Fighting smallpox, visits with royalty in a medieval palace (complete with a Rolls Royce given by Queen Elizabeth), and the whims of a blood-thirsty dictator. All had loomed large in my life in West Africa. Now to apply the Reading Good Writing key to craft the humanity, humor and horror into a memoir.
No more of this technical and medical report writing I’d done for years. I had a story to tell, and needed to engage a reader for – 300 pages!
Engage a reader for 300 pages? How on earth would I do that? How had the best writers out there done it? I had to assimilate new ways of writing.
But another question – where would I begin, out of the millions of books that have ever been published? (More than a hundred million, according to Google algorithms.)
Photo by Glen Noble via Unsplash
For my purpose, I decided to start with memoirs of Africa to help pull my own memories out of the dust and cobwebs of a mental attic.
Well-Written Africa Memoirs
The first Africa memoir I read came to my attention in a university writing program’s YouTube recording.
Elaine Neil Orr was being interviewed about her memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life. Furiously I took notes and I couldn’t wait to buy her book!
The first thing I noticed when flipping through it was how the author had used photos. Old photos of her parents reminded me of some early ones my readers might like me to include. Do you love this?
Who ARE those kids? Why, it’s Bee and Carl.
Same but Different
Despite the differences in our two stories, the book dusted off a lot of memories.
Elaine Neil Orr spent her life in Nigeria until age sixteen. Her parents were medical missionaries among the Yoruba people in the West, where rivers watered the lush green landscape. We were eradicating smallpox among the Hausa and Fulani in the North where the arid Sahel transitions from the Sahara to savanna’s grasslands.
Much in Gods of Noonday was the same. The hubbub of the markets. People and animals bulging through the slatted sides of lorries-turned-busses. The smell of open sewers. Head-bearing. Food cans that became lanterns that became cutting tools that became ornaments that became tiny beads. Recycling like I’d never seen.
A “Mammy Wagon” – Kano, Nigeria 1969
Orr’s culture shock on returning to America resonated with me too even though I’d lived only two years in West Africa. I identified with her statement, “My new acquaintances sniffed out my foreignness in the time it takes to flounce a skirt.”
And that statement reawakened a more painful memory–my children’s trauma on entering middle school and high school in the States after six years in Saudi Arabia.
Orr’s experiences during the early days of Nigeria’s independence from Britain and the precursors of civil war echoed what the smallpox teams told us on our arrival. She paints it in gut-wrenching imagery:
“Meanwhile, Nigeria grew like a male adolescent whose parts don’t all work. This imbalance made the segments jealous, and distrust was planted upon distrust like new hurts upon an old wound. […] Everyone was eating and everyone was hungry. There was plenty and there was not enough to go around. The country was being born and the umbilical cord was wound around its neck like a python. And the drums pounded: Beware proud elephant! Beware! But no one was listening to the old ones. Children are boastful but walk unawares with scorpions at their feet.” Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life by Elaine Neil Orr
Such evocative prose. Such sad memories of the realities of ancient tribal hatreds. Rival tribes thrust together in post-colonial “nations” to which they had no allegiance.
Reading to Write
I had expected reading memoirs set in Africa (reading good writing) to refresh my own memories (research). I had not anticipated learning so much about craft.
But, of course, reading about writing naturally happens as you’re Reading Good Writing.
That’s what’s supposed to happen. And that’s what happened to me. I was able to exchange my technical style for memoir prose, while letting my own personality, my own voice, tell my story.
I liked the way Orr told her story in vignettes of life, some of her chapters one paragraph long, usually a dream interlude. It’s a structure I decided could serve my material well. I wanted to incorporate diary entries and letters that highlighted my emotional response to events and propel the story forward.
In one case, my terse 3-line diary entry told a somber story and needed to stand alone. In Elaine Neil Orr’s book, I found confirmation. It would work.
Orr has also written a novel set in West Africa, A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa. I can’t wait to read this one now.
Elaine Neil Orr’s interview on YouTube was the first such program I discovered. I’ve now watched dozens of YouTube panel discussions, interviews and writing symposia. What a goldmine!
What about you?
Whether you’re a writer or not, how do you select the books you’d put on your Reading Good Writing list?
Thank you for visiting my site.