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Winner of the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction, 2014
Selected by Helen Benedict
Working so closely with child mortality must be taxing. Was writing “Forty-One Months” a cathartic experience?
It was cathartic and it was an attempt to organize my thoughts about Thato’s death, but for me the story is primarily a memorial – a kind of eulogy. When I learned that BLR was going to run this piece it was heartening to think that some people who had never met Thato might know his name, that some people outside his family and his village might have cause to think about his brief life for a moment, perhaps allow it to give some context to their own lives and experiences. So while the process of writing this story was a useful experience personally, overall the story is much more externally driven, intended more as an act of memorial, eulogy, and acknowledgement – as an act of preservation.
Some of the most powerful moments in “Forty-One Months” are brief breaks from the narrative—your meditations on “consolation” and “perverse joys of working at the safe home,” for example. How do you decide to structure your writing? Do you think about structure before you start writing?
For me the first draft is usually an attempt to get the rudimentary facts straight, get the general narrative down. If in that process an idea strikes me that is not strictly chronological, I might insert it as a bullet point between paragraphs and return to it later. Once I’ve got the basics down and once I’ve let the story sit for a while, then I tend to think about structure: Is there some point where stepping outside the narrative for a bit of analysis would be useful? Is there a buried and accidental arc emerging, something that needs definition? Is there any benefit to telling the story out of order or withholding information initially? I usually deal with those questions after the first draft. And in nonfiction writing I find that some of my structural choices are a reaction to the general unpredictability of real life. The brief encounter with Thato’s father happened long after I had written several drafts of this story, but I knew it didn’t belong as the final scene here, knew it could do more outside the strict chronology of events.
When working in these situations, how do you handle the vast divide—in wealth, in health, in luck—between you and those you work with?
Living in a culture that is not your own requires significant mindfulness about privilege and status. The more honest and self-aware you are, and the more you acknowledge your own participation in these unequal structures, the more trustworthy you become. This can allow you to move more fluidly through another culture, can help to bridge those divides. Throughout my time in Lesotho I have tried to tread carefully in any situation where the power differential might tilt in my favor, and there are many situations where that imbalance is not immediately clear. With this in mind I tried always to observe before acting, to invest my energy in watching, listening, and learning. This can be a tricky thing for the American mind – prioritizing ‘be’ over ‘do’.
But looking at this question of ‘the vast divide’ from a different angle, I was always struck by the commonalities and the universals, surprised by how frequently familiar life in Lesotho could be, despite how different my position was from many Basotho. “Forty-One Months” comes from a book in progress about the Kingdom of Lesotho, and it is perhaps unrepresentative of the book as a whole, at least tonally. This is a sad story, but so many more of the stories in the book are joyful and celebratory. My experience of Lesotho is that of a place where people are forever attempting to reach out, to welcome and include, and to bridge those divides that do exist.
What is your biggest challenge as a writer?
I am always aiming toward ruthlessness when it comes to my own writing – that is, trying to eradicate the indulgent passages, the places where I’ve gotten carried away listening to the sound of my own voice. I always feel good when a final draft comes out a third shorter than the original draft. It requires two separate modes: first you have to write passionately and loosely, and then you have to put it down, pick it back up, and (after the caffeine wears off) say: Nope, cut, too precious, boring, get on with it, delete. In this regard, I am aiming toward heartlessness.
Which writers have influenced you? What are you currently reading?
I recently read Helen DeWitt’s novel Lightning Rods, which takes a hilarious and eviscerating look at Capitalism-speak and the dehumanizing power of the CEO cliché. Other contemporary writers that will forever make me swoon include George Saunders and Zadie Smith, who both generally love humankind. And John Brandon’s Citrus County was one of the most electrifying novels I’ve read in years: funny and disturbing in equal measures.
Going further back, two Johns come to mind: Steinbeck for his faith in the underdog and Cheever for the grace of his writing. Renata Adler’s Speedboat was another thrilling example of what a novel can look like (I’ve got Pitch Dark in my reading queue now too). And during my most recent stay in Lesotho I had the opportunity to read Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, a book I might have previously (and ignorantly) dismissed as too “slow”. It is a beautiful book that – in its descriptions of Nebraska frontier life – takes on countless strange and lovely parallels to life in rural Lesotho.
I could gush endlessly – and I see that I’ve only referenced fiction so far – so I’ll briefly list my three favorite names in the world of nonfiction: John Jeremiah Sullivan.