“Coming to the U.S. was a bit like going to Mars,” author Elaine Neil Orr tells of her transition moving to the American South, after being born and raised in Nigeria by her missionary parents. Orr’s earliest of memories are of mangoes falling in the night, outdoor markets stretched for miles, women tending farms, and people dwelling in mud and plaster houses. Her “American memories” start in first grade with a furlough year in 1960 Winston-Salem.
“While I was introduced to my extended family, I didn’t believe they could really be mine since everyone I felt related to was in Nigeria,” she says. “Yet, it was a happy if odd year. I saw my first television. Everything was white: people, schools, church, even the weather (snow and sleet). I have never really gotten fully into this world, the United States, which is why, I suppose, my books shuttle back and forth between the American South and southern Nigeria. Nigeria is the ancient world, the first world. The U.S. is the second and newer world.”
Winston-Salem is the setting and era of Orr’s latest novel “Swimming Between Worlds” (Berkley NY, April 2018). Orr has lived in North Carolina since 1987, and is now an English professor at North Carolina State University. The bulk of her research and interviews were about Winston-Salem, the period and sit-ins. She worked closely with city historian Fam Brownlee and was especially interested in the West End area.
“My favorite form of research was walking the West End over and over for four years until my characters and their places were so real I could feel their heartbeats,” she tells. “When I begin a novel, I ask myself: ‘Where do you want to be in your mind for several years?’ If it was going to be an American town, my first choice was Winston because of my fond girlhood memories. ”
While Nigeria makes an appearance in the book—highlighting cross-cultural experiences, connections and differences—her aim was to write an American novel. The timeline is the United States on the cusp of the civil rights movement.
It starts in 1959 with Tacker Hart. The 20-something’s been living with his parents since he had to abruptly leave West Africa after being fired from his job. There is a tense exchange between Hart and his mother early on, as she presses him on what his plans are for his future. She questions his responsibility and what happened to him “over there,” to which he responds (perhaps a bit righteously): “I learned there’s a world outside of this town. . . . That we’re not the be-all, end-all of the universe.”
“Nigeria comes in to reveal what Tacker has experienced and why he’s a different person,” Orr explains. “In a way, his experience provides the trajectory of his action. But he’s still an American, acting in an American landscape. Autobiographically speaking, I think I wanted to explore in fiction what it’s like to experience culture shock on the return.”
Tacker Hart is the first of three main characters Orr conjured for her book. On the surface level, he is based on all the attractive white boys Orr knew from a distance when she visited the United States.
“They seemed so privileged and blessed,” she remembers. “They were also vaguely nice. I couldn’t imagine getting close to them. After writing a full draft of the novel, I remembered the story of a male missionary who came to Nigeria and accused the missionaries—like my parents—of practicing apartheid. He moved off the compound and lived in town and designed round houses. He didn’t last long.”
Aside from a shared love of literature and Dorothy Wordsworth, Orr’s Kate Monroe is almost entirely a work of fiction. Monroe lost her parents, which led her to leave her family ties and her home—until she receives a series of disturbing letters. Monroe goes in search for truth behind her comfortable life. Though Monroe’s familial connections put her in a class more privileged than Hart, they are both wounded. “That woundedness is our common human reality and the portal by which I came to know them,” Orr notes.
Hart and Monroe’s stories then converge with a young African-American man, Gaines Townson (on the same morning but different times). His character has political purpose.
“No one yet seems to have noticed that I have an epigraph from Toni Morrison at the beginning of the novel and that Kate dreams of Gaines as a milkman,” Orr explains. Both moments are a nod to her novel ‘Song of Solomon.’ I created Gaines as a character between Milkman and Guitar in that novel.”
Each character has a touch of Orr’s life, experiences and/or convictions. Hart’s obvious connection is his stent in Nigeria that leaves him questioning the life in the States, as well as who he’ll be and what he believes. Orr was never as socially elevated as Monroe but knows what it’s like to fall in love as a college-age student. “I gave Gaines the clarity of purpose I have toward writing, if not politics,” she explains.
Much of Orr’s research to recreate Nigeria for its appearance in this period had already taken place when she wrote her memoir, “Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life” in 2003. Still, for “Swimming Between Worlds,” she found a Nigerian man who attended the University of Ibadan around the same time as Tacker Hart was there. “He was an excellent resource,” she says. “I found a man who attended State College School of Design (now NCSU) in the very years Tacker did. He offered pictures of the campus and the design school in the 1950s.”
Orr will discuss more from her latest read at Two Sisters Bookery with Wilmington writer Emily Colin on June 14. A Q&A will follow her reading.