Features / Fiction / Interviews

An Interview with Elaine Neil Orr

by Evelyn Somers

Evelyn Somers: As you were writing the novel, how much were you aware of other portrayals of missionaries in fiction—The Poisonwood Bible, Hawaii, and Things Fall Apart, for example—and did that affect your portrayal of Emma and Henry Bowman?

Elaine Neil Orr: I knew and respected Achebe’s portrayal in Things Fall Apart. I was quite aware of The Poisonwood Bible as I began. And I was aware of smaller cameos—a missionary mentioned summarily in Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart. I didn’t feel that any of these treatments sought to understand missionaries out of their own histories and psychologies. In The Poisonwood Bible, the father’s point of view is never given. I didn’t undertake to write this novel in order to write about missionaries but in order to write about human beings in all their complexity. My parents were missionaries; my first teachers and “aunts” and “uncles” were missionaries. I wrote about them as any writer writes about her town or region of the world. These are my people.

ES: You mention Julia Blackburn’s hybrid biography of Daisy Bates as one early model or inspiration for your book. Once you realized you wanted to write a novel, not a biography, were there works of fiction or fiction writers you looked to as inspiration?

ENO: Absolutely, and quite an assortment: Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Sena Jeter Naslund, E.M. Forster, Somerset Maugham.

ES: At some point in the early writing process, the historical figure of Lurana Bowen had to become the fictional character, Emma Bowman. How did you achieve that?

ENO: I wrote long enough to lift her out of history. It really did take time, two to three years, to release her from the diarist. In many ways, the development of the other characters liberated her. Once Henry became a fully realized character, and especially when Jacob entered, Emma was born. Two things kept me hobbled as I began trying to fictionalize Lurana. First, I was sticking too closely to the historical figure initially. I was still naming the character “Lurana,” even when I knew I was beginning to write a novel. The second thing was my scholarly training in postcolonial studies. While I may have a deep affection for my “mission kid” life and hold my parents in esteem, I had grown skeptical about the whole evangelical project. So at first, I portrayed Lurana (later Emma) with a great deal of irony. My agent and an editor told me independently of one another how harshly I was treating my protagonist. Perhaps there was even a little daughterly skepticism in this portrayal, because Lurana/Emma was also, in part, my mother. “You have to sympathize with her,” my agent, Joelle Delbourgo, said. And so I started moving in that direction. It was like turning a canoe paddle just slightly in the water. But the effect of such a turn is great. My character was no longer the historical Lurana. I found her name: Emma. I allowed others in the novel to see her with a mixture of admiration, love, curiosity, and sometimes anger and frustration.

ES: What are the perils of writing fiction based on the diary of a historical figure?

ENO: One might stay with the diary too closely. A diary isn’t a novel. It isn’t written to convey a sense of urgency. Quite the opposite: it’s written to slow time for a moment, to mark something down and hold it in place. The gift of the diary for me was that the diarist allowed us to see its writer unveiled in a few private moments. Most of the time, Lurana Bowen recorded travel or weather or illness or how many people came to Sunday school or some “odd” or un-noble (in her eyes) action of the African people around her. But in the few entries in which she records travail, heartbreak, fear, sadness, she opened a window.

ES: You spent a lot of time with Lurana’s diary and researched her life. What additional research did you have to do to write this novel?

ENO: An enormous amount of research. Remember: I was writing about two continents, the Antebellum period in the United States and a period in West Africa in which African politics were still dominant over European/African confrontations, but both were complex and evolving at great speed. And I had the Texas cavalry to learn about. I didn’t even know if paper had been invented in 1850, or what to call underwear, or anything about firearms (especially in 1853), or what hymns might have been sung, or whether and when courting couples might touch one another—would they kiss? As I was nearing the very end, I realized I had never fed the horse in the novel. I still don’t know if the horse got fed. I’ve never been around a horse.

I did research that changed my mind. One book in particular, Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba by J.D.Y. Peel, offered a view of the Yoruba people as inventing themselves through their creative and transformative molding of European/American influences that came with colonialism. The book allowed me to see African agency in the colonial encounter. This view was extremely helpful in my creation of the character of Henry’s assistant, Jacob.

ES: I’m glad you mention Jacob. In your story, Emma’s husband is often difficult and distant. She leans on their servants for support and falls in love with Henry’s African assistant, Jacob. Was that element of the story, that attraction, your own invention?

ENO: I may be the one who fell in love with Jacob. When I returned to Nigeria for research and saw the way Nigerian men walked, after not seeing them for twenty-odd years, I had a sudden realization of how immensely beautiful and attractive they were. There is no evidence in the diary that Lurana fell in love with a Yoruba man.

ES: How likely is it that a young white woman in about 1850, raised in a segregated culture where blacks were slaves, might have fallen in love with an African?

ENO: We do know that white men in the United States were attracted to black women in the era in which this novel takes place. Surely, regardless of cultural prejudice and constraint, white women were attracted to black men. I sought to make Jacob a person who would be plausible as a love interest for Emma. I don’t expect she would have been attracted to a man who was not literate or not her intellectual equal. She comes to intuit, though she resists the understanding, that he is her moral superior.

ES: You went back to Nigeria twice during the writing of this novel. Undoubtedly, much has changed. Were you still able to find there the country you had left, the one you wanted to write about?

ENO: I went back three times between the memoir and the novel. The first time, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with Lurana Bowen’s story. But I was already searching, in a general sort of way, taking mental notes as well as notes in a journal. The country is greatly changed from my childhood: there has been huge population growth, lots of deforestation, cities are more chaotic. A first-time visitor might have a hard time seeing the natural beauty of the land as I experienced it growing up, or would have to travel far afield to do so. But I felt absolutely at home, as if a veil or film had been lifted from my eyes and I had returned to the real world—all my American years thrown into a second reality (as I had suspected they were most of my life). The feeling of the air, the smells on the street, the sounds of drumming all through the day and night in my hometown of Ogbomosho, lizards scurrying, huge ant hills—all these affected me, but the people were primarily what struck me: the astonishing array of color in women’s church clothes, the swaying and singing in church. My son traveled with me the third time, and after we had been in Ogbomosho two or three days, he said “I’ve never seen you like this.” I had prayed in chapel that morning. He had also seen me speak in church, just a few halting sentences in Yoruba, and he had seen people in the congregation rise up and celebrate and welcome me home. I didn’t know exactly what Joel meant, but I thought it had to do with my willing display of religious faith. I said, “You’ve never seen me at home.” I did not say, but I felt: in Africa, it’s easy to believe in God. God resides here.

ES: Did any of your reading or research plant seeds for future novels?

ENO: I do have an idea I might return to Greensboro, Georgia—by which I mean Lurana Bowen’s legacy. I left the novel open in such a way that there is an opportunity not for a sequel but for characters to appear down the line who emerge from the encounters in A Different Sun.

ES: What was the biggest challenge for you as a first-time novelist?

ENO: Plotting. I am a natural lyricist. That’s my talent. I can create atmosphere. I have something like a photographic memory, so I can recreate the marketplace, the mango tree, the harmattan air. But putting tension on every page: that was the hardest learning curve for me. I suppose some people write memoir with that much plot and tension, but I do not. I never thought I couldn’t do it, though. I am incredibly stubborn, or very strong-willed. Failing was not an option.

ES: How is the perspective of an MK who grew up in the international mission field different from others’ perspectives? Once an MK, are you always an MK?

ENO: Once an MK, always an MK. Many of us Nigerian MKs keep up through a Facebook page, and even those who were only in Nigeria for three years are part of the group. There is something deeper that happens in a soul and a body when you are born into a country that is foreign to your parents but home to you, and then you live there until you are 16 or 18. When I imagine world history and world geography, I am always hovering somewhere over Nigeria, not over North America or the United States. But I am also a person with a foot in two continents. I think MKs (and other third-culture kids) have a kind of double vision. Writing is a wonderful way to convey this double self.

ES: Can a nonbeliever in any given faith write accurately about that faith, in your opinion?

ENO: I think of Yann Martel, who wrote Life of Pi. He is sympathetic to the faith perspectives of three religions and seeks to show the best of each. To create characters steeped in a religion, I think you need to know the religion well, its sacred texts, its theologians or gurus, and you would need to be sympathetic to it. How can you know it unless you have allowed yourself to experience it? On the other hand, I do believe there are ways to “cross over” into territories beyond our own experience. In my novel, for example, I “cross over” into narrating from Jacob’s point of view. To return to the question of religion: I don’t think I could have written this novel, or would have cared to write this novel, when I was profoundly disillusioned with my faith in the 1980s. I was reading feminist theology and questioned the male-dominated religion I had grown up with. It would have been quite a cynical novel, and perhaps it might have achieved something. It would not have achieved an understanding of this group of characters.

ES: You waited a long time—years—to return to the creative work that you’d originally hoped to do. How did the fact that you were a midlife “bloomer” affect the memoir and the novel?

ENO: Sometimes I wish I had kept writing poetry and published my first book of poems when I was 25 and then had carried on writing creative books. But I don’t dwell there. Maybe I knew my capabilities at age 24, when I went to Emory University to pursue a Ph.D. Maybe I knew I needed a tenured position with health insurance. And I did, as it turned out, since I developed end-stage renal disease and was on dialysis and was given two transplants (a kidney and a pancreas) and gained a second life. That is the life I’m giving to creative writing. The scholarly writing I did, the deep research into other women writers, the intense study of literature and theology: none of that is lost. Now those all come swimming back to me, and I have enough to write for the rest of my life.

ES: You’re at work on another novel in which “Africa comes to America.” What can you tell us about that book?

ENO: The time period is late ’50s/early ’60s. A young engineering student from North Carolina goes to Ghana to collaborate in building Kwame Nkrumah‘s Autobahn (based on the German model; Nkrumah was a shining star in the firmament of Africa coming into independence, the first president of independent Ghana). This young man thinks he is pretty savvy. But he gets mixed up in a cultural conflict and makes a horrible mistake and something very terrible happens. He comes back to the U.S.—North Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement is beginning. He is greatly disillusioned by politics and himself and what he thought he believed. Until a young family moves in across the street. Something will bring them together in a surprising way, and the world will open again for him. And the stakes are even higher this time.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read Evelyn Somers’ feature piece on Elaine Neil Orr’s A Different Sun.

Evelyn Somers is a fiction writer and the long-time editor of the Missouri Review, as well as a freelance book editor of all prose genres, from scholarship to young-adult fiction. Her own fiction has appeared in venues as various as Georgia Review and The Collagist. She lives with her husband and teenagers in central Missouri, in a former apartment house that is the inspiration for her first novel. She has done missionary work in Mozambique.

One thought on “An Interview with Elaine Neil Orr

  1. Pingback: No Apparent Boundaries: Julia Glass’s Intricate Realities | Bloom

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