Writer in Residence · 07/01/2013

Prologue of MIGRATORY ANIMALS

First, some confessions: I don’t blog or tweet or tumble, and very rarely post on Facebook; my professional website hasn’t been updated in three years. The emails I send, even to friends, tend to be curt, slapdash, sometimes riddled with errors. I’m just not the kind of person who likes to put myself out there, I guess. Instead, I spend my precious free time mulling things over, staring into space. I eavesdrop. I piddle. I write chicken scratch on napkins or receipts or old grocery lists: eggs, milk, salt, maybe Gloria should become a fire dancer in Chapter 2? I revise and revise and revise, working stories to death and despair. I read in bed, in the park, on the bus, between teaching energetic undergraduates for my job. I toggle back-and-forth between the half dozen Internet sites I like, hoping that one of them has updated in the last five minutes. I drink wine and order dessert, even though I’m trying to save money and watch my waistline. I digress frequently.

This month, however, I’m going to be different. More engaged with the world. More off-the-cuff. More interesting (well, I’ll try anyway). The generous invitation to be writer-in-residence here at Necessary Fiction during the month of July is not one I take lightly. I’ve even decided on a theme: global fiction. Fiction that engages with the broader world outside the U.S., whether it’s set abroad or just has thematic tendrils that sneak outward from our suffocating Americaness. I will post some of my own work, mostly dealing with West Africa. I will post stories and excerpts of novels by writer friends who are engaging with global fiction. I also plan to conduct a few interviews/conversations with writers concerning their process: How do they write fiction about other countries, cultures, political events without exoticizing or patronizing or simplifying or demonizing or romanticizing or all those other zings?

I’m going to begin with the prologue from my own in-progress novel, currently titled Migratory Animals. One of my aims in this section of the book was to provide a vibrant sense of place, quickly, and (hopefully) without bogging down the action. I hope you enjoy it and that it will be a starting point for a larger exploration.

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PROLOGUE (from Migratory Animals)

Ever since her mother died, Flannery had been on the lam.

As her twenties passed by, she let graduate school and then various research grants in climate science take her farther and farther from Texas: Wisconsin, Juneau, The Klondike, West Africa. Sometimes she imagined herself as a spider spinning an enormous web, swinging from one corner of the globe to the other, and like the spider, Flannery didn’t know what it was she wanted—until she caught it.

What Flannery first noticed when she arrived in Nigeria were the towering palm trees. She felt like she’d walked off the airplane into a land of giants. The next morning, Flannery, barefoot, crossed her new front yard and stood beneath one of the sturdy palms, her shoulder blades pressing into the grooved trunk. She tilted her head to look up at the canopy when, suddenly, a flock of birds swept up from the branches, crackling the leaves. Flannery felt that the tree was shaking its head at her.

She met Kunle at an outdoor canteen at the Nigerian university where she had been posted on what was supposed to be a brief data-collecting trip. Sitting at an adjacent table with a soda and a worn textbook, he leaned over and said, “You should try the palm wine.” Kunle wore slacks and a blue button-down Oxford, both ironed within an inch of their lives. Trim and preppy, he looked like one of those idealized husbands in films, usually too straight-laced to be Flannery’s type, the kind of man who kissed a beautiful wife before leaving for the office.

Flannery first thought to ignore him, remembering the U.S. security officer at the consulate who told her to avoid the mainland. “You mean mainland Lagos?” she’d asked, referring to the crowded coastal metropolis of flyovers and shantytowns. “No, the mainland,” he said, sweeping his arm in a grandiose gesture across the map hanging on his wall, indicating the center of the country where she was to complete her research, indicating all of Nigeria, except, of course, the two tiny islands where the consulate offices were located.

But Flannery was not built to be frightened of new things, certainly not this handsome man in glasses sitting next to her at a crowded canteen. So, she ordered a cup of the palm wine and changed her life.

Flan knew she was in love when, during a dinner at her house a few weeks later, Kunle recited a poem he’d jotted down on a scrap of newspaper that ended with the line, “For winter must not steal a kiss.” And then he kissed her, and as he did, he shook. When she decided to stay in Nigeria and work full-time at the research outpost in Jos, Kunle made goat stew to celebrate and gave her a copy of The Palm Wine Drunkard tied with a bow, saying that if she was going to be a white Yoruban, then she should understand her new history. He said, half joking, “This story will tie you to me forever.”

In the novel, the protagonist’s only and entire job is to drink palm wine, tapped from the budding red fruit of the towering West African palms. When his tapper dies falling from a tree, the drunkard makes a perilous journey to Dead Town in the hopes of finding and bringing him back. Flannery was fascinated by a world where drinking palm wine could be a job and where the dead lived in a village down the road.

Reading the novel for the third time, she noticed a line of sweat trickle beneath her shirt, over the vines of star jasmine coiling along her ribs, a tribute to her mother’s garden. Flannery’s own dead were far away, across the world in a place she visited once a year, just long enough to kiss her friends and family on the cheek. On her next trip to the States, Flannery had a palm wine palm tree tattooed alongside the star jasmine on her back. In that moment, it seemed easy to ink a claim to such a thing, such a place. It seemed easy to choose a new home.

Five years passed, and without warning, recession hit and funding for climate science began to dry up. The research post in Jos ran out of money, and Flan’s boss was in the process of shuttering the operation, going back home to the UK. In order to apply for her own funding stream to keep the post open, Flannery needed lab equipment she didn’t have in Nigeria. She needed to return to Texas for awhile—there was no other way—she and Kunle both agreed. Flannery’s stomach turned at the thought of being in the States for so long, the emotional tarpit of a needy sister, old friends and lovers, a grief-stricken and defeated father. Everything that she’d traded for this new man, this new life.

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On the night before her flight, Kunle took her in search of fresh palm wine. They held hands, walking through the overgrown outskirts of the university campus, wide trails winding through frangipani and hibiscus, the gritty dry-season air cutting through Flannery’s mouth and throat. A woman in a bright green wrapper passed by them carrying a computer monitor on her head.

“You oyinbos always carry luck,” Kunle said, stopping suddenly, nodding up to where a palm wine tapper perched dexterously atop one of his trees, wearing baggy brown pants and a sweaty tank top, bare feet gripping the trunk. Tappers spend entire afternoons and evenings climbing palm trees—using nothing more than their feet and a thick strip of woven bark to hoist themselves up—tapping into the flowers at the top of the palms and tying plastic jugs underneath to catch the liquid sap.

She and Kunle waited at the bottom of the tree, and when the tapper touched down, Kunle gave him some naira in exchange for the fresh palm wine. They drank out of little plastic cups with tin lids to keep out the flies. Flannery imagined she and Kunle were bound in the pages of the novel and that sitting and drinking was the only job they had in the world.

Flannery was reminded of an American teacher she’d met who taught Thomas Hardy novels in a Nigerian high school in the sixties and had been surprised to learn that his students had no idea what it meant to kiss. As she sat on a wooden bench drinking her palm wine, morose over own departure the next morning, she asked, “Is kissing un-African?”

Kunle shrugged. “Is not knowing un-American?” He told her that during his undergraduate days he’d dated a girl from an isolated, rural village and that “she’d nearly screamed when I tried to kiss her, ‘Why would you eat my teeth?!’”

Before he could finish the story, Flannery reached her hand behind his head, touching her lips to his. It was dusk and a shadow of bats flew over them in search of insects.

“I can’t stand this,” he whispered into her ear.

She nuzzled him in agreement.

He squared himself in front of her. “Let’s get married.”

She raised her plastic cup high in the air.

“I’m serious,” he said.

She swallowed the rest of the palm wine. They planned to get married one day, had talked about it ad naseum, but she always put him off because a wedding would inevitably involve her family and friends from the other side. Kunle was of this place. Of her life here. Kunle was untainted by the loss and heartbreak her family dragged behind it like a lizard’s tail. But maybe, she thought now, watching the dimple in his cheek hollow into a smile, this long trip to the States was an opportunity to say goodbye to her old life for good.

“Okay. Visit me in Texas and meet my family.” They touched hands, allowing themselves to forget for a moment that travel visas for Nigerians were not quite so simple to obtain. “We’ll have one wedding there and then come home and have a wedding here. We’ll get married squared.”

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To save money, Flannery usually took a shared car from the bus station in Jos to the capital Abuja, where she then caught a flight to Texas via London. But this time, her friend, Mrs. Tonukari, insisted on driving her.

Mrs. T. was an older Welsh woman who had come to Jos with her Nigerian husband in the heady days after Independence. Most of her fellow “Niger Wives” from that time had moved back to their own countries over the years, sometimes with and sometimes without the husband in tow. But not Mrs. T.

Mrs. T. shrugged when Flannery and Kunle sat in the backseat, pressing their bodies together like desperate teenagers drunk on hormones. The woman had never said explicitly that she didn’t approve of Kunle. Instead, she liked to whisper to Flannery over tea about how Nigerian men were incapable of monogamy. Or how nobody in this country was incorruptible in the long run.

The car jolted up and down over incessant potholes, Flannery with one palm on Kunle’s blue-jeaned thigh, one around the ropy tendons of his neck. They passed women and children selling groundnuts and toothbrushes, a roadside shack with a sign that read in pidgin “Make We Talk Intervention Site,” and the occasional palm tree surveying rolling hills of dirt.

At the airport, Kunle unloaded bags from the jerry-rigged trunk of the ancient Peugeot, and Mrs. Tonukari, wearing a button-up housedress that matched her short old-lady hair, one tooth missing, hands mangled by arthritis, turned to Flannery and said, “It’s hard to come back, you know.”
Kunle looked at Flannery hard, knowingly, from where he stood on the curb, her rucksack slung over his shoulder. Then, he winked. “I’ll be right behind you.” This was his first time at a real airport.

Once, when Flannery and Kunle lay sex-sweaty on their thin mattress, he’d asked if, when Flannery flew, she didn’t send insurance policies from a machine in the airport. Flannery had stared at him, unsure how to react. Kunle had never been on an airplane.

“No way, José. That’s bad luck. And machines like that don’t exist,” she’d said, kicking the mosquito net with her foot.

Squinting as the flames from a candle played across his face, he told her he’d read about them somewhere.

“You’ll be on a plane one day,” she said, “and you can see for yourself.”

A year after this exchange, Flannery came across the story of an automated insurance machine in a memoir by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. In the sixties, when he was a young man returning to Nigeria after studying at Leeds, Soyinka wrote about a machine in the London airport where, for a fee, it spit out an insurance policy you could read and sign right there and then drop into a special mail slot.

Flannery ran into the room and showed the passage to Kunle as though she were the one who’d discovered it: “Look. He says he went crazy, sending them to dozens of people. Guys he owed chop to. Family. Anyone he could think of. Other passengers began freaking out, wondering if he knew something about the flight they didn’t.”

At the time, she’d stared at Kunle’s serious face, with its three symmetrical scars running down the left side, noticing for the first time how he looked a little like the photograph of the young Soyinka on the book’s flap jacket: cheekbones like machetes; bony shoulders perched over a girlish waist; liquid body like a dancer.

A harried woman behind the British Airways counter at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport looked at Flannery like she was an imbecile when she asked for directions to the automated life insurance machine. She handed Flannery a boarding pass.

Sitting at her gate, Flannery closed her eyes, readying herself to face her sister, who would be waiting when she arrived in Austin. She thought: The only thing that will keep me from coming back to this place is if the plane goes down.

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posted by Mary Helen Specht