Social Justice Warrior: Q&A with Kelly Brooke Nicholls

Kelly Brooke Nicholls talks to Sisters in Crime’s Robyn Walton about her debut novel, A Reluctant Warrior (The Author People).

Hello Kelly. Congratulations not only on the publication of your novel but on your career as a human rights defender in Colombia and other countries and later in Washington DC.

Most of haven’t visited Colombia and we hear little about the nation apart from news reports and TV series to do with cocaine trafficking. Before we talk about the specific crimes and dangers fictionalised in your book, could you tell us what life is like for everyday people in Colombia?

The short answer is it depends who you are. As a tourist or a middle to upper class Colombian, you can live a very comfortable life. Let’s say it’s a lazy Sunday in Bogota, you wake up and have huevos pericos con arepas (scrambled eggs Colombian style with a delicious bread/pancake thing) and coffee (always lots of coffee) with your family. Many people will go to church. Then you take a walk on the Septima, the main street that crosses the city and is just for pedestrians on Sundays. You buy tropical fruit during the walk and balloons for your kids. Lunches are the main meal of the day and are always long. Afternoons might be spent playing football, drinking beers and listening to music and dancing or reading the paper. Discos are open every night. Family is everything.

If you live in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Buenaventura, where my novel is set, your life is very different. It still revolves around family, community, music and food. But you can never totally relax. You struggle to get by. You constantly have to watch your back and keep your family from danger.

During the years you lived in Colombia you “interviewed thousands of victims of paramilitaries, guerrilla and drug cartels” (Author’s Note). Your novel is based on some of this material?    

While the story and characters are fictitious, the materials for A Reluctant Warrior and the issues it describes are all based on reality. The drug cartels and the paramilitaries who work for them do use these kinds of outlandish methods to export cocaine and they are as brutal and ruthless as they’re made out to be. The kind of violence, child recruitment, treatment of women and corruption of senior levels of the armed forces portrayed in the book really do occur. Buenaventura is very much as it is shown in the novel. Equally, brave people like the main character and her friends do risk their lives to fight against this violence and protect others.

I lived and worked in Colombia for a number of years and later was the Executive Director of the US Office on Colombia, so I was privileged to travel extensively throughout the country where few foreigners venture. For my work, I interviewed thousands of victims of the war, including hundreds from Buenaventura. I also interviewed the kind of paramilitary leaders shown in the book to understand how they work. The book gives people a rare glimpse into the drug-fuelled conflict in Colombia.

The label SJW (Social Justice Warrior) is sometimes used pejoratively in online debates. Your protagonist, Luz-Marina (Luzma), is a warrior in the good sense, struggling for the survival of family members. Can you tell us a bit about Luzma and her family as they are when the story begins, and explain why Luzma may be called a “reluctant warrior”?

Luzma is a young Afro-Colombian woman living in a small village in rural Choco, Colombia with her brother, Jair, and her grandparents. She has already been a victim of the war several times over, including losing her mother. She has been hardened by her experiences and doesn’t trust people easily. She is fiercely protective of her younger brother.

Luzma didn’t set out to fight the paramilitaries or the horror they inflict. She would have been happy to follow her grandmother as a traditional healer. But already at the start of the novel you see that she has had enough and is willing to stand up to the paramilitaries, despite the enormous risk that entails. Later on, when her brother is taken, she has no option. He is everything to her and she will put her own safety – even her life – in grave danger to save him. But her view is larger: she doesn’t just want to save her brother, she wants to stop the violence and bring the perpetrators to justice.

By Chapter Two Luzma is on the run after being threatened with gang rape by paramilitary thugs. With her relatives she escapes, via jungle waterways, to the port city of Buenaventura, where her aunt lives in a slum neighbourhood of displaced people. A credible scenario?

Sadly, this is an all too common scenario in Colombia, where violence associated with the conflict and drug-trafficking has forcibly displaced more than 6.8 million people, generating the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons after Syria.

The book begins as the paramilitaries have taken over Luzma’s small village on the River Atrato. I have interviewed many people who have lived through these kind of paramilitary takeovers (including my own husband). Sadly, it’s a realistic description. As is this kind of journey of people who have been displaced by the conflict.

With a shift in point of view, you then introduce your readers to powerful men collaborating in an audacious drug shipment scheme. As the author, you found it best to use several points of view in order to give us the big picture?

Yes, the story is told through multiple points of view. Luzma’s primarily, but also El Cubano, the feared and brutal leader of the local paramilitary group; General Ordonez, the corrupt local head of the army; and two US Drug Enforcement Administration characters who are hunting down the drug cartel behind this audacious scheme. As the novel progresses the stakes rise for each character and the tension grows.

Using multiple points of view allows the story to be more fast-paced and exciting. It also gives the readers a rare glimpse into how these paramilitaries and drug gangs work and how the authorities go about hunting them down.

On that last point, I was blessed to work with the former head of the Colombian office for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This is the guy who was the real boss of the main character in the Netflix hit drama Narcos. So all the drug enforcement side of the novel is also based on reality and thoroughly researched.

While Luzma gets to know Rafael Wilson (Rafa), who works with an NGO and cares about Afro-Colombians’ issues, her little brother, Jair, gets to know the predatory Pablo Ruiz, El Cubano. So, “the plot thickens”. Can you tell us a bit about how you devised and developed your plot?

I first came up with Luzma’s character and the idea of her brother being kidnapped. That was while I was living in Colombia and working with families of people who had been ‘disappeared’. Then around that time the news in Colombia was filled with stories of drug lords using the kind of outlandish method used in this book to export drugs (yes, even that is based on reality!). I remember saying to people, “this has to be made into a story!”

Then I developed the secondary characters to make that story possible. I needed Luzma to have ties to international human rights workers so the story could have more of an international perspective and plausibly intertwine her story with the hunt for those who work for the drug cartel.

The narrative moves briskly. Luzma is a physically strong, agile protagonist who can use a gun, land a punch, and apply her self-defence training. How did it feel creating the moves and dialogue for such a proactive, forthright character?

To be honest, her character has changed a lot. In the first draft, her backstory with the paramilitaries had had a very different impact on her character. She was much more fearful and even paralysed at times from that experience. Her character arc was thus much clearer, in the way she had to overcome that fear to save her brother.

Then the first professional edit I got on the book (delivered, I must say, when my first child was only a month old) said they thought she needed to be a much harder, stronger, more courageous character from the start. I found that challenging to begin with because I wanted to accurately portray how she had dealt with and internalised all that she had suffered. I wanted to do justice to all the people in Colombia who have suffered similar situations.

So, then I went back to the drawing board and did more interviews and found other Colombians who had had similar life stories and it had made them harder, more courageous, less trusting, etc. I re-worked Luzma’s character based on those interviews. It was really hard work, but today I think the book is so much better for it and I really like her character and have a lot of respect for her (as weird as that might sound!).

Your narrative’s climax is violent and high stakes, involving American agencies and the Colombian navy. As you’ve told us, you sought specialist technical and drug enforcement advice. Any comments on the experience of writing an exciting ending?

I like how the ending transitions rapidly between the main characters’ points of views as that creates those high stakes and climatic ending. People who have read it have told me that by the time they get to the last ten chapters they literally can’t put it down.

Prior to writing this book I’d never held a gun and definitely had not been in a naval shoot out like that towards the end. I was lucky that I worked with incredible people like the former head of the DEA Colombia office and other specialist DEA agents and Captain John Dikkenberg from the Australian Maritime Museum. My dad, who is a nautical expert, also played a key role in helping me with all the technical parts which I would have otherwise struggled with. The navy in Buenaventura also gave me a tour of their base and took me out on their patrol boats.

Another challenge for me was to write the scenes of what Luzma went through. As I find sometimes with the issues I deal with in my work, it’s really hard to confront, but even more so when you have to literally put yourself into their position to write it. But, I think that’s part of the beauty of telling true stories through fiction, you allow people to feel the impact of the crimes that might otherwise just be a statistic or a factual report. You humanise it.

I notice you’ve chosen to use straightforward prose, short sentences, plenty of dialogue and an everyday English vocabulary. This means the book could be enjoyed by Young Adults as well as mature readers. Did you have any reader demographics in mind as you planned and wrote?

I see several different audiences: fans of suspenseful thrillers and international crime novels; people interested in human rights and Latin America; fans of Narcos and other movies and books about the world of drug trafficking. And finally, people like me who like a suspenseful, page-turning novel that will teach them about a new country or issue while being entertained (I clearly don’t know the quick description for that group).

And what about translation for Spanish-language readers?

Yes, that’s a priority for me as I want this story shared in Colombia and throughout Latin America. I’m sure it would have a very engaged audience. My publisher has been looking into it. Let us know if you have any leads!

Is A Reluctant Warrior available in bookstores? Can we buy online?    

The novel is available all around the world in paperback and e-book and online at Booktopia, Book Depository and Amazon. Or readers can grab it from their favourite Australian bookseller.

There are direct links on my and my publisher’s websites:

Finally, Kelly, is there anything more you’d like to tell us about A Reluctant Warrior, or about your future writing projects?

Thank you so much for the opportunity to share about my novel with Sisters in Crime. If your readers would like to find out more about the novel and the reality that it depicts, I have lots of free resources on my website, including videos, interviews with the DEA and human rights experts, more about my writing process and fun things like my top tips for traveling in Colombia. That’s also where people can stay in touch with me to find out about my next projects. The website is:

Thanks for your responses.