I have a memory seared in my mind.
I am five years old and swimming in the Apollo Hotel pool in Kampala. It is 1974. A quiet weekend outing is suddenly charged when a grinning Idi Amin Dada appears in his swim trunks. A little boy, no older than I, is standing in front of Amin, between him and me. The boy (one of Amin’s sons it is clear by the military fatigues he is wearing and his position next to Amin) is staring at me, though there must be many other people about. The boy’s anger is palpable and directed at me. I cannot imagine what I have done to inspire it. But I am afraid of him. I am not afraid of his father.
The context of this event was life in Kampala during Amin’s lunatic rule. Soldiers, usually drunk, were crawling on most streets, particularly the ones near our home (which was very close to a large barracks). Each night the city would erupt in gunfights that would continue long after I had fallen asleep.
In my early attempts at telling the story of Asians in Uganda at that time, I chose to put these scenes of my childhood at the centre of the narrative, to put myself at the centre of the narrative.
What I wrote was forced and stilted and embarrassingly self-indulgent.
Four years ago, I moved to Tanzania, leaving behind a well-paying job at The Globe and Mail and selling my house, having no plan whatsoever except to live in East Africa and write a novel (with two children under the age of three in tow, this was a reckless decision by any standard). In Dar es Salaam, my husband found a job piloting a small plane. We lived off savings and his meagre earnings as I wrote each day.
It was exhausting. The mosquitoes and heat were unbearable and my baby was waking multiple times in the night. But the words were flowing and in a voice that rang so authentically I knew the story I had been trying to tell for years was finally freed.
What opened the floodgates was a sensation of disorientation. I was lost in Dar. I found no peers, saw nothing familiar and ached for home. I began to think about why I moved, why anyone moves. When I asked these questions, my grandfather, as a young man and not as the old, tired dying man I remember, appeared in my mind.
With this young man standing in the pale dust of Malia, longing for a life beyond his imagination, Where the Air Is Sweet began.
The characters quickly came to life, often expressing thoughts I had no recollection of forming. I realized that what I needed to do for so many years was to get out of the way and the story could come.
About five months into full-time writing, I began to insert details, gleaned from my parents, from aunts and uncles and later from books and later still from newspaper archives. I travelled through Uganda to the places I was writing about. I touched the house my grandfather built, visited my grandmother’s grave, stood in front of the once feared Public Safety Unit.
This book is fiction. It is framed by historical events and my family’s experience. It is, at its simplest, a story of movement and longing.