Stella's Origin Myth
Writing a novel in an exceptionally restrictive linguistic structure is a terrible idea. Had I known that this would consume seven years and stretch toward 80,000 words, I would have laughed it off and had a beer instead.
The key is, I didn't know. It's not what I set out to do.
I set out to keep my mind busy while my tummy was rumbling.
I've spent enough days horizontal with waterborne illness to know that you shouldn't think about the epic struggles of your insides. They're inside for a reason. Instead, you should refocus the mind on something engrossing. Chipping away at the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything in forty-two-second increments, say. Or telling a story to a piece of paper about something that is not physical discomfort. Or rhyming with orange.
We were on the drive from Lake Manyara to the Serengeti in July 2012. "We" included a murder of Stanford undergrads, four local safari guides, a Panglossian professor named Doctor Bob, me, a pen, and untold legions of amoebas in my guts. "We" did not include a book to read, a set of headphones with which to listen to music, or interesting external megafauna upon which to ooh and aah. It was bumpy, dusty, and hot. In these circumstances I seek refuge in my head.
The problem was, my head was already full with an ambient rage. I'd arrived two weeks prior, a couple days before the group I was to chaperone, to reacquaint myself with Arusha, buy a cell phone, and practice my Swahili. The second afternoon I was there I got jumped by a group of four young teens, robbed after being dragged to the ground and beaten with rebar and the flat sides of machetes. My bruises were mostly covered but my head was still in fight or flight mode.
I was at a loss. For the most part, I had really fond memories of my time in Tanzania seven years prior. Except for the other time I got mugged at knifepoint. It's scarier when you see the pointy bits. In this country in which I was trying to be a contributing, service-oriented foreigner, this country that gave me so many memories and points of growth and maturation, and pointed out to me what real community feels like, I kept getting hurt. I was shattered the first time it happened, for reasons I won't mention here. And then, right when I come back to share the good parts with students as young as I was when I first came, it happened again. Betrayed and violated by the place I was trying to serve. I harbored frustration and fury at these men, and far more at the unjust system that marginalized them to the point that mugging was a choice in life.
I had to rewrite the story.
I put pen to paper on the bumpy road as imaginative escape. I picked a charming student in our group who seemed to love everything about our study trip. I focused on how much joy he seemed to get from the place and the people, and by adding in the imaginary thread of him at eight years old, cute as a button, I started to craft a little children's tale about him growing up in Tanzania and befriending wildlife. Writing was buoyant, leaving no room for rage.
When we got to the park entrance I was five sonnets in. I called him over and told him I had a surprise for him. With a few students gathered around I began reading janky handwriting from my notebook, trying to keep the meter against dastardly penmanship. Next thing I knew I was in the middle of a bear hug. All six feet of him was celebrating in a most childlike way at having been the subject of a children's book.
Back in the car for the final hours to camp, I carried the story three verses forward and concluded that the little doggy companion was named BLING.
A few days later, the trip was over. The final night we had dinner in a big rectangle, all facing each other. Dr. Bob – to whom I owe many thanks – went around the room to ask everybody to share one thing they committed to doing when they went back home, as a result of this trip. People said they'd share with their friends, or volunteer, or submit an application to come back, or take Swahili lessons, all manner of things. I was last. I said I'd refine those verses and publish a silly children's book about the guy. ("Stella" only came into being three months later when I realized I wanted a female lead.)
I had a month before moving to South Africa and worked on it every day. I figured it would top out at 20 verses, then I'd find a fun illustrator, and we'd wrap the little project. By Johannesburg it was 32 verses. By December it was over a hundred.
So I'd lied to Dr. Bob: I wouldn't publish a silly children's book about Trevor. I would become immoderately engrossed in a tale about truth, power, and influence for the next seven years, processing my own reactions to the hubbub of the world through young eyes. And through theirs, I would see again. Tanzania was so much more complex and wonderful than my minor traumas. I'd do readers no favors by crying on a page from my place of privilege. Instead, I had the challenge of breathing life into some of the hard tradeoffs of life subsistence farming amidst climate change, of finding ways through when older generations were decimated by HIV/AIDS, of the universal challenge to individuate with age.
And in that, I rewrote my own story.