Sometimes a book grabs you by the throat and won’t let you put it down. I recently experienced that with Steve Kemper’s A Labyrinth of KIngdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa. I got so wrapped up in the story that I broke my long-standing rule about traveling with hardcover books because I wanted to finish it. I read on the plane. I read whenever there was a pause in vacation activities (and sometimes when there wasn’t). I read on the train from the airport and was so engaged that I almost missed my stop. When I was done, I was so excited about the book that I wrote Steve Kemper a fan e-mail and asked if he’d be willing to answer some questions for History in the Margin’s readers.
Before we get to the interview, a little about the book:
In the Victorian era, European explorers made their way through Africa in the name of “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization”. The adventures of Burton, Stanley, and Livingston are well known. Those of German scientist, historian and linguist Heinrich Barth are almost forgotten. In A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, Steve Kemper tells the story of Barth’s five-year, 10,000-mile journey through North and Central Africa.
The British Foreign Office hired Barth in 1849 as the lead scientist for an expedition through the central Sudan. When the other members of the expedition died, Barth traveled on alone. Beset by failed supply trains, bandits, avaricious rulers, anti-Christian violence, desert storms, floods and fever, Barth nonetheless wrote detailed accounts of everything he saw. Unlike other African explorers, he showed a deep respect for the peoples and cultures he encountered.
A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is a fascinating account both of one man’s journey and of African cultures on the eve of European expansion. Like Barth himself, Kemper turns his attention beyond the narrow concerns of European imperialism and looks at the broader context of Islamic Africa. He gives the reader brief histories of the kingdoms Barth traveled through, including the fabled city of Timbuktu. He compares Barth’s adventures and observations not only to those of the British explorers who were his contemporaries, but to the great Islamic travelers of the past who wrote about their experiences in the same regions.
Barth’s story is equal parts adventure and scholarship. Kemper treats both with a sure hand.
(This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers)
And now, please welcome Steve Kemper:
Pamela: You started out as a journalist rather than a historian. How did you make the leap to writing about the past?
Steve: On a wing and a prayer. I was used to talking to people, watching people, getting live quotes, observing action scenes. That’s difficult to do when your main characters have been dead for 150 years. So I had to figure out ways to “penetrate the veil.” And I found that the essential job doesn’t change: to tell a great story with interesting characters who undergo complications. Instead of immersing myself in a live situation, I immersed myself in an historical era and in Barth’s journey. People and scenes came alive in letters, dispatches, old travelers’ accounts. I came to understand that bringing people to vivid life is the writer’s job, no matter their respiratory state.
Pamela: A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is such an evocative title. What is it based on?
Steve: I lifted it from Barth and condensed it (his book is about 3500 pages long; he almost invariably needs editing). Barth’s sentence reads, “We here trace a historical thread which guides us through this labyrinth of tribes and overthrown kingdoms.” I’m glad you like the title. Some people advised me to change it because “labyrinth” is too unusual. For me that was part of its appeal. It’s also one of Barth’s favorite words. I didn’t keep track, but I’d bet that he uses it at least a couple of dozen times in Travels and Discoveries.
Pamela: Writing about a historical figure like Barth requires living with him over a period of months or years. Barth is a prickly character in the book. What was it like to have him as a constant companion?
He grew on me. (I’ll resist adding a joke.) Even though he thought of himself as a keen-eyed scientist whose personal experiences were less important than the information collected, his personality nevertheless comes through clearly. I came to admire him more and more, which was a relief. He’s the best reporter I’ve ever read. He doesn’t seem to miss anything, despite sickness, fatigue, hunger, death threats, poverty, homesickness, harassment, tragedy. The guy is a data-collecting machine. He’s also totally devoted to the ideals of science and the advancement of knowledge, without any cynicism about those goals. But he also has street smarts, or in his case desert smarts, and he’s tough as leather. He had little fits of pique, but considering his circumstances, they were rare and often justified, though sometimes a bit silly. Despite his deep learning, he was better suited to the wilds than to the city, and he paid the price for that.
Pamela: One of the things that I found especially appealing about your book is the way you place Barth’s story in the broader contexts of both European explorations in Africa and of the history of Islamic Africa. Were these already interests of yours or did Barth lead you to them?
Steve: I had done some reading about African exploration, Allan Morehead’s books on the Nile being prime examples, along with books about Burton, Stanley, the Congo, Khartoum, and so on. But I had so much more to learn, and reading the old explorers’ accounts was one of my favorite aspects of the research. I used bits of their accounts in the book, like peppercorns. I’m glad you noticed them.
Islamic Africa, on the other hand, was a complete blank for me beforehand. Like most Westerners I was ignorant of most things Muslim, and learning about Islam and its history in Africa was one of the pleasures of the research. It made today’s Islamophobia all the more troubling. Ignorance was Barth’s sworn opponent. It’s a fight that never ends.
Pamela:. Is there anything else that you wish I had asked you about?
Steve: Barth’s obscurity. It’s so puzzling. It’s one of the reasons I got hooked by his story. He is one of the greatest explorers and field scientists who ever lived, yet he’s virtually unknown except to scholars. His obscurity was almost instantaneous and then deepened with the decades. The reasons are complicated and not clearly cause-and-effect, but when all mixed together they create an historical fog that made Barth nearly invisible. I hope my book blows a little of that away and lets today’s readers see this extraordinary man.
Steve Kemper has been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years. He has written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Wall Street Journal, Yankee, National Wildlife, The Ecologist, Plenty, BBC Wildlife, and many other magazines and newspapers. His first book, Code Name Ginger: the Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen’s Quest to Invent a New World (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), was selected by Barnes & Noble for its Discover Great New Writers award. Harper published the paperback under the title Reinventing the Wheel. For more information, please go to www.stevekemper.net. You can also find Steve on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/SteveKemper