The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

Bahima people - Uganda

This photo was taken over fifty years ago and shows a Bahima woman from western Uganda sitting next to her milk pots. The staple diet of the Bahima people in those days was milk from the cattle that their lives revolved around. A man might drink up to eight litres a day – that’s about fourteen pints of full cream milk for those of us who still get milk delivered to our doorsteps in glass bottles. The cattle were also bled in order to make a delicious soup.

 Pictures such as the one above are favourites of coffee table books showing ‘vanishing worlds’ and usually depict white clay and ochre painted bodies, long-shutter photos of dancing by firelight, along with a few naked bosoms. A brief digression here: a friend visited a remote place a long time ago and on meeting the women of the village at the market had her breasts thoroughly palpated to assess her fecundity. Don’t try that in your local supermarket.

Whilst coffee table books are attention grabbing in showing the diversity of human cultural life, I have often wondered what it really feels like to be one of those dancers, what was going on elsewhere in their lives, who was annoying whom, what crises were going on in their lives, what hopes they held. My characters Zachye, Felice, Kabutiiti and Stanley, are Bahima. Can a writer from one culture really get inside the head of a child from a different culture, in a different era? We absorb the intricacies of our own culture, its viewpoints, what it takes note of, the way it sees the world, so that it heavily colours how we see. How can a writer see with a different eye? How can the writer be credible? The writer Metter Newth has pointed out that this is a problem shared by all writers writing outside their own personal (private) experience.

For The Ghosts of Eden I started with the premise that everyone, everywhere, in any era, has common human feelings: apprehension, pride, caution, jealousy, love, contentment; we share common predicaments even if they occur within a different cultural world. So the reader, although seeing in a photo a person made mysterious by a white shroud, squatting outside a grass house surrounded by unfamiliar objects, can find themselves thinking: yes, I’m rooting for them, because I’ve also felt those emotions, experienced those dilemmas. If the writer has done their job, the reader can make a ‘leap of empathy’.

Then there’s research to try to recreate the cultural environment, a voyage of discovery that is fraught with the danger that the sources may have been written by people of one’s own culture, and so be selective in their observations. Searching the memoirs and memories of surviving members of the tradition is a necessity but oral literature also helps. In the case of the Bahima this included their poems. These poems are in the form of the ancient traditions of heroic epic literature – particular cattle-raiding, found also in the Greek Iliad, the Irish The Cattle-Raid of Cooley and also texts from India. In my novel, the ‘heroic recitations’ of the Bahima provide a means for one of the characters to cross from the old world of their childhood to the new world of their adulthood.

So a writer trying to write about a culture far removed from their own must use universal human emotions and be inquisitive about the culture they are attempting to show. At the very least, writing about another culture should alter perceptions of that culture in the writer’s culture. It should also inform in an entertaining way (a novel should not be an anthropological treatise).

I’m off to have a glass of milk now. I think I’ll skip the blood soup.

4 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp

  1. Mahsuda on said:

    Hi Andrew,

    Am very much enjoying the blog, I feel I’m learning and being entertained at the same time – great stuff.

    I think it’s really interesting what you said about writing about different cultures. As a female/Asian/British (anything else? . . . no think that’s it) writer not many people question me when I write from a non-Asian, non-British perspective although I there always seems to be more said when I write from a male one! I think it’s exactly as you put it, everyone has common human feelings. In fact I do think people have more in common then they have in difference. Emotions is the driving force that binds us and even if we may not have been through the same culture or experiences as someone else we can certainly empathise with feelings someone has been through. I guess this is why fiction is so popular and why writers are always taught to have a sympathetic character.

    Anyway, am really looking forward to reading the book and expect again to be throughly entertained as well as learn a few new things. Keep on blogging!


  2. Andrew on said:

    Thanks very much for your comments on this subject, Mahsuda. Female/male perspectives: generate a lot of angst. My next novel is, so far, written from a first-person female perspective – which I’m sure is far more risky than writing from a Bahima herd boy perspective!

  3. Dana Bagshaw on said:

    I for one find that writing from a man’s viewpoint as a female is a chance to unleash a repressed side of my own phyche (how do you use a spelling check here?) and when I read female characters written by male authors I sometimes find them more interesting. The truth to me is that the inner core of a person is neither male or female. But as to writing a person from another culture, I’ve not yet had the courage to do that, so I found your comments encouraging.

    I look forward now to your second book as well!

  4. So much to explore on this blog – I will have to come back. But I must say that your writing is quite uncanny in its evocation of that other culture. I am lucky enough to have heard a number of extracts form the work in progress. You feel as a reader that you are being offered a privileged glimpse into this world, into the POV of the herd boy, and it is utterly mesmerising. As you say, in a sense that’s what we all do as writers – take a walk into the world in somebody else’s shoes. But ‘Ghosts of Eden’ is quite a ‘soul-journey’ as far as that goes.

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