Literary Prize Winner Abandons Writing for Awhile, and Then Finds His Muse in Africa!- by David Michael Litwack

Literary Prize Winner Abandons Writing for Awhile, and Then Finds His Muse in Africa!- by David Michael Litwack

“When a young Peace Corps volunteer is recruited for a ‘second job,’ we are thrust into a new heart of darkness—and light. A rich, thrilling LeCarre-esque journey into the tribal and geopolitical wars of 1960s Africa.”

-Kenneth W. Davis, Professor Emeritus of English, Indiana University


Background

In 1966, the Peace Corps sent me to the Ivory Coast, West Africa, to teach English. Then, they decided that I would be good for their newly acquired agreement with Chad in central Africa. Maybe I drew the short straw. I’ll never know. But, I ended up in the loneliest, most forsaken, yet eventually, for me, the most inspiring place on earth—Ati.

Ati, a town on the edge of the Sahara, was definitely hairshirt (named for a garment of coarse haircloth, worn as a penance by ascetics): No electricity; no running water; no edible fruit; no English speakers—only French, Arabic, and Sara-Ngumbaye; and French expatriates who disliked me for where I was from.

The Africans were accommodating. But, they entertained tribal resentments that affected their interactions. Also, they called all Caucasians Nasarah (I qualified), perhaps assuming we were all followers of the Nazarene. These things become issues in my future novel.

The writer’s gong should have sounded back then. After all, I had won a few literary prizes in high school, and published in the literary magazine in college. Of course, I thought back then, I’ll write in my off time. But, instead of writing about this current adventure, I spent my time writing a love story that takes place in and around a decrepit southern plantation. A crappy novel that nearly served as toilet paper for me when that luxury threatened to run out.

A few years later, I gave capturing the Africa experience a try. “Orly, cold and gray…” it begins, and descends through a series of police-narrator exchanges before the narrator is jailed on unspoken, but clearly serious charges. He has been transported from Africa to Paris. But, there’s not a speck of sand or burning sun in this nascent piece. This, written ten years after I left Africa.

Apparently ten years was still not enough time for the African experience to marinate. Back into the drawer went those pages.

A Kind of Obsession?

By then, I’m a data communications consultant. Time passes. Lots of time. My persistent memories, however, are gathering steam all the while: No electricity; no running water; no edible fruit; no English speakers; French expatriates who dislike me; the desert/sahel town of Ati. I go back to the Sahara on a consultant gig. Memories come flooding back.

When I return to the USA, the “Orly, cold and gray . . .” comes out of its drawer. Then, other memories: The death of a favorite horse, the loss of a colleague, the murder of a student, and the rebellion all surface. And, the words and acts swirl around these memories. My memories become more insistent. I begin to make notes about them on scraps of paper. Then I gather up the notes and create a sort of diary.

My book, Land of the Sun, Land without Light, would be “based on a true story.” But, with a fictional plot and characters from actual events, as well as other, fictional characters.

I decide to go back to “Orly, cold and gray . . .” and make the lead character the narrator. I recall, but also refashion the characters: the French colleagues (Mutt and Jeff); the school director (a drunk and paternalistic colonialist); the Russian doctor (maybe KGB); the leper chief (a shrunken Father Christmas); an Imam (kind and philosophical); Miriam the trinket maker (the narrator’s mistress); an intellectual priest; the desert itself. I stir them all around in the now-boiling pot, and come up with a story about war, fear, death, and escape. It is based in the fictional town of Dar es Sabir, which is surrounded by rebels intent on its conquest.

The land’s aura is so sunny…so bright, that it is often blinding. A “live” character in this drama as well. A double meaning to a Land without Light. By then, there is no more use for “Orly, cold and gray . . .” which I abandon—and feel free to launch completely anew.

I make the narrator, Harrison Hamblin (Harry), a bit heroic, yet self deprecating. He makes things work out. Sort of. He likes his drink. By the way, the entire story derives from the memoir left by Harry, now deceased, as notes and undelivered letters found by his younger brother, Aaron, when executing the estate.

I should mention that the country in which this story occurs is never identified in the novel because of American government restrictions on the narrator. Yes, there is a security lock on this information. This leaves the reader free to explore and guess. The one with the correct answer is eligible for a fabulous gift or prize.

 Next

The story will continue in sequel as the Land narrator takes a contract job in Algeria. It’s tentatively titled L’Algérie Mon Amour (Algeria My Love) and there is more intrigue, not just in Algeria (where Harry teaches and gets rolled), but also in a cross-desert return trip to Dar es Sabir. There, he deals with changed circumstances and their effect on those he thought he knew so well.

One reader thinks the Land story is “a rich, thrilling LeCarre-esque journey into the tribal and geopolitical wars of 1960s Africa.” Okay. Another thinks it must be autobiographical. As for autobiography, note that, among other proofs to the contrary, I’m not dead yet.

And, while Harry, the narrator, unfortunately is, he is still with us and ever will be in the Land of the Sun.

Reviews

“Most westerners are in the dark about the sub-Sahara and why America is so focused on it. Litwack brought to light a world little understood by this western reader. His mastery of languages and innuendos, his use of his style, the unique plot–all of it was riveting and compelling. LAND OF THE SUN, LAND WITHOUT LIGHT was enlightening to say the least.”

– Paul Pritchard

In a seamless blend of personal experiences and convincing fiction, David Litwack tells the suspenseful story of a Peace Corps teacher who is soon pressed by a US agency into service of another kind. In Land of the Sun, Land Without Light, the central character, Harry Hamblin, is caught up in the deadly African geopolitics of the late 1960’s in that he becomes world-weary, sickened by war, and ends up trusting no one. 

Country names are almost meaningless, because the truth is that perilous liaisons are formed or broken practically overnight. Muslims of every persuasion, US spies, British agents, French provocateurs and scores more have been posted to this area because of the volatility and ever-shifting alliances found there. Everything and everyone suffers because of the shaky relationships threatening amicable connections and trade agreements. 

Litwack’s terse, often humorous descriptions of the characters Hamblin encounters as he searches for an inroad to the preeminent tribes and clans will stay with the reader. More memorable still are the grim reminders of lengthy wars on the ground in already poor nations — injuries, displacement, filth, rampant diseases, distrust and pessimism. Against a backdrop of fearsome encounters, trysts with local women and budding friendships, we have an intimate look at Hamblin succumbing to the effects of war and disruption, only to regain some determination and grit, and try once more to help the people he has grown to love. 

– Roy Arthur via Amazon

This . . . account tells of wit, talent, sacrifice and guts in sub Sahara Africa. Life at risk from competing tribes, nationalities, diseases and a poor health environment. The reader becomes a fly on the wall during tense encounters and romantic conflict.

– Ketch22 via Amazon

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