In her introduction to this eclectic, rather hit-and-miss collection, Marie Staunton, the chief executive of Plan UK, makes an interesting aside about the way that writers work. Seven authors went to seven countries with the child-centric community development charity to see its work with women and girls. "Deborah Moggach is a listener," writes Staunton. "Irvine Welsh avoided engagement... Tim Butcher approached the assignment as a journalist." Readers will have their own ideas about which approach works best, but the book as a whole shows that writing about poverty doesn't have to be do-gooding to do good.
Fans of Irvine Welsh, for instance, would have reason to be nervous about how he might handle the subject of prostitutes from the Dominican Republic. "Remittances" is narrated by two young women who have left the country, and readers will be relieved that he is not characteristically gross about their exploits in New York. His heroine is removed from her upbringing, and her story is knowing and subtle. Which only gives extra power to her mother's brutal conclusion: "If she'd stayed here she would just have given it away for nothing. Which is the greater crime?"
Some contributions to the collection are essays while others are short stories, but each work the best when told, as much as possible, in the subjects' own, frank words; here, the authorial voice is one that we really don't want to hear. Butcher's story, "Bendu's Dream", is at its most powerful when it is rooted in the moment, in Sierra Leone, looking out. But it is spoiled by journalistic exposition. And it is one of a few stories in which the young girl protagonist resolves her miserable life simply by believing in herself: a queasy mix of female genital mutilation and The X Factor.
Speaking of queasy, Kathy Lette's story immediately dashes hope that she might have put aside her relentless punning to do something a little restrained, just this once. If you don't like the title, "Ovarian Roulette", or the god-awful juxtaposition of abject poverty and bikini waxing, just skip it.
Sandwiched between Butcher's and Lette's contributions, however, is Moggach's "The Woman Who Carried a Shop on Her Head" – a story that anyone would be thrilled to find in any high-class anthology. Reading it certainly doesn't feel like an act of charity. Moggach's story is about people, not "issues", and is a delightful rebuttal to those types who insist that poverty, war and corruption are "the real Africa". Xiaolu Guo's "Ballad of a Cambodian Man" is written with equal finesse. It is about a policeman whose past as a soldier with the Khmer Rouge is a mere aside to him – proving that the stories that preoccupy their tellers are not necessarily the ones that listeners would wish to assign to them.
The essay that will most stick in the mind, however, is by Marie Phillips – and is bravely included by Plan, despite it being so critical of the charity's methods that it comes followed by a right of reply from the country director for Uganda. The essay seems to start badly, with its cosseted white author sat crying in Plan's Ugandan office, distraught at the poverty she has seen. But as she tells the stories of the brave, sassy, admirable women she has met, simply and without extraneous remark, the reader wants to cry too. Cry and maybe then engage. "I discovered that I have more power in the nib of my pen," concludes Phillips, "than 1,250 Ugandan children with no toilet. And I discovered that, in order for anybody to hear you cry, you have to be rich and white and sitting in the right office." Or talking to the right author, perhaps. Or reading the right book.Reuse content