At first, Jesse O’Reilly-Conlin (MFA 2019) thought he would write a traditional travel memoir: “Cairo to Cape Town. The quintessential African backpacking overland trip,” he says.
But soon after entering the King’s MFA program, he realized he had a far more complex story he wanted to tell.
O’Reilly-Conlin’s debut book, Visiting Africa: A Memoir (Demeter Press, 2021) unpacks mainstream western impressions of Africa and recounts O’Reilly-Conlin’s own experiences journeying through several sub-Saharan countries during 2018 and 2019.
Speaking from Belgrade, where he volunteers with a centre offering showers and laundry services to refugees and migrants, O’Reilly-Conlin says the book’s first section is “self-reflective, exploring my learning about Africa and my preconceptions.” Then the book moves on to “the realities of being there as a white tourist who had studied these places, but remained an outsider.” He adds, “The book delves into a lot of issues about privilege and my own issues dealing with anxiety and depression at times while going through university.”
In addition to his MFA from King’s, O’Reilly-Conlin holds an MA in history from York and a master’s in refugee protection and forced migration studies from University of London.
During the early 2010s he made two attempts at doing graduate work on migration to South Africa (from Mozambique and Zimbabwe), but faltered when he faced the gulf between his studies and the lives of those he was researching. In 2013, during his first time in Johannesburg, he spent most of his time in the library. “I had this realization that even though I had this well-developed research plan, I didn’t have that connection with the community. I was an outsider. I couldn’t envision a way to develop trust.”
There is, of course, a long history of white male writers producing travel books based on limited experiences. And it’s a history O’Reilly-Conlin is keenly aware of. Asked about avoiding the mistakes of the past, he says he doesn’t “have a manual on how to avoid these pitfalls,” but that his approach involved “being vulnerable, listening more than talking, trying to be respectful and humble, and announcing to the reader off the bat that I’m not an expert. I’m trying to visit places as a privileged person and not appear as an asshole in the process.” He adds, “You need to have the willingness to be wrong, to be made to look like a fool and to be called out on your nonsense. I recall previous ideas I had about Africa that do not paint me in a positive light.”
O’Reilly-Conlin was able to clarify the direction of his book by being forced to consider it deeply and—more importantly – by having to work through it in writing during his MFA. “Thinking about my proposal, asking questions about why I was fascinated by Africa, why I had spent so many years studying it—the MFA helped with that, but mostly it was the act of writing and writing and writing.”