Ninie Hammon's Sudan is a story of multiple threads about uncovering alleged genocide and slavery against the black Christian and animist peoples of southern Sudan by their northern Arab Muslim neighbours. The story is set at the turn of the millennium five years before the peace accord that ended the brutal civil war and brought autonomy (and later independence) to South Sudan. The multiple threads of the story take a long time to come together, but the last quarter of the novel provides a powerful climax to the story. Unfortunately by then many readers might have given up, but that closing section is worth persevering for.
Hammon is a white American author and that ethnicity is the main focus of the novel, which is primarily about white American photo-journalist Ron Wolfson and his brother Dan who represents Indiana in the US Congress. They are the orphaned sons of a campaigning Christian pastor and that background reveals the genre context of Sudan for Hammon writes within the Christian genre. The target readership for this book is clearly white Christian America and as a result there are some warning labels that need attached to this review.
The depiction of Ron Wolfson has elements of the Great White Hero so common in Christian missionary fiction about Africa. While Ron and Dan appear disaffected from their late father's faith the prime movers in bringing the story to its resolution are white missionaries from Switzerland (complete with an almost parodic representation of a Germanic accent). Dan's role is to be pushing through Congress his bill that interprets the Sudanese civil war as a battle between Islam and Christianity, but the main narrative tension is his battles as a white politician to persuade African American politicians to support his crusade against the enslavement of black Africans. Yet in the midst of that persuasion the most that Dan can say is that the matter is also about race, for it is primarily pitched (for the white Christian readership) as a bill to protect Christians from genocidal policies by an Islamic government.
The origin of this heavily Christianised novel lie not with Hammon, but the author's original author Art Ayris who authored and published an earlier version in 2000 as The Redemption of Akin Apot and then asked Hammon to rework the novel for his Bay Forest imprint of his Kingstone Media Group. This review is about Sudan and I have not read The Redemption of Akin Apot beyond what is available as a free preview on Amazon, but in an interview Hammon claimed that after trying to rewrite a few chapters she chose to stick with Ayris' original characters for what was her debut novel.
The blurb for the book appears to still be for Ayris' original version as it speaks of Ron Wolfson and Idris Apot (father of the eponymous Akin) working together, which is not how the plot works out in Hammon's Sudan. It is odd that this blurb is still being used and that Bay Forest's logo still appears in the front matter as Hammon has bought the rights to all her books and has now republished them under her own name. In Sudan Idris does not appear until we have spent a third of the novel in the transatlantic company of the Wolfson brothers. Idris' story only briefly crosses paths with that of Ron, whose heroic Great White Hero journey through the Sudan is in the company of Masapha, who is the only positive representation of a Muslim in the novel, although the impact of that concession is lost as he is also the adopted son of a southern Sudanese Christian pastor. The Wolfson brothers and Idris Apot provide three of the four threads to the story, with the final one being Akin Apot and her capture into slavery, which also happens a third of the way into the novel and also includes a brief (but different) crossing of paths with Ron and Masapha.
The last quarter of the book picks up the pace as it brings together these different threads and is by far the best part of the novel, although some of the bringing together stretches credulity in terms of the coincidence of these people all coming together again in what was then Africa's biggest country. Much of the earlier three quarters could have been pared down and restructured to make it feel less like reading two or three separate stories that are taking their time going anywhere. Ayris' opening chapter is mostly unchanged in Hammon's version and is about Ron Wolfson meeting a BBC correspondent as part of a historically inaccurate plot point that the international media were ignoring the Sudanese civil war, when in reality the BBC was reporting it since the 1980s. This probably explains why Ron's story is the most developed thread even though he is no longer (despite what the blurb says) forming an alliance with Idris. Now that Hammon owns the rights to this book she should update the blurb to reflect her version of the novel.
Despite its strong ending I cannot recommend Sudan because it is just too white. The anti-Islamic undertones are off-putting whether it is the Congressional campaign rhetoric of Dan Wolfson or the introspection of the rural Dinka characters, who are themselves written in a patronising way that strengthens the Great White Hero motif. Most disturbingly Hammon's novel for all its location in the Christian genre reads like sexploitation misery literature. The Arab characters are mostly irredeemable rapists of women and children and Hammon goes into far too much detail about their crimes and the violence of the attacks on the Dinka villages. The story of the Sudanese civil war is hard to tell in a way that is not difficult to stomach, but Hammon appears to relish depicting the Arab antagonists' inhumanity in contrast to the heroic Wolfson brothers, while leaving the Dinka and other southern Sudanese as largely passive victims.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved.