Can you remember a flight from 20 years ago?


Into the Mouth of the Lion started as a short story about a flight on a small propeller plane nearly 20 years ago. I was in Angola for the first time, a young adviser working with Oxfam GB. I was travelling out to the highlands of the country to write a report about the humanitarian situation due to the 26-year-long conflict.

I had two cameras, many rolls of black and white and colour film, notebooks and a book or two to provide background to my research. Oxfam’s staff in Luanda, the capital, had briefed me about the situation and their important water and sanitation work there, supporting camps of thousands of displaced people.

But they had forgotten to brief me on about the plane ride.

As the war had continued to a stalemate, the government held power on the coast and in the cities and towns. In the territory outside the towns, however, the rebels could wreak havoc with their rocket-propelled missiles. Planes carrying humanitarian workers or supplies had to stay at a high altitude for most of the flight. The pilots could only descend in a tight spiral just when they were over the narrow government-controlled area.

Towards the end of the short flight from the capital to Malanje, I remember looking out the window to see a dusty, tightly-packed city below. With little warning, the plane dove left into a tight spiral.

The G-force was so strong my vision blurred and I could focus on nothing except the crushing feeling in my chest, being pressed flat against my seat.

I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, could only feel this immense force. And then, somehow, the pilot straightened the plane out just in time, and we bumped down onto a dirt airstrip. I was astonished and looked around at the other passengers, but most of them acted like this was an ordinary flight. I had entered a new kind of normal,  wartime Angola.

I spent about three weeks in Angola that time, and I would return to Malanje and also other highland towns over the course of the war and the peace that followed. Over about 18 months, I grew to love the country and the work I was doing: research, photography and interviewing people about the humanitarian situation. Although it was not my first field visit – I had been to the Balkans and DR Congo before – Angola would leave me with a very strong impression.

When I returned to “normal” life, living as a 20-something in the UK, I had to make sense of these moments, but also move on. I travelled for other research to India, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Each time I was in a new country I had to learn quickly, adjust to the new sensations, and make sense of it all in a short amount of time.

Taking photos the old fashioned way (until I got my first digital camera in 2006) meant that I had to process the negatives later. Printing up images in batches of 36 at a time, I found solace in the soft light and strong chemical smells of the darkroom. I would work with the equipment to print full-page photos of the landscapes I had seen. The portraits of the people I had interviewed surfaced in the liquid, and gave me time to make sense of what I’d learned from them. I mounted a solo photo show in Oxford, and participated in group shows in London. The negatives from Angola were stored by date (2002); this was after the photographs of Kosovo and Albania (1998-9) but before Sudan (2004).

I wrote a short story about that plane flight, and about a photographer trying to make sense of her experiences in the darkroom after returning home. Then I filed that writing away and forgot about it.

But despite changing jobs, visiting many destinations for work, fun and family, and growing older, I was still unsettled by that plane ride. More than a decade later, I was experiencing a kind of burnout from my work, and I was strongly pulled in the direction of creative writing. First, I took some weekend courses at CityLit in Holburn (which I would highly recommend). I entered some short writing into contests and magazines. Most of my submissions were rejected, but not all. Then I applied for a graduate programme in Creative Writing at London City University, and I was accepted in the summer of 2015.

It was becoming clearer in my mind that I wanted to write about Angola. No, I needed to write about Angola. I needed to make sense of the intensity of my time when I was there, dropping in as an outsider, trying to interview people with empathy and write down their stories.

I had an instinct that it would make a good novel.

From 2015-2017 I focussed on that story: about a photographer coming into the final days of Angola’s civil war. The short story developed characters, plot twists, and started to run ahead of me. It was exhilarating: my writing moved at a pace that surprised me, and I didn’t know what was going to happen in each chapter as I started. I loved it.

Another year or more of tight editing followed, and I approached publishers. By 2019 my vision was clear, the story had confidence and ran at a pace. Fast forward to 2021, and – post-pandemic – the book has been published by Unbound.  I hold the finished product in my hands, and readers are diving in.

It has been an amazing ride, and yet I sense the best part is yet to come. I can’t wait to hear what people think of it, and also to get moving with publishing the sequel and other books set in different parts of the world.

See the launch event for Into the Mouth of the Lion, hosted by former journalist and bestselling crime author Tina Baker on 9 May 2021, on this Vimeo link:

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