blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



So since I wrote my book and have had to go on this book tour that’s taking me—starting New York City down into Florida, Arizona—all the way to the West Coast, I’ve had to read in all these different places, some of them strange, but I’m always going to remember when I read in the Quiznos here at VCU.

So my book, Whiteman, it’s a novel, it’s fiction. But it’s loosely based on my experience, my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. I joined the Peace Corps as I was finishing up my MFA at Notre Dame. I didn’t know where they were going to send me, and they ended up sending me to Côte d’Ivoire, which is in West Africa. It’s the world’s largest producer of chocolate. My mission there was to teach HIV/AIDS prevention, because in a country of 14 million people, one in four is infected with HIV.

I thought when I was going into it that I would see skeletons walking around, but that’s not what you see. You don’t see sick people. And why is that? Because they have a stigma against it—against people who get sick with it—like we used to have and some ways still do. When someone starts getting sick and they get skinny, they hide them in the back of the hut, and then when they die, they bury them quickly.

A lot of people ask me, “Are you nervous when you talk in front of crowds?” Uh, no. Let me tell you why. Where they sent me was a small village in the north of the country, about 700 people. They were Muslims, but not like Middle Eastern Muslims, these are African Muslims. They still retain a lot of their traditional religious beliefs: fetish worship, mask worship.

My job was to talk about HIV. So what did I do? I learned the language. I learned the customs. I lived there in that village, in a hut—no electricity, no running water. And then I would go to the chief of that village or the surrounding villages and I’d say, “I’d like to talk to your young people about HIV.” And after I’d get through the protocols and everything, the chiefs would let me do that.

And so usually Fridays, the holy day, when people are in the village and not out in the fields, I would go to this new village and in the chief’s courtyard would be three or four hundred Africans sitting on mats, waiting for me to talk to them about HIV. And what did I have to do? Ultimately, at some point, I would pull out a wooden penis, and I had to roll a condom over the wooden penis. So am I nervous to talk in front of people? I was then. Not so much anymore.

I’m going to read a passage from the book. The book’s called, Whiteman. If you go to Africa, and you’re white, people are going to call you white man. If you’re light-skinned African American, they’re going to call you white man. I’m half white. That was my whole identity the time I was there—white man—because for them, that’s what I was. So that’s the title of the book. Of course, they said it in the local language, toubabou.

At this point in the book, my character, Jack, has been in the village for about two years.

[From Whiteman, by Tony D’Souza, published 2006 by Harcourt.]

A lot of people are reading the book and they are asking me like, “When you did this? When you did that? In that scene when you did this? When you went hunting with the witch doctor?” You know, I have to step back and say, I made this up; this is a novel. It is based on my experiences. Where does the fiction come in? Like that scene. Is that a made up scene? Did that fight really happen?

A fight like that happened. What I remember from that fight was the noise in the middle of the night in the village. I slept in a hut. The only really Western thing I had was a mosquito net that I slept under. And usually the village was quiet. Sometimes on a full moon the dogs would all howl at once for whatever reason for about five minutes. Everyone would wake up—like why are the dogs howling? And then they’d stop. But for the most part, it was quiet at night. People were afraid. There’s no light; it’s dark. When there’s no moon, it’s really dark.

So this one night I’m on my mat and I hear people running, people yelling, shouting. Well I go out and there’s this fight going on. And it was true, like the moon was full. And everything was covered in a silver light. I mean it was beautiful. In the story, I say it looked like everything was covered with snow. And for me, personally, that’s ironic, because Africa was the hottest place I have ever been. I sweat through my shirt for three years and never, never got used to it.

So, you know, the village is covered in snow. That was one point where nobody was paying any attention to me. Whereas, for the most part, they always were. I was so different, so interesting to them. I had this table in my hut. Children would sometimes crawl in there and I wouldn’t know there were in there, under the table, until I’d feel a pinch on my leg. And they’re pulling my leg hair. Am I really real? Stuff like that. And that was one moment where I felt like I wasn’t the outsider. You know, I wasn’t the thing to be stared at. I wasn’t the minority. I was just me, participating in the village.

Q: Why did you decide to write it as fiction?

TD: Why did I decide to write it as fiction? The fight was not as intense as in the book. You know, I want to entertain people. I want to make it interesting.

Q: [partially unitelligible] . . . interest in doing the memoir . . . .

TD: No, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. I also don’t think it’d be nearly as true, you know? Fiction, what do I enjoy about fiction? It allows me to explore those things that I think about, that I wonder about, that I imagine. And when a story’s good, at the end of it, it feels right. It feels like it really happened. And then people say to me, “When you did this? When you did that?”

Yeah, I’ll read another passage. This is relatively early in the book. He’s got a command of the language now, but he’s still kind of new. Something’s happened in the chapter before this that I’m not going to talk about. It has an affect here. You’ll be all right.

[From Whiteman, by Tony D’Souza, published 2006 by Harcourt.]

Q:I don’t know if we talked about this at lunch or not, but what was the experience like getting this story solicited by The New Yorker?

TD: What happened at the end of my service was that the country fractured into civil war. The Muslim North versus the Christian South. And it has to do with colonialism. When the French left, they left the Christians in power. And the Christians have used the Muslims as slave labor on the chocolate plantations for forty years. The strong man who controlled the country died in 1998 and it slowly was descending into civil war. It happened while I was there. The countries divided right in half, and I was caught.

I say caught, but I felt safe. I was with the people I lived with, trusted, knew, sympathized with. But I was on the other side of the war front. And when the Peace Corps sent me a secret message on the BBC—like we listened on our short wave radio, every hour, you know, —like when the war started, fighting was going on, they sent out the secret message that we learned in training. Peace Corps was going to have its meeting in Abijan and then some other stuff and then I knew. I had to go now.

You weren’t supposed to tell anybody, you were supposed to just go. I had a choice to make then. Do I stay here where I feel safe or do I go and have to go across the war zone? The thing was, is if I didn’t follow the message, then Peace Corps was officially not responsible for me. And no matter how much I trusted the people and loved where I was, there was nothing to hide this. And sooner or later somebody would have used the currency that that is to get something and I would have been the currency, so I made a run across the war zone. It was very scary, frightening.

So after I came back, I worked on an orphanage in Madagascar for about six months because I just wasn’t ready to come back here. And then after that was over, I wandered all around Africa. I went to like every country; I tried to go to the most dangerous countries. And then my money ran out and I had no choice but to come back here.

And a question a lot of people ask me is like, “Was it hard to go over there?” Yes, it was hard. It was hot. The conditions were different than what we’re used to having here. And I was also in a fish bowl. And I was the fish; everyone was staring at me. But it was also hard to come home. As hard to come back here, for a lot of reasons.

In any case, I didn’t want to write the book. I had a lot of moral questions I had to deal with in writing this book, because I didn’t go to Africa—certainly I went looking for life experience—but I didn’t go with a plan to come home and write a book and make money off of it. So that was a moral question I had to deal with. And also the idea of writing about people who I cared about who were suffering, and they didn’t know I’m doing that. They had no idea I’m here. The people I worked and lived with, it’s three years now, I’ve had to word from them. They’re in the rebel area. There’s no post office. Nothing’s going on. I have no idea.

About a year after I was back, I began to write it. Those moral questions I still don’t have answers to and they still trouble me. But something about it feels right—that it’s the right thing to do. So I finished the book. I write it fast, five months. I sent it to my agent and she reads it in ten days, including the Thanksgiving holiday. She calls me. “I love the book. I want to represent it.” I was like, “Yeah. For sure.” Her last two big books were Brokeback Mountain and Memoirs of a Geisha. So she says, “We’re going to send it out next week.” And she sends it to eight publishers. By Friday, five days later, we had calls from five of them expressing interest in the book. And I spent a week taking calls from these editors.

And and then other things began to happen. The New Yorker bought a chapter. Playboy bought a chapter. But going back to your question, “What did it feel like to be in the New Yorker?” I was telling Bryant [Mangum] this before. I’d submitted stories for years to The New Yorker. Every single one was rejected. So I mean, did I jump for joy when The New Yorker called? No. My agent told me, I said, “Okay,” I hung up the phone and I said, “The New Yorker,” you know? Just kind of pissed.

So then when I went to New York and had a meeting, my agent says to me, “Aren’t you glad to be in The New Yorker?” And I said, “Frankly, after being rejected by them for so many times, you know.” And she said, “That’s the answer.” She said, “Now I know you’re a real writer.” Because writers submit to The New Yorker and they get rejected by The New Yorker for years and they get a little bitter. So that’s the answer to your question.

Q: Did you write while you were in Africa? Did you have any of these experiences and what were you writing then?

TD: Yeah. Before I left, I was in an MFA program. I’d started to publish stories. It felt like I had a beginning career. And I planned on writing. Peace Corps partly was altruistic, partly because my mom was in the Peace Corps and met my dad in India in the 60s, and the other part was like, I thought I could write there. I thought I’d have a lot of time. I wouldn’t be like working a nine to five job. But nothing could prepare me for what the conditions were like where they sent me.

The easy thing to say would be like primitive. It’s not. It’s different. What’s different about it is like we’re not really prepared to live like that. It’s hard work. You have to grow your own food. You have to do every little thing. I thought I was going to write there. I had to have a carpenter make a special table. Nobody uses tables. Everybody, you know, sits on stools on the ground, you eat from communal pots. So where am I going to write? Like lay on the ground and write? So I had this table made. Everyone’s looking at my table, you know, why? And ultimately when the questions become difficult, I would just be like, look it’s a white man thing and they’d be like, “Oh, okay.”

So I spent my first three months in my village after training trying to write. And I’d try to write during the day. The paper would stick to my arm because I was sweating through it. And there were like flies on my eyelashes. And the other thing was that in my doorway, in my courtyard, were always 20 to 30 kids sitting down and just looking at me, and it was kind of hard to focus on what I was doing. And that’s when they would crawl in and pull my leg hair which was a game.

But part of that period of time was my transition—getting used to being this person, being this center of attention. I wasn’t ready to do it the very first day. It took some time. And I think that writing—what I was doing was part of that. And ultimately I said, “What are you here to do? Is this about you? Or is this about having this experience?” So I put the writing away, and I went out and had it.

That said, every night I wrote in my journals by my hurricane lamp and when I’d get some R and R, I’d hole up in a city that had electricity, in a little hotel, and I would write. And I’d send those stories home and my mom would submit them for me. Yeah. And then when the war happened I had all this stuff. I had to leave it there. It’s gone. That was something I had to deal with too. But I made a decision. Just forget it. Move on.

Q: It's your Hemingway's suitcase.

TD: It’s not, in fact. And the reason it’s not is because, for everything he achieved in his life . . . . The story is Hemingway, when he was real young, beginning writing, he was in the mountains, his wife was in Paris, and she was coming to meet him, and she thought she’d be nice and bring his stories with her in his little briefcase. She gets mugged at the rail station. The stories are gone. Three stories. Short stories probably about four or five pages each. He cried about those things his whole life. And look what he achieved. You know, totally insincere.

Q: Yes, but there can be a whole academic industry around trying to find your lost manuscripts . . .

TD: Well, I hope not.

Q: . . . since there is no Hemingway's Lost Stories.

TD: That’s for someone else to spend their life doing.

Q: How long did you study the language . . . .

TD: It was really, really difficult. I spoke other languages before I went. But they were European languages and the first one was hard to learn. And then once I learned that I was able to learn other languages pretty quickly. But the syntax, the structure, the basic structure, of a sentence in this African language was very different. I had to get used to that.

The short answer is it really took me a year and a half to be able to have simple conversations with people. And then by the two year mark, I mean, I was starting to understand what they were saying when they weren’t like talking dumb Worodougou to me. When they were just speaking regular Worodougou to each other I could begin to understand. And it was so great to feel like, now I know I can meet everyone. Most of the conversations were mundane conversations of life, you know?

But also my chief, he really liked me to come and sit with him at night. And he was old, and he didn’t speak French, so for a long time I was just sitting there to pay him his respect. And he would tell me things and I would nod my head—I didn’t know what he was saying—but then he told me these wonderful stories. Stories of like the mole, of the pangolin, of the gazelles, and what the animals do. I began to be saturated with these stories and this way of story telling. And I think the story telling in the book has a feel of oral story telling hence.

So, yeah, it took a long time and it was hard work. I kept notebooks. I made a lot of mistakes. I often felt so stupid. I think that was the hardest part, was feeling like, whatever I am, I feel like I’m not a dumb guy. And to have like people laughing at me all the time because I can’t even say like, “Can I have a glass of water?” But that was it.

Q: Do you hope to go back there someday?

TD: Yeah, I’d go tomorrow. If someone would buy me a ticket. Now I’m doing some nonfiction first for some of the magazines, so I’ve pitched an idea to Outside Magazine to go back on a motorcycle. But it’s not going to happen because not enough “product placement opportunity.”

Q: Is it still unsafe there?

TD: Yeah, it’s a stalemate now. I mean the UN is patrolling a buffer zone. The western part of the country borders Liberia so a lot of the bandits from Liberia are turning the west of Ivory Coast into a bad place. You know massacres and all the stuff. But that violence aspect, that was not what I wanted to say about Africa.

That was an element of my experience in Africa, and it makes me feel horrible. One, that it happened and two, that I’m coming back and talking about it to people and reinforcing this idea of Africa that we have that Conrad gave to us and that we’ve always had since. But, you know, Whiteman begins and ends with violence, but the bulk of the book is not about violence, it’s about life in the village.

Q: Now you said you learned some story telling techniques from your chief. Did you use those when you were doing the HIV outreaches?

TD: I’m using them right now. To be a story teller, to be like a grio , you have to decide to step up and tell the stories. So in those presentations, that’s where I got that from because the people were there, sitting there, looking at me. You know, I was there to do it. I had done everything to arrange it, and there they are, and I’m so scared to pull out this thing, just to be there in the first place. And then, you know, you just have to step up and do it.

The oral story telling—I paid a lot of attention to the rhythms of English. I stayed mostly in the Anglo-Saxon. I didn’t use much Latin because, I don’t know, I find that Anglo-Saxon gives you more opportunities to find good rhythms in sentences and things like that.

Q: So it did have an effect, you feel like, on the prose style that you wrote.

Yeah, it absolutely did, but I’m working on a new book. It’s not about Africa. It’s not in that book. It’s this book. This book about Africa.

Well, let me read a poem and we’ll finish up that way. This poem’s called, “Old Friends.”

[“Old Friends” by Tony D’Souza, published summer 2005 by Notre Dame Review, issue 20.]  

return to top