Talking with . . .

Peter Chilson
WE WERE ALL FRIENDS in the M.F.A. program at Penn State and our paths seem typical of artists. One of us is raking it in writing for the computer people in Seattle. Another became a car dealer. A fourth writes about rat poison. I’m quitting the academy to work as a carpenter. And while none of us has quit writing, there is one whose work has been more widely recognized. Peter Chilson (Niger, 1985–87) has steadily worked his way to his achievements.
     I have come to believe that little in the way of writing comes through flashes of brilliance. It is steady, persistent, focused work, that not-very-glamorous reality that gets the job done. Peter Chilson’s work stands in my mind as inspiration and encouragement. I’ve watched his writing improve, watched him publish in magazines such as Audubon and journals including The North American Review, Grand Tour, and Creative Nonfiction.
     Two years ago, his first book Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa won the Associated Writing Programs. Creative Nonfiction Award with its prize of publication by the University of Georgia Press. This helped him earn a job teaching creative writing at Washington State University.
     It was delicious pleasure to pay for a book with a friend’s name on the cover, to invite him to speak to my students and watch them rapt. But it was even better to sit down and read a book that I’d seen in drafts, to know something of the years and years it took to make this document. I was a reader biased by not only friendship but by Peter’s topic: the lives of everyday Africans. His book is focused on the culture of the road and especially the drivers, but ultimately, it’s a slice of the Africa we know so intimately, a book deeper than a traveler’s impressions. I borrow from Scott Russell Sanders when I call these documents “staying put” books.
     I’d have preferred to share a pitcher of Beer Niger (Is that on tap in the U.S.A.?) with Peter, but I’m in Pennsylvania and he’s in Washington State, so e-communication it was. We zapped the Q&A in honor of this new publishing media.
  Tell me what you did as a Volunteer, and what do you remember about your first bush taxi ride?
  I was a secondary school English teacher in a village called Bouza in southwestern Niger. I’ll borrow from my book to describe the (first) vehicle:

    The vehicle, so heavily dented that it resembled a crumpled shoebox, was an early Mercedes heavy truck with a cab that looked over a wide snout. The radiator hung at an angle, as if someone had tacked it to the front of the engine as an afterthought. I could see steel webbing on the tires where the treads had worn away . . . Some fifty passengers sat inside, squeezed onto bench boards that were screwed into metal frames bolted to the floor . . .

Can you remind me of the year you had the Fulbright grant to return to Niger?
My Fulbright grant kept me in Niger from August 1992 until July 1993.
     I started researching the project about 16 months before I left — it was to be a book about bush taxis. It struck me that if I could understand more about roads in Africa, their history, how they were laid out, and how they are used today, I could say a lot about the way the continent has evolved from colonial times through independence to the present.
     What drew me to the topic was the general experience of bush taxi travel while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. I remember how frightened I was every time I got into a bush taxi. It’s hard to forget deep fear . . . I was, however, fascinated by what frightened me: The reckless courage and fatalism of the drivers, the awful conditions of the vehicles combined with the mechanical genius needed to keep them running on a continent with so few resources. On the road, I discovered an Africa that simply would not be beaten down.
     Finally, one experience I had as a Volunteer really got me thinking about the historical aspect of the road culture story. This was an incident on a street in Bouza where I first heard the name of Captain Voulet, the French army officer whose exploratory route blazed the path for Niger’s National Highway One. Voulet is not remembered as an explorer, though. In Niger, he’s remembered for his atrocities. I’ll quote from my book:

    History tends to ambush here: In 1986, in a village market one morning, a woman grabbed her young son by the shoulders and pointed at me.
         “Tu vois, tu vois,” she said — You see, you see— “c’est le capitaine Voulet.” She laughed as the boy struggled. He looked at me wide-eyed, kicking and screaming. When I told a Nigerien friend about it, he smiled. “When I was bad,” he explained, ‘my mother told me Captiain Voulet would come and eat me. She never said who Voulet was, just that he would eat me.”

So I was lucky — I landed in Niger with a pretty clear idea of what I had to do to tell the story. My idea was to find a “road guide” to lead me, and ultimately the reader, through the story. The guide I found was a bush taxi driver named Issoufou Garba.

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