Archive for The Road to Busara Road (on the writing of a novel)
The wonderful Cleaver Magazine has just come out with a new issue, and what do you know? I’m in it! Take a look, it has an excerpt from Busara Road (jiggered a bit to stand alone), and I’m especially pleased to share the magazine’s pages with Mark Lyons, whose story collection Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines is a total gem, and with photographer Julianna Foster, whose work is transporting. Kudos to the whole editorial team at Cleaver.
You’ve likely heard that Amtrak has created a writers residency on the rails, and it is reviewing applications through the end of March. Way back in 1994, though, I created an Amtrak writing residency of my own, traveling in a sleeper car more than half-way around the country while writing day and night. Starting in Philadelphia, I swung through New York, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Paul, Spokane, Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, and San Francisco, before ending up in L.A., where I flew back to Philly. Unofficial, perhaps, but still a grand time. An official Amtrak residency is a cool idea, and if you want to apply, here’s a link:
For a piece on my Kenya trip last year that just appeared in Friends Journal, click HERE.
Here’s an article I wrote about my recent visit to Kenya and Friends Theological College for the summer 2012 issue of Quaker Life, the publication of Friends United Meeting. It’s a rough scan and a bit hard to read, but I don’t find an online link to the article, so I’m afraid this is the best I’ve got. (Click on the image to enlarge.)
Click below to see a short piece I wrote recently for Pendle Hill Quaker Center that describes my writing sojourns there. For writers in the Philadelphia area, I recommend that you check out Pendle Hill as a place for a personal writing retreat.
Down to the Galagoli River (then up to the Hill of Vision)
What a relief it was to start feeling healthy again!
On Thursday, the day after my reunion with Simeon (my family’s cook and gardener back in the sixties), I received another visit from Silas Vidolo, my number-one companion in Kaimosi. He stopped by to see how my visit with Simeon had gone, and told me that the next day he’d take me on another walking tour. He also told me that he had inquired about Musa (my family’s first cook), and had learned that Musa had lived for some time in nearby Shamakhokho but had since died. The news of his death, while not surprising, was upsetting.
Hesbourne, whose class I’d spoken to earlier in the week, stopped by to get contact information for me in the States, and he also asked why I hadn’t been attending morning chapel. It hadn’t occurred to me that people would notice my absence! I told him I hadn’t been feeling well, but that I’d be there in the morning.
The rest of the day I spent mostly writing up notes, reading a bit, and putting down some thoughts about my novel.
Some thoughts about my novel
A couple of realizations about my writing had started to bubble up. One was this: my memories of the mission from 45 years ago – both factual and sensory memories – were proving to be quite accurate. Although I was learning some things about the history of Quakers in Kenya that would require some adjustments in what I’d written, to a large extent I felt I’d gotten things pretty right on.
The second realization was that my thoughts were increasingly moving beyond my current novel to ideas for its sequel.
I have long envisioned the story I’m creating as having two grand plot lines: the main character’s childhood in Kenya (the first novel), followed by 40-plus years of wandering in the “wilderness” of the U.S. before eventually returning to Kenya (the second novel).
Now…I need to stress that these novels are NOT about me or my own story. The main character is not based on me. The other characters are not portrayals of real people. The locations, situations, actions, encounters, conflicts, resolutions, are all fabricated. It’s FICTION.
That said, however, the novel’s premise – of a young American boy coming of age in a young African nation – certainly holds echoes of my own childhood experience. And the writing of that novel has inspired ideas for its sequel – an odyssey, in effect, that follows the adult character’s efforts to return to the remembered home of his African childhood.
Again, NOT MY OWN STORY. A work of fiction. Yet I was finding that the deeper I immersed myself in Kenya on this trip – both its modern-day reality and its reality within my memory – the more deeply I felt the pull of a second novel that might draw from this same source. Considering how much the first novel has already demanded of me, I don’t take the idea lightly.
Okay, enough about novels – let’s watch some movies!
Before I left for Kenya, Nancy surprised me with a wonderful present: a little Flip video camera. I won’t bore you with the many two-second bursts of nothingness I shot as I learned to use it.
Instead, I’ll bore you with a couple of long segments I shot while on a walking tour of Kaimosi Road!
On Friday, Silas invited me to join him for another guided stroll. The videos below were a way for me to start getting on tape some of Silas’s memories of Kaimosi Mission from when he and I were boys there. These are the first of a small number of video segments I shot while in Kaimosi.
I’m sure that many of you will find these videos distinctly uninteresting. They are long and so poorly shot that you may get seasick watching them. I’m also confident, however, that at least three people will find them utterly fascinating: my brothers John, Rob, and Erin. They walked this very same road with me 45 years ago, and they continue to walk it with me every day in spirit.
These, then, are for my brothers:
Next: a walking tour up the Hill of Vision
I learn extraordinary news (and I don’t mean about the rat)
Ruth arrived early morning again with a pan of hot water and a thermos of boiled milk. This time, however, I was already up and feeling much better. I asked for eggs and toast.
I also finally asked about the sounds I was hearing in my room at night.
“Oh yes,” she said. “You have a rat.”
It was such a simple statement, yet so disturbing.
“Don’t let it bite you,” she added on her way out, “or you will need strong medicine. They use this place to store maize, you know. The rat is looking for food.”
I was still mulling over the rat business when Ruth returned, moments later, to announce, “The dean of students will see you right now. I will take you there.”
She waited while I got dressed and gathered my gear: paper, pens, tape recorder, digital camera, Flip video camera, and my borrowed cellphone. It felt quite strange to have access to all of that technology in such a remote area.
Meshack Musindi was waiting at his desk when I arrived, and when we were done with the interview, I returned to my room where I had arranged to talk with Ruth about her experience as a student. When I concluded my conversation with Ruth, I considered myself finally finished with my interviews. I didn’t know yet what I was going to write, but I was feeling pleased with the source material I had to work with, and I was also looking forward to turning my attention to my own work.
I was feeling much better physically, too, and hungry for the first time in days, so I fixed myself a real lunch – some cheese and crackers, dates, leftover rice and chicken from when I’d first arrived, a chocolate bar and digestive biscuits, plus two more glasses of that magical, fluorescent orange liquid.
More discoveries await
I had arranged with Silas to go on another guided walking tour of Kaimosi that afternoon, this time all the way down to the Galigoli River and dam. I went to his office to meet him, and got to talking with his boss, Josphat Lime Jiveti, the finance officer, about memories from when I was a kid in Kaimosi. I told Josphat I had lived in the house directly across the road from the College. When I asked about my old neighbors, Rose and Rufus Adede, I was told that both of them had died some years back. The news was quite a shock.
I told him I remembered two people who helped care for my family back then. One was a man named Musa. Both Josphat and Silas shook their heads; didn’t remember him. The other person, I told them, was a man named Simeon.
A jolt of electricity seemed to crackle through the room
“Simeon,” said Josphat, “is my grandfather! His name is Simeon Mwanga, and he used to take care of families in that very house where you lived!”
It seemed miraculous to make such a connection after all of these years. Then it got better.
“He is still alive, you know,” said Josphat. “He is 97 years old! He has been at the hospital for a foot infection, but he is back home now at his shamba in Chepsonoi. Would you like to see him?”
Of course I would! But I told Josphat that I was only going to be in Kaimosi a few more weeks. Did he think it would be possible to coordinate a visit in that time?
“I am taking you to see him tonight,” he said.
From Kaimosi to Chepsonoi
Silas wanted to get lunch before we headed out on our walking tour, so he took me first to the dining hall to join the rest of the school. I had already eaten a large lunch and I was feeling quite full and still a bit queasy, so I told Silas I didn’t need any lunch. He wouldn’t hear of it. He returned from the kitchen with a metal plate stacked with a huge mound of rice and large chunks of tough, fatty beef. We weren’t leaving until I ate it all.
But finally we were off on our walking tour, this time down to the Galigoli River, where there used to be a saw mill and power station, both of which have long been out of commission, destroyed by neglect after the government took them over from the mission. We visited the Teacher Training College,
the chapel, the Kaimosi Friends Primary School (now a large day and boarding school on the site of my old two-room mission school),
the Kaimosi Hospital (picked up a package left there for me by Eden Grace, and visited with a nurse who worked at the hospital when I was a boy. I told her I had spent a night in the hospital for a broken collar bone back then, and she said yes, she remembered that. Possible, I guess – people I’d met so far have had extraordinary memories of those days.)
I talked with people all along our walk (including a retired minister out with his cows and grandchildren), and nearly everyone who heard my story said, “God has brought you home to Kaimosi. You have come home.” It certainly felt as though I’d come home.
When I got back to the college, Josphat was ready to go. Evidently “tonight” meant “this afternoon.” We took the College truck and after less than an hour on a paved road we turned onto a very narrow dirt road down a very steep hill that eventually landed us at Simeon’s shamba with cows and chickens wandering the yard.
While I sat in the front room – dirt floor, mud walls – Simeon’s wife, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren gathered to sit with me while Josphat went to dress his grandfather and bring him out to visit. His wife led us in prayer while we waited, again when Simeon arrived, and again when it was time to leave.
The visit was short but emotionally powerful. Simeon was clearly tired and in pain, but he was also alert and communicated through his grandson his appreciation that a child he had cared for so long ago had come back to say thank-you.
For most of the drive back to Kaimosi I was silent, greatly moved by the ever-deepening sense of homecoming that has filled this trip.
Next: I go to the Hill of Vision