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Talk by India RPCV Nancy Farmer, winner of the 2002 Young People's Literature Award
Talk by India RPCV Nancy Farmer, winner of the 2002 Young People's Literature Award
Winner of the 2002 YOUNG PEOPLE'S LITERATURE AWARD
for The House of the Scorpion
BALDWIN: Our next speaker was born in Yuma, Arizona near the border with Mexico and grew up in a hotel owned by her parents where guests included writers, retired railroad men and circus performers. This is all true. Everything that I am about to tell you is true.
She graduated from Reed College, joined the Peace Corps and went to India where she taught chemistry for three years. In 1972, she went to Africa as a technician specializing in entomology and biological control. Living in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, she remained in Africa for 17 years and there she met and married a poet who taught English at the University of Zimbabwe.
She did not write her first short story until she was 40 years old when her son was born. In 1987, the family moved to California and she became a full time writer soon thereafter and a National Book Award Finalist. She won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature last November 20th. In her acceptance remarks, she said, and I quote: "I met all the other children's authors and they all deserve to win. I just feel like the moon was in a phase and the planets were lined up. I want to thank my husband, he wasn't able to be here tonight, so I am sending him an astral message."
I'm talking about Nancy Farmer and it is my great honor to present her to you this evening. Nancy?
Nancy Farmer, 2002 Winner for Young People's Literature. Photo: S. Wavrick
FARMER: I was over 40 when I began writing. Until then, I had been a freelance scientist. That meant I had an enormous amount of freedom because I was willing to work short term at jobs no one else would consider. Thus, I worked on an oceanographic boat for a man called "Captain Crunch" whose previous experience had been running tugboats in Vietnam. He used to stand at the helm stark naked with a bottle of rum by his side while the rest of us ran around trying to keep the microscopes from falling off the shelves. The job ended when the captain tore a 40-foot hole in the side of the boat.
I worked with the California Highway Department controlling insects that eat traffic islands. This is a bigger problem than you might think because insects eat their ways across deserts by following the landscaping on freeways. They wind up in tasty new places such as the vineyards of northern California. Later, I worked for the vineyards.
Eventually, I took a boat to Africa. I arrived with $500 in my pocket and a list of African scientists. I walked to the nearest one and asked for a job. In this way, I spent many happy years until I got married to a Zimbabwean. Now, I knew nothing about marriage and motherhood. My sole experience had come from watching cats so I was completely unprepared for what followed. I had to quit my job, I had to stay home and act respectable.
By now, I had a son called Daniel. My whole day was supposed to revolve around him and the maintenance of the house. It suddenly became important to be sure the napkin rings matched the napkins. Meals were to be on time, not eaten out of cans under trees. Each morning I was supposed to tell the servants what to do and then suitably dressed await visitors. The visitors were respectable women who had the attention span of domestic turkeys. I felt like I had been demoted from human being to the status of a flatwork in a mud puddle.
One afternoon when Daniel was four, I sat reading a book by Marjorie Forster. It contained a description of a pond in London. The pond had a light crust of ice, too light to support a person, and a family was walking around the edge. One of them, a small boy very much like Daniel, decided to walk across the ice. I looked up. A wonderful lighthearted feeling passed through me. I can do this, I thought.
I sat down at my husband's typewriter and four hours later I had a complete short story. It felt marvelous. I had found a way to run away from home without actually leaving the house.
Someone has described the act of writing as close to what St. Paul meant when he talked about the more abundant life. Writing and all other forms of creation seem to be spiritual states of heightened reality. For sure, people do it whether or not they get published. For sure, I knew it was the best thing to happen to me since I walked down the aisle.
I began disappearing with the typewriter whenever a gap in the daily routine happened and soon the manuscripts began to pile up. I asked one of my husband's friends who was a novelist what to do with them. "Listen to me," he said - too late I realized he had just drunk half a bottle of whiskey - "Listen to me," he said, breathing Glenfiddich into my face, "There's only one thing you need to know about writers. Writers are bastardy. They'd skin their grandmothers to get an editor's attention. They'd sell their wives into slavery and let their children die of starvation for a book contract."
Not long afterwards, I was sunbathing at the public swimming pool and next to me on the grass was the editor of College Press, a local company that did textbooks, poetry and novels. His name was Stanley, and I asked his advice. "Send something over," he said. So I did and Stanley bought it. More, I discovered that College Press was as close to paradise as an author gets. It was that rare, almost mythical creature, a seller's market.
Not many people wrote books in Central Africa. Part of it was because not many people owned typewriters. Those of us who did had a technological advantage. Once Stanley accepted you, he would buy anything you produced. You went in, Stanley said, "How many words does it have?" You told him and he would pay you ten cents a word and grant you 10% royalties without even reading the manuscript.
He gave you cash on the barrelhead to buy groceries. It was easy as picking peaches. The reason Stanley was so understanding was because he was a writer, too, although he had had writer's block for seven years. He understood the people who worked for him. He knew they could be petty and egotistical but he also knew they were possessed by a writing spirit and were unable to do any other kind of gainful work.
When Stanley said you were possessed by a spirit, he meant it literally. He also ran interference between us and the secret police. The one thing you were never supposed to do in Zimbabwe was make fun of the President or the government. You could get five years in prison for doing it. At that time, the President looked like the king in "The Wizard of Id". He gave lectures on the "Gospel of St. John" with a row of bodyguards with machine guns at the back to discourage criticism and he was absolutely irresistible.
Stanley got a visit from the secret police at 3:00 a.m. They threatened to beat him up and he threatened to give them our addresses if we didn't shut up. But I could get away with political satire in children's books. Children's writers were beneath the radar screen and anything they did was considered too trivial to worry about.
The children's textbooks at College Press were handled by an editor called Masvida Mondondo, a group of us met at her house. Some of the authors even lived there when they were low on money. My job was to write the sparkly bits and the others had to think up questions about grammar and so forth. I arrived early in the morning because everyone started drinking gin at 10:00 a.m. I needed to get the stories to them while they could still function.
As well as writing articles about open pit copper mining and the disposal of waterborne sewage for the science textbooks, we produced picture books and novels. These were supposed to lure kids into reading for pleasure. They were printed on whatever paper we could find. Sometimes we had newsprint and sometimes meat wrapping paper from the butchers. Usually, we only had one color of ink at a time for the cover.
Distribution was difficult. Gasoline was scarce. The tires on the delivery truck were retreaded so many times they exploded on the highway and sent the truck into a ditch. If Stanley wanted new tires, he put his name on a list and waited a year. One Christmas, the staff was sent out on bicycles to deliver books to the stores. This, then, was how I entered the writing life.
I don't think anything like it has existed in the United States for a long time. We were all amateurs. We were full of confidence. We were blessed with understanding editors. Everyone pitched in like a barn raising in Amish country to create a literature in a country that had almost no written literature. It was an exciting time and I hope I have transmitted that enthusiasm to you. Thank you. [Applause]
National Book Foundation Executive Director Neil Baldwin. Photo: S. Wavrick
BALDWIN: Does anyone have any questions
AUDIENCE: Did your writing change when you came to the United States?
FARMER: Well yes. I had to learn to write because I'd been spoiled rotten in Africa. They took everything that I wrote, whether it was good or not. And when I came to the United States, I got a really nasty shock when I got a rejection slip. So I sat down and trained myself how to write, you know, because I really didn't know. And I'm hiding my earlier books because they are really bad.
AUDIENCE : How old were you then and are you still getting ten cents a word?
FARMER: Actually, I was 40 years old when I started and I'm still getting ten cents a word because it's a captive audience, you see. They don't have very many books so they keep recycling the old ones. I'm supporting my mother-in-law on my royalties in Africa. Don't tell the IRS, okay?