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Mon December 1, 2003
The Gods of Noonday
What we think of as "home".
By Nicki Leone
Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Nicki's commentary.]
I spent my Thanksgiving this year with a good friend and her elderly mother, two people who have become family to me in the dozen years that I have lived here. Ruth is eighty and recovering from a heart attack. She told us she had no intention of cooking, or eating a big Thanksgiving meal. All she wanted was a plateful of Jackson's BBQ and some potato salad.
So I had BBQ for Thanksgiving dinner, and I'm not complaining! Still, I couldn't help feeling a twinge of homesickness for the Thanksgivings at home. The thought brought me up short. At home? I am not exactly "from around here", as you can probably tell. I grew up in New England, I have ideas about what makes a season "Fall". I don't think we should need air conditioning in November. This is the only time of the year that I feel slightly out of place.
I'm not alone in this feeling. What marketing people call "regional literature" has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years and ironically, it isn't because more people are staying at home. It is because more people aren't quite sure, anymore, what or where "home" is. We bounce around this country following jobs or lovers, and often find ourselves landed in unfamiliar places. It can be disorienting, even depressing. We are fast becoming a nation of outsiders--of exiles.
An outsider of sorts myself, I'm naturally drawn to books about outsiders, which is why I was drawn to a book called "The Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life" by Elaine Neil Orr. I am interested in books that explore people and place. Orr was born in Nigeria where her parents were medical missionaries. She spent the first 16 years of her life in Africa, until her parents, afraid of letting their daughter grow up in exile, sent her "home" to Georgia. She spent the next 20 years of her life trying to be "American". It wasn't until she was faced with a serious illness that she realized that she was an exile, indeed. She was homesick--for Africa.
"The Gods of Noonday" is Orr's attempt to chronicle her journey away from and back to Nigeria. It is thoughtful and slightly dreamy--some people would probably call the style "luminous". And it is infused with a longing that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been homesick.
But this is no rosy-tinted look back. Like all childhoods, the author admits to some idyllic moments. But she was born into a period of upheaval--on the eve of Nigeria's fight for independence from Great Britain. The status and the safety of her family was at times precarious, and the violence that seems to explode when western culture meets African lurks everywhere. There is a particularly disturbing scene when a monitor (a lizard the size of a small dragon) wanders into the family compound. Things do not go well, for either the lizard or the missionaries. It is a scene of vivid detail and inescapable implications.
But the simmering violence doesn't change the fact that Nigeria is still HOME to Elaine Neil Orr. If you were to ask her to describe a tree, she would tell you about a baobob. If you were to say "draw me a picture of a house", she would draw a bungalow. It has been said by psychologists who claim to know such things, that we are fundamentally the person we will be by the age of four or five. If that is true, I suppose I will always at heart be a New Englander. Elaine Orr is at heart, an African. The Gods of Noonday is her attempt to make peace with being a stranger in a strange land, and it has something to teach all of us who are exiled--no matter where from, no matter where to.
Nicki Leone is the manager of an independent bookstore in Wilmington.