Interviews

BOOKING MATTERS MAGAZINE

INTERVIEW WITH SHELLY LEANNE,

July-August 2003

(unabridged version)

Would you designate “Joshua’s Bible” a Christian novel? An inspirational fiction? As a work of African American Literature?

I hope that Joshua’s Bible will be considered a work of African American literature that inspires and challenges the reader. The main character, Joshua, is a minister and therefore the novel also explores many themes associated with Black Theology—that is, the notion that Jesus stands on the side of those who are oppressed and that the Bible supports liberation and freedom.

Who do you write for? Do you have a “target audience”?

I write for everyone. I see beauty in all cultures and people, and that comes through in my writing, which has a multinational cast. What I seek to convey in my writing is that people of all backgrounds have so much in common, and that the most profound experiences we all deal with are profoundly common to the entire human race. I will always like to explore in my writing, therefore, the commonalities we all share, as well as experiences by which my individual characters grow and triumph in challenging situations.

A reader can’t help but make comparisons between this work and “Cry the Beloved Country” (Alan Paton) or “Things Fall Apart” (Chinua Achebe). Were either of these works an influence? Did any political figures influence you, as well?

I am flattered and honored to think that comparisons will be made between my work, Joshua’s Bible, and Alan Paton’s and Chinua Achebe’s works. I read both works a long time ago. Things Fall Apart influenced me greatly because of its authentic portrayal of the African experience. It is rare to see such an unbiased and positive view of Africa in the west—the typical images of Africa that prevail in the USA seem so skewed and biased to me, based on my positive experiences both in Kenya and South Africa. Things Fall Apart inspired me to write a work that conveyed my own enriching experiences in Kenya and South Africa. I believe that Joshua’s Bible succeeds in conveying the beauty of the experiences I had in Kenya when I served as a teacher at a community-funded high school and as I lived with a devout Luo family in rural Kenya. I believe that Joshua’s Bible also helps to convey the beautiful history that was recounted to me by South African freedom fighters such as the late honorableWalter Sisulu, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former foreign minister Alfred Nzo, and the late Senator Govan Mbeki. As a writer, I have also been influenced by South African writers such as Sindiwe Magona and Mandla Langa, who write so eloquently about life in South Africa.

What authors do you read? What’s the last thing that you read that you would recommend to our readers? What is your all time favorite book? (other than “Joshua’s Bible”)

I read much more non-fiction than fiction. One of my favorite writers is Reverend Henry Blackaby, whose work Experiencing God is one that I highly recommend. It provides a profound account of how God seeks to use us and to reveal His plan for our lives. My favorite fiction work is The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. My second favorite fiction book is The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. These two fiction works are wonderful in the sense that they prod you to think about how you live your life, and they challenge you to live your life to a very high standard. Because both are allegories, the images and lessons they teach are constantly in my mind.

How did you prepare yourself for crafting this novel? How long did it take you to write it?

When I first began to write Joshua’s Bible, I worried about how I would translate the images in my mind and successfully convey them on paper. The story was so vivid in my mind! It took six long years of persistence and hard work to learn to write fiction well—I had not written fiction since high school. I took a number of fiction writing courses at night when I was serving as a faculty member at Harvard, and one of my most influential teachers was Professor Bill Holinger, who teaches in the Extension School at Harvard. He is a “master of the craft” and taught me so well how to think about structuring a novel, about the rules of fiction writing that I might want to observe, and about developing my own voice through writing.

Did you find it difficult to portray the psychic and physical violence of apartheid without becoming sensational (or having it become the focus of the novel)?

My greatest concern wasn’t how to portray the violence, but how to convey Joshua’s mindset of seeing parallels between America and South Africa, and in showing his changing mindset as he began to see the beauty in Xhosa (African) culture and to sense a need to take a stand against segregation in South Africa.

Was it a difficult transition from academic/non-fiction writing to crafting a novel?

I don’t consider myself to have made a transition between academic and fiction writing—the two types of writing are totally unrelated and I don’t believe one really influences the other. It took a lot of work to re-develop and then deepen my fiction writing skills. I had been a strong fiction writer in high school, but nearly 10 years had passed between then and when I started to write Joshua’s Bible. But learning how to write fiction again was a pure joy. To this day, I really enjoy “working out”—by which I mean writing ab lib about experiences, and then drawing on my work outs as I craft novels.

What are you working on right now in the realm of social activism?

I sit on the Board of WorldTeach, a group that sends teachers to developing countries. I am engaged formally and informally with groups combating the spread and malevolent effects of AIDS in Africa. I also own and run a company that helps to tutor inner city kids and foreign students, helping them prepare for college and graduate school.