In 1973 a couple of friends and I moved up to a farm near Morawhanna, in the Northwest District of Guyana. We were all Guyanese. Three of us – Salvador, Margaret, and I – had just returned from an extended hike, lasting 18 months, through South America, and one thing we knew for certain: Western Civilisation was on a downward slope, and we wanted to escape. Salvador, who had always dreamed of owning and working a farm, managed to get a 99-year lease on a plot of land, and as soon as Margaret gave birth to their daughter Emma, we all took off from Georgetown.
Around the same time, a group of Americans had the very same idea, and moved to an area not too far from where we were in the Northwest. Morawhanna is nearer to the Venezuelan border than Port Kaituma, but the natural geography is much the same: jungle, as far as the eye can see, criss-crossed by creeks. The unrelenting timber industry, quick to denude other parts of the Amazon, had left this area alone. It is to this day a vast, pristine rainforest, inhospitable to humans, no place for softies. To live there is a constant struggle against the elements. As we cleared our spot of land, we battled stinging razor grass, scorpions, vicious mosquitoes, vampire bats. It was tough. I fled a few months later, but Salvador and Margaret continued.
One morning years later, I was sitting in my Alliance Francaise class in Paris when my French teacher, M. Beaulieu, walked in, looked straight at me, and declared: “Something terrible has happened in your country.” That was how I first heard of the Jonestown massacre.
Ever since then, the tragedy has haunted me, and it’s no wonder that after my first few novels were published I decided to take on Jim Jones and his reign of fear. The result was my-as-yet unpublished novel, White Night. My goal in this undertaking was not to simply dramatise the events as they really happened. I wanted this book to be a voyage of discovery, for me as a writer and for my readers, and so the perspective in the book is that of an outsider.
Basically, I asked myself the question: what if Jonestown had been just down the road from Morawhanna: what would we have thought, what would we have done? And so I created the fictional character Zena Vandermeer, a feisty Guyanese travel journalist, who retreats to the rainforest to finally close the door on personal tragedy. As I wrote in my plot summary:
Uncanny noises in the night – gunshots, screams, sirens, and a disembodied voice over a loudspeaker – from the nearby Peoples Temple community lead her to suspect that this is no ordinary church. Encouraged by her aunt, an Amerindian who fears that disaster is brewing, Zena decides to investigate: this could be the scoop of her life!
What starts out as an exposé turns into a daring plan of rescue: Zena infiltrates the cult and is drawn into a lethal web of deceit with a paranoid tyrant at its centre.
While in Jonestown, Zena makes a few friends, and when all hell breaks loose on that fateful night in November 1978, she helps a group of people to escape. And so the novel is Zena’s story, not Jim Jones’. I would not do him that honour.
As I researched the background to the Jonestown disaster, I explored the behind-the-scenes story behind the shocking headlines. I learned that this was not the bunch of lunatics as the media would have us believe, but instead a group of ordinary people just as idealistic as I and my friends had been, trapped in a prison from which there was no escape, manipulated by fear and controlled by psycho-terror beyond imagination.
In telling this story I took a few liberties with the truth, and I hope survivors and their relatives will forgive me this. It is, after all, a novel, and so I had to bend some of the facts of the case just a little to fit the story. For instance, I created a henchman for Jim Jones, an evil woman called Barbara, who actually manipulates his paranoia to her own ends. In addition, some of the events that Zena gets caught up in are entirely of my imagination (including an episode with Jones himself, on that fateful night, and a final dramatic twist to the tale). But all this is explained in my end notes, and I am certain that readers will be able to differentiate truth from fiction.
In the end, truth is not “what actually happened” but our true understanding of the characters involved and the motivations behind their actions. Was this really mass suicide, or mass murder? I think this novel leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind: there was no choice.