During the End Sexual Violence in conflict summit in June, I was lucky enough to catch the screening of ‘Liberian Girl,’ a play by Diana Nneka Atuona, about a girl caught up in the conflict of the Liberian war.
The play explored the effects of war on women in a way which left a room full of people, myself included, enthralled and speechless after the preview at the ExCel centre.
‘Liberian Girl‘ beat entries from six other writers to win the 2013 Alfred Fagon award- an award open to writers of Afro Caribbean and African origin, for best new play of the year. The play has also been picked up by the Royal Courts for stage production in 2015, with preparations already under way for its theatre début.
As I make my way to Central London to meet the young playwright who has managed to achieve so much with her first play, I’m curious to find out what prompted a British/Nigerian writer who has hardly visited Nigeria, let alone Liberia to write a story about the Liberian war.
Born and raised in Peckham, south London, the straight talking playwright tells me she’s been writing all her life but only began actively pursing a writing career in the last seven years.
“I’ve always had an interest in current affairs and law,” she says in regards to her degree in International politics. I suspect as our conversation progresses that there’s a politician in the making somewhere underneath the blossoming writer as we momentarily digress into discussing the failings of government and institutionalised religion in Nigeria.
Her passion for change and development is evident in how she challenges institutions and the wealth of religious leaders in Nigeria. She tells me she finds Nigerian politics both ‘interesting and heartbreaking’ and doesn’t rule out travelling to the country to be part of the change.
This same passion for change and challenging the status quo is what prompted Diana to write the Liberian Girl.
“When you hear about war and especially the use of child soldiers, it’s usually about boys, so I just wanted to talk about the plight of the girl child during war especially, but in a different way and Liberia was just like a natural choice.”
For a play with such depth and emotion, I wondered how she managed to capture the very essence of the conflict with scenes so real, one is momentarily transported back in time to this small town in Monrovia, where Taylor’s men hold forth and women are seen as pawns to be used and abused as part of the spoils of war.
Speaking about the experience of writing the play, she says part of the necessary attributes any writer must possess is being able to put yourself into the lives of your characters.
Researching for the play was also quite easy she tells me. “All you have to do is imagine some of the worst things that could happen to women during war, and they did in fact happen”.
“I think a good writer understands human beings and is be able to empathise with people more than the average person. You have to put yourself in that character’s position in a way that most people aren’t willing or able to do, which is why I think most writers are a little bit tweaked,” she muses.
This she says and having a bit of an ego are some of the qualities every writer must have to succeed in the trade. The ego, she says is what gets you through the hard and trying times when for instance, you’ve laboured for two years to write a great story, only for no one to want it, as she did.
You have to be able to believe in your own work, she says, even if no one else will.
The journey from manuscript to stage play was far from smooth, for the play, which is now being adapted for a big stage production at the Royal Court Theatre next year actually languished in a drawer for months before it eventually got the green light.
“Don’t get me wrong, winning the Alfred Fagon award definitely gave me some recognition, but no one was willing to take on such a difficult and unique story,” she says.
The stonewall of rejection after rejection while trying to get the play staged made Diana question her credibility as a writer. “Even though no one ever read it and told me it was badly written or that it was not good enough, I did go through a period of self-doubt, wondering what was wrong”.
“I just kept pushing and even though you get knock backs and your confidence gets knocked, deep, deep inside, you know that there’s something in the story. I just thought to myself, if I’m not writing about stuff like this, then what should I be writing about? If we avoid writing stuff like this because of what people are going to think or say I thought to myself, what are we doing here?
After trying every avenue possible to finance the play and even considering staging it herself, her last-ditch attempt was what finally got the play the attention it deserved.
“It was just God,” she says. joking about desperation sometimes bringing out the resourcefulness in people.
“I heard about this summit taking place in London about sexual violence against women in conflict and I just contacted War Child and told them about my script. They got back to me the next day saying they couldn’t finance the play but were willing to show it at the summit. The Next week, I was speaking to foreign office and the rest they say is history.”
I asked if perhaps, the struggle she faced in getting the play accepted was a symptom of the challenges many black writers face while trying to break into the industry. “It’s shocking to see how under-represented the ethnic minorities are,” she says. “It shouldn’t be that hard but it is unfortunately. You have to suck it up and keep doing it even after failure.”
She’s sceptical about generalizing though, citing herself as an example that with hard work and persistence, success need not be elusive for black writers.
“It’s an incredibly competitive industry and I do feel that it’s challenging for black writers, but at the same time, I’d say this is probably the best time to be a BAME creative, as change is on its way.”
“I really feel that within the black community, there are so many untapped stories that haven’t been written about or not told properly; things that are important.”
” While I’ll continue to write hard stories, I don’t want to limit myself and I’m definitely interested in writing for other genres like comedy and I’m also working on writing sketches for Radio.”
Basking in the glory of the amazing year she’s had, the playwright is understandably very optimistic about the future for black writers. “I predict within the next ten years, many of the UK’s writers will be from BAME communities. I’m really hopeful about the future of writing.”
See Liberian Girl at the Jerwood Theatre at the Royal Courts from the 7th to 31st of January 2015. Tickets are already on sale.
Please visit the Royal Court website to book your tickets.