This month, we feature Julie Wakeman-Linn, author of Chasing the Leopard; Finding the Lion. A professor at Montgomery College in Maryland (USA), Wakeman-Linn recently returned from Tanzania, where she volunteered for two years at an orphans’ school. Her debut novel, Chasing the Leopard; Finding the Lion is published by a Tanzania-based publisher, Mkuki Na Nyota, and was a finalist for Barbara Kingsolver’s Belwether Prize. In this interview, she talks about her book and why she opted to work with a Tanzanian publisher.
Tell us about yourself
I was born and raised on the Great Northern Plains, so the huge African sky feels like home. I left South Dakota at 18 and worked my way east. I have college and master’s degrees that I have earned or worked on in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Maryland. I have lived in the Washington, D.C. for 15 years. I teach creative writing and English composition and edit the Potomac Review at Montgomery College. Working there is fun because the student population is very diverse, coming from over 150 different countries.
At what point did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
I have always wanted to write since I started to read. I thought I’d write the great American novel and instead I wrote a great African novel.
You recently returned from Tanzania, where you spent close to two years. Was this your first visit to Africa?
I also lived in Zambia in the early 1990’s and that was the inspiration for the characters in Chasing the Leopard; Finding the Lion. Our time in Dar Es Salaam offered experience of a large city, active ex-pat community and many opportunities to travel around the country.
What were your impressions of the continent? And what do you miss most about the time that you spent in Tanzania?
There is a beauty to the wild places that I love, Ngorogoro, Serengeti, Selous. In every day living, I found a gentle quality to the lifestyle, a ‘taking time’ attitude, which was a slower pace of life. I learned to enjoy it but it is tricky to get used to after living so long in Washington, D.C, where everybody rushes around after something.
What was the inspiration behind your new book, Chasing the Leopard Finding the Lion?
When we returned from Zambia, I wrote to understand how I felt about Africa, to think through my experience of being an outsider. When the Mugabe regime started its chaotic destruction of civil society in Zimbabwe, I was angry for the Zimbabweans so I wrote a novel that frees the two young men. Also the notion of family and sibling loyalty was a theme I wanted to explore.
Tell us about the book.
Chasing the Leopard; Finding the Leopard is a rollicking dangerous journey of two young men across Zimbabwe and Zambia. When Mugabe’s regime destroys their world and threatens their family, they have to escape. As they recreate their lives, they grow to understand themselves and each other.
Is this your first book? What other works have you published?
This is my first novel. I have published about a dozen short stories in literary magazines, most of them are set in Africa.
At a time when many African writers are seeking publishers outside the continent, you chose to work with a local Tanzanian publishing company. Why? How did this work out?
My contract with Mkuki Na Nyota was a lucky, happy coincidence. I was working on a fund raising project for Bethsaida Secondary School for Orphan girls and I met the publisher who said he was looking for fiction in English. They loved the manuscript and I was thrilled. Mkuki Na Nyota did a wonderful job with my book. The only glitch is that their distributor is in England! So my novel is all over Southern Africa but not widely available here in the U.S. except as a Kindle edition.
Did you learn anything from the experience that you would like to share with local writers seeking to get their work out?
Working with a small independent press, I feel, gives the writer the best experience. I knew my work had been read and loved by many editors. I was allowed input into the cover design which is wonderful. I was allowed to feel like part of the process.
Any books by African writers that you’d recommend?
Yes, Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana, Mukiwa by Peter Godwin, Come to Africa and save your marriage by Maria Thomas, Mothers of the Revolution: the war experiences of thirty Zimbabwean women, edited by Irene Staunton and Swimming in the Congo by Margaret Meyers.