Rebecca Tinsley has used her decades of experiece as a human rights activist to write a novel based on the stories of genocide survivors she met in Darfur. Here's more from Rebecca:
Jennifer Haupt: When did you get the idea to write a book based on people you've met during your work in Darfur? How did the idea come about?
Rebecca Tinsley: When I interviewed survivors in the Darfur refugee camps in 2004 they asked me to tell the world their story. Since then I have written articles and given speeches, but I knew I needed to reach a wider audience on a more human level. I needed to bridge the gap between our Western experiences and theirs, and that is best done creating a novel about very ordinary but brave people who keep going despite enormous challenges. If the people in Darfur see themselves as survivors rather than victims, then so should we. I'm hoping a work of fiction can reach many more people than a dry newspaper article that turns people into faceless objects, rather than heroes.
JH: How closely are the five main characters based on real young people you met?
RT: I met all of the characters that appear in my novel when I was in Darfur. I interviewed dozens of people, from tribal chiefs to penniless orphans who had made it to safety against incredible odds. However, I had to change their names to protect them from the ever-present Sudanese intelligence services. Based on their life stories, I had to imagine how these young people would develop as the war continued, after I left. I hoped that the young women in particular would rise about the stifling, conservative, traditional roles that are assigned to women in their culture. I wanted to illustrate what they have the potential to become, if only they could be liberated of the negative and destructive customs that hold them back.
JH: Tell me about the title of the book. Where does that come from?
RT: The sky in Darfur is pitch black at night because it is such a remote place, about 800 miles from the nearest street lights. When I visited the refugee camps there in 2004 I lay on my back staring at the night sky and I was astonished by how many shooting stars were visible. The next day in a refugee camp a young woman told me about how the Sudanese armed forces attacked her village, trying to kill all the inhabitants. A helicopter gunship hovered over their homes and fired missiles at them. She said they looked like stars falling to earth with fiery trails behind them.
JH: You are a journalist and political speech writer, and I'm wondering what you hope to accomplish with this novel?
RT: I do indeed do some writing but I also started a charity that helps survivors of war and genocide rebuild their lives. The profits from my novel go to our projects in Africa, giving a helping hand to survivors who are already making an enormous effort to give their children options they never had. I want the novel to open people's eyes to what is happening in Darfur, but I also want to support our education and training projects because they transform the lives of resilient, brave individuals. The most beautiful thing in the world is watching a woman learn to read and write. Suddenly she grows in confidence and she discovers she's not alone because for centuries other women have been fighting the battles she faces.
JH: What was the most challenging part of writing this novel?
RT: My novel attempts to describe the worst situations people can face, but I also want to convey how people can surprise themselves with an inner strength they didn't know they possess. My work has taught me that for every act of brutality and ignorance, there is a contrasting act of generosity and courage. People who have lost everything still have the capacity to save a stranger's life. I wanted to paint a real picture of how civilians cope in an Africa war zone, but I also want the reader to share my feeling of awe and wonder that human beings can be so strong and honorable. The challenge in writing the novel was to express the intensity of the situation while describing how life-enhancing and positive it is. The view from the mountain top means nothing without the depths of the valley.
JH: What is the one true thing you've learned through your work in Darfur?
RT: I've learned that there is nothing essentially so different about Africans. The challenges faced by the people in Darfur are shared to a lesser extent by families in our own society, struggling to give their children a better future, making do as best they can in difficult circumstances. We are fooling ourselves if we think chaos and genocide couldn't happen in our world. We in the West have a thin veneer of civilization, but if we were put to the test we would find ourselves faced with the same tough choices. Some people would behave badly, and others would do the right thing: that's the human condition.
Rebecca Tinsley is a journalist and human rights activist whose work focuses on Africa. She is a former BBC reporter and has a law degree from the London School of Economics. Her humanitarian charity www.Network4Africa.org helps survivors of genocide and war rebuild their lives. She splits her time between California, London and Africa.