Creative writing: Learning to see your subject


17 May 2024
Novelist Chioma Okereke looks at the way fiction can bring attention and understanding to an overlooked community

We all do it. Fail to see what’s right in front of our eyes. Leave things unnoticed while focusing on other priorities. We’re not in the right headspace; don’t quite have the attention span. I pride myself on being a keen observer but I’m also guilty of this at times, particularly when it comes to my birth country since truthfully, you never navigate home in the same way you do the world that belongs to you less. The tourist googles you do when you’re somewhere else; that quest for newness, for curiosity. \

There’s always time to explore where you come from — or so you tell yourself — and so your gaze looks outward. During the pandemic I came across a YouTube food show which featured Makoko, the world’s largest floating slum in Lagos, Nigeria. I was genuinely stunned by how little I knew about it; ashamed when I weighed my ignorance about something on my doorstep compared with my insistence on visiting a township on a trip to South Africa.

Perhaps it was simply a matter of fortuitous timing in terms of piquing my interest. We’re bombarded with content daily, live in a state of information overload and are running empathy-deficient, but occasionally something gets through. With so many crises in the world equally competing for our attention and our resources, I think we’re accustomed to a particular gaze from charitable organisations; the overfamiliar appeal video designed for a tested outcome. It’s often hard to connect to those images that often are difficult to look at, and almost impossible to get a beat on the person or the child shown for a few moments on camera.

Reading, however, is a time commitment like no other in terms of present-day attention spans, and fiction an utterly transporting device. Albert Camus so wisely said that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’ and never has that been more important than today when it feels as though truth is difficult to come by.

When I started writing Water Baby, I fully intended to create a work of fiction in an unfamiliar setting, but the truths about living in such an environment were so compelling that they inevitably shaped the work. The book is predominantly set within Makoko, which was established in the 19th century when fishermen from Togo and nearby Republic of Benin settled on the Lagos lagoon and has grown steadily over time. Its inhabitants live in poor conditions and lack access to adequate sanitation, basic social amenities such as electricity, schools and healthcare clinics. Statistics about the settlement and its communities are often inaccurate since the area appears as a near-blank space on maps – with little information about structures, density, or streets. This means it is almost impossible to properly track land ownership, plan infrastructure, optimise services, plan for emergencies, or support development.

In a news article, this information might cause a moment of reflection before someone skips to another item, but in terms of fiction, and to a book: a contract is made with the reader from the outset; to be engaged and to hopefully be moved if the author does their job well enough. Our challenge is to provoke emotion and possibly thought; at the very least an approximation of the truth.

I was struck by the setting in that YouTube programme and the more research I carried out about the community, the more beguiled I was. It was integral to capture the settlement faithfully but also respectfully, without reliance on go-to tropes or ticking the familiar boxes associated with poverty porn.

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I decided to tell a story about a young woman questioning her purpose; a universal experience that incidentally was taking place in an environment people might not have encountered before. However, the commonalities of her fears, hopes, and dreams would resonate with many in their own situations, and Baby would be real, not just a blip on a screen.

The time a novel requires allows a reader to journey far longer with a character or a story than with other art mediums, thereby increasing their awareness of or perhaps even opening them up more to different perspectives. So it’s a perfect vehicle bringing attention to important subject matters.

It’s the challenge a writer has; to educate and to inform without preaching. To elicit empathy rather than pity. As Franceso Lo Basso poignantly states in How Reading Can Shape Our Real Lives: when readers read fiction, they know they are encountering human-constructed characters, settings, and situations. This necessary suspension of disbelief — of having to entertain the possibility of other realities — means readers of fiction aren’t merely learning to understand the world as it is, but, also, how to imagine a different one.

Water Baby by Chioma Okereke is published by Quercus (£20)



Interested in stories based on truth? Novelist Russell Franklin looks at what's involved when you're writing fiction about real-life events.