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

March 31, 2015 17 By Duncan Green

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.