Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Touch of Life

Excerpt from A Tent Called Simba, WIP#2:

(Photo source:

The taxi dropped me and my sister, Ro, at the unimpressive border control port of Kazungula. We stood for a moment watching our only link with civilization disappear down the road back towards Kasane before attending to formalities. The border officials from both countries stamped our passports with the same indifference we had come to expect, and we were suddenly in Zimbabwe, without a vehicle, and with no idea how we going to get to the town of Victoria Falls, 70 kilometres away.
                The locals, on the other hand, had obviously encountered tourists like us before, and a thin, black man with stained, jagged teeth approached us immediately. “You need a lift to Victoria Falls?”
                We did, of course, but were reluctant to appear desperate, as if we had just popped over the border for a look at the other side of the fence, and intended to head back to Botswana sometime soon.
                “Mmm,” mumbled Ro noncommittally.
                The man pointed to a brown and rusty - or perhaps it was brown because it was rusty - utility parked behind the ‘Welcome to Zimbabwe’ sign. “Ten dollars each,” said the man.
                Ro and I walked onto the road for a better view of the vehicle, and noticed two men in the cab and two more in the back.
                “Do we seriously want to get in the back of a ute full of four – “ she glanced at the thin man hovering behind us, “- or five Zimbabwean men?”
                I peered up the road. At least it was bitumen. “It’s either that or hang around here waiting for a better offer.”
                The man touched me gently on the elbow. “Is okay,” he said softly. “We take you to Victoria Falls.”
                Ro and I threw each other resigned looks and followed the man to the vehicle. “I’ll be amazed if this thing even makes it that far,” I muttered as I hauled my pack into the back, clambered aboard, and sat with my pack on my lap while Ro squeezed next to me and did the same. The two men already sprawled in the tray nodded and smiled as they shuffled to make room for us.
                The brown-toothed man squeezed into the cab beside the other men. The car rattled and roared as the driver started the engine and shifted up the gears.
                “Where you from?” said the man next to me. His eyes looked soft and young, but the lines on his forehead suggested a life of hardship.
                “Ah,” he said knowingly and smiled. “Africa just like Australia, no?”
                I looked at the shrubby greenery of the surroundings and the dead grass that lined the road, and thought of the roads through the Northern Territory. “Yeah, pretty much. But the Australian elephant is pretty rare nowadays.” He laughed at my pathetic attempt to keep the situation light, and I was impressed that his English was polished enough to recognize I had made a joke. “So you’re a local, I take it?”
                “Yes, I go across the border and bring things back into Zimbabwe.”
                “What sort of things?”
                The man explained that he and the other men brought in whatever they could lay their hands on. “Our petrol stations are closed. We must smuggle fuel across the border. And food is veddy expensive. Many people trade in the black market.”
                I tried to imagine what life what be like if I had to travel miles to get fuel and was then forced to smuggle it back into my own country. I couldn’t imagine it at all.
                “It has gotten veddy bad,” he said. “There are no jobs. There is no money.”
                I am not a political person, but I wanted to know. “Is it because of Mugabe?”
                The man’s mouth formed an ‘o’ and he shook his head. “He is a veddy bad man.”
                I wanted to ask him a flood of questions, about his family, about his life, but the man sitting next to him began talking in rapid-fire Shona, and I hugged my backpack and sank into silence.
                The ute dropped us on the outskirts of Victoria Falls but within walking distance of the town. Appreciating that people who had to smuggle fuel into their own country were not about to drop us at the doorstep of anywhere useful, I handed over my cash and the car piled up with people, none of them white tourists like us, and roared off back towards the border.


  1. I miss reading your work. You have a great ability to set the scene and describe the environment. What impresses me is that you are so frugal with your words. I feel like I drone on and on while you get to the point, say what you want to say and move on. You have a talent.

    This is just what I was thinking while I read it. Use it as you want.

    Might want to add a sentence about either being afraid to get into the ute with the guys or explain why you and Ro are willing to jump into the truck with no visible fear. I know that you mention clutching the backpack later on. The way it reads is like you are resigned to your fate and the only thing that I as a reader is waiting for is the end, are we going to live or die? This is a great place to up the tension, if that is a goal. Put me on a rollercoaster and throw me around a little.

    The second thing is this. Ten dollars to a fat, ugly American like me is nothing. It is a Happy Meal and two gallons of gas. If I don’t have ten dollars cash, no big deal. I have fifty credit cards. I am in no danger of missing my mid afternoon snack. Give me a frame of reference of what ten dollars actually means to these people. You are close by describing the black market, the smuggling of gas and the full truck heading back to the border. How much can it buy? Make me say a prayer of thanks for my good fortune for living in the States.

    Finally, I love the dialogue and I can hear the accent when I read it. That is tough to do and you make it look easy. Great Job.

  2. You read my mind, buddy. Now that's a scary thought.

    I ripped through NaNoWriMo dumping unadorned memories onto the page, and now I've picked it up again, I'm wondering, do I a) leave it true, but boring, or b) inject drama and tension, i.e. lie and change my personality, for the sake of an action-packed story. 'Creative' vs 'non-fiction' - hmm. (If only I could be true AND interesting. Now there's a challenge.)

    The relative value of currency is important. Not long after this scene, I say to Ro: "I read somewhere that an average annual income is something like a hundred and seventy dollars," and "What’s Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate? Ninety per cent?” and, 'The sign on the gate said, Africans: 10c. Non-Africans: $20.'

    This was an impulse post. I had an urge to get back to basics, so thanks for humouring me. Your comments are extremely helpful, and I am always grateful for your ongoing support.

  3. Erica --flat out you are a great writer. I want to read more. This is just the kind of stuff I love. I actually am going to disagree a bit with Rob a bit about getting in the vehicle. I completely understood, in context, both the fear (women alone, strange country, strange men) and the need for transportation. I think you showed that w/out having to state it. Maybe as a woman I "got" that more readily? I hope you follow your impulses more! Fun read, great writing.

    1. Hey Julie,

      After Rob's comments I was secretly hoping you'd offer a view.

      One thing I don't want to do is mislead a reader, or myself for that matter. If I honestly thought my life was in danger, I would have high-tailed it out of there. If the illusion is to be included, it's got to be in fiction form, I think.

      Thanks so much for your perspective, and kind words, as always.

    2. Julie is right. As a woman she probably picked up on it easier than I did. After re-reading and thinking about it, I can see the subtle hints. I missed them the first time.

      Question time: When you write, do you have a ideal reader in mind or do you just let the story flow?

    3. Answer: I've read the recommendation, 'Write for a reader,' many times, and no, I don't do it. It isn't deliberate, I just write whatever enters my head. This is one reason why I'm not ready to market my name against form, or genre, or style. I have poems, songs, kid's stories, non-fiction articles, outlines for mysteries, a YA novel, (a political thriller??), a travel memoir, and seven pathetic pages of a script.

      That's the joy of having no readers, no contracts, and no expectations. It's a great time to experiment.

      Some I'll try to market (hence, the year of rejection), and some I won't. If nothing appeals to anybody, oh well.

      What about you? I'm keen to hear what others think about the 'ideal reader' approach.

    4. Eggie,

      When I write, I do have an ideal reader in mind. Myself. I am writing the type of book that I want to read.

      I don’t know if that means I am targeting, old, short, fat, washed-up, has been who want an escape from their drab, boring, life. If so, then I might have something cooking. Ha Ha.

  4. Goodness, I didn't realize how much I missed your writing until I read this. Yes, I've been waiting patiently since November to glimpse an excerpt or two.

    Erica - wonderful! Even as a man, I immediately felt the trepidation to get into the vehicle - yeah, there was the gender issue, but also, even I would be hesitant to get into a ute with five strangers in a strange land. Lord knows if I'd ever make it to Victoria Falls. Very courageous! Or stupid. LOL.

    Honestly, I'M the reader I write for. Every story. Even the little kid ones, as they tap into my inner child. God, I hate using that touch-feely let's-all-hug-ourselves and sing Kum bah ya.

    Re: writing a memoir or creative non-fiction. In my humble opinion - or maybe arrogant one - truth is usually not boring. The way it's conveyed may be, but the event itself must not be if it had such an impact to remain in long-term memory.

    I have led a life that is full of adventure. I mean FULL. Oh...the stories I have to get out of my head and on paper. They could either be droll and full of simple facts, or entertaining - full of the same facts, but expressed humorously, sadly, madly, gladly, etc. or whatever I was feeling. It's all about the words we use.

    When I think of creative non-fiction, I think of the ability to tell a true story using wonderful, embellishing words. Think Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry. I love their stuff! True observations, but twisted into fun shapes and shiny baubles.

    As I consider my memoir of this time with my mom, I realize that I can't remember conversations verbatim, but I can remember the gist and the feeling. I have tons of scrawled notes to myself, instances and happenings, quick (and shitty) short stories of things that have happened.

    When I write it, I'll turn to those notes and, staying true to my mom's personality and way of speaking, will create the conversations from the gist of the moment. Remember that a memoir is an individual memory...the same event could happen to me and my sister, but she'd see things from her perspective and I, from mine. What may have been a funny situation for me could be entirely different for her.

    Great impulse post. It took me a couple of days to come over here...I haven't been paying attention to my blogroll and I'm used to your posts on the weekends. :o)

    1. Thanks for the wise words.

      During my 'How To Write' book blitz, I read a couple of books on memoir, thinking, 'yeah, like I'd want to write about my boring life,' and 'yeah, like anyone would want to read about it.' The second point remains to be seen, but I've found the experience, so far, good fun, and a valuable lesson in 'emotional' writing.

      You're absolutely right. Memoir is a genre of feelings and perspectives, and all the other things you alluded to so eloquently. There will be different levels of kumbaya-chanting, but each of our stories is unique.

      I'm relieved to hear I'm not the only one who writes without an audience in mind. I'm not sure if that makes it easier or harder to release a piece into the world.

      How goes the work on Monty?

  5. Thanks for visiting my blog. Your writing was full of atmosphere, and - as others have said - the fear of getting into that car. I'd love to read more.

    1. No worries, and thanks for your comments.