Martha Highers. Rev. So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village by Jill Kandel. Pittsburgh, PA: Autumn House Press, 2015 and Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice by Theo Pauline Nestor. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2013.
Jill Kandel’s and Theo Pauline Nestor’s memoirs, quite different in their subjects and the lives they depict, nonetheless share a common soul. Both approach writing not so much as a means of self-expression than as a tool for survival.
In the early 1980’s, when most North Americans and westerners in general were hovering on the brink of the digital age, moving toward an ever shinier and more effortless future, Kandel and her husband took a step backward into a time and place before labor-saving devices and modern, western expectations. They moved to Kalabo, Zambia, where Kandel’s husband worked as an agricultural specialist. On the fringe of a teetering infrastructure, Jill Kandel struggled day-to-day to make a home and to raise the two children who were born there.
This is not the picturesque, romantic Africa of, say, Out of Africa: Picture Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in the movie version flying over the Serengeti, its vast herds rippling beneath them toward the horizon, a sense of openness and endlessness, of deep sweetness and of freedom in their (and our) beholding of the scene. No, on the ground where Kandel lives, there are dirty walls, bat guano saturating the kitchen ceiling until it sags down like a soggy baby’s diaper, and an 18-foot python clogging the toilet. There are mushy, souring tomatoes at the market and the unfriendly, suspicious stares of native women. There is the random death of a child whom the landscape (and its inhabitants) seems to swallow without comment or surprise. There are flies. Everywhere there is sand. When Kandel and her husband do venture beyond the village, there are vehicle breakdowns and bog downs, hours spent with heat and insects in river travel, fetid public toilets, broken escalators, and endless travel delays. Nothing is easy, and nothing ever changes. This kind of life goes on for six years.
Johan, Kandel’s husband, sees none of this. When he comes home, his talk is full of rice fields and production, of progress and success. His eyes shine as he looks toward a distant horizon that only he can see. He has, as Kandel describes it, a powerful tunnel vision. Kandel feminine becomes increasingly depressed and silent. At the end of the six years, she is practically housebound and mute. It is only in the final, saving effort of a breakdown that she is able to weep and tell her husband, when he is offered a promotion and a longer sojourn, that she does not want to stay anymore. In surprise, he seems to see her for the first time; then, applying the same discipline and tunnel vision he had for his work in Africa, he abandons his career and his passion in the desert to save his wife and his marriage. They return to the U.S. and he takes a middle class government job. Whatever conflicted feelings may have accompanied that decision are not mentioned, but it is an act of love.
Kandel and her husband survive, and years later she begins to write. Her book is an act of recovery. The first three chapters are written in a terse, urgent style that more closely resembles prose poetry than narrative. The images they offer seem to come from a deep well within Kandel. None of them is pleasant, and yet the narrator recounts them without self-pity. Kandel’s voice at this point is detached, explicit, and precise; if any emotional reaction fuels these images, it is the shock of the trauma victim. Her remembering seeks to associate the images with the well of experiences and other images she knows, but this is an association to understand, to make familiar, rather than to judge or criticize. The voice of the work softens and becomes less urgent as the narrative winds toward its conclusion. The passages at the memoir’s end, describing Kandel’s life on her return to the U.S., are calmer and more reflective, tinged with a kind of amazement at kitsch depictions of Africa in popular culture or even at her own framed images brought back from Zambia. Those scenic elephants drinking from a pool somewhere in the African landscape—could they really be from the same place Kandel inhabited? The photograph hangs on the wall of Kandel’s house in North Dakota, a testament to the fact that Kandel must have seen them in Africa, yet there is no mention of elephants in those early chapters full of the work of survival. In trauma narratives, it is the vital, not the decorative, memories that the writer must call forth from within. Likewise, Kandel’s work comes across as the document of a trauma survivor.
Why did she stay for six long years? One answer may lie in the third chapter of Kandel’s book, a chapter originally published as an essay in Under the Sun. Here, using the same terse, imagistic prose with which she has catalogued her life in Africa up to that point, Kandel evokes the lives of her immigrant grandmothers on the Dakota prairies. Transplanted to the cold isolation of those vast expanses, those women also did without and stayed. When one grandmother, then a young bride, arrives at her remote homestead, a neighbor woman brings her a gift of rags torn from an old piece of underwear, saying, “Rags is hard to find.” The mundane gift becomes a treasured possession of the newcomer. Another grandmother turns crazy as she watches her house burn. She runs around in circles holding a potted geranium. “Somewhere in her heart she knew she would need a red flower if she were going to survive,” writes Kandel. These, then, were Kandel’s forebears, and as she puts it, “Hardship was in my veins before I roved into it by choice.”
A second reason for staying in Kalabo as long as she did may lie in Kandel’s religious beliefs, and her husband’s, which are mentioned though never belabored. A third was, no doubt, the sheer difficulty of doing anything but stay, given the circumstances and with small children in tow. Whatever the explanation, nothing in the narrative indicates that Kandel ever entertained the idea of leaving Africa without her husband, and certainly not without her children.
While Kandel was living a different sort of life in Africa, Nestor was following a more typical western trajectory of college, graduate school, an English teaching job, marriage, motherhood, divorce, followed by professional and personal regrouping. Nestor intertwines a memoir of this life, or rather of certain episodes from it, with reflections on the writing process itself; she also ends each chapter with a list of writing tips and prompts. While it seems on the surface that Nestor’s life has little in common with Kandel’s, it soon becomes apparent that they share a struggle to find their voice, to overcome a culturally imposed muteness, and a tendency to hide their own deepest feelings from themselves. It’s intriguing that while growing up in such disparate households, the cultural constraints on these women were so much the same. Unlike Kandel, Nestor did not grow up in a religiously oriented house and seems devoid of religious beliefs, but she learned that as the good daughter she should be the listener, the absorber of other people’s stories rather than the teller of her own. Her grandmother was not a prairie woman but a free-spirited west coast artist who encouraged Nestor to trust her own artistic judgment, but it took years for Nestor to learn to do this. Indeed, the struggle continues.
“I’ve come to believe that even if . . . our words are read by only a handful of readers—or only by ourselves—they are still worth our time and attention,” Nestor asserts in one of her many pep talks to her readers, who she knows are most probably writers. I loved the boldness of this assertion and sympathized with Nestor’s desire to overcome writing obstacles within and without. Therefore I was dismayed when, toward the end of her memoir, Nestor and her students begin to pay attention to a public voice that would belittle and discourage them. It comes in the form of an essay aimed at memoir writing as a genre, calling into question its value and importance. But why give this voice credence when Nestor has so effectively overcome other negative voices and constraints that have held her back in the past? Perhaps it is because this voice comes from the New York Times, a publication that Nestor admires as the venue of her own first big publishing success.
Trying to answer the charges within this essay, Nestor astutely points out that “the maligned memoir genre tends to be the literary form with which women have enjoyed a great deal of success.” She uses a Gloria Steinem trick of substitution to evaluate the critique, pointing out that if the word “novel” were substituted for “memoir” in the title of the article, the weakness of the argument would be immediately apparent. Indeed. As one humble reader I can only attest, as I read this passage, that I find the impulse to reject an entire genre of writing as foolish. For me, dear writer, the test for a work of writing will always be Is it interesting? Is it beautiful? and Do I care? I believe that writing in every genre, including memoir, can fulfill those expectations, Nestor’s included.
I trusted Nestor’s voice and appreciated her intimate, self-revealing style. Because I wanted to get on with the rest of the story, I found myself skipping over the writing tips sections at the end of the chapters. I could see, though, that the “Try This” summaries would be useful to return to later, either by myself or with a writing group. One especially generative form Nestor presents is the triptych, a form adapted from art, which consists of three thematically related “panels” of writing. Nestor states that discovering this form freed her from the tyranny of traditional narrative and showed her how to create meaning by working with the gaps between blocks of writing.
Writing groups and writing communities are very important to both Kandel and Nestor, and both authors express their gratitude and indebtedness to them. Nestor’s work is filled with words of blessing for individuals and groups who have nurtured her writing effort; in fact, she seems to be growing continually toward “we” and away from “I” as her work progresses. Kandel, for her part, writes in her afterword that her work would never have come about without the help of a writing group.
If I have an argument with Nestor’s work, it is with the title. Although in her conclusion, she ties her need for writing to her alcoholic mother’s need for drink (a fact already established earlier in the book), I do not really accept the analogy. Throughout the work, until the conclusion, Nestor actually shows that writing is much more than drink to her—or so I thought. Every time I came back to the book and encountered the title, the words of this Edna Saint Vincent Millay poem came to me,
Love is not all, it is not meat or drink
Nor slumber or a roof against the rain
If I substitute the word “writing” for “love,” that is what writing means to Nestor. In the sonnet, Millay shows that her subject, while being none of the necessary, essential things, is actually more important than all of them. I get a sense that if she had to, Nestor would give up drink and many other presumed essentials for the time and ability to write and use her voice. Maybe, just maybe, the meaning created by saying it this way would be a little like the meaning created by the triptych, consisting in openness and in gaps, more than in what is overtly stated.