A bumptious guide to book writing

Michela offers a helping hand to would be authors on Africa - so long as they're female

I'm not proud of it. I have spent a good few hours agonising over whether my actions can be justified. In recent months I've been doing my best to nip a questing young talent in the bud. And I intend to keep doing just that.

There is, I hasten to add, a chronology to my unsavoury performance. Soon after I published In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, a book about Congo's late dictator, I started receiving calls and emails from young western journalists working on the African continent. In the difficult world of African non-fiction, Mr Kurtz rated as a success. My callers, determined to follow the same route, were hungry for tips.

There is actually not much advice to give aspiring authors. Every cliché about book writing is true, and "buy the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook" just about sums it up. But, remembering the difference that a few words of encouragement from the likes of Anthony Sampson made when I was starting out, I was determined to be generous.

As years passed, however, I realised that these exchanges niggled. Paranoia, perhaps, but did I glimpse an unarticulated subtext to some of these conversations? "I'm going to do what you did," it ran, "only I'm going to do it quicker, better and for more money. Because I'm me."

My ambivalence peaked last month when a youngster with the accent and confidence of the public-school-educated British male rang. In the wake of Congo's first democratic elections, he said, he was planning to travel across the country and thought it would make a good book. Any advice? Did he have much journalistic experience, I asked? Not really: a couple of years wandering East Africa, the odd bit of freelance. Had he spent much time in Congo? Nope. Had he thought of learning the trade as a journalist first? He waved the idea away: too banal. When I put the phone down, I was seething. Since then, I've been trying to identify the source of my fury.

There is a graceless human tendency to wish upon others the ills visited upon oneself. Instead of pointing successors towards short cuts, you relish seeing them clambering through identical hoops. I'm as prone to this as anyone, but I don't believe it explains my bile.

No, it was the sheer bumptiousness that did it. A book must be the biggest act of presumption it is possible to commit. If you're a white westerner writing about Africa, that arrogance reaches dizzying levels. What gives a spoilt bourgeois, who didn't even grow up there, the right to interpret the continent for the world?

The only answer can be: I have devoted years on the continent to listening and learning; I have done my homework as conscientiously as I know how; and it's just possible, because I have spent so much time learning to write accessibly about foreign cultures, that I may be able to serve as a bridge between two cultural viewpoints.

My caller saw no need for any of this. With the chutzpah of the privileged young male, he believed he could bypass it all and still produce something for which the public would be duly grateful. In fact, there's only one way of writing a book in these circumstances: you deliver a manuscript that is all about you, with Africa as a picturesque backdrop to your macho derring-do.

I realised that my conversations with aspirant writers, and there have been dozens, had one thing in common: they all involved the male of the species. Africa is full of female reporters who tramp through Darfur's refugee camps and grit their teeth during Mogadishu firefights. Yet not one of these indomitable females has ever called me for the Quick Guide to Successful African Book Writing. I think I know the reason. It's the same one that ensured I tried my hand at being an author only after 16 years of journalism. Women probably see an Africa book as featuring Africa first, their own exploits second. They fear they know too little, have nothing original to say. Even in this neo-feminist era, they have a sneaking suspicion they are not worthy.

A few weeks ago, I emailed the young man to tell him, in as discouraging a way as I knew how, that I had now heard of a handful of other young (male) hacks who were writing Congo books. "It's good to be the underdog," he replied, his irrepressibility proving he needed nothing from me. So here's my offer: if there's any female foreign correspondent out there nursing an Africa book, I'd be happy to hand-hold, for what it's worth. As for the Harrys and Jameses: it's been fun, but you're on your own now.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war