Q&A: What can fiction reveal about development?

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As a student of development, Adaobi “Ada” Nkeokelonye noticed that many of the concepts in class sounded familiar. She’d read about them not in reports or academic publications, but in the fiction novels she’d come across during her past study of literature.

That insight — that fiction can also build depth, richness and empathy to the concepts development professionals grapple with daily — became the focus of her intriguing and ambitiously wide-ranging blog, Fiction & Development: Exploring linkages.” 

Nkeokelonye, a social development researcher who studied development at the University of Sussex and consults for the United Nations Population Fund, reads a lot — and with purpose. She looks for surprising connections between fictional narratives and her day-to-day experience as a development professional.

In Anne Brontë’s Victorian novels, for example, she finds insights into complex, counterintuitive aspects of human nature, such as why some women remain with abusive partners.

“In projecting issues of powerlessness and the importance of agency and space for any woman, Anne helps us understand why women stay; she exposes the stigma and discrimination suffered by divorcees and single mothers and their lack of social protection,” Nkeokelonye wrote in a post last month.

“Academic research papers and books highlight a concept, offering terminologies and statistics, but they do not help you relate the ideas or statistics to real people.”

We caught up with Nkeokelonye to hear more about her project, her favorite books, and what she thinks the development field can gain from engaging more with literary fiction. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did you get the idea for this blog?

Prior to receiving a master’s degree in development studies, I had a background in literature. I knew there was a relationship. Most novels I had read in the past lent context to the concepts we discussed in international development. I kept toying with the possibilities of showcasing this linkage in a development field that cherished numbers over stories.

I found my voice after a class I took in the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, called “Reflective Practices.” In that class, we were encouraged to embrace all forms of creativity that could intersect with the study of development. During my transition from graduation back into employment, I put up the blog and confidently titled it Fiction & Development.

How do you choose the books you write about? What qualifies as a work of fiction that is relevant to discussions of development?

Choosing my first books for review was easy. I went down memory lane to pick African novels that reminded me of critical issues that development agencies are dealing with globally — issues of gender, inequality, governance, climate change and health, among others. I considered the setting of a novel, with preference for fiction set in developing countries.

Subsequently, I began to look at the themes and point of views that a novel projects. Identifying themes has helped in shortlisting what I find relevant or not. In one novel, you might find a narrative that is relevant to more than one issue of development, which makes it even more interesting. An example is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which covers issues of race, domestic violence, religion and sexuality in compelling ways.

Adaobi “Ada” Nkeokelonye is the creator of “Fiction & Development: Exploring Linkages,” a blog that examines the connections between literature and development issues.

Generally a work of fiction that presents people or a character in a natural state dealing with an issue of conflict that inhibits their freedom and ability to live better lives in their society is relevant. Conflicts always exist in novels. It becomes more relevant to me when a novel’s central conflict is one that I can relate with in the present day’s development space.

In the years of maintaining the blog, I have linked up with reading partners who are also development practitioners and share my passion, so I get recommendations from them or have them seek my recommendations on novels relating to different areas of development. My reading partner Victoria Nwogu, a gender specialist with the United Nations, is an ardent reader who will always come up with suggestions and engage me in critical discussions that bring even more enriching perspectives. There is some validation in knowing that I am not the only one reading novels with the lens of a development practitioner.

I may be biased, but I particularly like the writing of older authors who write to inspire social change, as opposed to younger ones, who I often find focus their books more on entertainment.

Is there an author — or work of fiction — who has changed how you approach your work as a development professional?

Many authors have equipped me with in-depth knowledge and an ability to better communicate the issues I work on. For example, I once studied the works of Robert Chambers on Seasonal Dimensions to Rural Poverty. As someone who grew up in both semi-rural and urban areas, I could understand it, but explaining it to others was difficult. Then I read The Diaries of a Dead African, a novel by Chuma Nwokolo. The narratives of the character Meme Jummai were like a gift to anyone who wanted to understand poverty, household food security and the seasons of hunger as experienced by subsistence farmers. I could place this novel beside academic textbooks on poverty and food security; just like I would place George Orwell’s Animal Farm beside any academic writing of the Russian Revolution.

I will never forget how Nathan Filer’s novel The Shock of the Fall taught me so much about mental illness, a topic which is gaining attention every day in the health sector. Other novels like Virginia Woolf’s Miss Dalloway and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre have highlighted mental illness, but Nathan Filer’s fictional narrative made me feel mentally ill and built empathy. That is an experience no academic text could give.

Are there things about development issues that fiction tends to capture well but which development programs struggle to grasp?

Many development issues can be better understood through fiction. Development programs do great research but are limited to research papers when they communicate it. Academic research papers and books highlight a concept, offering terminologies and statistics, but they do not help you relate the ideas or statistics to real people. As a development worker, fiction helps me build the knowledge and empathy necessary for working with beneficiaries.

Development organizations are often looking for better ways to tell their stories without being exploitative or falling back on caricatures. Are there lessons from fiction authors about how to do that better?

I am currently conducting doctoral research which focuses on exploring this same question.  Unfortunately the development sector remains a highly worded sector that has love for numbers. Although we write a lot, our writing does not attract the much needed readership, even among policy makers. As a development researcher, I have written many reports on very important issues that people should know about, but they are buried in the email servers of the commissioning organizations.

“We need to be consultative and inclusive of relevant channels — the gap between the development sector and the creative industry should be closed up.”

But once you tell a story about these issues, it sparks interest. It goes to say that our way of telling and sharing our stories in this sector needs to be constantly re-examined if social change is truly the goal. We need to be consultative and inclusive of relevant channels — the gap between the development sector and the creative industry should be closed up.

There are many ways of learning about social development issues, from papers that are heavy in statistics, to novels or creative videos that bring us into a close intimacy with the issue and the experience as the characters feel them. All of these sources are produced from research and are evidence-based, but in the politics of development, not all of them are embraced as a legitimate sources of knowledge.

Development agencies are increasingly important for their capacity to advocate and influence global policies. While we have the expert audience we deal with, we also have the non-expert audience whose participation we need and whose knowledge on issues needs to be built. How do we do it? There is plenty of evidence that both experts and non-experts relate well to more creative ways of communication involving the use of narratives.

We might need to shift a little from our excessive dependency on lackluster written words and begin to court the creative world, whose narratives hold potential for reaching new populations with our stories.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.