Other Press
Journalist Lara Santoro writes about her time in Africa.

An experienced international journalist has translated some of her diverse experiences into a compelling novel, "Mercy." Lara Santoro, a native of Italy, was a correspondent in Rome and then in Africa for The Christian Science Monitor and later for Newsweek.

In Nairobi, she covered wars, famines and the AIDS epidemic up close. When she left Africa three years ago to live in the United States, people were dying at a rate that was terrifying to her. She calls it "the African holocaust," in which millions have died and millions more will die — "because they are black and because they are poor."

Santoro's novel began as "a tale of infidelity and war with the African character named Mercy acting as a foil to the journalist, Anna's, addictions — then Mercy literally took over. I had not planned it," said Santoro during a phone interview from her home in Ranchos de Taos, N.M.

Initially, Mercy was simply a character, and Santoro has no idea where she came from. "I had all these things I wanted to say about Africa and in the process Mercy became the greatest character. Father Anselmo was another character I didn't plan. In fact, these two are the only two purely fictional characters in the book."

Both characters provide much of the humor and wisdom the story portrays.

Santoro remembers two priests in Africa — one she barely knew who "left to fight the mafia in Sicily, and the other an Indian Jesuit, whose writings I often refer to." Yet the journalist, Anna, is the book's protagonist, and she is based on the author.

"Anna is completely me," Santoro said matter-of-factly. "But no longer. I was Anna for many, many years." She refers to Anna's addictions to drugs and alcohol as well as her loose sexual tendencies.

"When I started sending out copies of the manuscript I got many rejection letters from people who reacted strongly to Anna," said Santoro. "They found her repulsive. But I was powerless to change it. Fortunately, there were people who saw other qualities in her, qualities of humanity. You could take these qualities and take a virgin look at Africa — and Mercy was the saving grace. Can you imagine Anna without her?"

Although Santoro concedes the truth of what she wrote, she also insisted that "nothing I wrote about ever happened — but it happened somewhere. I didn't want to embarrass people. It was a parallel, corresponding truth. I left out the worst things out of respect for my family."

In contrast to most novelists, Santoro also admits that she intended a message with the book. "It would make me the happiest woman in the world if readers took action to stop disease from needlessly killing people in Africa. But people are scared. When they see AIDS Africa flashing brightly, they often walk away — and drug companies don't read books. There could be an impact if large numbers of readers stepped into the fray and divested themselves from stocks in drug companies or wrote letters to Congress, pointing out the dangerous relationship between the companies and the U.S. government."

Santoro thinks such a thing could happen in Africa, "but it's too early. Most Africans are unaware of what is being done to them, the injustice. The drugs that would help those suffering from AIDS were invented 15 years ago and only one in four Africans have access to them."

Santoro was inspired by the writings of Elaine Pagels, author of "The Gnostic Gospels" and "The Gospel of Thomas." "I was raised in the heart of Catholicism, and yet, I ... felt the truth was distorted in the Bible. I read Pagels' books and was blown away. She has a light touch and the things she says ring true."

Santoro learned from the writings of Pagels that "there is no such thing as evil — only good. If we see evil as blindness, we could unravel it. I have seen atrocious things in Africa, but if evil is present, we create it."

As a journalist, Santoro was used to interacting with people all the time. But when she wrote this, her first novel, she found herself alone all day in a room. "There is nothing lonelier," she said.

While in Africa, Santoro wrote 250 pages of her novel, then moved to New Mexico where she "scrapped all but 50 pages, then wrote the book as it is now in one year. I wrote from six to eight hours a day, producing 600-900 words a day — then the next day I would revise it but still force that daily production. I'm also a slow writer."

She especially admires the punchy writing of Don DeLillo, William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. Although she grew up in Italy, and Italian is her first language, she has embraced English and "fallen in love with it" — though she sometimes "struggles with the fundamentals of grammar."

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