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"Pole pole": the Tao of Mount Kilimanjaro

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At_Uhuru.jpgThe first five days of March found me on the slopes, and at the summit and peak, of Mount Kilimanjaro.  (In the picture at left, taken at Uhuru Peak, I am the person sitting center, wearing the white hat and green balaclava.) 

I climbed the mountain because the grand finale of the novel that I'm currently writing, The Celebration Husband, takes place at a WWI German military camp at the base of the mountain.  Technically, the research didn't require me to go all the way up the mountain.  But I figured, while I was there . . . .

Kibo_above_Horrombo.jpgAs it turned out, however, Kilimanjaro was an incredibly useful addition to my writing process.  In order to ascend the mountain, a climber must acclimate to the altitude.  Every step up decreases the amount of available oxygen, until by the end, the climber has to make do with something like 50% of the oxygen found at sea level.  To the unacclimated, this state of oxygen deprivation can result in sleepiness, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and - in extreme cases - cerebral or pulmonary edema.

Mawenzi.jpgTherefore, in order to acclimate, a climber must go slowly.  "Pole pole" is Swahili for "slowly slowly," and it's the unofficial slogan of the mountain.  Any competition in terms of a climber's pace up the mountain can only entail being the very last to arrive at each day's camp.  Climbing Kili demands creeping one's way to success, an approach antithetical to the vroom-to-the-top methodology admired elsewhere in the world.

By temperament and aptitude, I'm a vroom-er.  Left to my own devices, I zip around at a pace that, I gather, most people find to be out of step with their own.  The speed characterizes my writing, as much as my thinking, temper and rate at which I change jobs, abodes and continents.  (The fast pace, by the way, is innate, not induced; though I've never tried cocaine, I've had enough exposure to people who have used it to conclude that it would only slow me down.)

But as my life progresses, I'm finding that I'm a born sprinter being made to run an endurance race.  The life trajectory that I'd mapped out for myself at a more youthful age didn't involve years of struggle to get published.

View_from_Horrombo.jpgAnd, although I recognize that my expectations of fast work leading to fast reward have never once been met, I still default to them.  The Celebration Husband was going to be a sprint for me.  I was going to finish the book in four months; the book would be shopped to publishers by the second half of 2010. 

Now I know that those expectations are unlikely to be fulfilled.  The reasons are best explained by saying that, while some Christians have had their lives custom crafted by an intelligent designer, my life seems to have been hewn by a notably thoughtless sculptor with a sense of humor that I've yet to appreciate. 

Nonetheless, even such maladapted creatures as sprinters in marathons can learn to endure and even thrive, and climbing Mount Kilmanjaro provided this maladapted creature with valuable lessons in success through submission to a hostile (if gorgeous) environment.  No one can fight oxygen deprivation; a climber who hopes to avoid being crushed by altitude sickness can only accept the thin air and acclimate.

Mzee_Emanueli.jpgFor those who surrender to the mountain and acclimate to its demands, the returns are immeasurable.  Of our fifteen guides, four were brothers.  Their father was also our guide.  His name was Mzee Emmanueli (pictured left), and he has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro more than 3,500 times.  He is 80.  

After descending the mountain, I read this excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal in an article in The New York Review of Books:

Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare have seen mountains, if they speak of them.  The young writers seem to have seen pictures of mountains.
(John Banville, "Emerson: 'A Few Inches from Calamity'," The New York Review of Books 35 n.4 (Dec. 3-16, 2009).)

I am unlikely ever to be known as a young writer.  But I have seen mountains.

(The second picture was taken just outside Horombo, a camp at 12,000 feet.  Kibo, the crater peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, rises in the distance.  The third picture is of Mawenzi, a second peak on Mount Kilimanjaro.  The fourth picture is of a subsidiary crater below Horombo.)

An OBE for James Willson

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James_Willson.jpgOver the course of the last three novels I've written, I've found that going on-site to a location helps me write about the events that I imagine to have taken place there.  For the first and third novels, Portnoy's Daughter and Waiting for Love Child respectively, "going on-site" never got more complicated than having drinks at a particular bar that crops up in the novel, or playing laser tag at the People's Liberation Army facility.  "On-site research" was more involved, however, for my second novel, The Swing of Beijing: I traveled through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and crossed back into China through the Torugart Pass . . . all to write passages that are no longer part of the novel.  No matter: I was honing my methodology.

Therefore, for my fourth novel, which takes place during WWI in British East Africa, I knew that I'd be criss-crossing the territory covered by the British and German armies.  In an earlier blog post, I wrote about my journey to the Narosera River, where Lord Delamere had camped out to recruit Masai scouts just after the start of the war.

This week I returned from a trip to Tsavo West, where most of the troops and action during the war took place.  On this research trip, I was incredibly lucky to have James Willson (pictured above) as my guide to the numerous forts and battlefields that we toured.

The East African front during WWI is not one that is well known.  (Indeed, Ross Anderson wrote a book about it called The Forgotten Front.)  Although ruins of forts and battlefields exist, no effort is made to demarcate, preserve, develop or commemorate the sites in Kenya.  (Imagine Gettysburg as a deserted, overgrown field, without tour guides, memorials or any public awareness of its significance.)  No one - not the British military, nor the Kenyan military, nor the history curricula of either country - is interested.

Shard_of_Rose's_Lime_Juice.jpgWith the exception of James Willson, that is.  The world's expert on these sites, Willson has discovered and/or explored numerous areas of significance to WWI, including Fort Mzima, Crater Fort, Maktau and Salaita.  Having read deeply on the subject, Willson is able to identify and map the different areas in the forts (trenches, command centers, parade grounds, tent encampments, etc.), and he has encyclopedic knowledge of the debris common at these ruins (shards of glass from Rose's lime juice bottles [pictured right], South African beer bottles, crushed tins that held bully beef, etc.).

Command_Center_at_Maktau.jpgWith Willson's guidance, the experience of soldiers in WWI clarified in an extraordinary manner.  We drove the route that soldiers marched, in the heat of the day, on their way into battle at Murka.  We picked our way through overgrown brush at Fort Mashoti that the soldiers had clear cut.  From the command center at Maktau (pictured left), we surveyed the landscape on which British soldiers spied approaching German raiding parties.  

However much my on-site research had been useful writing previous books, their value is proving inordinately greater on this fourth book (my first work of historical fiction).  Thanks to Willson, my capacity to write battle scenes and other passages involving soldiers and military encampments has received a vast boost, far beyond anything I could have achieved through book research alone.

Willson's own research has been conducted entirely as a labor of love, independent of any research or academic institution and without any funding.  His knowledge is of incredible value both to our understanding of the past and to our present.  (Many of the issues that the British military faced during WWI - including troops from multiple locations speaking mutually unintelligible languages, and horrendous supply chain challenges - are currently faced by the US and British militaries in Iraq.)  What Willson knows has the potential to enrich many areas of human endeavor, including military strategy, literature and history.

We can only hope that the contents of Willson's brain will be adequately indexed in the coming years, so that his knowledge will be available to future generations.  Willson has written a book that should be forthcoming within the year or so, but his familiarity with the Tsavo landscape and the WWI sites cannot be fully conveyed in a book.  With luck, perhaps enough people will learn the lay of the sites from Willson, so that - when and if funding for preservation and memorialization becomes available - adequate knowledge underpinning those efforts will exist.

In the meantime, the cause of preservation, perpetuation of knowledge and honoring the dead will be well served by honoring the living.  In recognition of his contribution to humanity and history, James Willson deserves an expression of our gratitude.  While this blog post is certainly inadequate, an OBE seems about right. 

The accidental jester

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B_Cole_and_Cranworth.jpgStorytellers don't have to be reliable to be entertaining.  Great narrative voices can be widely off the mark - P.G. Wodehouse's marvelous Bertie Wooster is an example - and yet their own haplessness with facts and reality only deepens our delight in hearing what they have to say.

Lord Cranworth is an interesting example of an entertaining, unreliable narrative voice.  Unlike Bertie Wooster, who is fictional, Lord Cranworth was real.  And diverting further from Bertie Wooster, whose lack of reliability was the conscious intent of his creator, Cranworth didn't mean to be unreliable.

Cranworth has become unreliable in part because the passage of time has rendered so many of his opinions politically incorrect.  "I dislike making contact with a black race which emphatically dissents from the superiority I claim for my race and colour," he writes of Ethiopians.  (Lord Cranworth, Kenya Chronicles 178 (1939)).

But Cranworth has also become unreliable because his account of factual events diverges from other contemporaneous accounts.  Here, for example, is Cranworth's version of the events leading up to the deportation of Galbraith Cole:

Galbraith Cole was one of the earliest pioneers, a brother-in-law of Lord Delamere, and deservedly one of the most popular inhabitants both with black and white.  He had suffered repeatedly from thefts of cattle and sheep from his farm on Lake Elmenteita [sic], abutting the Masai Reserve.  One day he caught a party of Masai red-handed driving off his sheep, and, having a rifle, fired a shot to frighten the delinquents.  By an unfortunate mischance the shot struck one of the party, who subsequently died.  The Government were placed in a position of difficulty.  No local jury would, or indeed could, convict Cole of any major crime, and the tribe in question, with whom the punishment for cattle-stealing from time immemorial had been death, saw no justifiable grounds for complaint.  On the other hand, a considerable opinion at home said that in the interest of our own rule and good name an example must be made.  And again it is hard to dissent from that view.  The Governor decided that it was a case for deportation, unpopular though the course might be.
(Kenya Chronicles at 64).

His account omits several salient facts that Karen Blixen mentions about the event:

When Karen Blixen lectured at Lund University in 1938 she gave an example of Galbraith Cole's unswerving conviction, which a man of less fibre would have easily betrayed.  Like the Masai he had killed, he paid his price without question:

The Judge said to Galbraith, 'It's not, you know, that we don't understand that you shot only to stop the thieves.' 'No,' Galbraith said, 'I shot to kill.  I said that I would do so.'

'Think again, Mr. Cole,' said the judge.  'We are convinced that you only shot to stop them.'

'No, by God,' Galbraith said.  'I shot to kill.'  He was then sentenced to leave the country and, in a way, this really caused his death.
Errol Trzebinksi, Silence Will Speak 76 (1977) (quoting Donald Hannah, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: the mask and the reality 35-36 (1971)).

In highlighting this disparity, I am not so much interested in which version is accurate, but in the relationship between an accurate grasp on facts and the formation of opinions that endure the test of time.  My guess is that Cranworth wasn't just unlucky that public opinion shifted away from his conviction of white superiority; rather, I hazard that a certain disposition on his part to tamper with facts supported the formation of opinions that could not survive the eventual triumph of reality.  Hence, the man could write of his early years in British East Africa:

Settlers were coming in with a steadily increasing flow.  New, beautiful and undeveloped territories were being discovered and occupied.  New crops were being tried out and new possibilities became probabilities almost monthly.  Land values improved with great rapidity and the native population became more prosperous and infinitely happier and safer.  No stigma rested at that time on the white settlers for the work that they were doing.
(Kenya Chronicles at 29 (emphasis added).)

Amusing to read now, but not very credible.

(Photo of Berkeley Cole and Lord Cranworth from Kenya Chronicles)
Red_Strangers.jpgIn Richard Dawkins' Introduction to Elspeth Huxley's Red Strangers, he calls the novel "anthropologically illuminating," and that phrase struck me as the most insightful of the compliments he bestowed on the book ("epic," "gripping," "moving" and "humanistically mind-opening" among them).  

Red Strangers recounts the history of Kenya from 1890-1937 through the eyes of three generations of Kikuyu men: history, still written by the victor, but seen through the eyes of colonized, as that perspective is imagined by the colonizer.  

The ambition of Red Strangers is huge, and I have great admiration for the project.  With Red Strangers, Huxley courageously undertook an "experiment," as she put it in her Foreword, to record "the way of life that existed before the white men came" because "within a few years none will survive of those who remember" those days.  (Red Strangers was published in 1939.)  The experiment was unquestionably worthwhile, and the record she has created is of tremendous historical and anthropological interest. 

Nonetheless, Red Strangers suffers two serious flaws.  First, Huxley's storytelling is overshadowed by her agenda.  She wants to describe a bygone society and explain its reaction to the appearance of the colonists more than she wants to tell us a story.  As a result, events occur without narrative pay-off:  Muthengi seduces his adopted sister Ambui . . . but nothing happens as a result.  Matu runs away to live with the Athi people for some time . . . but we never find out why this matters for the plot.  A conflict erupts between the Kipsigis and the Kikuyu on Marafu's farm . . . that goes nowhere.  More disturbingly, the book has the "one thing and then another" feel of poorly-written historical treatises.  Events appear in the Red Strangers because they correspond to actual historical events that happened, not because they advance the plot.

Second, Huxley attempts to describe to a literate society a world that was preliterate, from the point of view of the preliterate.  I am not sure that this goal is achievable.  The thought processes and consciousnesses of preliterate peoples is different from that of literate, modern peoples, and I am not convinced that either methodology can be transmitted directly, that is, without an intervening process of interpretation.  As Huxley herself posits, "[t]he old Kikuyu . . . cannot present their point of view to us because they cannot express it in terms which we can understand."  To circumvent this problem, Huxley has chosen to depict "old Kikuyu" who express their point of view in terms we can understand; in other words, she has created a hybrid character who never existed: a Kikuyu from a preliterate, precolonial society who nonetheless communicates in a literate, post-colonial way.  Unsurprisingly, this character is unsatisfactory.  He (because all three generations of Kikuyu protagonists in Red Strangers are men) doesn't come across as resourceful, intelligent, reflective . . . or believable.  Rather, he's flat and two dimensional.

Following the lead of Dawkins' "anthropologically illuminating" comment, I would guess that a better vehicle for the information Huxley wanted to convey would have been the long-form personal history, something like Marjorie Shostak's Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, a compelling page-turner about a Kalahari bushwoman.  Nisa is an anthropological text, and I suspect that Huxley - who disclaimed any anthropological rigor in Red Strangers - avoided that option because she didn't want to be accused of sloppy scholarship.  All the same, Nisa succeeds where Red Strangers fails.  Although Nisa came from a preliterate society, and although her story was being told through the agency of a literate academic, Nisa comes alive in her book in ways that Muthengi, Matu and Karanja never do in Red Strangers.  A novel, after all, must have a story; but a personal history must only have a life.

(Image of Red Strangers from Fantastic Fiction)     

A literary lover

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Byron_Beppo.jpgIn Beppo, Lord Byron's verse play, the poet raises an intractable question: were 99 stanzas necessary?

A comic, bawdy Venetian adventure, Beppo ostensibly tells the tale of a woman, Laura, whose husband, Beppo, goes to sea and disappears without a word.  "And really if a man won't let us know/That he's alive, he's dead, or should be so," explains Byron.  So Laura takes a cavalier servente, an openly-accepted second husband.  Six years go by, and Laura and her cavalier servente are enjoying their life together, when - at a masked ball during Carnival - Laura catches the attention of a Turk . . . who turns out to be her husband.

Despite the drama of this situation, the plot is secondary to scene-setting and musings of tangential relevance.  In Beppo, Byron's digressions, quite self-consciously, rule the poem:  

. . . [F]or I find
Digression is a sin, that by degrees
Becomes exceeding tedious to my mind,
Byron complains in stanza 50.  Just thirteen stanzas later, he's moaning again:

To turn, -and to return; the devil take it!
This story slips for ever through my fingers.  
But however much Byron protests his poetic ADD, he devotes extensive energy to it.  As Jeffrey, writing in Edinburgh Review in 1818 observed, "This story, such as it is, occupies about twenty stanzas."  (My own count is not so condemnatory.  I allow the first 20 verses as appropriate background scene-setting, and I only count 27 or so verses of proper digression.  Nonetheless, even by my generous assessment, 47 verses of 99 do not advance the plot.)  

Explanations of Byron's digressions abound.  Jeffrey calls them "unquestionably by far the most lively and interesting parts of the work."  Harsh condemnation of the story then.

Jeffrey is not the only critic to slight Beppo's story.  Writing in The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits calls the story "scant" and explains the digressions in Beppo as follows:

The real hero of the piece is the poet himself . . . . [engaging in] a series of digressions on worldliness: on how to take pleasure from the world, on how to live.
While I agree with both these comments, I think in some sense they miss the larger picture of how the digressions deepen the reader's experience of the story and how the poem's constituent parts relate to the whole.  

If, as Jeffrey and Markovits suggests, the digressions don't relate to the story, but instead supplant the story, then my inquiry is irrelevant.  The constituent parts don't relate beyond allowing the story to serve as a frame for Byron's digressions.

But to explain the story in Beppo as a thin branch on which to hang the poet's "lively and interesting" observations "on how to live" seems (to my mind) to disserve Byron's skills as a storyteller.  Such an interpretation also fails to give meaning to the stanzas in which Byron calls attention to his own digressions.

My reading is that the digressions are integral to the story.  By calling attention to his digressions, Byron is signaling to the reader that they are not the sloppy tangents of a debauched mind, but deliberate and purposeful additions to the story.  Byron is telling the tale of a woman whose relationship with her cavalier servente is a digression in her marriage.  The digression is entertaining, worldly and broad-minded - just like Byron's digressions in the poem.  In Beppo, Byron is offering himself as cavalier servente to the reader; he is inviting his adoring fans to allow him to be a digression in their day, life, relationship.  (The poet isn't the hero of the poem; the reader is.) 

And, in the reader's acceptance of Byron's service, the reader is implicated in Laura's "sin."  Writing of immoral relations for a conservative British audience, Byron stealthily builds the reader's sympathy for Laura - as well as support for the poem's happy ending that allows Laura to escape without punishment - by inviting the reader to partake via literary effigy in Laura's naughtiness.  

Given such playfulness, 99 stanzas are not only necessary, but possibly insufficient.

(Cover of Beppo from

A rebuttal to Kihika

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Captured_Mau_Mau_fighters.jpgIn Ngugi wa Thiongo's A Grain of Wheat, Kihika, a Mau Mau rebel leader, expresses some brutal opinions about the way preceding generations dealt with imperialism:

I despise the weak.  Let them be trampled to death, I spit on the weakness of our fathers.  Their memory gives me no pride.  And even today, tomorrow, the weak and those with feeble hearts shall be wiped from the earth.  The strong shall rule.  Our fathers had no reason to be weak.  The weak need not remain weak.  Why?  Because people united in faith are stronger than the bomb.  They shall not tremble or run away before the sword.  Then instead the enemy shall flee.
(p. 180.)  

While wa Thiongo doesn't outright endorse Kihika's view of history, he doesn't refute it, either.  But - though Kihika's unyielding condemnation and lack of interest in nuance might be appropriate (and is probably necessary) for a guerrilla fighter - history is more complicated, more interesting and kinder to Kihika's forebears than Kihika allows.

As an overall descriptive of the black African response to British imperialism, "weak" is an inadequate adjective.  "Measured," "thoughtful," "multi-faceted," "practical" or "wise" are all more accurate.  A close reading of the historical record reveals, decade by decade, a slowly-evolving, pragmatic African response to the British colonial presence.  Here is a summary:
  • From 1895 (when the British officially arrived) through 1914, the colonists came with - in addition to a breathtaking sense of superiority and the ideology of Pax Britannica - some things the Africans wanted and/or adopted: Jesus, medicines, new ways of living and - importantly - enough power to banish the twin menaces of the Masai and the Swahili slave traders.  Some Africans did rebel and resist the British, and the British mounted "punitive" military expeditions against those tribes; but Africans also cooperated with the British, and some African leaders allowed themselves to be co-opted into service of the imperial cause. 
  • From 1914 through 1922, Africans adjusted their views of the British.  The whites came to be revealed as fallible humans - and hypocrites: not super-human bringers-of-peace and banishers-of-slavery-and-tribal-warfare, but self-interested farmers who warred among themselves and forced the Africans into the white fight.  Criticism of British government policies began to be voiced.  Africans protested against "alienation" of African lands and reassignment of such property to whites.  Africans additionally began to question to white missionaries' interpretations of Christianity, where such interpretations condemned traditional African practices.
  • From 1922 through 1939, African opinion condemning colonial abuses coalesced, although little agreement could be reached about how to address such abuses.  The Kikuyu, the largest tribe, split internally on the issue of how to engage the British.  Few were willing to allow white missionaries to continue to "represent" black interests, but advocates for slow-going diplomacy found opponents in favor of more radical measures designed to bring faster results.
  • From 1939-1952, Africans again adjusted their views of British rule, this time in light of WWII and India's triumphant achievement of independence.  The Africans saw that the British could be defeated.  The condemnation of colonial abuses hardened into a rejection of the imperial presence altogether.  Jomo Kenyatta emerged as a leader who could shepherd Kenyans into independent nationhood.
  • From 1952-1963, the Emergency pitched black Africans (and the Kikuyu especially) into a guerrilla war for independence.  British atrocities during this period confirmed the worst suspicions about the white man being more devil than human and promoted a dichotomy of black-African-good/white-Colonist-bad that was to influence subsequent thinking about the colonial era.  Nonetheless, not all blacks resisted the British (e.g., the spear-carrying soldiers depicted in the accompanying photograph), and the British had some African supporters.
As this overview suggests, the black African response to imperialism in the time leading to the years covered by A Grain of Wheat was not at all passive or submissive, but complex, sophisticated and characterized by a reluctance for reflexive, knee-jerk behavior.  In its diplomacy, the response asserted that Kenyans were a people of a nation dealing as equals with another nation.  In its entirety, the response was one about which Kenyans, including Kihika, could justifiably feel pride, if reductive, backwards-glancing concerns about emasculation and, to use Kihika's word, "weakness," didn't force a less positive interpretation.

For all its admirable undermining of reductive ideologies (explored in this post), A Grain of Wheat could have and should have done more to depict the variegated reality of Kenyan history and to honor the individual men and women whose forbearance, patience and negotiations skills gave the Mau Mau violence its claim to justice - and who made Kihika a freedom fighter, rather than a thug.

(Image of black African soldiers [carrying spears] escorting captured Mau Mau fighters from The Daily Mail)

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