By the time City alumna Amelia Kyazze began her MA in Creative Writing at City, she had already done the research for her debut novel through life experience. Into the Mouth of the Lion, published in May 2021, is set in Angola, towards the end of its brutal war, and tells the story of two very different sisters.
“Into the Mouth of the Lion is based in the last days of the civil war in Angola, where I worked with Oxfam. Aspects of that work, and other books that are currently in draft form, are from my observations of the conflict, the people I’ve met, the situations I’ve been in, and the role I played as a researcher and photographer from 2000 to 2009,” Amelia Kyazze (Creative Writing, 2017) says.
Amelia’s interest in humanitarian aid work was sparked when she lived in Nepal as part of her undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Women’s Studies from Cornell University in New York.
“When I returned home to the US, I wanted to work with refugees and found that my writing and photography skills were useful in a refugee advocacy organisation called Refugees International (RI).“
She explains how she travelled to the Balkans during the Kosovo war, and learned more about West and Central Africa as well, editing RI’s bulletins and publications. Later she came to the UK for a postgraduate degree in International Relations at The London School of Economics, and then worked for fifteen years for Oxfam, CAFOD, Save the Children, and the British Red Cross.
“I travelled to many countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe, working as a photographer and writer. I was often the outsider, trying to learn everything I could in intense situations. This comes through strongly in Into the Mouth of the Lion, although I should say that the novel is fiction, not autobiography.”
In Into the Mouth of the Lion written under the name A.B. Kyazze, Lena Rodriques, a young photographer from London, flies to Angola to search for her missing sister, a water engineer working for an aid organisation. It doesn’t take long before the situation, already fraught with danger, gets even more complicated.
The first draft of the novel was written as part of Amelia’s course at City.
“The course was all about writing, and the two years built up to having a good full draft of a novel before graduating. The course taught me a lot, including the discipline to keep going, and finding time whenever I could to be writing.”
With a busy family life, Amelia found herself writing on buses and trains, and while waiting for her children during their activities. There was no time to be precious. Attending lectures was something she looked forward to.
“I was a mature student, starting up my a freelance business during the day, racing to get the kids from childcare, and then reaching campus just in time for my evening classes to start. It felt like a real treat, diving into creative writing with time for myself to grow intellectually and creatively. But it was hard work! After almost 20 years working for different charities and serving as a writer and spokesperson for them, it took some time and rigorous writing for me to find my own voice.”
Having finished her first draft at City, it took another year of editing, and two years of meeting agents and publishers, before Amelia found her publisher: Unbound, an independent UK publisher that was shortlisted in the British Book Awards for Independent Publisher of the Year 2021. Unbound utilises crowdfunding as its publishing model, something that tests the concept of a book (and its author) from the start.
“Crowdfunding was a daunting challenge to start out with, but I found, with the help of friends and family spreading the word and supporting me, it was actually a very positive experience,” Amelia says. “I reached out and messages and support came back from across the globe. I had supporters from Myanmar, East Timor, Germany, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, France, Boston, Kansas, California, Seattle, and many places in between. Strangers, colleagues, and other people who know me from different times of my life believed in my writing and backed the book. It was a very powerful, and personal, connection with readers. And now, post-publication, I know at least 250 readers already have my book in their hands, and many are reading it. That’s an amazing feeling, as a debut author.”
Writing gives Amelia energy, which in turn feeds her creativity. Although she was able to draw from her real-life work experience to write her novel, she doesn’t believe it’s a necessity.
“Some writers are successful early on, others come to it later. For me, I was doing creative writing in high school and university, but I wanted to go out into the world,” she says.
“I spent more than a decade travelling and working with humanitarian organisations, and I wanted to help. I wasn’t a doctor or a nurse, but I could help with writing down people’s stories and helping to get the word out. It was at a time when there were no social media channels, and digital cameras were just emerging. I served a role that others could not, and I’m grateful for the life experiences I have had. But every writer has their own path, and their own stories to tell.”
Amelia helps others tell their stories by running creative writing workshops using her own methodology called Writing the 7 Senses. Under normal circumstances, the workshops are run in schools and libraries, and there is more information about Amelia’s writing and workshops on her website . Thank you, Amelia, for sharing your story!