Falla, Jonathan 1954–
Falla, Jonathan 1954–
PERSONAL: Born 1954, in Jamaica; married a doctor; children: one son. Education: Graduated from Cambridge University; attended University of Southern California film school, 1992; studied nursing in Oxford and London, England, and Aberdeen, Scotland.
ADDRESSES: Home—Fife, Scotland. Agent—The Agency, 24 Pottery Lane, Holland Park, London W11 4LZ, England.
CAREER: Certified as a general, pediatric, and tropical nurse; writer and musician. Worked for various international aid agencies in Indonesia, Sudan, Uganda, Burma, and Nepal, 1978–91; part-time nurse, Perth, Scotland. Singer, instrumentalist, and cofounder of Renaissance music quartet Fires of Love. Worked as a writer/producer for radio stations in Scotland and Indonesia.
AWARDS, HONORS: Voted Most Promising Playwright, London Drama Critics, 1983; Fulbright fellowship, 1992; audience jury prize for best film, Reims Festival, and Prix de la Ville de Laon, Laon Festival, both 1992, both for The Hummingbird Tree; Scottish PEN award, 2000.
Topokana Martyrs' Day (play), produced in London, England, 1983, performed in New York, NY, 1987.
The Hummingbird Tree (screenplay), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Films, 1991.
Down the Tubes (play), produced in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1996.
Diriamba! (play), produced in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1997.
Free Rope (play), produced in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1998.
Blue Poppies (novel), 11/9 (Glasgow, Scotland), 2001, Delta Trade Paperbacks (New York, NY), 2003.
Poor Mercy (novel), Polygon, 2005.
Also author of a children's musical and short stories; author of reviews and essays.
Author's work has been translated.
ADAPTATIONS: Topokana Martyrs' Day was adapted as a radio play produced for BBC World Service, 1986.
SIDELIGHTS: Pediatric nurse, musician, and author Jonathan Falla—the name is actually a pseudonym—had already led a remarkable life by the time he was in his thirties. From 1978 until 1991, he visited many troubled countries in Africa and Asia, working in educational publishing and then in health care for various international aid organizations. During this time, he experienced fascinating but troubled cultures in such places as Sudan, Nepal, and Burma, while battling the frustrating limitations of bureaucracy that hindered his efforts to help people, and the chaos born of war and famine. He ultimately left foreign-aid work after becoming disillusioned and because he had gotten married. After winning a Fulbright fellowship, Falla studied film at the University of California. While there, he worked on a screenplay for a movie about 1940s Tibet that would later become the critically acclaimed novel Blue Poppies. Before this novel's publication, however, Falla would address the problems of Third World countries in works for the stage and in a nonfiction study about Burmese rebels.
Falla's 1983 play, Topokana Martyrs' Day, which was produced in both London and New York City, mocks the inefficient bureaucracy that plagues Western nations' attempts to provide aid to Africa. The comedy features four relief workers trying to help the Tokokana tribe in East Africa. Their efforts are ultimately thwarted by both cultural differences and problems that stem from their European base which, in one pathetically satirical episode, ships the hungry Africans a load of inedible biscuits that are long past their expiration date. While a critic for Variety, reviewing the 1985 New York performance of the play, found the production "not funny enough, at least not to an American ear," New York Times critic Walter Goodman described Falla's dialogue as "smartly written and delivered." Goodman admitted that Falla does not make the relationships between the white colleagues clear enough to justify some of their emotional reactions on the stage, but the reviewer praised the overall "strength of the writing."
Falla again draws on his personal experience—this time more directly—to write the nonfiction work True Love and Bartholomew: Rebels on the Burmese Border. The book, which is part sociological study and part cultural travelogue, concerns a year Falla spent living with the rebel Karen people in Burma, just west of the Thailand border. The Karen have declared their region to be the country of Kawthoolei, though its existence has not been recognized by the international community, and the result has been years of military strife between them and the government. Falla's mission while there was illegal: he was trying to train the Karen people in basic medical skills. Meanwhile, he became intimately familiar with their hardships, including how the Karen men are regularly murdered and their women raped by soldiers. Since the book was published by Cambridge University Press, a publisher best known for its academic titles, some reviewers were confused to find that True Love and Bartholomew is not a work of sociology or anthropology. As Man contributor Ananda Rajah concluded, it "is an anthropologically ambiguous contribution to Karen studies." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies writer Anthony R. Walker similarly felt that the odd mix of scholarship and personal impressions that imbue the work makes it "difficult to review," yet he declared it "a truly marvellous book; by any measure it is an extraordinarily good read."
In Blue Poppies and Poor Mercy Falla turns to fiction. Blue Poppies, which was originally intended for film, eventually morphed into a novel after the author failed to find financial backing for his screenplay. The story was inspired by Falla's reading about a radio operator named Robert Ford, who lived in Tibet just before the Chinese invasion in 1950. Ford becomes Jamie Wilson in Falla's novel, a Scotsman and World War II veteran who is sent to Tibet to monitor radio transmissions. He finds himself in the nearly medieval conditions of the village of Jyeko, where life has changed little in centuries. Jamie is both astonished by the beauty of Tibet and appalled by some of the conditions there. In particular, he is troubled by how the villagers treat a crippled woman named Puton and Puton's daughter. The villagers have concluded that Puton is bad luck, and have thus ostracized her, but when the monk Khenpo Nima charges Puton to be Jamie's domestic help, an unlikely romance begins to bloom. Soon, however, the Chinese invade, and the Tibetans react in a bloody rebellion during which the Chinese soldiers are killed. Realizing that they will pay dearly for their actions, the villagers flee their home, leaving Puton behind. Reviewers of Blue Poppies particularly praised the way in which Falla offers a balanced portrayal of both Tibetans and Chinese; both sides demonstrate acts of cruelty as well as courage and compassion. In addition, the author's detailed and vivid descriptions of Tibet rang true with reviewers. Julia Lovell, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, asserted that the book "is neither a paean to Tibetan resistance nor an anti-China polemic," attesting that "Blue Poppies is an engaging historical tale, intelligently and imaginatively told."
Although the war-torn and famine-stricken region of Sudan known as Darfur had been much in the news at the time Falla's second novel, Poor Mercy, was released in 2005, the author writes about a time years before Darfur made international headlines. Set in 1991, when Falla himself was there, the novel once again addresses the author's concern about the dilemma of international aid to Third World countries. Members of the fictional Action Agency are trying to decide how best to help the people in Darfur. The group's leader, Xavier Hopkins, knows that food shipments could stave off hunger, but it could also hurt the local markets, which would only serve to exacerbate the region's economic problems. Some levity is added to the desperate situation in the form of Mr. Mogga, an optimistic, inspiring, and sometimes comical figure whom London Guardian reviewer Michel Faber declared to be "a creation worthy of immortality." Despite some laudable aspects of the story, such as Mogga, Faber felt it is less successful than Blue Poppies because the plot is not as well constructed. "Poor Mercy," Faber concluded, "is more ambitious and more problematic." But the critic concluded that "what makes this book gripping is its pervasive air of authenticity." A Times Literary Supplement writer asserted that "Poor Mercy fulfils an important function, preserving a wretched moment in history, giving substance to events that would otherwise soon be forgotten in favour of the next humanitarian crisis."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 2003, Kevin Canfield, review of Blue Poppies, p. 844.
Guardian (London, England), March 26, 2005, Michel Faber, "The Day of the Locust," review of Poor Mercy, p. 27; April 1, 2005, Claudia Pugh-Thomas, review of Poor Mercy.
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, September, 1993, Anthony R. Walker, review of True Love and Bartholomew: Rebels on the Burmese Border, p. 401.
Man, March, 1994, Ananda Rajah, review of True Love and Bartholomew, p. 198.
New York Times, February 23, 1987, Walter Goodman, "The Stage: 'Topokana' at Nat Horne Theatre," p. C15.
Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1991, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of True Love and Bartholomew, p. 126; November 25, 2005, review of Blue Poppies, p. 40.
Times Literary Supplement, January 4, 2002, Julia Lovel, "Ping-Pong Diplomacy," review of Blue Poppies, p. 20.
Variety, February 20, 1985, review of Topokana Martyrs' Day, p. 84.
Author Zone, http://www.11-9.co.uk/authorzone/ (July 20, 2005), "Jonathan Falla."