It’s hard to say exactly what that means. As with all other all-inclusive descriptions, definitions probably are linked to the individuals they’re applied to.
All Peter Chilson can say is, “I don’t know why, but it seems to be all I can write about.” Africa, he means.
Coordinator of the undergraduate creative writing program at Washington State University, Chilson, 46, is the author of two books on Africa. The first, “Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa,” is a nonfiction exploration of the road culture of Niger.
The second, which is in bookstores now is a collection of short fiction – a novella and four stories – titled “Disturbance-Loving Species” (Mariner, 229 pages, $13.95). Based on Chilson’s experiences fist as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1980s and then as a freelance journalist in the early 1990s, the story is his attempt, he says, to show Americans how we and our country are perceived “at least from the point of view of Africa.
We’ve chosen “Disturbance-Loving Species” as the October read for the Spokesman-Review Book Club. Chilson will read from his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Auntie’s Bookstore, Main and Washington.
Chilson, who lives in Moscow, took a half hour and talked about the book, academia, his ties with Africa, politically correct attitudes regarding novelist Conrad, the sources of his first fictional pieces and more.
Following is an edited version of that interview. Beware: There are a few spoilers sprinkled in and out of the conversation.
Webster: I remember our talking early on when you first arrived at WSU (in 1999), when I’d read your nonfiction, and I wondered how things were going to go. But you’re still there all these years later.
Chilson: Well, it’s a very flexible lifestyle, and it allows me to do lots of different things. But I keep one foot ground firmly in stuff out in the field. I’ve got a piece coming out in High Country News, my former employer, in a couple of weeks. I keep doing lots of stuff outside the office.
W: I was just reading Tim Rutten’s review of “Disturbance-Loving Species” in the Los Angeles Times. Wow. That’s a pretty damned good review.
C: Yeah, I was a little shocked. I still haven’t gotten one in the (New York) Times yet, though. It’s still pretty early. My publisher was telling me to relax. But I got the other Times (laughs).
W: Right, right, you got the West Coast Times.
C: Yeah, mentioned in the same company with Conrad. That’s not bad. Although you were talking about academia, Conrad’s a dirty name in academia.
C: Yeah, which I find just hilarious.
W: Why is that?
C: He’s terribly politically incorrect. So I just took that as a badge of honor. One more way to piss people off (laughs).
W: Yeah, they could have said you reminded them of “Huckleberry Finn” or something. That would be just as bad. Maybe even worse.
C: A lot of people have been making the argument for (Samuel) Clemens, but it’s always an uphill thing. No matter what they publish, no matter how strong the argument is for putting his whole work in perspective, there are always going to be those groups out there. But I would love to make one of those lists. It sells books (laughs).
W: This is your first collection of fiction, correct?
C: It’s my first fiction ever. It just happens to be a collection, with a novella (“Tea with Soldiers”) in there, which basically is just a long, long short story.
W: How come you chose “Disturbance-Loving Species” as the title?
C: The original title was “Tea with Soldiers.” But in talking with my editors at Houghton Mifflin, I decided “Disturbance-Loving Species” was not just a more interesting title but also a title that works as a metaphor for all the stories in the book. All the stories sort of work under the theme of cultural collision, Africans coping and dealing with Americans both in Africa and American and the reverse. So that title does work better as an overall thematic metaphor. It’s also a thought-provoking title, too, though so is “Tea with Soldiers.”
W: You’re a really good nonfiction writer. Why did you decide to turn to fiction?
C: It was a huge struggle, and I’m going back to nonfiction in a hurry (laughs). I found writing fiction to be more difficult. Ironically, I found it more difficult to make shit up, so to speak. But while on one level it might have been more difficult, on another level it allowed me to get closer to some deeper truths about some things that had happened to me in Africa. And most of those stories are connected to some personal things that happened to me that I didn’t feel perhaps free enough, or I didn’t have a close enough of a grasp of the facts of things to explore them in nonfiction.
W: Can you give me an example?
C: Well, for example the novella “Tea with Soldiers” began as a short story that I published years ago that was called “English Lessons.” It started out revolving around something that had actually happened to me in a motor park where I was accosted physically by a pickpocket. I turned around full knowing what was going to happen, but I was tired, exhausted, suffering from dysentery. I was just not in a good mood, and I pointed at the guy in a marketplace and I accused him of being a thief. In Africa, that’s a death sentence. You point at somebody in a crowded place and accuse them of thievery and within seconds you have people crowding around wanting to beat this person to death. And that’s exactly what happened.
W: They did beat him to death?
C: No, they didn’t. But they almost did. I intervened and tried to explain. He didn’t actually get any money off me for one thing. But it got pretty violent, and a policeman intervened. Then the policeman took me and the thief off to a local police station – this was in downtown Abidjan, Ivory Coast – where they proceeded to just beat the hell out of him anyway. I pleaded for the thief’s life, and after a few minutes the station chief became pretty annoyed with me. He basically said to me, “You know, who are you to come in here and to moralize about what we are doing here? We’re just doing our jobs. You accused his man of stealing from you in a public place, and now you come in here and try to tell us how to do our jobs?” It was a disturbing moment for me. That was the very first piece of fiction that I wrote, and I felt that writing about it in a fictional way could get deeper to the emotional center of that than in any nonfictional way.
W: In “Tea with Soldiers,” and in a lot of the book, it seems to me that what you’re trying to get at is outsiders coming and trying to get and understanding of this thing called Africa. And lot of the people, particularly the friend of the protagonist of “Tea with Soldiers” …
C: It’s Salif.
W: Yeah. He keeps making remarks about and basically laughing at the protagonist, saying, “You just don’t really understand what’s going on here.” After going through the whole story, I still felt as if the character didn’t understand. And I don’t really understand either.
C: No, he doesn’t. And that could be a flaw, but that is how I felt at the end myself. I mean, he doesn’t quite understand. I didn’t want to come to any pretense that I could create a character who could fully understand, because that would imply that I understand fully what’s going on there culturally or what these cultural collisions are about in any ultimate sense.
W: I didn’t mean to imply that that was a flaw. But typically when you read something, you expect – maybe I expect – that this is going to explain everything to me. And I found it, to use your own word, disturbing, that, no, I didn’t at the end.
C: One of the things that I was trying to show in there was the language division and the misunderstanding that can happen. Right now, I’m preparing a new project in nonfiction to go back to Africa. But I’m determined not to do this without learning a fair amount of the language in this area first. Otherwise I’m just not going to do it.
W: It does really make a difference, doesn’t it?
C: When you’re tying to understand a place, that’s where a lot of important stuff does get lost. That was part of Carter’s problem (the protagonist of “Tea with Soldiers”). And mine. And, I think, many Americans who go to these places. A huge lot of stuff is lost in the translation, so to speak, whereas Africans are much more adept at learning the language. In a couple of later stories, you’ve got major African characters who are surviving in the United States and speak the language. And to me they come off better than some of my American characters, like Carter or even John Heller, the guy in the very last story.
W: The title story, isn’t that the one about the young woman who is the food worker who end up dying?
C: Right, that’s “Disturbance-Loving Species.”
W: Which, of course, you wrote in the acknowledgements was based on the experiences of a woman who didn’t die.
C: Right. It was based very loosely on the experiences of my sister (laughs) who is very much alive. She is a character who does learn something of the language and who does have some success in immersing herself and in understanding a bit of what’s going on. And then the place kills her. It devours her, which is another one of those ironies of Africa. And her death is based on the death of another person, a man I knew over there. He’s also mentioned in the acknowledgements. He was a German volunteer.
W: I know from talking to you years ago about your draw to Africa. You were there in the Peace Corps originally, right?
W: Then you stayed on and worked for wire services and this and that.
W: But you continue to write about Africa. It continues to be the fuel of a lot of your nonfiction writing, and now this fiction collection. Why does it continue to have a pull on you?
C: You know, I’ve been telling people to whom I’ve been talking about “Disturbance-Loving Species” that I don’t know why but it seems to be all I can write about. It has always fired my imagination for some reason, and try as I might to write about other subjects I find myself coming back to Africa. And I really wanted, I felt an emotional need, to sit down and for my own emotional good work out these stories before I went on to anything else. As I was sitting down to write these stories and develop a focus for them, I realized, “Well, I’ve got to go back so I can have the sights and the sounds and the smells back in my head.” So I started going back again about five years ago and doing some research for this and for a nonfiction project. And that just fueled more of my imagination.
W. Sounds like it.
C: I’ve got an essay coming out in High Country News that looks at comparative colonial patterns that looks at the way the American West was settled and the way Africa was settled, the way the Europeans attempted to control both landscapes. And they succeeded here in the American West but didn’t quite succeed in Africa. The patterns of conquest were very, very similar in both places. I mean, Henry Morton Stanley, who is on the cover of the current New York Times Book Review, was a reporter for the St. Louis Missouri Democrat who was assigned to Custer’s Seventh Cavalry in the 1860s. And he talks in his memoirs about how his experiences as a reporter in the American West served as his apprenticeship for his later work in Africa. It’s kind of disturbing.
W: It also helped him find Dr. Livingstone, I presume.
C: (Laughs) Yeah, that experience of surviving in large landscapes, large areas of difficult places, but also what he learned about pacifying groups of people and what he may have carried from that experience here in the West to Africa. The connection isn’t absolutely clear, but some of his own writings do suggest the connection.
W: So when does that come out?
C: That comes out Oct. 16.
W: And what is the next project that you’re doing, the nonfiction one?
C: I’m putting together a book proposal right now about African borderlands. I’m always looking for way to write about how modern Africa is evolving, and just hope this isn’t too esoteric. I’m looking for a way to write about it broadly in the interest of a broader audience, and in my recent travels it occurred to me that Africa’s borders – most of which are arbitrary, having been drawn by European powers without much relationship to what was happening on the ground – most have been fought over since independence and have been the source of some of Africa’s worst wars. But some of them are actually starting to disintegrate naturally, which I think raises some questions about how Africa is going to evolve. So my idea is to go walk the border between Ivory Coast, which is a country technically at war with itself, and the border of Mali, which one of Africa’s most stable, thriving democracies. And this border, which was drawn by the French, goes right through Bambara tribal heartland. And it’s just an ironic situation because on both sides of this border, which I have already spent some time on interviewing people, people talk as if they really don’t care about or have any concept of nationality. Being Ivorian or Malian is completely irrelevant to them. So I would like to go and walk that border with an African guide, like the guy I traveled with in “Riding the Demon.” And look at what a border means from an African perspective, and talk about some of the larger possibilities about how Africa is evolving.”
W: I think I’ve gotten pretty much everything that I need. Is there anything last thing that you would want readers to know about your book?
C: I hope people will come to the reading. I’m always trying to look at things from a more global perspective, and I hope people will come to a larger understanding of what it means to be American in this world. Because I think one of the great questions that we’ve been asking ourselves since 9/11 is we’re more curious about how other people perceive us and perceive this country of ours, and that’s partly what I hope this book explores, at least from the point of view of Africa.