I’ve decided to post an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo 2011 novel! I’m not going to give any backstory or details. I want you to read it, and if you like it, please tell me so. If you’ve got suggestions for content or development, I’d like to hear those too. I’ve been working hard all month on this, and I’m very proud of what I have so far. There is a lot yet to do, but I think the groundwork is there. So, without further ado, please enjoy an excerpt from [working title] “From Rich Soil:”
[Vanessa, third person]
She knew she had to get back to work. As Vanessa reluctantly lifted her body out of the chair and moved to put on her coat and hat, her mind wandered to a day in the previous summer, when she had asked Nasreen about the spider tattoo peeking out from between her shoulder blades. There were no colors in the art, only shades of black and gray. The two front legs straddled her neck, its eyes bulging. Vanessa said she didn’t look the type to have such a picture on her body. She was too…nice. Nasreen told her it wasn’t about being hard or looking scary. The spider was the African god Anansi.
“What did Anansi do?” She asked.
This time Nasreen spoke more than a few words: “The legend goes that Anansi was the keeper of all the stories. They first belonged to the sky god Nyame. Everyone on earth was very sad because there were no stories. Anansi wanted to obtain and be the keeper of the stories so that he could spin all the great stories about life on earth. The sky god did not give them up easily because he wanted them all to himself. He challenged Anansi to a set of tasks, telling him that if he could complete all the tasks, that he would then be the keeper. Anansi was very smart and clever, and used all of his best tricks to complete the tasks. When he finished, Nyame was true to his word, and gave the stories and the ownership to Anansi. That is why people say ‘I’ll spin a tale for you,’ it’s because Anansi was always spinning the stories in his web.” She had learned that story in the Peace Corps in Ghana. Every time she told the story her cadence got smoother. Many people had asked her, and she patiently told the story each time.
Nasreen felt a kinship with the spider after hearing its tale many times while she was in Africa, so when she got back to the states, she wanted to commemorate it somehow. This way Anansi would always be with her, to inspire and encourage her.
* * * *
I left for the Peace Corps almost immediately after college. Like most college graduates at this time, there were few jobs available, and not many opportunities were as adventurous as going to a foreign country to work and live with the natives. The idea appealed to me very much. My father had given his blessing almost immediately. He encouraged me to get as full a view of the world as I possibly could. This was because Firuz had travelled to many countries in his youth. He hadn’t gone to fancy, tourist-filled places, but rather the places where people showed their true colors. He found that this was preferable to going to a place where the hosts tried to make it as much like home as possible. It was only a few weeks after my graduation ceremony, but I was ready to go.
Africa was, quite literally, a different world. I had been to Tehran once when I was a child, but other than that had not travelled internationally. The very first step off the plane in Ghana made me want to run back inside and demand the pilot take me home. The heat was like none other I had ever experienced. It was deafening, like a sound I couldn’t shut my ears to. During the entire four years I was in Ghana, my long black hair pretty much stayed up on the top of my head or in a wrap. I couldn’t stand the sticky feeling of it touching my neck, droplets of water sitting on the ends, waiting until just the right moment to drop down the front of my shirt. My host family was amazing. They did the best they could to keep me comfortable, but there was only so much they could do without air conditioning or a full time cabana boy.
I would have preferred the cabana boy who fanned me all day long, but I made do with Francis. He was a Christian minister who worked directly with the Peace Corps volunteers. He struck me as the type of man who had rotating girlfriends each time a new crop of people came to the village, but he was kind, made me laugh, and never made me feel used, so I left that thought to the wind and just enjoyed myself while I was there. He went so far as to take an HIV test, showing me the results. I trusted him without the test, but I have to be honest and say that it gave me a better night’s sleep to see it in official type. We weren’t allowed the luxury of lounging around, making love whenever we felt like it; most of the time it was whenever we could get his roommates out of the house. I refused to do it in my host parent’s house, feeling it would somehow betray them. They were so very sweet to me and I wanted to be perfect around them.
I was not perfect outside the house. In addition to sinning with a native, I, without a doubt, was terrible at my job for at least the first six months I was there. I talked too much, didn’t listen enough, and got caught up in the drama of sweating and hard labor. It was a hard blow to my ego when my supervisor had to sit me down and talk to me about it. He was a handsome man of about 50 years old. Greg had been supervising Peace Corps volunteers for 10 years. His face was wrinkling from the sun, but his body was hard as a rock from lifting, pushing, and moving constantly almost every day of the year.
“How are you liking it here, Nasreen?” He asked me. My blood instantly ran cold. Those were the words of someone who had a bomb to drop.
I tried to swallow but my throat was dry. “Well, I’m learning a lot, that’s for sure! I never would have touched most of these tools in the states, and I think I’m doing okay at using them…” I trailed off, not knowing what exactly he wanted. I felt like I was being baited into saying something that would give me away as a liar. I got the feeling he was about to send me out to the fields to pick four-leaf clovers twelve hours a day for the rest of my life.
“You are,” he said amiably. “But I’m not sure you’re allowing yourself the full experience here. Do you ever feel like you’re a high-heel shoe in the middle of a bunch of work boots?”
I protested, “I didn’t bring any heels! I think my footwear is perfectly acceptable.”
“Maybe I should have put it another way,” he said. “You’re going through the motions, you’re contributing, but I don’t think you’re in the moment.” He paused. “I’m not here to tell you how to live your experience here in Ghana, but I would consider it a failure if you left this place merely knowing how to shingle a building. There’s so much more to it than that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, perplexed. I could feel the sweat starting to make its way down between my breasts. As if the normal heat wasn’t bad enough, my body heat produced by the nervousness I was feeling gave me the impression I was in a sauna.
“Have you gone to any of the village festivals yet? Have you made any friends outside of the PC volunteers?” He countered. “Do you feel you will leave a part of your heart here when you leave?”
His last question left me a little breathless. “I’ve only been here six—“ I stopped. I hung my head and took a deep breath, and then lifted it to look Greg straight in the eye. “You’re right. I’m not letting Ghana inside. I get it. I really appreciate you looking out for me. I don’t want to miss anything here and I have been in my head so much that I haven’t seen the beauty of it here.” As I said the words, I knew he was right. I tended to be that person who was so caught up in the details that I couldn’t see the big picture.
From that day on I saw everything. I started going to village story-telling nights. I heard all of Anansi’s stories. I met beautiful people, young and old. I learned that their life force was so strong you could almost cut it with a knife. You know that stereotypical picture of a shriveled African man sharing his single bowl of rice with a child who couldn’t fight for a bowl themselves—the one you see in a National Geographic? I met many like him. It all became a reality while I was there. I felt myself changing long before Greg checked back in with me another six months down the road. My soul quieted down, as did my mouth. Before saying a word I would take it all in and meditate just a moment before my reaction left my mouth. Sometimes my body would give it away before I could stop it. I wasn’t all that good at hiding things at first. Slowly I grew up, knowing when to speak and knowing when it was smarter to be still.