Lucy Hannau interviews bestselling author Gaile Parkin. Gaile Parkin was born and raised in Zambia and studied at universities in South Africa and England. She has lived in many different parts of Africa, including Rwanda, where Baking Cakes in Kigali is set. She spent two years in Rwanda as a VSO volunteer at the new university doing a wide range of work: teaching, mentoring, writing learning materials, working with the campus clinic to counsel students with HIV/AIDS, and doing gender advocacy and empowerment work. Evenings and weekends, she counselled women and girls who were survivors. Many of the stories told by the characters in Baking Cakes for Kigali are based on or inspired by stories Parkin was told herself. She is currently a freelance consultant in the fields of education, gender, and HIV/AIDS. Her books, Baking Cakes in Kigali and When Hoopoes Go To Heaven, are international best sellers.
1) What does “Africa” mean to you? Is there a specific noun, verb, adjective or even flavor/perfume/sound you associate with each African country you have experienced?
Africa is a wonderfully vast and varied continent, from the majestic sand dunes of the desert in Namibia, through the dark, dense rain forests of eastern Congo, to the sun-bleached, palm-fringed coast of Kenya. The sounds are varied, too, even within one country. In Tanzania, for example, it’s sparrows that wake you with their early-morning twitter in the northern city of Arusha, while the heart-piercing cries of fish-eagles pull you from your sleep in the city of Mwanza on the lake, and in Dar es Salaam, on the eastern coast, it’s the harsh squawking of black crows that ensures you wake at dawn.
There’s a particularly African smell that I love: the smell of rain before it has rained. Away from any big city or town with its hustle and bustle and bling, out in the open land where any road or path is a track of bare earth, the soil knows when the rain is coming, and in the half hour before the rain actually falls, the soil begins to drink it, giving off an intoxicating perfume of freshness and fecundity. It’s impossible not to feel uplifted by that smell, speaking as it does of the complete certainty that what is most desired is only moments away.
2) How did you start writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer? What brought you to fiction after writing children’s books and textbooks?
When I was in the third grade of school I used to tear pages out of exercise books, cut them into strips that I folded and stapled together into tiny books, and then I’d fill them with stories and illustrations. I don’t recall what my stories were about, but I do recall the slight upward roll of my teacher’s eyes every time I approached her desk, clutching one of my creations and telling her that I’d written another book. So I soon grew out of that.
Later in life I was always too busy to think of writing fiction – or if I did think about it, it was something I could always fall back on, something I could do if all else failed. And then, because I thought of it as the thing I could do if I couldn’t do anything else, I was afraid to try it in case I discovered that I couldn’t actually do it. I tied myself up in that knot for years.
But my time in Rwanda filled me with things I needed to say, things that people weren’t really interested in hearing me say, because they already knew all they wanted to know about that place: that it was dark, bleak, horrific. I wanted them to know the much wider truth: that life and hope continue; that people still find countless reasons to celebrate; that I shared more laughter there than I ever had anywhere else. It seemed to me that fiction was the only way I could convey all of that.
3) How did you find your agent?
I followed the standard path, working my way through the list of agents in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, seeking out those who might be interested in what I’d written, and sending off what each of them required. Because a lot of rejection was exactly what I expected, it didn’t hurt that much – though the man who devoted an entire patronizing page to telling me I had no idea how to write could seriously have done with a very big slap.
I always felt that my book was a little different, that if anyone read the first couple of chapters and then asked to see more, I was in with a chance. Christine Green was the agent who asked for more – and I don’t think anyone could have suited me better.
4) How much of Angel, the baker and color lover is in you? Do you like baking and/or cooking? Do you have a sense of color, maybe in the clothes you wear, like Angel has for her colorful cakes?
I adore the colors of Africa – but, alas, I don’t have the beautiful ebony skin that can carry off wearing such vibrancy. I do like to cook, though baking cakes is something that I tend to do only when I’m in a place where nobody else bakes, and where people can think that my cakes are fabulous because they simply don’t know any better. Angel is a way better baker than I could ever pretend to be.
5) The different languages you used in “Baking cakes in Kigali” add an extra dimension to the story underlining for example, cultural differences and historical facts. How many languages are you fluent in? If you can speak Swahili and other African languages, what is your favorite word or concept that doesn’t have a direct translation in English with just one word? If you can’t, what is your favorite word or expression in English?
I speak a survival level of a number of different languages, though I’m not particularly fluent in anything. I love the concept of ubuntu, a word in both Xhosa and Zulu – with different words for the same concept in several other southern African languages. It’s about our shared humanity and required generosity towards one another; it’s an understanding that in helping and empowering others we help and empower ourselves and our entire community; it expresses the dignity, respect and compassion that, as human beings, we naturally owe and are owed; and it speaks of the interconnectedness that binds all people to all other people.
A philosophy of ubuntu is pretty much the opposite of the individualism and self-interest often embraced in many of the more developed countries. With groups of people in such countries now starting to speak of a hollowness in their lives, and to call for a more ubuntu-like set of values by which to steer, perhaps the time is right for a word that means what ubuntu means to find its way into every language.