South African-born journalist-turned-author, Imran Garda, talks to Leadership

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There is no such thing as the South African or African story. Our continent’s tale instead is a tapestry of multiple-layered stories, intricately sown together; sometimes tightly, sometimes by a few stitches. It is an observation that Al Jazeera news anchor Imran Garda, born and bred in South Africa, wanted to explore in his debut novel, The Thunder That Roars.

“I have always been annoyed by one-sided perceptions of South Africa from people from outside South Africa. Their ideas are often based on what they are consuming in terms of movies and books,” says Garda, who was born in Azaadville in Johannesburg. Later in life he moved to Fordsburg, where he spent most of his childhood. Eight years ago, as a 20-something-year-old, he relocated to Qatar to work for news network Al Jazeera as an anchorman. Currently, he lives in San Francisco with his wife and children.

“There are so many different sides to South Africa; so many stories, layers and nuances and so many shades in terms of the relations between black and white; black and Indian; Indian and coloured; white and coloured; coloured and black, and so on,” Garda continues over a steaming double flat white, explaining how he himself perceives the manner South Africans relate to each other and in particular to members of other racial groups.

“Indians, generally speaking, have an inferiority complex toward whites and a superiority complex toward black South Africans,” he says. “Indians were—and still are, I think—wrestling with their identity. While they were disenfranchised like coloureds and blacks, many felt and feel superior over blacks. Some of the worst racism I have heard didn’t come from whites, but from Indians. I guess that is what suppressive systems do: they create a divide-and-conquer setup. I wanted to honestly and brutally explore that theme in my book. I don’t think this has been done too often.”

The Thunder That Roars, in short, tells the story of a young South African journalist from Indian descent who lives in the United States, where he has become quite a high-flier. One day, Yusuf decides to visit his home country after receiving an email, stating that his family’s long-term gardener has vanished without a trace. The protagonist’s quest for Sam, who is from Zimbabwe and with whom he always had a good relationship, leads him along a tumultuous trail of secrets, broken dreams, uncomfortable truths and obscure encounters, while forcing him to acknowledge some of his demons.

This was quite deliberate, says Garda: “South Africans have been and are good, especially during the apartheid era, at hushing up stories and keeping things secret. These secrets, specifically collective secrets, interest me. I have, in addition, always been fascinated by the darker side of human psychology, and about art forms and literature that don’t give easy answers. Real life is difficult. People have good intentions, but many choose an easy way out and make decisions with which they hurt themselves and other people. I have always been fascinated by that, and wanted to delve into that, too.”

As Yusuf continues to look for his gardener, various South African social ills including racism, exploitation and sexism rear their ugly heads, as well as a whirlpool of political, economic and social challenges in the rest of Africa, including the situation in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

The choice to give Zimbabwe a prominent role in the book is far from a coincidence. Garda confesses he has always had a soft spot for Zimbabweans and their country: “Zimbabweans are incredible examples of dispossessed displacement in a globalised world. They should be living in a country that provides everything for them. Instead, they live on the edge all the time.”

“I first visited Zimbabwe when I was a young boy, in the mid-1990s. At that time, the Zim dollar was worth R3 and the country seemed prosperous,” Garda recalls. “To think there would be a sequence of events that would push the Zimbabwean economy into free fall, force people out, and make them do anything to survive, was unimaginable. I wanted to explore this in a novel.”

People are regularly questioning Garda about his choice of the main character, he says. Yusuf, like his creating author, is after all a young South African Indian journalist like Garda, who grew up in Johannesburg and is currently living in the US.

Garda isn’t bothered by these and other critical questions. “What better way to explore some of the controversial themes like racism, power, identity, masochism with a sense of authority, by writing about it from a place that is somewhat close to home, but not that close?” the author says with a smile.

“The book at times almost reads as a collective confession of this country, this continent; as told through this one character. Yusuf is a very erratic, temperamental, cocky, smart hero. I wrote it that way intentionally. I like flawed characters.”

The author adds that he wanted to do more than just to write a novel. “I wanted there to be an emotional ebb and flow between me and the reader. Some of the literature that has touched me the most has been where you have a writer who is unafraid to take some flack for writing about sensitive things close to home. I wanted to do that deliberately.”

While Garda certainly had a particular framework in mind, he soon found out that his book—of which writing the first draft took half a year—would evolve and change as he went along.

“Halfway through, I decided that the beginning chapter I had initially in mind didn’t work. So I changed it, moving it more toward the back of the book,” he explains.

“The new opening chapter ended up far more gentle and softer. It describes Yusuf as a young boy in the garden of his childhood home in Johannesburg, together with Sam the gardener. It is about a week before the 1994 elections. Yusuf doesn’t really know what is going on, but he is young and smart, and asks many questions. This approach has lifted the book. The previous opening chapter was much heavier.”

The locations and settings of the story also changed as the book progressed. Initially, Garda had planned to give North Africa and Libya specifically, where the Arab Spring unfolded in 2011, a very prominent spot. While the waves of demonstrations and protests in the northern part of Africa, and related events, do make an appearance in The Thunder That Roars, these were eventually given a less pronounced role.

“I was pleasantly surprised how crucial Lampedusa became. I didn’t expect that to happen,” Garda says, referring to the island off the Italian coast which has become a prime transit point for illegal immigrants hoping for a better future in Europe. “I travelled to the island and stayed there for eight days. I spoke to loads of people and listened to their stories,” the author recalls. “It was not so much the details of the island that mattered to me, but the feel of the place. Lampedusa is a beautiful island, but also very depressing. What was particularly surprising was how right-wing the locals were. It felt like they were defending Europe from the stream of foreigners wanting to come in. The stuff like the Mussolini posters, which are described in my book, are real; I have seen them with my own eyes. Lampedusa, in my opinion, is really a microcosm of the disparity between Africa and Europe; a world in which Africans are literally dying to get into Europe, while Europeans don’t want them and are doing anything to keep them out.”

Apart from the Italian island, Garda visited two more crucial locations: Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and Yeoville in Johannesburg. “I felt I had to visit these places. I didn’t want to do this from a laptop. Instead, I wanted to be accurate,” he says. “The last time I had been in Yeoville was eight years ago.”

Libya was also on the list, but that particular plan didn’t materialise. “I initially wanted a strong Libyan element to the book. Practically, that didn’t work, as I couldn’t get a visa. Well, not easily anyway. I was trying to get in as a tourist, not a journalist working for Al Jazeera. The authorities told me that they knew I was a journalist for Al Jazeera, and that I had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get in on a tourist permit. I, for instance, had to go to Egypt. In the end, I decided against it also because I would be on my own, which is quite dangerous for journalists.”

Garda refers to the scores of journalists who have lost their lives in Libya since the Arab Spring unfolded in 2011. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least seven journalists died on the job while reporting on the situation in Libya. Two of them were freelancers, including Anton Hammer. The 41-year-old South African-born freelance photographer was shot and killed by government forces in eastern Libya on April 2011.

“Had I been able to get a visa, I am sure the book would have turned out a bit differently,” Garda confesses. “But the stakes and risks were too high. Libya would have been a big bonus, though.”

Not getting a visa into Libya was not the only obstacle Garda experienced while writing his novel. “The biggest challenge was self-doubt. There were days when I was worried about whether this book would be any good,” he says. “I usually write satire, also on social media. In the back of my head, people expected a satirical comedy. I worried about how they would respond to a serious book. At times, I went weeks without writing as a result of self-doubt.”

Despite this, Garda recalls he maintained an undeniable belief in his book and story—particularly after finishing the first draft. He believed in it so badly, that he declined an offer from an important American agent to promote his book.

“A fairly big agent in New York was interested in my book, but she wanted me to make major changes to Yusuf and to the end,” he says. “I wrestled with that for a while and eventually decided not to use her. Many friends and family told me how stupid I was, how good she was and how lucky I had been as a first-time author to have grabbed this particular agent’s attention. They told me not to be an idiot and to take her advice. I decided against it and, instead, submitted unsolicited manuscripts to various South African publishers. Then I got an email from Umuzi, who eventually published my book.”

Apart from entertaining people, Garda feels that The Thunder That Roars has a strong social message.
“The message is that there are no easy answers to very pressing challenges. While I didn’t approach the book with an ideological agenda, I hope that when readers close the book, they would have had spent a lot of time thinking about themselves; their relations to others and some of these themes. Think race, power, privilege and class. These are not confined to South Africa, by the way.

“If that happens, I mean when readers are no longer thinking about Yusuf but about themselves, I think then I can call my book successful.” 

Miriam Mannak

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