Next Chapter Award 2016: Robert Neil Fraser
An aspiring author from Glasgow has been announced as the recipient of Scottish Book Trust’s Next Chapter Award 2016, which is intended to support a talented yet unpublished writer over the age of 40 for whom finding time and space to write has proved especially challenging.
Robert Neil Fraser is a first time novelist, working on a thriller called ‘Bamako’, set in the West African country of Mali. The book tells the story of the plotting and execution of a bank heist by a group of disaffected white adventurers, whose legitimate attempts to find fortune have failed.
The story and characters are drawn from Fraser’s experiences visiting Mali as a documentary filmmaker, between 2011 and 2014. During this time Mali was torn apart by two military coups d’état, an Islamic insurgency, a Touareg separatist rebellion, and finally an international military intervention led by the French.
‘Mali is a beautiful country’, says Fraser. ‘But during my time there it was almost destroyed by geoplitical fallout from Libya, and Islamic extremism. In the north, music was banned, ancient Sufi shrines were destroyed, adulterers were stoned. It was a foreshadowing of ISIS. Yet all through the war, the same struggle for economic survival went on. The incessant hunt for gold and diamonds, the white adventurers with get-rich-quick schemes, the desperate impoverishment of the population, the shocking, endemic corruption of the government. All haunted by the spectre of Islamism.
‘It was like the Wild West of Africa. Chaotic. Poor security. A distracted, weak government. A country using easily fence-able currency, shared with eight neighbouring countries with porous borders and weak regimes. And so I wondered, how come no-one is robbing banks? In my story, they do.’
Caitrin Armstrong, Head of Writer Development at Scottish Book Trust, said:
“It was fantastic to read the variety of styles and subject matter covered within the large number of entries this year. Choosing the final awardee was a challenging but rewarding process - we believe that Robert shows great promise and will benefit hugely from the opportunities provided by the Next Chapter Award.”
Fatima woke before dawn. She stretched out her arms and arched her back in the cool desert night, then looked to the east. Not yet a glimmer. Only stars bullet-pocked the jet black sky. Black but not empty. Hidden high in the darkness were the cold eyes of spy satellites, examining the ground, sector by sector, for the remnants of her battered cause. She cocked her head and listened to the stillness of the Sahara. She had never heard a Western drone. She had only imagined it - a sort of soft, distant puttering. But still she strained to hear. If she ever were to hear such a sound, she suspected, her life would unfurl only a few instants further, before the white flash of phosphorus, and a final warm engulfment. For her companions, that might mean entry to heaven. But not for her.
She walked a little way from her tent, and squatted to urinate in the sand. The men's tents, where her brothers and their prisoner slept, were silent shapes in the sand, near invisible in the dark, and camouflaged against the day. The prisoner was sick, and they would kill him soon. Perhaps that day. They would cut his throat and brandish his head to the world. And more of his kind would come, like flies drawn by the stench of death, to seethe and breed in the corpse of their fallen brother.
She opened the satchel which Abdullah had prepared for her. Inside were the effects of a female Westerner. Khaki trousers, and a shirt bearing the patches of an aid agency, cleaned of blood. An identity card, bearing a French name - Amélie Fouquet - and picture of a young woman with short dark hair. She released her own long hair and began to cut it with a long knife, leaving swathes of black silk on the ground. She dug a shallow hole with her hands and swept the cuttings into it. She removed her robe and ammunition belt and placed them on top, then swept the dirt over, a shallow desert grave for her former self. One of many selves which she had buried.
"Winning the Next Chapter Award 2016 has been a uniquely encouraging development. I have a head full of stories, and I am looking forward to using this gift of time, money and mentorship to get some of them out and into print over the coming year. It feels like a new beginning."