Viroqua Writers Workshop

If you happen to be in the driftless area of Wisconsin next weekend, I’ll be giving a presentation on “The Art of Writing Great Travel Stories,” Friday afternoon at the Viroqua Writers Workshop.


Raab Rage

Catching up on my magazine pile, I came across a great story by Scott Raab, one of the most interesting writers working today. Years ago, when I was living overseas, my then-girlfriend (now wife) sent me a copy of his story in GQ on the Promise Keepers, “The Triumph of His Will.” It made a huge impression on me, and it remains one of my favorites stories. His new piece on Corey Booker has the same mix of humor, outrage and pathos and reminded me how his audacious writing can be so much fun.

What We loved: Letter to Daniel

From World Hum’s What We Loved: I recently reread Fergal Keane’s classic BBC dispatch, Letter to Daniel, in which Keane, who covered many conflicts, including the genocide in Rwanda, reflects back on all he’s seen as he holds his new child in his arms. He describes the view from his Hong Kong apartment:

“Outside the window, below us on the harbour, the ferries are ploughing back and forth to Kowloon. Millions are already up and moving about and the sun is slanting through the tower blocks and out onto the flat silver waters of the South China Sea. I can see the contrail of a jet over Lamma Island and, somewhere out there, the last stars flickering towards the other side of the world.

I first heard this dispatch back in the 1990s, long before I ever thought of being a father myself. And even back then, I knew this would always be one of my favorite pieces of writing. What’s even more amazing is that Keane says he wrote it in one draft with no rewriting, not to mention the way he suddenly saw everything clearly through a long lens, how he wonders what the point of all his work was while at the same time showing exactly what the point was. Coming back to this on the other side of parenthood, it takes on another layer of meaning.

Nigerian Checkpoint: The Pacification of Area Boy

Not far from the Mainland Hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, while I was working on getting to the bottom of the magical penis theft question, my taxi was stopped by some “police.” Not the kind who get cats out of trees and help old ladies across the street. Here’s what happened:

That afternoon, I got a taxi and headed back to my hotel. Traffic was heavy, and it took a long time for us to get off Lagos Island, but the driver finally headed over the bridge and we reached the mainland.

After we crossed the bridge, we came to an area full of buses and flanked by a cadre of machine gun-toting police standing around. They waved our car over to the side. A big man with no uniform and a deadly-cold look on his face stuck his head in my window: an Area Boy, working with the police.

“Where were you walking?” he asked. Apparently, he’d seen me several days before when I’d walked past this place on my way into town.

“What do you mean?” I asked

“I saw you walking here, this way.” He pointed the down the street from where we’d come.

“Just around.”

“Where’s your passport.”

“I don’t have it.” I lied.

“Don’t have it? Okay. Out of the car.”

I got out of the car. People were staring. The police watched with interest.

“What’s in your bag,” he asked.

“Nothing,” I lied again. I had all my papers, some books and $200 I had just changed to Naira. There was no way I was going to open my bag for him.

“Let me see.”

“No,” I said. “Look, I can just walk back to my hotel.” I pointed down the road to where I could see the building

He stepped in front of me and pulled a gun out of his belt.

“Get in the car.”

He went back to talk to with the other Area Boys. While he was gone I reached in and shoved the money to the very bottom of the bag. Just then a policeman in a bulletproof vest came over.

“What’s in your bag?”

“Nothing,” I opened it and showed him. “Just books.

The policeman left, but I could see the Area Boy coming back. The taxi driver turned to me. “Just give him some little money.”

I pulled out 500 Naira.

“No! No! Not 500! Just 200.”

I put the N500 back and the driver quickly handed me N200. The Area Boy stuck his head back in my window.

“Let me see in your bag.”

This time I showed him the papers and books.

“Why didn’t you show me before?”

“I was just nervous,” I said,

I handed him the N200. He took it, and looked around suspiciously, as if no one knew what he was doing. Then stepped back from the car and waved us on.

“Now,” the driver said, turning to me. “Give me that 500.”

Ngugi, Starbucks and speaking of tongues: An Interview

I was sitting across the table from Ngugi wa Thiongo in a crowded cafeteria when his son, Mukoma came up with his father’s cup of coffee. Ngugi looked at the cup, then at Mukoma.

“Is this Starbucks?” he asked.

“Ah…no,” said Mukoma, who seemed surprised. “It said ‘Peruvian medium roast.'”

“I want Starbucks.” Ngugi said. “I want the real thing!” Then he turned to me, as if to explain, and said, “I like Starbucks.”

He took a sip, shrugged, and decided Peruvian medium roast was okay. We got on with our interview, in which the author of Wizard of the Crow and Decolonising the Mind talks about the audience in Africa, what you owe your language, and the Damocles sword on the imagination. You can read it in the current issue of The Africa Report, or download a copy here.

Too Much Information

Sometime around 1993, I read an amazing essay by David Quammen. It was called “Thinking about Earthworms” and in it, Quammen talks about something that’s always in the back of my mind, something that has gotten, if anything, worse. I finally got a chance to write about this in a piece for the new Poets & Writers called Way, Way Too Much Information. Quammen’s essay isn’t available online, but you can get it either in Out of the Noosphere: The Best of Outside Magazine (a fantastic collection) or in Quammen’s own Flight of the Iguana.