Jane Labous Interview: “I’ll often spend hours shaping a single paragraph, in the manner of a sculptor chiselling away at a piece of stone.”

Photo credit: Doriana Re

Jane Labous is an award-winning journalist for the international press, known for her frontline coverage of human rights issues and telling the powerful human stories behind the headlines. Her novel, Past Participle, longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2022 and publishes 20th September 2023 with Afsana Press. Set in Senegal and Devon, Past Participle is a powerful story of two women bound together by the fault lines of the past, a study of love and guilt, power and desire, retribution and forgiveness.

Publication congratulations! What’s been your favourite review so far?

Thank you! Every review means the world: to know that a reader enjoyed my novel is pure joy, an affirmation that all those hours of solitude and obsession were worth it. I was incredibly flattered when literary editor, Claire Strombeck, said she was ‘obsessed’ with Past Participle, and of course, being longlisted for the Bath Novel Award was another incredible vote of confidence, motivating me to search in earnest for an agent or publisher. Another reviewer described the book as a ‘captivating story… it recognises the nuances of power dynamics, personal desires and social and political realities in framing how people act and why’ , which is exactly what I set out to do, so I felt really pleased. Several readers have said they can imagine Past Participle as a film, which always makes me smile, because I love writing cinematic scenes, and there are moments when I allow myself to daydream about a BBC adaptation!

Past Participle is about a Senegalese lawyer investigating her brother’s death, three decades ago, in Dakar, at the hands of a British diplomat’s wife. What sparked the storyline and why Senegal?

The spark for Past Participle was ignited by the heartbreaking real-life news case of a British teenager, Harry Dunn, who died after an American ex-pat crashed into his motorbike – only to flee the country pleading diplomatic immunity. I was fascinated by the case, which led me to think about the intersection of love, power, guilt, and justice.

For me, Senegal was an obvious setting because of my own deep-rooted personal connections to the village of Ngor, in the coastal suburbs of Dakar. My daughter is half-Senegalese, and I first found my way to Ngor in the late nineties – my first novel, The Chameleon Girl, which is published by Farafina Books in Nigeria, is also set there.

In my mind, the nuances of the Dunn scenario transplanted to a West African setting were unsettlingly complex – there was the ever problematic issue of diplomatic immunity, along with the conflicts and power dynamics between local and ex-pat life, throwing into relief profound societal inequalities and the legacy of colonialism in Francophone Africa.

From there, Past Participle fell into place. In my head, I had a perfectly clear image of two women at odds, of the British ambassador’s wife and the grieving sister in Ngor, whose worlds unexpectedly collide. I loved the idea of a modern Senegalese woman investigating events of the past, asking questions, seeking accountability, and then her counterpart in England, hiding her own story and secrets – resulting in an uncomfortable dance between two very different women tied inextricably together by the past.

How did your deal with Afsana come about and what’s been the best part of working with them so far?

It must have been fate, serendipity, something like that! I’d had dozens of rejections from agents – one told me that no one would be interested in a story set in Senegal, another that he’d ‘never be able to place it with a publisher’. Several ghosted me after requesting the full. Despairing, I was talking to a designer friend about how difficult publishing is these days, and he mentioned he was designing a book cover for a new, small, indie press, Afsana Press. Why didn’t I send in my manuscript?.

The publishers, Goran Baba Ali and Aleksandra Markovic, loved the story, and the minute we met, I had a gut feeling that Afsana was right for me and my book. Afsana’s motto is ‘stories that matter’, and now, as one of their authors, I’ve a real sense that I’m part of literary change, a movement of authors and poets fighting to tell meaningful stories in an increasingly commercial, risk-averse literary landscape, where the big publishers prioritise celebrities, influencers, and safe formats that have sold before.

I’m happy to say that Afsana Press is quietly revolutionary, willing to take on exciting, original literature that pushes boundaries. As a white author writing diverse characters, I’m tricky to sell, but Goran and Alex believe that ‘there shouldn’t be any limitation on what and which kind of characters an author wants to write. The point should be to write them well, that’s the best legitimacy.’ The best part is how invested they are in Past Participle – they love the book, and it’s like being part of a family. Every single sale, every good review or snippet of publicity brings lots of celebrations all round!

“For me, the secret to good writing is sheer hard graft, meticulous attention to plotting, pace, tension and structure, and an obsessive, never-ending pursuit of the perfect sentence.”

One of the central dilemmas is about exploiting privilege to escape personal consequences, with the reader compelled to ask themselves what they would have done. Would you have been torn in her shoes?

As you say, a pivotal point of the book. I’ve always been bothered by the idea that one life could be worth more than another. As a journalist, it troubles me how some stories, some deaths, some tragedies, seem to matter more than others. How could it be that a white diplomat, a white power, could play God? Could get away with taking a Senegalese life, or lives, without consequence? This is at the heart of Lily Tunkara’s fight for justice, and without wanting to over-egg things, you could say that the set of circumstances around the death of Lily’s brother, Aimé, is a single scenario reflecting so many injustices suffered by African people at different times in history.

I like to think that I wouldn’t have been torn, that my core moral sense is strong enough that I’d have fought to do the right thing. Sadly, Vivienne Hughes, though white and very privileged, is undeniably a woman in the man’s world, a woman up against an establishment predominantly run by men – the British diplomatic service of the 1980s – and in her way, as powerless to fight them as the Senegalese. She is perhaps the classic white saviour. As one reviewer put it, the book is about what happens when ‘good deeds lead to bad outcomes’. 

Your writing style is so compelling, picking up admiring voting comments like the one below How many drafts did you write in total and what would you say is the secret of seemingly effortlessly absorbing writing?

Oh, I love this question, it’s such a myth that writers simply sit looking out of the window being inspired, effortlessly creating their art! I’ve spent a lifetime writing for a living, as a journalist and now also as an author, and I’m still learning, still developing, still mastering my craft. Like most novelists, I’m embarrassingly curious about other human beings, I notice everything, I’m a total bookworm (my holiday reading pile is ridiculous), and I love to people-watch.

For me, the secret to good writing is sheer hard graft, meticulous attention to plotting, pace, tension and structure, and an obsessive, never-ending pursuit of the perfect sentence. I’m continually evolving the way I write, am fascinated by how, for example, the placement of a word or punctuation point within a sentence can subtly change the nuance and rhythm. I make long lists of words I find interesting or beautiful (curlicue, bumblebee, lagoon, diaspora – honestly, I could carry on for hours!), and I’m an avid collector of interjections, swear words and those throwaway expressions people come out with: ‘I’m not being funny, but…’ or the Senegalese ‘dé’ are some of my favourites.

I also like to study the way sentences and paragraphs are built, and I’ve always been obsessed with English and French grammar constructions – hence Past Participle! I’ll often spend hours shaping a single paragraph, in the manner of a sculptor chiselling away at a piece of stone. Once finished, the perfect sentence feels fluid, clean, right, somehow, deep in my soul.

With all this in mind, Past Participle came together in three drafts over nine months, and it’s fair to say I was consumed by it for that time. Writing novels is a little like acting; I spend a lot of time living in other people’s heads! I’d be on the school run or in the supermarket, still in character as Lily or Vivienne (depending which sections I was writing that day), having to frantically jot down ‘their’ thoughts. Quite magical, really, or crazy, depending who you talk to…  

What’s the one thing you hope readers take away from your book?

You know that feeling you get sometimes, at the end of a good book, when you feel emotionally attached to the characters, and you want to tell everyone about them? The story has moved you, surprised you, made you smile and made you sad. I’d love readers to feel that Past Participle was a gripping, satisfying, nourishing read, and it’s my hope that Lily and Vivienne will stay in their minds beyond the final chapter. Also, it would be lovely if people read my book and feel encouraged to search out others published by small, indie presses – the home of revolution and good literature!

What does a typical day in the life of Jane Labous look like?

Busy! I’m a single parent to my wonderful daughter, who’s nearly eight, so my day is a fine balance between parenting, the school run, my day-job as global features editor for an international INGO supporting children’s rights, and writing. I’m lucky enough to work from home out of our tiny bungalow near the coast in Dorset – otherwise, the juggle would be impossible!

I write whenever I can, little snippets of time after work in the afternoons, evenings after bath and bedtime is done, or sometimes at weekends, usually at my desk in the conservatory, which is a jumble of books and notebooks and houseplants. I feel the cold, so I’m usually in sweats, big woollen socks, a beanie and a couple of jumpers, and I need at least one mug of strong builder’s tea per hour – I’m seriously addicted! Between mid-winter and spring, the acacia tree slowly blooms yellow through the windows. In summer, I fling open the doors and let in the sounds of summer: lawns being mown, bees humming, neighbours pottering with watering cans. All good fodder for atmospheric scene writing…

What’s next for you?

I’ve written another novel, which I like to think of as a ‘feminist thriller’ because of its two main characters: Hope Fontaine, a disgraced political journalist in modern times, and her mother, Gloria, a film actress and one-time secret agent in the late 1970s. The story begins when Hope discovers a dusty box of Gloria’s diaries, and embarks upon a dangerous journey back to Gloria’s birth country, Lusenka.

It’s meant to be a fun read about cool women having adventures, something along the lines of The Last King of Scotland meets Lil Simz’ music video, Woman (my daughter and I are big fans of Lil Simz!). What sets it apart from other espionage thrillers is the relationship between Gloria and Hope – really the emotional heart of the story – because as Hope puzzles out a decades-old political scandal, she must also come to terms with her late mother’s secrets and traumas. It was enormous fun to write – I listened to lots of Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba and Shirley Bassey along the way!

Anything else?

Well, I’m also jotting notes for a new novel, something set in northern France, where my family has been rooted for more than a century. My father likes to joke that our ancestors were pirates! ‘Labous’ means ‘bird’ in the Breton language, and all my ancestors were fishing people. A great, great grandfather was captain of a langoustier in Brittany, while another relative on my mother’s side was the coxswain of a lifeboat in St David’s, Pembrokeshire, and led a famous rescue in 1955. There’s even a Breton fishing boat called the ‘Labous-mor’.

I’ve always believed that our origins as seafarers are partly why I was so strongly drawn, all those years ago, to the little fishing village of Ngor, in Senegal, where I later met my ex-husband, Idi, and where Past Participle is set. Idi’s a Lebou, I’m a Labous, and the sea is woven through our life story, and our daughter’s. I’m really excited to explore this side to my own identity, and see how that translates into my fiction.

JANE LABOUS is an award-winning journalist for the international press and INGOs, and author of two novels, The Chameleon Girl (Farafina Books, 2022) and Past Participle (Afsana Press, 2023). She is known for her frontline coverage of human rights and gender issues, always telling the powerful human stories behind the headlines. Her fiction has been longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and the Santa Fé Writers’ Project Literary Award. As a devoted single parent, Jane often writes stories, characters and locations to honour her wonderful daughter, who is half-Senegalese, reflecting their own diverse family experience. www.janelabous.com

Photo credit: Doriana Re

Past Participle is published by Afsana Press on 20th September 2023, available from Waterstones, WHSmith and Amazon, or to order here.

A Senegalese lawyer investigates the death of her brother, three decades earlier in Dakar, at the hands of a British diplomat’s wife.  

​Dakar, Senegal, 1987: On a rainy night after a wild party, the British ambassador’s wife, Vivienne Hughes, is involved in a car crash. Her vehicle fatally hits the motorbike of young Senegalese doctor, Aimé Tunkara. Pleading diplomatic immunity, Vivienne and her husband flee to England. 

Three decades later, Aimé’s little sister, Lily Tunkara, now a high-flying lawyer in Dakar, finds a photograph that compels her to investigate what really happened that rainy night. As Lily faces increasing hostility from the local community, she turns to Vivienne Hughes, the only remaining witness, but is either woman prepared for the truth to emerge?

Longlisted for The Bath Novel Award 2022

This novel is perfection. I am *that* obsessed with Past Participle, I want to tell everyone about it! Again, I love this novel, it’s brilliant. – Claire Strombeck, Literary Editor

Past Participle is a captivating story of murder and imperialist corruption, of friendship and motherhood and of the past haunting the present, told through the interlinking stories of two women. – Kieran Devaney, Author & Literary Editor

We are delighted to announce literary agent Jessica Hare as judge for the Bath Children’s Novel Award 2023. Read more