Talking with Peter Chilson (page 3)
Talking with Peter Chilson
page 1, page 2, page 3,
You mentioned something to my students that I was really happy to hear you say to them. You told them Africa is a “really mellow place to hang out.” Do you think that experience is in the book?
Well, it is, unless you are like me and you go looking for trouble. The pace of life in Africa is much slower. In fact, much of life — eating, taking tea, greeting people on the street, etc. — is lived with great ritual. To survive there requires a certain amount of patience, a willingness to wait, a willingness to spend time with people.
     I once was detained with a whole busload of people because gendarmes at a checkpoint found a water bottle full of marijuana seeds on board. It was not clear who the owner was, and the gendarmes pushed around the old man who had been sitting in the seat closest to the seeds. They quickly figured out, though, that the guilty party had run off into the bush during the confusion.      Anyway, the point of the story is that I spent a very pleasant 24 hours under guard in jail playing cards and drinking tea with other passengers and our guards. Going to jail for a short time worked out to be a great opportunity to meet soldiers, talk to them, and spend more time with the people I was traveling with. When the soldiers saw this white guy was not going to freak and get angry, they went out of their way to make me comfortable. African jails aren’t usually that mellow. But a more flexible, mellow point of view helped me get through that.
     There is a little of that in my book, but I admit the mellowness of African life really isn’t what my book is about.
In the book you write that when you left Africa the first time you felt “dissatisfied with your understanding of the place and its effect on you.” Any closer to a satisfied understanding?
No. The more I learned, the more I feel I need to know and the more I realized I don’t understand. I spent time in only a small portion of that continent. Niger alone is a country with 16 languages, none of which I speak well. And Niger has an amazing wealth of cultural traditions, a bit of which I experienced.
     One thing I learned: I take seriously the ritual of African social life, the idea of investing time and energy in personal relationships no matter how trivial. So, for instance, when dealing with folks over at the Post Office, I say “hi” and try to make the transaction, however banal and businesslike, as human as possible.
Finally, what are you working on? And when you will you write about Africa again? (Maybe that’s a request.) I’d be happy to show you around Kenya where ladies mob the bush taxis with pineapple on a stick and all around is green, green, green.
I am working on a novel that explores themes that revolve around the conflict between science and land values in the American West. And, I’m working on a nonfiction book that explores how people live in and culturally interpret open space in West Africa and the American West. The nonfiction book is tentatively entitled, In Large and Sunlit Land, a line I took from a Kipling poem about South Africa.
Bird Cupps lives in central Pennsylvania and works as a carpenter and creative writer teacher at Penn State. She is currently writing a book on building and grief.
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