Much-in-the-news writer Anjan Sundaram, who is being likened to Kapuœciñski, in conversation with Rajni George.
Already hailed as the non-fiction debut of the year by industry insiders, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo comes with a publicist’s dream backstory. Author studies mathematics at Yale University, then leaves at 22 to see the tragedy of Congo’s phenomenally brutal genocide first-hand, becomes a stringer and ends up writing for The New York Times, after living in and out of the Congo for eight years. It’s an unlikely story, but it’s easy to see why the hype.
At 29, Chennai native Anjan Sundaram is young for his material, and endearingly fresh to the cynical world of book publishing and mainstream journalism: as seen at the Jaipur Literature Festival, where he spoke with candour at an Africa panel and was mauled for his pains by critical fellow panellist, the British African writer and politician Kwasi Karteng. “I was 22. I had read that four million people had died, and I wanted to see,” he began; then charged with being the classic tourist to Africa by Karteng, he went on to speak in detail and nuance about this first impression and earn back the sympathy of the audience. “There is progress in Africa,” he said, “but it is not reported”, in response to questions about the exact nature of progress in the continent. Speaking of his experience in Africa, he forgot to mention that he still lives in Rwanda until after the panel. Rookie mistakes. Perhaps what charmed his audience was this apparent innocence in the polished world of literature festivals.
What was he doing up there, talking about Africa anyway, they wondered? As fellow panellist, British African writer Aminatta Forna, put it: “Anyone can write about anything.” As Sundaram proves, when you read the book, especially if you do it well. Here are excerpts from an interview at Jaipur.
How did you become a journalist?
I became a journalist in Africa. I went to live their life. I lived with a poor family. I ate what they ate, went hungry when they did. I decided I would experience what they did. Completely the opposite of what I’d experienced. I wanted to understand from experience.
What was the biggest surprise for you? When was the moment when you decided, I have to write about this?
I think when I was going to leave. The experience was so devastating.
Have you never written before?
No, not really. It took me three months of trying and trying hard, to learn how to read.
And what is it like now, entering a community of writers and journalists?
Writers are loners by nature; I like to do my own thing. But there is a value in exchanging ideas. There is not as much of a community as I thought there would be, but this aspect is very useful.
Did you not think about fictionalising the book? It reads like fiction, the writing is lyrical.
I tried to, I thought about it, but the experience was so harsh, I could not fictionalise it. Fiction tells you a deeper truth. Non-fiction can sometimes be too much about the facts, only about that. What non-fiction has to do to become literature is to get away from doing only that; narrating the facts and the characters with the techniques and elements of fiction. Non-fiction also needs design, it needs shape. It can then be a far better way of conveying the essence of your experience, and the essence of what you are going to do.
Everyone has their favourite Africa book, their Heart of Darkness. Which one is yours?
The great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuœciñski’s works are my favourites. He is one of my role models. He used his job as a wire service reporter to write his books. Heart of Darkness is still powerful, even if it is not fashionable anymore to like it.
One of your blurb writers compares you to Kapuœciñski?
(Laughs) I caught up with him (journalist Basharat Peer) yesterday. The nice part is that we didn’t know each other. I think what he saw was a genuine curiosity about the Congo.
Did you ever feel this kind of curiosity about something in India, and want to write about it?
I think at that time I wanted a spectacle, to see something large. In India, you see the juxtaposition of the rich and the poor, and that is a chief concern. But what’s happening there is different. There is a juxtaposition there too, but they don’t rub up against each other in quite the same way.
How often do you have to defend yourself as an Indian in Africa? I’m guessing pretty often.
I think it’s sometimes hard to discuss Africa with Africans. I think they are rightfully insulted by popular portraits of their continent. And they are also sometimes ashamed of, and don’t want to think of Africa like, the Congo. Many Africans compare them to Indians. Also, they compare… If you’ve lived in Africa then you know the people and the experiences you share with them, as a reporter. You lived it.
Is part of the problem that Indian people are, generally speaking, racist about Africans? In MG Vassanji’s The Magic of Saida, for example, like in his other books, there is the idea of the Indian as almost a third caste.
Indians have a long history in India. In places like the Congo, Indians are pretty new. There is some rightful anger against Indians, because of their labour practices which are sometimes exploitative.
Indians are used to profit margins in India, which is two per cent, three percent. They are entrepreneurial. In Africa. In Kenya, for example, and Uganda, they can dominate industries. So yes, this can be an issue.
There’s also the conception of Indians as fetiches, special people who can divine things, which you refer to in the book.
Yes, yes, they’re curious. They think Indian girls are pretty and ask why they don’t marry Africans.
Mathematics — do you not sometimes want to return to it?
The study of mathematics, in the form of algebra, is a way of creating words in that world. But mathematics is divorced from the world, separate from experience.