For those of you who know me, I’m not one to play the gender card (except when I’m pleading ignorance on military hardware and hierarchy issues). But being one to promote the minority voice (of all kinds), I couldn’t help but notice the lack of female novelists writing about the campaign in East Africa during World War 1.
Talking of minority voices, there are no authors of colour who have written on the campaign and even more surprising, the campaign in East Africa seems to be the only one in Africa written about – I am yet to find a novel mentioning German South West Africa (other than Francis Brett Young’s Jim Redlake which covers East Africa too), Cameroon, Togo or Belgian Congo. Egypt features but in connection with the wider war in Europe, Gallipoli and the war on the sea.
I came across Maya Alexandri’s The Celebration Husband about three years ago when it was in draft form and I was writing an academic paper on Fictional Accounts of the East Africa campaign. For some reason, the editors didn’t like my original title of A Novel East Africa campaign (watch this space…). But it was only earlier this year that I managed to track a copy down and had the privilege of reading before it was published.
I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and was pleasantly surprised that the changed details didn’t result in the same reaction I had when I read my first ever novel of the campaign – Wilbur Smith’s Shout at the Devil. I won’t go into the reasons for my outburst, save to say I have not been the only one to have issues with Smith’s book. Maya has changed the order of battles around and although some characters are named and others purposefully identifiable, the situations and personalities described are such that they hold together for a good read.
I’d like to think I’ve also matured a bit in terms of seeing how historians and historical novelists approach their topic with the same seriousness but for different purposes. And in this regard I was pleased to come across a tweet by the Guardian about this very issue. Over the years, various people, now researching the East Africa campaign, have told me they discovered it through novels such as Wilbur Smith’s Shout at the Devil, but more often it’s William Boyd’s An Ice-cream War; so there’s got to be something in changing facts around under the auspices of literary licence.
Did you know?
Of the 43 novels on the campaign in East Africa, Maya is the third woman to produce one. She shares the stage with Gertrude Page, “The Kipling of Rhodesia” who published Follow After in 1915 and Far from the Limelight (and other tales) in 1918 and Elspeth Huxley whose novel Red Strangers (1939) contains a chapter dealing with the war.
Other novels covering related themes to The Celebration Husband:
William Stevenson The Ghosts of Africa (1994) – relationship between Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and Karen Blixen
Hamilton Wende The King’s Shilling: A novel (2005) – early days of the war in Kenya (British East Africa)
Balder Olden Kilimandsharo (1922) aka On Virgin Soil – A German transport rider caught up in the war on the border of British and German East Africa
Wilbur Smith Assegai (2009) – love, intrigue, intelligence and aeroplanes
In conclusion, I can honestly say that The Celebration Husband ranks amongst my top fiction reads of the East Africa campaign, and I’ve read nearly every one of the English novels. For those of you wondering, my others are CS Forester The African Queen (the book, the film is good too but it’s different), William Boyd An Ice-cream War, Alex Capus A Matter of Time, Francis Brett Young’s Jim Redlake and Balder Olden On Virgin Soil (the last two written by men who served in the East Africa campaign).
PS: Since writing this blog a month ago, I have discovered, thanks to Gerald Rilling, Marguerete Poland’s Iron Love: a novel (1999). I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it starts in South Africa in 1913 and involves the campaign in East Africa with at least a mention of South West Africa. This discovery makes Maya the 4th female novelist covering East Africa and 44 books. I’ll be sure to mention Iron Love in due course…