Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Washington Post Fiction Contest - this year's entry

Okay, my dear friends... here's the entry I plan to send... you have until the end of the day today (Wednesday) to make suggestions for improvement!

In a Sun-Scorched Land, He Will be like a Fresh Spring
By Kathryn Evans

I spent over one hundred thousand dollars on my top-shelf education, and all I can remember now are stories that make me interesting at cocktail parties. I cannot recall how to find the ratio of a triangle, I have at least temporarily forgotten the year that Queen Victoria took the throne, but I do remember the lyrical story of how Corot left England to vacation in Rome and was changed forever. It was something about the light.

Apparently, the same thing has happened to American artists when they headed to the West. The intense light and open sky of the Southwestern United States changes your life. I searched and waited for that kind of transformation - I waited over ten years after I left college, slowly becoming convinced that I might never find it. I tried Mexico, I tried Greece, and I tried Sante Fe. All are pretty places that I was happy to visit, but equally happy to leave. I was looking for a feeling of change and a place where I could settle - I covered several countries and nine states in search of it. I longed for a place that was different, and one that could hold my affections. I wanted bright and beautiful, with a full spectrum of emotions. I wanted the place I lived to be like life itself: overwhelming, chaotic, teeming with colors. And then I found Nairobi.

All romantic transitions in my family happen in the same way, in a swirl of words. My parents met in the library of their graduate school. This library - a big, lofty cave of intellectuals - remains a spot where ethnicity, economic backgrounds, and race are leveled by education. A place where idealism is both encouraged and negated in long-winded prose, bound but uncovered in long, ordered rows.

My romantic story begins in similar but more vulgar fashion, the place so often touted as the modern equivalent to the library, in the local big-box bookseller. Here the words are coated with a capitalist sheen, and arranged by topic and appeal. Disneyland for bibliophiles, this store is not known as the place to locate a well-written treatise on 19th century French poets, but instead as a splashy stock-all for current events, fashion magazines, expensive coffee, and immediate entertainment. As if someone took that nice, old library out on the town and the collective cultural zeitgeist ended up spilling its strawberry-kiwi mojito all over its nice dress.

I walked into the store and immediately noticed a very tall, handsome stranger on the second floor. In the whitewashed world of suburbia, tall, dark and handsome was a combination so extremely rare that I uncharacteristically found myself investigating. I loitered in the same section; following close enough behind to view his selections, but casually enough to not seem desperate. His selections showed someone worldly, with a wide range of influences, showing precisely the type of interests that I had hoped he would have. I briefly caught his eye, panicked, and booked a rather quick retreat, pausing long enough to purchase the item I had been carrying in my hand.

I returned to the safety of the first floor, back to my usual quiet place - the biography section. Slowly I realized that by hiding in the far corner of the store, I was both wasting the courage I had just mustered and actively prohibiting the opportunity for fate to intervene. I thought perhaps something miraculous could happen if I just gave a little nudge in my preferred direction, so I stationed myself approximately five paces to the left of the down escalator. I tried to appear completely engaged in some fluffy nonsense about the latest adventures of some celebrity teen stick figure while I waited to see what would happen. Thirty excruciatingly long seconds later, the same tall gentleman swept up beside me and asked me what I bought.

Most of the next few minutes are left as a blur with a combination of fear, excitement and smugness at my ability to manipulate fate. As I recall, we talked of Kenya and he seemed surprised that I guessed he was from Nairobi. And at some point in those few minutes he told me of the loneliness he felt to now be trapped in a place where no one knew or cared about his home - the place that meant everything to him. I listened and walked him to his car. I was comfortable and it was easy to jokingly suggest to him that he become my Swahili teacher - and he left me with his email address.

The next romantic transition was again a mixture of words. We started by meeting at that same bookstore to talk about Swahili. First I learned the Swahili words that were already part of my lexicon, courtesy of Kwanzaa and The Lion King. Then we moved on to simple greetings followed by short sentences. I found an online translator, and tried to surprise him with new phrases, never getting them quite right. This exchange of language led to the exchange of stories. The exchange of stories led to the exchange of emotions. The exchange of emotion led to the exchange of vows.


Now I am here on the open road. The drive from Nairobi to Kisumu is about 5 hours directly west, heading towards Lake Victoria. In front of me is only open road. But behind me is a crazy caravan of Range Rovers, convertibles, and one old-timey bus. His family and mine are intermingled in this cavalcade on our way to Seme for the dowry celebration.

I am drunk with an elixir of mixed traditions. At our civil ceremony, I wore white and carried a bouquet. At the wedding, we had a chupah of flowers, but the priest was Episcopalian. We had a blessing by my husband's favorite Catholic priest in Nairobi, the one that taught him to play ping-pong and encouraged him to sing in the choir. Now, we are on our way to Nyanza, where my family will receive cattle as payment for their daughter, and a goat to signify the wedding ring. We have brought many presents to give them and a number of mammoth suitcases of books for their tiny library. Even with all of this, I am tempted to add more blessings, more traditions, and even more fanfare. Not because I ever thought I was the type of woman that wanted all this attention, but because I am so excited to finally feel a love that preserves a feeling of freedom and encourages a certain type of uncertainty.


The fiction of this story is the thought that the rest of our life will feel just like this moment in the sun. The wind in my hair, my brother at the wheel, we are lucky we have not yet been stopped by the police, or by some group of young ne'r do wells with some kind of hustle foremost in their minds. At any moment there are possibilities for tension that words cannot relieve. The romance of it all could vanish. But for now, the open road gleams before us, looking almost, but not quite, solid. It's something about the light.

1 comment:

jnet said...

You always have a wonderful way with words. I think this is a great story, and I love that I can really hear your voice in it.
Now enter it! go! do it!