that when people are taken out of their comfort zones, whether voluntarily or by circumstances beyond their control, and placed in strange environments or in alien situations, they discover if their self image is what they have thought it to be. It has also been my experience, alas, that these epiphanies are as often as not unflattering, revealing hidden flaws and weaknesses. You find out that you’re not as brave, compassionate, or smart as you had believed. Sometimes, however, you find resources of strength you hadn’t realized were there. As a writer, I am a student of human nature, so this process of self-discovery under stress fascinates me.
Q: Is it possible to “do good” in a place seemingly without a moral compass?
A: By “without a moral compass” I assume you mean places or situations where the moral guideposts are absent, where the boundaries between right and wrong are not clearly surveyed, so to speak. Yes, it is quite possible to “do good” in such places, such circumstances, but it isn’t easy. The one doing the good, or trying to, must have a sound character and guard against the passions that could lead him or her to “do bad” in the name of “doing good.” That’s what happens to some of the main characters in Acts of Faith. They take sides, become partisans, and end up contributing to the suffering and destruction they had initially set out to relieve.
Q: While this novel is clearly informed by much research, it is also a thrilling page turning adventure and love story(s). What are the challenges in constructing a novel that is both informative and timely and yet also entertaining?
A: The challenge is to remember that you are creating narrative art, not the written version of a TV docu-drama. The Elizabethan poet, Sir Philip Sydney, said the object of poetry is to “delight and instruct.” That is the purpose of all literature, but I think emphasis should be laid on “delight.” Maybe “compel” or “engage” would be a better word. The reader is going to be more engaged by a character and his or her story, less by information about a place or an event. I should also mention that Acts of Faith is not a book for anyone who wants to learn about contemporary Sudan. It is not, because it was not intended to be, a documentary thinly disguised as fiction. Yes, I tried for a feeling of verisimilitude, I tried to give an accurate impression of the place and the civil war, but the novel is by no means factually accurate. It is a work of the imagination based on fact.