He’s not the first person that you’d expect to author a series of mysteries starring Mma Precious Ramotswe, an enterprising “lady detective,” a Botswana woman of “traditional build.” Novelist Alexander McCall Smith is, after all, neither Botswanan nor female, but a Scottish law professor who was born in Zimbabwe and educated in Zimbabwe and Scotland.
A few years back, however, as he helped establish the law school at the University of Botswana, Smith, the author of 60 books, fell in love with the country. Consider the 10 wildly best-selling novels in his The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Smith’s tribute to the tiny South African nation.
Recently, The Root talked to Smith about the new show, his books and all things Botswana.
The Root: How did you feel about Minghella casting Jill Scott, an American singer, in the role of Precious Ramotswe? Had you heard of her before?
Alexander McCall Smith: I was surprised [when he cast her]; I wasn’t familiar. I didn’t really know much about her jazz singing. Put it this way: I have tremendous confidence in Anthony Minghella. He was such a wonderful film director. I knew he wouldn’t choose anyone inappropriate in the role.
I think she’s absolutely first-class in the role. One of the interesting things is she manages to overcome the cultural-difference issue really, extremely well. That is a major achievement on her part. Obviously there is a different body language, a different accent. Obviously, she’s got a good ear as a musician. But to do the accents well, I am most impressed.
TR: You’re a white Scottish man writing about a black African woman from Botswana. How did you get in her head? Did you worry about any potential pitfalls and cultural gaffes?
AMS: I think authors have to be very careful when they write about people whose personal and historical perspective can be different from one’s own… One has to know one’s limitations. With Mma Ramotswe, I’m writing about her social life. I suppose I write about her emotional life to some extent, but I don’t go into great detail. I’m also writing about another culture; you have to be careful in doing that. I’m not writing critically about it. If I were writing critically, I think I would be treading on difficult ground. I have never thought to disguise the fact that I admire the country. I’m writing a positive account.
TR: There’s a certain innocence to the characters that you write about, an innocence that could easily have come off as patronizing. But somehow, it doesn’t. How did you navigate that?
AMS: If you look at my Botswana books compared to my Scotland Street books, there’s actually not much difference. I would hope that I would never be patronizing in my approach.
But you navigate that by treating your characters with respect. You’re writing about people; ultimately you like the characters; you recognize the character’s merits. I wouldn’t write about Mma Ramotswe if I didn’t have great respect for her. Mma Ramotswe is pretty astute woman; she’s terrifically astute; she’s very intelligent. I like writing about people who are sincere, and that’s different from innocence. My characters are sincere people; they say what they mean.
TR: Both Precious and Isabel (from the Isabel Dalhousie novels) are women that have been wronged, women that have been hurt. Did you model Precious after anyone in particular?
Smith: With the Mma Ramotswe character, I’ve met people in Botswana who’ve had to put up with bad treatment, with difficulty, who’ve overcome it. Her personal experience—her first abusive marriage and meeting a good man later—is certainly people I’ve seen in that situation, but no particular person.
TR: The way you write about Botswana, it seems like a drama-free country. What do you admire about it?
AMS: Botswana is a country, which has behaved, by and large in a very principled way, since independence in 1966. They’ve had very stable government. Very little corruption. Money from the diamond industry has been applied to building up the infrastructure of the country. They value education and educational spending very highly. Very good schools, the university of Botswana has been very well-funded. Health wise, they’ve made tremendous progress with hospitals. Many respects. They’ve been quietly and constructively building the country. They were a British protectorate, and I’m sorry to say we haven’t done very much for them. It was a policy of neglect.
In 1966, there was something like eight miles of paved road, just a few schools. They, by their own efforts, built this really remarkably good country, brick, by brick. I have great admiration for that. They’re consistently democratic. By and large, they’ve got a good record on rule of law.
TR: Some critics argue that you ignore the problems there.
AMS: I do refer to HIV/AIDS. I do refer to the difficulties, but I don’t put them center stage. I didn’t want to write a tragedy about Africa because I think that there are so many books that present a tragic history of Africa. I’m not for a second denying that there aren’t significant problems in sub-Saharan Africa. But at the same time, there is another story. And that story is achievement. People can be very dismissive of Africa and say it’s a basket case; it’s hopeless. I don’t think that’s particularly constructive. And it’s not fair. It ignores the fact of significant achievement. Achievement against the odds of which most people would just curl up and die.
TR: Did you watch Jill Scott on the set?
AMS: I went and saw the filming. I like her very much. She’s a very modest woman, quiet and modest. Which is fine, a good character for the role. And now, I’ve heard her music. She’s great. She’s wonderful.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.
Read The Root's review of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.