In the winter of 1993, travel writer and essayist Edward Hoagland was travelling in Eastern Africa on assignment for Harper’s Magazine. He had visited the region twice before, in the years 1976 and 1977. This time, however, a civil war was raging in Sudan and a crippling famine gripped the region. Political, ethnic and religious conflict had created a web of alliances that divided the country, making travel outside the cities a dangerous and complicated ordeal. As he ventured into famine zones alongside NGO (non-governmental organizations) aid groups, Mr. Hoagland witnessed firsthand the atrocities that famine and civil war had inflicted on the region.
Mr. Hoagland recently released a new novel, Children Are Diamonds, based on his travels in Sudan during this period. The book follows Hickey, an American expatriate, as he makes supply runs to an NGO aid station in southern Sudan. Ruth, a veteran aid worker, staffs the station and her dedication intrigues the cynical Hickey. As the pair fights to escape the escalating conflict, Mr. Hoagland sets a scene that is as graphic as it is moving.
This is Mr. Hoagland’s 23rd book but his first novel in many years. Over the past half a century he has mainly focused on nonfiction writing. He has received two Guggenheim fellowships and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982.
He calls his style of reporting “parachuting in.” Mr. Hoagland, 80, explained that he rarely made any preparations for his arrivals. No hotel reservation or contacts at the airport — just the clothing in his suitcase. Mr. Hoagland said he believes that a predetermined itinerary can sometimes distort how a writer perceives a place.
“Part of the story was not knowing what was going to happen,” Mr. Hoagland said in an interview with the Gazette at his home in Edgartown. “By just seeing what happens, you can find out the nature of a town. You can learn about the country, the people — especially if they’re friendly or not.”
When he arrived in Nairobi in 1993, Mr. Hoagland hired a taxi at the airport and took the cabbie’s recommendation for a hotel. At the hotel he cold-called NGOs until he found one willing to send a journalist into the field on a resupply mission. He said he wasn’t always certain that one would take him. Mr. Hoagland explained that limited truck space meant NGOs helping out a journalist would have to sacrifice food meant for refugees. Most trips, he added, were dangerous enough without a journalist tagging along as an extra liability. It was, however, a necessity to attach himself to an NGO. Journalists travelling on their own were liable to be arrested as spies.
Travelling by himself with only a vague semblance of a plan, he had to accept the reality that he really was alone, Mr. Hoagland said. “If you have no diplomatic status and don’t work for the CIA or the military, you have no backup. There’s nobody to come rescue you.”
Mr. Hoagland said that, in a broader sense, the intent of his travel writing is to provide a candid glimpse of a point in time most readers will never get to experience. In his 1969 book Notes from the Century Before, he documented a rapidly disappearing way of life in the backcountry of British Columbia. Mr. Hoagland said that for Children Are Diamonds, he wanted to tell the tale of a tragedy that, he hopes, will never happen again.
“I tried to record an African civil war at the end of the 20th century,” he said. “You can’t find that in any other book.”
Much of Children Are Diamonds is concerned with the Sudanese humanitarian crisis during the civil war. In addition to a war in which countless innocent victims were killed, there were also the dangers of starvation and disease. At her aid station, Ruth treats everything from strep throat and influenza to cholera and the Ebola virus.
“These people are desperate to survive,” Mr. Hoagland said. “Even if there isn’t an offensive bearing down on them at the time, they still may have to flee again soon, but they have nowhere to go.”
Mr. Hoagland recounted what he said was a powerful experience he had on his 1993 trip that underscored his own helplessness. After leaving Nairobi, he travelled into the so-called “famine zone” with a resupply mission. At their first stop, he was the subject of much interest from the locals.
He was 61 years old at the time, a white man with flowing gray, which gave him an air of great power. Mr. Hoagland said that the locals asked him if he was the head of the United Nations or, noting his heavy boots, if he had walked from America. Emaciated villagers and their children gathered around him, begging him for food or miracles.
“Parents told their children, ‘That white man can save your life,’” Mr. Hoagland said. “I didn’t know how to explain to them that I was just a journalist.” Children Are Diamonds by Edward Hoagland is published by Arcade Publishing.