A Novel Idea: Would Fiction be a better induction to a new job than boring briefings?

A mysterious, anonymised, scarlet pimpernel character called J. flits around the aid world, writing a blog (Tales from the Hood – now defunct, but collected into a book, Letters Left Unsent) and fiction. He asked me for a plug for the latest novel, Honorhonor among thieves Among Thieves.

Here’s the plot blurb:

‘Mary-Anne has left East Africa and traded in her dusty cargo pants for business suits at the World Aid Corps (WAC) headquarters in Washington, D.C. Her first major assignment, planning a new corporate-funded project in a rural village in Cambodia, seems simple enough—at first. Before long, she is caught in a web of high-stakes aid world maneuvering, board room deals, conflicting priorities, and hidden agendas that threatens not only to destroy her career, but rob her of her soul.

From the iridescent rice fields of the Mekong Delta, to the curiously named bars and teeming backstreets of Phnom Penh, Mary-Anne finds her journey inextricably tied to others: a bereaved Cambodian mother, an arrogant colleague with something to prove, and a demanding donor with something to gain. As she searches for the sweet spot between humanitarian idealism and donors’ expectations, will she be able to do what she knows in her heart is right? Whose version of “helping” really helps? And who are the real humanitarians?’

It’s not Graham Greene, but it’s a good read: I recognized the characters and dilemmas it painted, the arc from wet behind the ears volunteer to world-weary manager, and the distinctive aid worker cocktail of mission and daily grind, cynicism and zeal. There are plenty of intersecting subplots to keep you entertained: newbie Trevor starts a new NGO without a clue what to do, and promptly gets Chlamydia; aging Cambodia hand Frank tries to run a bar without ‘massage’ on the menu; villager Phirun is in hock to a moneylender who takes his wife to work in the fleshpots of Phnom Penh.

But it also makes few concessions to a non aid audience – a fair sprinkling of jargon, acronyms etc, many of them unexplained. At first I tutted, but then thought – this could be a whole new genre. Vocational novels, providing a painless introduction to any given career and its jargon, not just aid: accountancy? Lawyers? (actually, they’re pretty well covered); quantity surveyors?

I think J may be onto something here. I’m thinking about a novel on political economy analysis and theories of change – what do you reckon?

As for J. himself, we know he’s a he from the blurb he sent round with the manuscript

‘J. has worked in the humanitarian aid industry since 1991. Since then he’s been involved in the response to most of the major humanitarian crises you’d have heard of, as well as many that you might not have heard of. He presently holds a real aid job with a global aid organization. He writes about humanitarian aid, both fiction and non-fiction, in his spare time, with a personal computer, because he enjoys it.’

A good airplane read – check it out.



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17 Responses to “A Novel Idea: Would Fiction be a better induction to a new job than boring briefings?”
  1. aldo.matteucci

    a while back, you posted the use of “games” in teaching conservation in Karamoja. The book is an avatar, for a different audience. Why not?

    Vocational novels have existed for a long time – a bad example is literature of totalitarian systems. Mostly, these works were rejected. Why?

    Striking the proper balance between the freedom of fiction and the necessity of message is most difficult. The reader’s expectation is having fun. The message is like salt: it soon becomes unpalatable.

    The new layer question is one of efficacy. We are transformed by experiences – not so much by words. Games, videos and the visual lot are better at conveying the context and the experience that the written word. Also, they are so much faster. We live in a hurried and harried age.

  2. Justin Williams

    Hi Duncan, thanks for letting us know about this interesting read. I am a big believer in fiction as a more effective way of getting into the tricky issues of development. I’d particularly recommend some of the classics of African literature e.g. Chinua Achebe’s Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah, or Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born for their vivid descriptions of the challenges of governance, corruption and citizen-state relations in post-independence African countries. Much more fun than all the grey literature and more effective too I think!

  3. Mark Wentling

    Reminds me of my Africa Trilogy which attempts to convey ‘development’ via fiction. My three novels are based on nearly 45 years of hands-on development and humanitarian assistance work at all levels in every corner of Africa. My third book was released in January and received acclaim by Kirkus Reviews. I believe reading my book would be helpful to anyone interested in Africa and providing assistance to this vast and complex continent.

  4. Sophia Murphy

    However dated, aid workers could do worse than to read The Ugly American as they start off their careers. And why not throw in some Graham Greene as well (Under the Volcano? The Honorary Consul? The Quiet American?). And Orwell on colonialism, too. Not for the “how to” or “expect this” aspect so much as the cautionary tales and myth-busting, written in such beautiful prose. Conrad, of course. And agreed on Chinua Achebe- Things Fall Apart; also Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And although it is not fiction, I have been absorbed in Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797). Always good to remember the history.
    You could have a poll, Duncan – everyone write in their favourite aid-related writing.

  5. Mark Wentling

    This could indeed be a lot of fun. I’m currently researching a book, “First Foot Steps in East Africa,” written by the famous 19th century British explorer Richard Burton in 1856 about his adventures in what he called ‘Somalia Country’ in 1854-55. This is all part of a book I’m writing about the chaotic Horn of Africa in the 1990s. I find that some of what Burton observed holds true today.

  6. Ellie

    How about COMMISSIONING a novel (or play (or hit HBO/TV series). I would vote for Caitlin Moran to author a tale of an aid worker’s search for gender equality in Afghanistan or similar…

  7. J.

    Hi Duncan,

    Thanks so much for the review. My inbox and Facebook are lighting up with industry friends making Scarlet Pimpernel jokes (and I have to just ponder aloud… if I’m the Scarlet Pimpernel… who are the “Frenchies”?). Beautiful.

    I wasn’t going to self-promote, but since Mark Wentling beat me to it, here’s the Honor Among Thieves purchase link (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00TMXJK5M), and of course be sure to follow me on Facebook for breath-taking, up-to-the-minute updates (https://www.facebook.com/TalesFrometheHood).

    Interesting thoughts on fiction and/or other media as modes of aid industry induction. Some great lists of things to read besides my book. I just have to put out there that providing an alternative to (authors like) Burton and Conrad, was one part of why I began writing humanitarian fiction in the first place. 🙂

    Anyway, once more thank you for the review.

    All the best,

  8. Asif Dowla

    I recommend Arvind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel White Tiger for a vivid description of the challenges and contradictions of development in India.

  9. Daniel Sellen

    Hello Duncan,

    A friend in the UK turned me on to your interesting blog. Your March 31 posting and various book reviews prompted me to bring to your attention my novel on development (Adventures in Dystopia). Can I send you a copy? (I would need your snail mail and phone number for Amazon to send.)

    Looking forward to reading through more of your back-postings.

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