US Author and Professor of English at NC State University, Elaine Neil Orr [ENO] answers WWWB’s Anora McGaha’s [WW] questions about A Different Sun her first novel telling the story of a US slave owner’s daughter who marries a missionary and moves to Africa, where her worldview is turned upside down. – Anora McGaha, Editor
Under “A Different Sun”
WW: Elaine, your debut novel, A Different Sun is a fascinating and beautifully written book. I bought it on Kindle. Your novel shines light into so many areas.
As a “Yankee” new to “The South” I’m playing catch up every day on the topic of slavery in the US and its impact to this day. I have read US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey‘s Pulitzer Prize winning poetry book Native Guard, and finished The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration of American Blacks from the South by Elizabeth Wilkerson.
Your novel introduced different dimensions. The relationships between white children and their parents’ slaves. The experience of being a white ‘minority’ and missionary in black Africa. The insane nightmare of being kidnapped into slavery. Letting us witness as Emma’s eyes are opened to the intelligences and knowledge systems of Africans that rival Western science in depth and complexity, though very different. And that’s just getting started! Now to the questions.
There are many interviews with Elaine Neil Orr, each one adding different facets to our understanding of her work. Here are the questions.
Growing up in Nigeria Mid-20th Century
WW: You had real life experience in Nigeria growing up in the 20th century, why did you take a story one hundred years earlier.
ENO: I had already written a memoir about my life in Nigeria beginning in the 1950s and through the 1970s. In writing it, I discovered how my early girlhood paralled pre-indepence Nigeria, how I came of age in the heady early years of the new nation and how my first awareness of brokenness and death coincided with the Nigerian Civil War.
My early life was a glorious innocence. I loved Nigeria as much as I loved my own body, my parents. It was my cradle, both the American influence (the classical music spinning out of our record player) and the African influence (the sound of drums entering my window at night).
Writing the memoir awakened me to how we are shaped by history. In reaching back into the 19th century, I was, in a way, still seeking answers about my own life. The missionary couple who left the diary that inspires my novel and who left letters and books they had written as well are, in a sense, my ancestors. They founded the Baptist mission into which I was born. They had a hand in my destiny. I wanted to know them and the only way to do that was to bring them to life.
Researching 19th Century Baptist Missions in Nigeria
WW: What research materials did you have available?
ENO: I read all of their extant letters. Someone had already collected them in the archives of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now called the International Mission Board). Two love letters were included, one from Lurana (my Emma) to Thomas (my Henry) and one from him to her. Those two letters were so tender and surprising. I also read other of their correspondence to family and friends and the Mission Board. An absolute treasure trove, though always I wondered: were some letters secreted out? Letters thought not fitting to keep in the official record? I wondered the same about Lurana’s diary (my Emma’s diary). I had a copy, mind you, not the original. And there were sometimes ellipses, so that I wondered: was something left out? Did the diarist herself scratch out something she had written or did a later transcriber?
WW: You have italics in the book – often when referencing Emma’s writing in her diary. Are those actual quotes from the real-life diary that influenced your story?
ENO: Some of the historical diarist’s actual words are in the novel but they are not the journal entries. I composed all of those. The historical woman, Lurana Bowen, didn’t write as openly about her life as my character does, though she did write lines that haunted me, such as “feelings deeply wounded; have been sad all day” and “this morning our dearest earthly possession took flight; sadness fills the house.” Those two passages alone were enough inspiration to write a novel.
WW: Is there one passage that you love more than others? Which one?
ENO: I am partial to the scene in which Emma draws Africa and then North America while the Iyalode (the African woman governor) watches. That scene came to me all at once. It just unfurled like a flag. But it said something that I have been wanting to say all of my life and that I try to show in my writing and that is that the U.S. (America) looks different when it is viewed from a position in West Africa. Being ethnocentric (as we are), we tend to see the U.S. and “America” as preferable places and superior ones. But Emma comes to see here for the first time that “Africa is more decorous from a certain point of view.” This is the beginning of her epiphany. One level of that epiphany is her dawning awareness of the keen intelligence of the people around her who she thought of at first as uncivilized and often indecent.
WW: Is there an aspect of A Different Sun that you might like to highlight for us, so we don’t miss it?
ENO: The entire novel can be read from an African point of view, so that Uncle Eli sets the action in motion and the novel is about his desire or it can be read from an American point of view, so that Emma’s yearning sets the novel in motion. I wanted both points of view to be valid, like two sides of a coin.
Influences on a Writer’s Voice
WW: Has growing up surrounded by foreign languages affected your writing voice? How have you been affected?
ENO: I love to imagine that growing up hearing Yoruba (even though I do not speak it) influenced the cadence of my sentences. Many readers have described my style as lyrical and others have commented on its distinctiveness (I guess that may not always be a compliment!). I absolutely believe that memorizing large swaths of the King James version of the Bible profoundly influenced my style and my “ear.” Memorizing the Psalms or passages for Isaiah or passages out of the Gospel of John puts a brand to your brain, especially if you do this memorizing when you are very young. I also imagine that years and years of reading and studying “classical” writers of a fairly “high” style (such as Henry James) influences the sound of my sentences. I still gravitate to writers whose style I would characterize as “elevated,” such as Michel Ondatjee, Marilynne Robinson, J.M. Coetzee.
Choosing a Novel’s Title
WW: Why did you call your novel A Different Sun?
ENO: For most of the life of the novel, pre-publication, it was titled “The Writing Box,” but at the last minute, my editor found this title in a sentence I had written. It appears when Emma first gets off the ship in Lagos. She is near the equator, of course, and the sun is very bright, but she is also disoriented, as anyone would be encountering a culture so different from one’s own She gazes out and what meets her eye is the intensity of the land, but I sought to convey this with color. She sees the deep blue of shadows, for example, rather than brown or gray. In her mind, she thinks “this was a different sun.”
Everyone at the press was thrilled with the title and it led to the gorgeous cover created by the art department at Berkley/Penguin.
This interview will have a Part II soon.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Featuring Women Writers on WWWB 2013 - Women Writers, Women Books | December 31, 2013
- Slavery, Feminism and Literature - Women Writers, Women Books | November 11, 2013