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International Lecture Archives Fall 2006

Alexander McCall Smith

Past Alworth International Lectures: Fall 2006

Alexander McCall Smith, best-selling author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series visits UMD!

Alexander McCall Smith spoke at an Alworth Institute event held in the Ballroom at the University of Minnesota Duluth at 7.30 PM on Monday 25th September 2006. His talk was entitled: The Small Things in Life. There were four hundred and eighty people in the audience.

The talk examined Botswana as a source for the very popular ‘No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’ Novels. McCall Smith, in a humorous presentation, described himself as a ‘Serial Writer’ (a condition constructed as a kind of illness, the only way out of which is ‘death’). In planning all of his many literary works, he closely observes ‘the small things in life’. During an early visit to Botswana he watched a cheerful lady, in a red dress, and of traditional build, efficiently wring the neck of a chicken and thought ‘One day I will write about someone like you’. Eventually he did and the final result was The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe, a woman of ‘traditional build’, and the detective in charge of the agency in question, is located in Botswana, a country in Southern Africa that is roughly the size of Texas. McCall Smith outlined his delight in the culture of southern Botswana. He also pointed out that Botswana is celebrating at the end of September the 40th Anniversary of Independence. Click here to see the Alworth Institute blog on Botswana.

Through references to Mma Ramotswe, and her coterie of friends, Mc Call Smith talked of the pace and sociability of an African culture as it undergoes change. He saw the detective agency as a device for bringing all sorts of social and economic problems and situations into his novels. Precious Ramotswe is a force for good and she and her network of friends embody in the details of their lives a sense of cultural continuity. Believing in the ‘great possibilities of the small events of everyday life’, McCall Smith constructed during the lecture, as in his works, a positive image of life in Botswana, whilst not ducking the issues of inter-personal conflict, adultery, murder, AIDS and social change.

In a change of mood, he talked about the current AIDS crisis in Botswana and pointed out the actions taken for the better by American financed and staffed development projects. He claimed that some criticized his works as ‘utopian’ and accepted that nothing much happens in his Botswana novels. He was able to point out, textually, where difficult issues are raised discretely in conformity to principles at work in Botswana’s culture.

Through his main characters he illustrated, albeit in a simple way, details of aspirations, of social niceties, of the confusion that change brings and of the capacity to draw upon proverbial wisdom to cope with perplexities and confrontations. In short McCall Smith created for his listeners, a sensitive view of a culture that challenges the negative images that many hold about African life and African society. He also let it be known that whilst readers in Botswana were surprised at first by his expropriation of their culture, they and the Government of Botswana are delighted with the economic impact of his stories. Tourism to Botswana has doubled as a result of his writing and sales of bush tea leapt by nearly 70%.

Dr. William Henderson will follow up McCall Smith’s introduction to Botswana by exploring forty years of Botswana’s Independence in an illustrated talk ‘Constitution Making and Constitution Keeping in Botswana’ on Tuesday, October 24, 2006, at 7:00 PM in the Library Fourth Floor Rotunda at UMD.