Alexander McCall Smith on writing Botswana and HIV

In Botswana, 23% of adults have HIV and 120,000 children have been orphaned by the disease. So is it ethically questionable that the man who has made Botswana famous to non-Africans treats HIV as something of a side issue?

Alexander McCall Smith, the Scotland-based author of the hugely popular No 1. Ladies Detective Agency series, was asked about this at a Melbourne event last night ably hosted by crime writer Angela Savage. The books are set in Botswana and — as Smith acknowledged — they show the country in a positive light. HIV does feature (one character’s brother dies of AIDS, and there are regular mentions of “the sickness”), but it is not prominent.

This raises interesting questions. Does an author of fiction have a responsibility to show the bad as well as the good about the real places they write about? Is it a problem if an author tones down tragedies like HIV infection in Botswana while re-imagining a foreign place to sell books? Botswana has the third-highest HIV infection rate in the world.

Smith gave a staunch defence of his works. “There’s so many people who write just about the negative of Africa,” he said. He acknowledged that he didn’t write much about HIV — “others are writing about that” — but said to put the disease centre-stage would have made his series a tragedy. The books are not at all tragic; they are gentle crime novels that focus on the good hearts of the people of Botswana via the extremely likeable heroine, detective Precious Ramotswe. Mma Ramotswe has helped Smith sell 20 million books around the world, spawning a BBC / HBO television series.

Smith also said that fictionalising an HIV epidemic risks “intruding in people’s grief”. Smith said he had thought carefully about how much to write about HIV and asked his friends in Botswana. They told him they did not want to be portrayed as being ill.

A subtext at work is that Smith is not Botswanan. He was born in the country now called Zimbabwe and lived briefly in Botswana, and he goes there almost every year. But he has a plummy English accent and lives 9000 kilometres away in Edinburgh.

It’s a serious topic, and for most of last night’s interview at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, Smith was anything but. It was a rollicking performance. Smith recounted amusing stories and snippets from his books in high good humour, laughing uproariously at his own jokes and writhing with delight in his chair. Dressed in a crumpled lounge suit with wayward grey hair, 65-year-old Smith was like one’s favourite uncle at Christmas dinner after a few sherries.

He noted that publishers were sceptical of his first attempt at a No 1. book. “Why is it so gentle?” he was asked. “I was told there wasn’t enough edge to it … it’s very difficult to define what edge is, but I didn’t have enough.” The crimes tackled by Mma Ramotswe and her over-anxious secretary Mma Makutsi are usually mild. For example, they investigate the entrants in a beauty pageant to see who deserves to win, and cheating husbands and wives get a good run.

Smith had no problem confessing his novels were not really crime novels, and poked fun at the genre with relish. So many authors wrote about murders, with an autopsy thrown in the first chapter, he said. Yet murder is actually a “very very unusual crime … I think crime writers should be more realistic, and should deal with more common offences, such as parking. Parking offences are endemic.”

He then undid all his logic by revealing he’d written a story about a parking attendant trying to give someone a ticket — which ended with a dead body.

Smith has written 70 works of fiction. He told last night’s Wheeler Centre event his trick was to rise at 4am and write for two-and-a-half hours, then go back to bed. He writes 1000 words an hour and pumps out an astonishing three to four books a year.

And he gave away a few more secrets. The famous tea-drinking scenes in No 1. are not symbolic; he puts them in when he can’t think what else to do. He’s working on his 10th volume in The 44 Scotland Street series, set in Edinburgh, which will come out next year.

And this may interest fans of the No. 1 series, but they don’t seem to be Smith’s favourite works. He was “grateful” for the series “that changed everything for me”. But the characters he spoke of most fondly were Bertie (a young boy in the 44 Scotland series) and car-loving Terence (from the Corduroy Mansions series).

Featured image by Chris Watt

5 responses to “Alexander McCall Smith on writing Botswana and HIV

  1. Quite often the case Woopwoop. This one was striking because the audience was dominated by women – maybe 75 – 90%? – then almost all the questioners were male.

    I went to a speech by Germaine Greer in Melbourne recently and when it was time for questions, she said “the first question has to be from a woman.” Now, that was one speech when most of the questions were from women.

  2. Agreed, George. I noticed men asked most of the questions, and they seemed to be enamoured by Smith’s anti-Irene, anti-“pushy mothers” line. The response from the crowd was fascinating; that they wanted Stuart to stand up more to Irene. It was clad in humour, but Smith’s anti-political correctness message was quite clear, I thought — and it appealed to some in the audience, clearly

  3. A nice outline of the evening. I was also struck that most of the questions were asked by men even though women made up the bulk of the audience. I was particularly struck by the desire for Bert’s father to be portrayed as more forthright and able to stand up to his mum.

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