Talking with Peter Chilson
An Interview by Bird Cupps (Kenya 1987–89)

    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.

    I believe you said it took you four months to meet Issoufou. Wow. That’s patience, even on Africa time.
    Finding a good “guide,” someone to lead me — and ultimately the Reader — across the terrain, was really tough. but it is tough for a foreigner to develop trust in any culture. I arrived in Niger in late August. I met Issoufou Garba in November and we just clicked. He was interested in my project right away and in early December we started traveling together. Part of what helped, I think, is the sympathy I showed for the drivers’ situation and the fact that I was willing to experience that life with him, that I would not be riding around in my air-conditioned vehicle like so many other white folks working in Niger. I spent a lot of time just hanging and exchanging stories with him and his driver friends at a motor park coffee table. And I traveled with him on and off until June. What’s really important is persistence. You have to spend the time, show a willingness to listen, participate, ask questions.

    One of the things I like about your book is its loose use of narrative. Sure, there’s a narrative, but this is not your typical drama. I felt like you hung images of Niger’s roads and snippets of information on the story. The whole thing feels much more like a painting than a story, really refreshing in the midst of the current craze for strong nonfiction narratives.
    The book is rooted in my MFA thesis, which was a collection of essays. I developed the stronger narrative structure as I revived the manuscript and added to it over time. That took three years. During the revision process several people read the manuscript and I published seven essays from it in literary journals. The feedback I got (from editors and my own circle of readers) convinced me the story worked better as a more continuous narrative with a dominant “guide” (Issoufou Garba), who helps the narrator, and ultimately the reader, through the story. But the complexity of the subject, and its geographic breadth, made it difficult to stick with the “guide” through the whole story. I needed to break off to explore related road culture issues.
         In any case, I found as my project progressed that my book worked much better as a continuous story than as a collection of essays. Also, the narrative was more marketable than the collection.

    Your text takes plenty of time to inform readers without talking down to them. Was it difficult to maintain an appropriate perspective? Did you have some idea about who your readers were?
    Yes, the perspective issue was a problem. The first draft was a jumbled mess and I was having trouble getting a broad hold on what I had experienced. After graduate school, I went to Seattle to be with my fiancée (Laura Gephart — we are now married) and start a career as a freelance writer. Time and distance helped a lot on the perspective issue.
         I guess it just takes time for things to settle in the mind, especially after an experience that was often grueling, frightening, and emotionally difficult. I found that perspective came from letting the story cool a bit in my mind.
         As far as knowing my readers, I definitely had an idea that I could appeal to the strong armchair travel market. But I did not want my book to be just travel writing. Having traveled in Africa, I knew there was a strong readership of travelers — Peace Corps Volunteers, aid workers and so forth — who would be looking for literature with a new and experienced perspective on Africa. I also knew those readers would be tough to please: They are knowledgeable, well read, and tough judges of what makes good writing.
         Happily, I’ve gotten a lot of complimentary emails and letters from that very group of experienced readers.

    You mentioned something to my students that I was really happy to hear you say to them. You told them Africa is a “really mellow place to hang out.” Do you think that experience is in the book?
    Well, it is, unless you are like me and you go looking for trouble. The pace of life in Africa is much slower. In fact, much of life — eating, taking tea, greeting people on the street, etc. — is lived with great ritual. To survive there requires a certain amount of patience, a willingness to wait, a willingness to spend time with people.
         I once was detained with a whole busload of people because gendarmes at a checkpoint found a water bottle full of marijuana seeds on board. It was not clear who the owner was, and the gendarmes pushed around the old man who had been sitting in the seat closest to the seeds. They quickly figured out, though, that the guilty party had run off into the bush during the confusion.      Anyway, the point of the story is that I spent a very pleasant 24 hours under guard in jail playing cards and drinking tea with other passengers and our guards. Going to jail for a short time worked out to be a great opportunity to meet soldiers, talk to them, and spend more time with the people I was traveling with. When the soldiers saw this white guy was not going to freak and get angry, they went out of their way to make me comfortable. African jails aren’t usually that mellow. But a more flexible, mellow point of view helped me get through that.
         There is a little of that in my book, but I admit the mellowness of African life really isn’t what my book is about.

    In the book you write that when you left Africa the first time you felt “dissatisfied with your understanding of the place and its effect on you.” Any closer to a satisfied understanding?
    No. The more I learned, the more I feel I need to know and the more I realized I don’t understand. I spent time in only a small portion of that continent. Niger alone is a country with 16 languages, none of which I speak well. And Niger has an amazing wealth of cultural traditions, a bit of which I experienced.
         One thing I learned: I take seriously the ritual of African social life, the idea of investing time and energy in personal relationships no matter how trivial. So, for instance, when dealing with folks over at the Post Office, I say “hi” and try to make the transaction, however banal and businesslike, as human as possible.

    Finally, what are you working on? And when you will you write about Africa again? (Maybe that’s a request.) I’d be happy to show you around Kenya where ladies mob the bush taxis with pineapple on a stick and all around is green, green, green.
    I am working on a novel that explores themes that revolve around the conflict between science and land values in the American West. And, I’m working on a nonfiction book that explores how people live in and culturally interpret open space in West Africa and the American West. The nonfiction book is tentatively entitled, In Large and Sunlit Land, a line I took from a Kipling poem about South Africa.

    Bird Cupps lives in central Pennsylvania and works as a carpenter and creative writer teacher at Penn State. She is currently writing a book on building and grief.