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Friday, March 6, 2015

Peter Chilson

At a glance
Riding the Demon
by Peter Chilson

University of Georgia Press
195 pages, $24.95

Africa makes headlines every day.

If it's not plane crashes in Nigeria, it's genocide in the Sudan. If it's not truth and reconciliation in South Africa, it's AIDS across the entire continent.

Peter Chilson knows Africa. Or he at least knows that part that he lived in and reported on for nearly five years in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Chilson, an associate professor of English at Washington State University (where he coordinates the undergraduate creative writing program), wrote about his exploits in the 1999 nonfiction study "Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa" (University of Georgia Press, 195 pages, $24.95 paper). It's the December read of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

His next book, "Disturbance-Loving Species" (Houghton Mifflin, 224 pages, $13.95 paper), is a collection of short fiction that, according to the Houghton Mifflin Web site, "offers a fascinating, heart-wrenching view of modern African culture, filtered through the lens of the West." It's due in August.

Chilson, 45, first visited Africa in 1984 as a Peace Corps volunteer, following his graduation from Syracuse University. His posting was in Niger, West Africa. After three and a half years, during which he worked also as a freelance writer and temporarily as an Associated Press correspondent, he returned home to do postgraduate work at Penn State University.

But before earning his MFA in creative writing at Penn State, Chilson returned to Niger, funded by a Fulbright scholarship. And his experiences ended up becoming the basis of "Riding the Demon."

"I needed to go back to Africa and answer some questions about myself," Chilson said in an interview shortly after his book's publication. "I felt I hadn't really pushed the envelope enough over there."

Chilson's book is no dry history, no anthropological study of cultural development, no historical treatise on the progress made or not across the expanse of West Africa.

It does, though, include bits and pieces of all the above, making it a kind of cross between a memoir and a look at the sociology of the world that Chilson encountered in Niger.

That sociology involves the transportation choices left to a country that, at least at the time, didn't have a railway system or national airlines. To get around, people tended to take advantage of the country's roads, especially while riding around in what are called "taxi de brousse" French for "bush taxi."

These cars, mostly older Peugeot station wagons, posed a challenge to anyone who rode in them: how to keep from dying of fright while driving along dusty country roads in the dark at speeds in excess of 100 mph. Or how to keep alive at all.

"The African road is about blood and fear," Chilson wrote, "about the ecstasy of arrival: the relief of finding yourself alive at the end of the journey and the lesser relief of passing unscathed through another army checkpoint.

"The road is boredom, joy and terror punctuated by heat in the air and under your feet. The African road is a world of extremes lived out with the punching of a foot against a gas pedal."

Chilson's accounts are made richer by the characters he introduces, particularly the driver named Issoufou Garba with whom, in 1992, he passed through 54 military checkpoints while heading across Niger (westward from Chad to Mali).

Speaking last week, Chilson took a more mature look at his experience. For the past few years he's gone back to Africa two to three times annually to research his forthcoming book. And, he said, "Now that I am a lot older, I look back at that book and it was a little crazy to do the traveling the way I did it."

Travel in Niger is easier now, he says, with fewer military checkpoints to cope with. And, he said, "The bush taxis have been pushed literally back into the bush."

"Riding the Demon," then, stands as a look at a world, and a way of life, that has changed. But it's a look that, at the time Chilson lived it, portrayed an honest view of how difficult things were.

"I wanted to write a book that gave a good idea of just how hard it is to survive daily in Africa," Chilson said in 1999.

"I wanted to write a book that really shows the genius of what the Africans are and how they've managed to build what they have today, which isn't much. But they still maintain this incredible will to live in the face of absolutely terrible circumstances."

Circumstances that, even now, make headlines on a regular basis.

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