Elaine Neil Orr on historical fiction

Elaine Neil Orr and I shared a childhood in Nigeria as missionary kids, so it was a special pleasure to read her new historical novel. After an adulthood apart, we met again one afternoon in Asheville, N.C., and talked about how the story of actual nineteenth-century missionaries Lurana and Thomas Jefferson Bowen became the story of fictional Emma and Henry in A Different Sun.– Carol Polsgrove, May 2013


I wonder if there’s any particular incident of your childhood that found its way into the book, or any scenes, anything special that you could trace back to childhood memories.

I think it’s all the myriad details, the look of the palm trees, the sound of the rainstorm and how you heard it coming over the hills, and then you smelled it before it hit – all that experience of the coming of the rain, and the Harmattan, and those cool evenings, and the smell of the fires, the outdoor cooking fires – that sweet smell.

 Did you sit down and make a list of all the sights and smells you could remember? Or did you find that they bubbled up when you created a scene?

They bubbled up.  I really think I’m a poet more than I am a prose writer, naturally. Creating an image is my gift. Writing memoir was a good second step from that because a memoir can meander, so I could create these poetic moments. But with a novel of course I really had to have a plot.

How did you get started on what the plot was going to be?

The backbone of the book was suggested by Lurana Bowen’s diary – the historical woman whose diary I had a copy of, which was given to me by my mother. So there were the [Bowens’] three years in the country implied by that diary – the move to Ijaye and the move to Ogbomosho, which is in the novel. But that’s not a plot, that’s a story. So to get the tension on the page, you have to decide where is the main conflict, what is the main conflict, and then all the other conflicts have to support that one.

At first I wrote chapters that were little anthropologies. I tried to come up with scenes – what might have happened, like Emma might have had dinner with the king’s wives, and I’d write scenes where that happened. I wrote a gorgeous scene that I cut out of the book ­– a fantastic scene, that I cut, because it was part of that early brainstorming of material. And then I had more than one plot, and I had to get rid of  those and be sure the subplots were supporting the main plot.

Essential to the story is the mental turmoil of Henry, the main male character, the missionary, and I understand that [Thomas Jefferson] Bowen died in a mental hospital.

It’s actually in Lurana Bowen’s diary – his illness – and in excerpts of his diary which I found. He had described himself as thrashing around in the bed until he fell out. And he described himself as experiencing episodes of going out of his head. He was rather open about it. He was forever writing about the ague, which was a catch-all phrase for something that may have been the flu, it may have been malaria. Malaria was known, but the cause and treatment of it were not. Cerebral malaria no one knew about. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was not diagnosed, and all those things perhaps were causing him distress.

And did he mention that he took laudanum ­in his letters?

Yes – he takes laudanum, all the time, and he drinks whisky. Those were medical treatments. And they purchased wine and took these alcoholic drinks as part of their medical treatment. It’s quite interesting for a Baptist missionary.

 I wondered how Baptists now would respond to that – and also how they’d respond to the feelings of lust that Emma has for Henry’s assistant, Jacob. Have you had any sense from Southern Baptist readers of whether they find this bothersome?

A woman who has played a very large role in the [Baptist] Women’s Missionary Union is a huge supporter of the novel, and she’s approaching everyone she can think of and telling them, “You need to read this book, it’s going to remind you of our history, and how missions are so important to who we are.” So she’s mounting a campaign for Baptists to read the book. So I don’t think she is troubled by it. My mother’s read it, she didn’t seem troubled. My sister as well, so I don’t know. I imagine that people who are troubled wouldn’t tell me.

A piece of my mother’s life – not the lust – that did influence the novel (and I should say that it’s my mother’s life as well as Lurana Bowen’s that provides material): I was aware that my mother spent a great deal of her time in the house with African men. I don’t think I observed it as a girl – looking back, I realized it, and then I put it together with stories. Over the years she told me about how when she first went to the field, “Ishola was the person who saved my life. If he hadn’t been there to teach me how to manage in the market, to deal with those women…”

My mother credited him with her survival – Ishola, a Yoruba man, who became our cook. So I was inspired by that, I and I thought, Here is this woman in 1853 with a sick husband, who’s an adventurer, really – a former Texas ranger. He’s out there all the time; he’s got wanderlust. He wants to go.”

He’s driven –

He’s driven, and any time he’s well enough to do anything, he’s off. So here she is in a country with no other white person, and there’s an attractive man her own age who knows English and can write and is smart ­– seems natural to me that thrown into his arms, she might realize something that actually I realized when I went back to Nigeria in 2003. This was the first time I’d been in twenty years. It was after I’d written my memoir. I traveled to the east, and I was on the second floor of the humanities building of the University of Nigeria at Nsukka. This was the day I had arrived, and I was looking out – it was an open air building – and I saw this man walking across the field, and I thought to myself, There is a man. It was as though I had not seen a man for twenty-five years. I was like, That’s a man. But when I was a girl I didn’t know I was thinking that. I had no idea, because you know I had a crush on the white boys, American comrades of mine at Newton, but clearly it entered me, so maybe I should say some of my own experience also influences the novel.

I was thinking about another way in which you are in the novel. You have yourself had battles with illness, and that’s central to the book.

I did draw on that, especially for Henry. It was so interesting that I could cross over. The novel is narrated from three points of view and two of them are men’s points of view. Emma’s is the one that is dominant, but Henry, her husband, is the one that has the most physical distress, and I drew from my own.

It seems to me that your capturing of their religious views is exceptional. I get a sense of why these missionaries think they’re there.

One of the challenges of the novel was that I want to be true to Emma’s piety. She really has a faith, she really believes, as my mother did. I’ve never understood it, I didn’t understand it then. I may have a faith, but it’s not that kind of evangelical drive. So that was part of the challenge of fiction to create a character who isn’t me, who is really someone else.

What made you able to do that?

One of the things I’ve come away with, having written a novel, is that if you dwell long enough with your characters you begin to understand them, and you love them, even if they’re deeply flawed, and they become who they are, they inhabit your novel. In a way it’s their novel too.

 Your language has a Victorian lilt, and I think the expression of their religion comes through this little archaic touch to the language.

I seem to have access to that in ways I’m not entirely sure how. Occasionally it’s biblical – it’s the cadence of Isaiah or the Psalms. It may be my history of reading novels. I studied novels for the period, and I searched for words. I read Cold Mountain, for example, and I found a few words, and I did a Google search for nineteenth-century phrases. And then I had all the Bowens’  letters – so many of their papers, letters, diaries, and so I was steeped in their language, which was slightly archaic and formal.

 One part of your research for the book was in papers, but you made several journeys back to Nigeria.

The first time I went back, I simply found out where the Bowen marker was so that I could look out and see – okay, from here can I see hills? And I went to the [Nigerian Baptist Theological] Seminary library to see if they had any papers that were different from what I had already found in [the International Mission Board archive in] Richmond. I actually thought they might have Lurana’s original Red Diary.  There are records of it in letters up through the 60s and then it seems to have disappeared.

Then on subsequent trips I went to Ijaye and I found the marker where their first mission was. Then I tried to find where the streams were, even though Peter Gilliland [another Nigerian MK from our time there] has told me the streams might have changed, but it was good enough for me – and walk around and see – okay, there are baobabs here, and what other trees are here? And in this season of the year what’s blooming? What’s the evening feel like? I did take pictures.

 Did you keep a journal?

I did. Each time. And each time I tried to pick up a little bit of Yoruba to put in the book. Not that I learned it, but I would ask, What is this called? What’s the name of that bird – so I could put that bird into the book.

You visited a chief –

I visit the king of Ogbomosho every time I go. He’s got this ancient turtle, which he claims is 300 years old, so I put the turtle in the book. I think the turtle is mentioned by the Bowens – a turtle is, whether it’s the same one or not. I went to the king’s old palace, which was there when the Bowens  were there, actually on the lands where they were received by the Soun [the king].

How much help did you get from missionaries and missionary kids?

Peter Gilliland gave me his maps of Ijaye. He told me a lot. For example, because of the wars and so on, Ogbomosho, which was already a fairly big town, would not have had forest coming right up to the gate. It would have had cleared land, so you could see the enemy coming. And I would not have known that. Peter was probably the most helpful MK, because he studied all of this, he was going to write a dissertation on the Ijaye War.

The person who was most helpful in terms of Yoruba culture generally was Yomi Durotoye, a professor at Wake Forest, and he was my Yoruba guru, and from the beginning I talked to him about the plot, and I talked to him about Uncle Eli –

 Uncle Eli is a slave of Emma’s family back in Georgia –

He’s significant to the plot. He helps set it in motion.

You’ve said of Yomi Durotoye that he planted the seed for the book.

He read my memoir, Gods of Noonday, and when he read it – that was when I met him, through a mutual friend – he invited me to his house, and he said, “I know what happened in your memoir. He called to mind a scene that my mother had related to me, of seeing her grandmother seated with two African-American women: “They were African-American women but they were with my grandmother, and I wondered if they were half-sisters.” Perhaps they had a common ancestor. According to Yomi, one of those women, after she died, her spirit was still wandering around South Carolina, and when my mother was appointed, she somehow entered my mother, and traveled with her to Yoruba land, and was reborn as me. So I’m an actual Yoruba woman. And I loved that idea.

And we’re not going to spoil the story – ! How would you say your relationship to Nigeria changed by writing this book?

Toyin Falola, who’s the most esteemed Yoruba historian in the world read my memoir, and he has read this book, and he helped me as well, and told me about a book, Religious Encounter and The Making of the Yoruba [by J.D.Y. Peel], which I studied, and that book argues for a great deal of agency in the creation of the Yoruba Baptist church, and, really, the Christian church in West Africa. Basically his idea challenges any simplistic view of colonialism that believes or sees colonized people as simply imprinted –

Helpless –

Helpless, victims of this imprint of European and American nations. Instead he argues that whatever came to them they used to create their own cloth, to create their own art, their own religion, their own sensibility and so on. I think reading that book and then going back to these early materials you see that really Yoruba people had some choice about whether they were going to embrace this new god, and this new divinity Jesus. That book caused me to have a deeper understanding of Yoruba culture then and now, and to see and understand that history more from a perspective of their agency.

That’s a strength of your book – in the way that Yorubas in the book are responding to the church, the ones who come to services and talk to the missionaries, there’s an ambiguity. You don’t know if some of these people just think these white foreigners are interesting, or if they are courteous to them because they’re strangers. You don’t have any sense of uncritical embracing of this new thing.

And also you don’t have a sense of violent rejection – none of the things that might stereotypically be thought about the early colonial exercise of Christianity or introduction of Christianity into West Africa. At this point in history white people were pretty much at the mercy of their hosts. Emma is very much at the mercy of her hosts when her husband’s ill. And they are not thought of as wealthy, beautiful. They’re thought of as curious, interesting. And there are some traditional chiefs and kings who are interested in having a white man in their town, they think it might help their trade, they think that there might be some good luck that he might bestow, but you also have a feeling at this point in history that if all the white people had left and never come back, the news of them would have died out in three years. So I loved being there at that point because we can see there are some choices being made. Now it’s also true that later the British came with guns and there were power shifts, but even then I think there was always some choice, and some negotiation and maneuver.

I would say this is a very different view of missions from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, but it’s also in a different part of Africa –

And a different era. A bit of instruction that I gained from her that she might not have expected me to gain was that I felt it absolutely necessary to give the husband’s point of view. But that’s because I’m curious to know the humanity of the missionaries. I’m not sure that that was her curiosity. My parents were missionaries. I know a lot of missionaries. I know a lot about them, and so it was very important to me to understand them.

She doesn’t tell any of her story from the point of view of Africans.

No, and of course this was a risk for me to take Jacob’s point of view. But I wanted to see these people from that point of view, and I thought, I’m going to try it, why shouldn’t I?

And you’ve had Yorubas read the book and they like it?

Yes, yes. They like it. Yomi and Toyin.

Do you feel, having lived imaginatively in that world over a hundred years ago that you saw its continuity to the time when you and I were growing up in Nigeria?

Yes, absolutely. It’s recognizable in the way market women are, in the way that there’s a great deal of pride and sense of honor and prestige among some people. Andy, my husband, says, “I just love the children in the novel,” (and he’s been to Nigeria) “and their sense of worth and value, they’re not intimidated, they’re very curious and bold and bright.” The way men walk, their beauty, music – there’s so much that’s still there, not just when we were growing up but now.

 Were there any historical novels that were particularly helpful to you as you figured out how to write a novel after writing a memoir?.

I did look at Cold Mountain because there was a man and woman, two stories, they’re traveling together and apart. There are some similar traumas.

Same period.

Cold Mountain is actually a little later because it’s Civil War.

I did wonder what Faulkner would have done with this material. I tried to imagine that.

(Laughs) Actually when I was trying to get into the darkness of Henry at the beginning, I read Light in August, which is very dark. Henry doesn’t end up being that dark.  Toni Morrison was very influential – Song of Solomon. I wanted to have that mystery. There’s plot, that’s one thing, but there’s the mystery, that has to do with Emma’s journey from the beginning, that is dropped like little pieces of bread all the way across the Atlantic, and finally at the end she figures it out and the reader figures it out.

You wrote some of the book at writers’ retreats like Hambidge Center in Georgia. What is it that you can do at a writers’ retreat that you can’t do at home?

Write a novel. I couldn’t write a novel in bits and pieces during the year while I was being a professor. I could maybe write a few scenes, but by mid-semester I couldn’t even do that. So during a semester you could write a short story, or you might write a short memoir, or a poem or a few poems, but a novel – you can’t sustain it. So the summers were when I did the writing. The first summer I think I wrote maybe 125 pages. The second summer it was 250. Every summer it got bigger, and I would completely retype the entire manuscript at a writers’ colony, and it would be a new draft. And when I returned to teaching, I would play with it and read it in my writers’ group, and I might be able to stay with it for a while, but it was always in the summer that I would go back and do a complete revision. I actually think that it’s probably good that it took me six years to write this novel. I’d never written fiction, I needed that long, and being away from it and coming back to it, with that kind of space, meant I really had a fresh perspective on it, I could really be critical. And in Georgia I could observe the countryside. These characters are from Georgia. You’re always taking something from whatever writers’ colony you’re in. Even if it’s a different part of the country you might notice something about how water flows downhill. There are always these gifts of the place you go to.