2006.05.21: May 21, 2006: Headlines: COS - Ivory Coast: Writing - Ivory Coast: Chicago Tribune: It is difficult, at points while reading it, to remember that "Whiteman" is fiction and not a memoir recounting D'Souza's time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ivory Coast in the first few years of this century

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Ivory Coast: Writer Tony D'Souza: Tony D'Souza: Archive of Stories: January 4, 2005: Headlines: COS - Ivory Coast: Writing - Ivory Coast: Mount Shasta News: Ivory Coast RPCV Tony D'Souza was finally able to find the peace and quiet he needed in the small canyon community of Dunsmuir to write "Whiteman" : 2006.05.21: May 21, 2006: Headlines: COS - Ivory Coast: Writing - Ivory Coast: Chicago Tribune: It is difficult, at points while reading it, to remember that "Whiteman" is fiction and not a memoir recounting D'Souza's time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ivory Coast in the first few years of this century

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-141-157-16-6.balt.east.verizon.net - 141.157.16.6) on Sunday, June 04, 2006 - 4:38 am: Edit Post

It is difficult, at points while reading it, to remember that "Whiteman" is fiction and not a memoir recounting D'Souza's time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ivory Coast in the first few years of this century

 It is difficult, at points while reading it, to remember that Whiteman is fiction and not a memoir recounting D'Souza's time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ivory Coast in the first few years of this century

One problem--but only if we make it so--encountering this type of novel is that the fictional blanket will be thickly woven in some spots, and rather threadbare in others. For those who are interested, there is a long interview with D'Souza on the Web site peacecorpswriters.org (click the link for "Current issue") in which he implies that the account of his eventual evacuation from the country, a harrowing journey from north to south, appears in "Whiteman" relatively unadulterated.

It is difficult, at points while reading it, to remember that "Whiteman" is fiction and not a memoir recounting D'Souza's time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ivory Coast in the first few years of this century

A tale of cultural immersion, dissonance

By Art Winslow
Published May 21, 2006

Whiteman

By Tony D'Souza

Harcourt, 279 pages, $22

The remarkable new novel "Whiteman," by Chicago-born Tony D'Souza, begins in a coup and ends in an uprising. And it doesn't trail off in the middle, either.

It is difficult, at points while reading it, to remember that "Whiteman" is fiction and not a memoir recounting D'Souza's time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ivory Coast in the first few years of this century. It was a time of coups and insurrections, and flaring tensions between the Muslim north and Christian south of the country, and D'Souza experienced some of the turbulence of that conflict.

One problem--but only if we make it so--encountering this type of novel is that the fictional blanket will be thickly woven in some spots, and rather threadbare in others. For those who are interested, there is a long interview with D'Souza on the Web site peacecorpswriters.org (click the link for "Current issue") in which he implies that the account of his eventual evacuation from the country, a harrowing journey from north to south, appears in "Whiteman" relatively unadulterated.

But enough about factuality: That D'Souza was posted to a small Muslim village in the north of Ivory Coast and took occasional jaunts to the regional capital of Seguela for R&R and safety, was called "Toubabou," or "Whiteman," by those he met, and conducted AIDS education is irrelevant. In the novel, narrator Jack Diaz, the fictional persona who happens to hail from Chicago, is posted to a small Muslim village in the north of Ivory Coast, where he does his best to acculturate, except for intermittent trips to Seguela; is referred to as "Toubabou" by the people; and eventually starts up an AIDS-education program. Jack doesn't, however, work for the Peace Corps but for a non-governmental humanitarian agency, Potable Water International. "We were the last foreign-aid group still in the field," Jack relates. Only three weeks before he was posted to his village, Tegeso, a Dutch missionary had told him that due to the unrest it looked like it was down to " `you water people and us Bible peo-ple.' " But then the churches were burned and the missionaries headed south, "whites with their Bibles piled around them in their Land Rovers like sandbags."

When Jack arrived in Tegeso, which was to be his home for three years, he was given the Muslim name Adama, a form of Adam, the original man, and it was the name he went by afterward, except when addressed by other extranationals. "No one there ever really learned my Western name, or cared," he notes. "With time, even this wouldn't matter to me."

"Whiteman" is a novel of cultural immersion as much as anything. While conflict is ever in the background and sometimes in the foreground, the book is heavily centered on the groping attempts of those on each side of a racial and technological divide to comprehend each other. "I understood two things immediately," Jack tells us. "I was white and would be no matter what I did, and . . . not one thing I'd learned in training would have a practical application in this place."

Jack has a sidekick throughout "Whiteman," a proverb-spewing, French-speaking young man his own age named Mamadou, designated by the village to teach the foreigner about local customs and taboos. This amusing interlocutor becomes a kind of African alter ego to Jack, who is given to impulse and is understandably ignorant on local matters large and small. Mamadou's gentle habit is to let Jack make mistakes until they become intolerable, whereupon he'll say something like:

" `Are you sure you really want to sweep your hut out at night, Adama? The ancestors take it as a great insult. It means you are sweeping away their welcome as they look for a place to sleep.' "

" `Why didn't you tell me that weeks ago?' " Jack asks.

" `Why remind a blind man that he is blind?' " Mamadou replies.

He also tells Jack that his habit of greeting people before they wash their face for the day ahead had them complaining " `that you make them humiliate themselves each and every morning.' " So much for cultural diplomacy.

"Whiteman" is laced with humor and poignancy, and it relates Jack's experiences more or less chronologically from arrival to evacuation. (The dozen chapters read as freestanding short stories, strung together by Jack's references more than by developmental dependence on each other, so they lend themselves to being read independently as well.) Potable Water's project money dried up after 9/11, and without deep-bore pumps to access clean water, Jack "spent most of my days in Tegeso waiting for the world to right itself and the aid valves to flow again. I didn't have much to do but live among them, and I didn't want to go home."

So Jack is a young man in his mid-20s stuck in the sticks with nothing to do. No wonder, then, that "Whiteman" also traces his romantic steps and missteps, as Jack's encounters include a farcical tease by an Amazon-like girl, multiple meetings with a city prostitute and a months-long affair with a married woman in the village.

While "Whiteman" lacks the political subtlety of the far-flung novels of, say, Graham Greene or the post-colonial novels of V.S. Naipaul, D'Souza infuses it with great warmth. The ground-level accounts of daily life he offers aren't often found outside the works of Africans, writers like Chinua Achebe, Nuruddin Farah and Wole Soyinka.

D'Souza cleverly plays up the sense of cultural dissonance, which throws off sparks throughout "Whiteman." In a short span as the novel opens, and in no particular order, street thugs ask Jack if he knows Michael Jordan and Jean-Claude Van Damme; an old man dressed in rags and of questionable mental stability tells him, " `You whites. You walk on the moon before you walk on the ground"; and a weathered woman with a steel tub on her head advises him to buy a gun.

" `We're a humanitarian organization, Ama,' " Jack replies, " `We don't believe in guns.' "

" `In all the films from America, all is guns. So don't tell me!' " she responds.

As Jack marks his time, "Whiteman" becomes social reporting of a kind. For something to do, he treks to a school that is three miles into the forest and stays on a few days as a substitute teacher. "To visit the school was to glimpse the decay of Ivorian society," he says. Long rows of students sat on the floor, "whole villages of [them] shared a handful of textbooks," the classrooms had to be swept of droppings every morning because goats bedded down there at night, and the students had no latrines, making the nearby land a fecal minefield.

The north-south, Muslim-Christian tension is a societal volcano in "Whiteman," always venting steam and occasionally erupting, and D'Souza's writing on it has the immediacy of news bulletins: "Then there was gunfire, automatic and small-arms, staccato, right here, far away, patterned layers of jarring sound," Jack reports; that and the curls of smoke rising into the sky "filled me with a stunned dumbness, a weight, a dread, a fatigue that spread through my body like exhaustion."

Jack knew one clear-minded night that he was "as African as I would ever become, not African at all." And he concedes that despite his later wanderings around the continent, "Whatever I was looking for, I didn't find it." A colleague had warned, " `If you want it to mean something, don't ever [go] home.' "

During his last months in country, "That war was inevitable was like moisture gathering in the air." As a surprise, Jack buys cans of paint, and the young men who had once taunted him help vivify the hut doors throughout the village. But as the rebellion begins, they break out the witch doctor's small cache of AK-47s and paw them "like women's bodies," with eager faces. "All around them in the night, the doors of the village were painted in many and beautiful hues," Jack recalls. "They didn't notice this anymore, though they had been the ones who'd painted them."

----------

Art Winslow is a frequent contributor to the Tribune.





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Story Source: Chicago Tribune

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Ivory Coast; Writing - Ivory Coast

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