Seduced by Kenya

Wanderlust editor Don George talks with Francesca Marciano, author of the evocative and provocative new novel about Kenya, 'Rules of the Wild.'


Don George
October 9, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Yesterday, Wanderlust published the first chapter of Francesca Marciano's evocative and provocative new novel about Kenya, "Rules of the Wild." Reading that book transported me back to the vast open spaces of Africa and reminded me powerfully how that country had gotten under my own skin 20 years ago, so I leapt at the chance to interview the author when she was in San Francisco earlier this week. For Marciano, an Italian filmmaker who now divides her life between Kenya and Italy, this book represents a double risk: It is her first novel, and her first literary effort in English.

Why did you write this book?

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I've always wanted to be a writer. I opted for the movies because I thought I could get away with more -- there was always somebody else you could blame. Writing films enabled me to make a living out of writing, but deep down I always knew that writing films was not like writing a novel. When you're writing a book, you give people access straight into your head. It's scary, but that's what ultimately you aim for when you decide to write. I wanted to write this book in particular because I figured that after 10 years of living in Africa, I needed to explain to myself what had made me stay. And I wanted to explain it to others as well, because I felt a lot of people were wondering, "What are you still doing there?"

Is your main character, Esme, mostly you, or more a composite of other people you know?

Esme isn't me. Esme doesn't have a job, she relies on men, she is passive. I've worked since I was 18 years old, and I've always been a control freak. But in a way I would like to be like Esme. I felt these were positive qualities. I didn't want Esme to be a career person. I wanted her to be really vulnerable. In Kenya she can't introduce herself as someone who is doing this or that; she's just there, under the sky, and not even remotely pretending that she has a career or a reason to be there. I think that takes a lot of guts.

Do people still fly into Nairobi like this, with no reason or plan except that they feel they need to be there?

Yes, I see it all the time. I see people come in and be totally dumbfounded by what happens internally, which is what I tried to explain in the first chapter. I have always thought of this book as a metaphorical geography. I didn't use Africa as a backdrop because I wanted to have a Grand Adventure or an Exotic Backdrop. I wanted Africa to be a metaphor for a state of mind, where you start taking everything off. You clear the background, and there's nothing, and therefore all sorts of things start jumping in the foreground. This is what happens to Esme, and this is what happens to anybody who comes to Africa. Something triggers it, and then they don't want to go away.

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And there is another thing -- not many other places are left on the planet where you're not in control. Kenya is really one of the few places where you can actually move away from electricity poles, telephones, people, cars, and just go to this space where maybe for days you don't meet another person. That's frightening, because you don't know what's out there. The strength of it is that it's almost coded in our genetic memory that this is how we function, it's what we were wired for. That stalled only very recently, maybe a hundred years ago. And that wiring, when we go back to Africa, somehow starts connecting again.

I remember that overwhelming feeling: It was not so much that I was a white man in a black man's country, as that I was a human in -- Nature's country; I was a guest in the wild animals' home.

Exactly. I think every continent has an age. You go to Africa and you're this human dot in the background. You go to India and everything is people, and people making things. It's like Africa is the childhood of man, where we haven't yet learned to make anything, and India is our youth, where we're making wonderful things, and there's music and poetry and fabrics and jewelry and architecture. And then you go to the West and it's really old age: All our stuff is used and rusting and all we're concerned about is where we can throw out the garbage.

When did you first go to Africa?

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It was '86, the first time. I grew up in Rome, but at that time I'd been living in New York for seven years. I hadn't been thinking about Africa at all, so when I found myself on holiday so deeply drawn there, it was a great surprise. Coming from Europe, I thought I'd be

more attracted to an Eastern country, like India, or a more sophisticated culture. But now I realize that I wanted to get rid of all the cultural luggage Europeans carry around, and Africa is a good place to do that. You go there, and you start all over. This is partly because you're so small in all that vastness, and partly because you're constantly dealing with people who are managing with so little. You go up in the north and see the nomadic tribes, and their life belongings could fit in the back of my car. The actual objects they need in order to survive are one pot and one gourd, where they keep their milk, two wraparounds, some jewelry and the hat that they keep on their whole life.

After that first Africa trip, I went to Europe and taught a little, and then I went back. And then I went back again. I couldn't get rid of it. When I decided that I wanted to move to Africa, it really went against my career, because by that time I was doing very well writing films in Italy. For a while I managed to live in Africa and go back to Europe and write maybe a film every year, which gave me enough money to be able to go back to Africa. Then I started a little company in Kenya, and started working as a freelance documentarist again. And that gave me a reason to stay.

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Actually, I've just finished one documentary that I'm particularly proud of. It's called "Lion's Tale," and it starts out with the African proverb, "Only when the lion has his own historian will we learn a different story than the one of the hunter." The idea was to function as a historian for the part of the tale that has never been told. So I went to interview elders from the Samburu, the Masai and other tribes about their recollections of the first time they saw whites, the first time they saw an airplane, a car, a box of matches, a gun.

These people still remember a life without these things -- and they remember just flipping out when they appeared. It's actually very humorous, what they said. They thought the whites were cannibals and would eat them. They thought the train was a snake made of fire. They thought that a plane must be God. What really flipped them out was the match, because they had been running around all their lives trying to keep a dry piece of wood, so that every time they could start a fire. There was one man who even remembered seeing a wheel for the first time. To be in touch with that kind of energy is almost like living with the warriors from "The Iliad."

One of the themes in your book is the white subculture, which you liken to a group of baboons. When the new woman, Claire, arrives, everyone sniffs her out; the males have their mating agenda and the females have their territorial and family protection agenda. Is that the way it is in your society today?

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Yes, but I think it's wrong to say that Kenya somehow causes this decadent life. What happens is that you're left without television, phones, entertainment; you're just locked in this very vast landscape. So I think you get real primal feelings about survival. And what happens is that we all start behaving like we're really supposed to. There are no filters, and nothing that can actually camouflage your -- if you're attracted to somebody, there's very little you can do to hide it. If you're angry at somebody, your anger comes out in monstrous proportions. If you're afraid, you really are afraid.

It looks decadent because it's a group of people who are somehow privileged by the color of their skin. Privileged because -- OK, let's also get this out of the way. It's not as if whites have any more power in Kenya. I mean, Kenya is run by Africans. The government is African, as are the big businessmen. It's an African-run country. So who are these white people? They're almost -- a lost tribe, obsolete. They're not really part of the social grain and so, in a way, they're free to have this easier life. No one really pays any attention. We're not key.

In the book, Hunter says at one point that it's suicidal to live like this, because it really isn't your country. And I think that's true: You have to live in a place that you really feel is important. You have to follow the politics. You have to know what the last name of the minister of education is. So one of the criticisms in the book is that the whites tend to live a life where they're not really committed. It's not really their problem what the president does.

This reminds me of the scene in the book where Hunter takes Esme to interview the Italian priest who is devoting his life to working in the Nairobi slum. That's a wholly unexpected scene and it really breaks the clichid portrait of the white person's life in Kenya.

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Well, I've been to that slum, I've been on that garbage dump they see. It really is like that. It's amazing. And it's amazing that no one really knows what's there. One doesn't imagine that there are 100,000 people living in a place without any sewers. I couldn't get over it when I went, and I couldn't get over the fact that I hadn't known about it before. So that's a pretty autobiographical part of the book -- I was like Hunter the journalist because I was there to do a documentary, but I felt like Esme, too, because just like her I thought, "How is it possible I've lived here all this time and I don't know this?"

Africa's hard because it's not easy to keep your balance; you either become cynical or you become this -- group tour. This attitude can save your conscience if you're there for a limited time, for your two years' contract in the Peace Corps or whatever. But if you decide to stay, then you're done with. You can't deal with it -- what needs to be done is too big.

That's another thing I was trying to be honest about. Remember the scene when Esme goes shopping, then rips the price tags off all the clothes she's bought before she gets home? She's bought all these very expensive things and everything costs more than the salary that she pays her gardener and her cook. And really, that act of guilt and embarrassment is typical -- it's a difficult place to live every day without feeling bad about yourself for one reason or another.

Was it somehow easier to write about these things in English? Why didn't you write this book in Italian?

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Well, I had the book inside me, I knew what I wanted to write, and I sat in front of the computer and started writing in Italian. And it really was horrible -- I could not believe how bad it sounded, how rhetorical. Because Italian is very ornate and very redundant, and I wanted this to be plain and direct. So I said, I can't write it. It's not going to work. Then I met a friend who lived in Nairobi, and she said, "You must write this in English. This is all in your brain. You've seen this, you've heard this, you've talked this, but it's all in your English personality." And I thought, I've never written anything in English in my life -- but I was so stuck anyway, I figured I had nothing to lose, so I started again in English. Every morning I woke up and I could keep going on, and I continued without having anybody read it until the end, and then when I reached the last page I gave it to an American friend and said, "Don't tell me what you think. Just tell me if the English is OK."

She told me it was very well written and she loved it, but then I thought, Oh, she's not literary. She's a reader, but she's also a friend. So then I went to England with the manuscript. I never thought it would be published in America. Actually, I didn't think it would be published anywhere! And now it's been translated into eight languages: Italian, French, German, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Dutch and Portuguese.

That's extraordinary -- why do you think that is?

It's weird. I think people at the end of the millennium are so desperate to be connected, that someone who is able to drop those cultural bags and leave them behind and step into this landscape, and fall in love, and be alone -- I think everyone identifies with this person. As I was writing the book, I thought, No one's going to care, this is such a tiny world. But I think that people identify with the idea of being able to change their lives.

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Esme walks into Africa without a job that defines who she is or a husband who takes her there. She just steps into the landscape as she is, unarmed, without defense. And I think that this is what people around the world connect to. We've all done something like this once, or we all think we might do something like this one day. It's not just the adventure, it's really that feeling of, Well, OK, I'm going to get hurt? OK. Fine. I'll try and survive it.

I love that -- the vulnerability. I always think that when you travel, you have to say to the world, "OK. Here I am. Do with me what you will." And when you say that, good things happen.

Yes. I think a traveler is somebody willing to give up his or her control. You see a powerful businessman in an unexpected situation and he looks like a child; you can picture him screaming at his secretary -- like a lion, you know? But he's like a child not knowing how to deal with this strange man on the road who doesn't speak his language. And there are lots of scenes in Africa of people giving up their control.

Right. But it's hard for control freaks to do that, I would think.

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Well, as I say in the beginning of the book, and this is very autobiographical, you come to a new place, and in a way you want to test yourself. I think a lot of people travel to test their fears. So they're willing to give up, but they want to learn the rules. So you're traveling and you're constantly trying to learn the rules of the place, so that you're not going to be -- so that you can be in control eventually. Except that in Africa, I think you have to accept pretty soon that you'll never be in control.

So Rule No. 1 is --

You'll never be in control. Ever.

And Rule No. 2, even if you live there, is you can never say, "This place is mine." Because Africa will always take it away from you in one way or another. So you have to learn how to love a place knowing that it will never be yours. And that's an act of generosity, as much as you have to learn how to love people without saying, "Oh, you'll be mine." You can still love people and they'll never be yours. That's why I'm attracted to the idea of people who do not belong but still make an emotional commitment of living in a place that they will never own. Which they will never be able to claim as home. I think a lot of people fall in love with Africa desperately, and a lot of them don't know how to accept that the thing they've fallen in love with will never belong to them, forever and ever.

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Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

MORE FROM Don George

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