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Elaine Neil Orr: Haunted by Africa

by Evelyn Somers

When Elaine Neil Orr was working on her Master’s degree in poetry in the 1970s, she had a vision of herself standing on a street corner handing out poems and living hand to mouth.  She pivoted to scholarship, earning a PhD in literature and theology from Emory.  She published scholarly work. She wrote poems but kept them in a drawer.


The daughter of medical missionaries, Orr had been born in Ogbomoso, Nigeria, and grew up in that country, in a mission compound in the village of Eku. Her childhood was typical, and not—attending the compound school for MK’s, playing American games, but also eavesdropping on the fascinating and unfamiliar life beyond, in the neighboring Yoruba compounds. And at home, memorizing scripture, participating in daily prayer and devotions led by her father.  “And just after prayers,” she writes in her memoir, “we had to take nivaquine so that we didn’t keel over and die of malaria.” If her African childhood was exotic, her religious upbringing would seem even more so in the academic circles Orr had entered as an adult.  To talk about her background among her colleagues felt “scandalous.”  She didn’t write about it openly.  “No one knew who I was,” she says.

It was partly opportunity that sparked her shift to creative writing in midlife—a tenured professor, she finally had latitude to write what she wanted—and partly life-threatening illness: she was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease caused by diabetes.  In her forties, she was fortunate to have been liberated from scholarship at the same point she became seriously ill.

Her life depended on a kidney transplant, as well as a pancreas transplant to cure her diabetes.  It was a “spiritual break,” she says. She had written poems about her memories of Nigeria and her missionary family. But she turned to prose now, a memoir, Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life (University of Virginia Press, 2003). In the prologue to that book she reiterates her sense of having lived under a false identity, avoiding her Nigerian roots:

So few people know me.  I am white. I have blonde hair and blue eyes.  I teach American literature in the English department of North Carolina State University.  No one in my neighborhood would imagine that I grew up in Africa. For years, I even forgot where I am from . . .

In my illness, I have looked for my foundation, and it is not in America. It is in Africa. Now there is no other place than Nigeria, no other place than the river and the compounds and the brown villages, nothing but the mango trees and the reaching snakes and the grass taller than children and the sudden huge wind introducing the rains. I know no other place. This is where I live in my mind.

Orr was quite aware that she might not live through the surgery or that her body might reject one or both organs. She says of writing the memoir, “It was the thing I had to do before I died. . . . my letter to the world.”  The transplants were successful, but during the time she was awaiting them, she had plenty of occasion to think about the obvious—mortality—and also about the distance between her present identity and her true, suppressed self, a native Nigerian.  In the prologue to her memoir she recalls realizing that she required much more than two transplants: a “more primary cure” that would  reconcile an American professional life with more elemental African origins.  Out of that rising awareness, a memoir emerged—and now Orr’s newest book, A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa.

Orr’s second book of imaginative writing, A Different Sun, is a novel.  It is also set in what was later to become Nigeria, but this is West Africa of the pre-colonial era.  The novel begins in 1840 in Greensboro, Georgia, introducing the young heroine, Emma Davis, who will grow up to be one of the first woman missionaries to Africa during an era when missonary work was viewed as heroic but denied to women unless they married a missionary. Emma is privileged; her father is a successful planter and slaveowner.  She early develops a fascination with Africa, inspired by her empathy with Uncle Eli, one of the Davises’ elderly slaves who was captured as a youth in West Africa.  She is sensitive to the injustices of slavery, drawn to learning, and insists on attending a women’s college, from which she graduates with the knowledge and training to teach—but no opportunity to do so at home.

She is not pretty.  And she has experienced a religious calling.

She meets Henry Bowman, a converted formerly hard-living Texas cavalryman , when he visits her home church. Bowman is the first Baptist missionary to Africa. Marriage would benefit both of them. Bowman is older; his health is fragile, and life in Africa is harsh.  A wife would be a welcome nurse. Also, Emma’s intelligence and education equip her to help him with his project of compiling a Yoruba vocabulary for publication. For Emma, meeting Henry is a ticket to Africa, the answer to a partly silent prayer. She is drawn to his experience, but more than that, she is drawn to the allure of Africa.  Of the two, Henry is more aware of the pragmatic convenience of their union:

The evening he found Emma in the vestibule of her church, he looked with new admiration on the Lord’s capacity for humor.  She was a tall girl of ordinary looks but with a swayback that suggested motion even when she stood still.  It was clear she was waiting for him and just as clear that she was going somewhere regardless of who took her. Cleave, he thought, and meant it both ways, but it was not a sin because he intended to marry her.

The newlywed Bowmans arrive in Lagos in April, early 1850s. By late May they are installed at the house Henry had previously built in Ijaye, and by June Emma is pregnant with a child she will lose. Their household includes two African servants, Duro and Abike. Orr successfully inhabits these African servants, especially her husband’s assistant, Jacob, from whose perspective part of the story is told.  This is particularly true at the most dramatic moment in the story, when Henry’s illness and mania threaten everyone, and the African members of the household have to help Emma restrain Henry from violence. In the historical note that follows the story, Orr explains that the authenticity of these perspectives was a significant concern for her during the writing, when she considered Lurana’s experience as one of the first white women in this part of Africa:  “Who aided her?  Who were her West African tutors?”


The shape and substance of A Different Sun were largely preordained by Orr’s material.  During the period when Orr was working on Gods of Noonday, her mother gave her a mimeographed copy of the diary of Lurana Davis Bowen—Lurana and her husband, Thomas Jefferson Bowen, were the first Southern Baptist missionaries to Africa, in the early 1850s.  Orr speculates that her mother wanted her to understand what her own life had been like as a missionary wife in Africa almost a hundred years after Lurana.

“I was tantalized,” Orr writes in the back matter of A Different Sun.  “In this young woman’s diary I found sentences so compressed, they seemed nearly to explode.”

Many passages in Orr’s novel retain the “compression” of Bowen’s diary; in a few places she borrows language from Bowen, where nothing but the original words will do. Emma, too, is a diarist, and her most treasured possession is an elegant, hand-crafted writing box that Henry gave her as a wedding gift.  Though the novel isn’t overly textual—there’s a handful of letters between Emma and her family in Georgia, and occasional excerpts from Emma’s own journal—there’s a consciousness throughout that the stories of individual lives—souls, if you will—can only be preserved by through writing.  No other medium is capable of such a nuanced depiction of a mind responding to experience at a particular moment in time, in a particular situation.  Emma’s writing box is ever present in the story because only writing can preserve the emotional and intellectual substance of a life.

Orr felt a responsibility to Lurana Bowen’s account.  “I had too much respect for the original diary to create a character divorced from the historical woman,” she says.  Much of Emma’s experience is fundamentally the same as Lurana’s: her insistence on higher education (highly unusual for a woman), her average looks—a photograph of Bowen and her husband taken just days after their marriage in 1853 shows Lurana to be large-featured and plain, beside her much older husband’s handsome intensity.   Orr’s original plan had been to write a book that would blend creative expansion of Lurana’s story—fiction—with nonfiction.  She mentions Julia Blackburn’s hybrid biography Daisy Bates in the Desert as an inspiration and early model. Orr wanted to “write out the silences” in Lurana’s diary by imagining her experience. But early attempts in this direction weren’t working, and the fictional parts she had begun writing became more compelling.  Finally she abandoned the idea of a hybrid biography; it was unmistakeably  evident that she was writing historical fiction.

Orr was in her fifties when she found herself seriously attempting to write a novel for the first time.  In the summer of 2005 she had written an early scene.  By 2006 she had a number of scenes, and by 2007 she was earnestly writing.  She traveled to Greensboro, Georgia, to establish that setting, and by that point, she says, there was no turning back.  Later in the process she would travel twice to Nigeria to locate the places she was writing about and establish authentic details.

But while Orr had had done scholarly research and written nonfiction prose, she discovered that this expertise didn’t prepare her for writing a novel.  Early drafts were in first person, until she realized that she didn’t want to put herself into the character of Emma, who was actually more like her mother. She needed the imaginative distance created by a third-person narration.  The first draft was more like anthropology than fiction. “I didn’t know how to create a through-line,” she says.  Orr had to learn by trial and error, and through the advice of a number of readers of the manuscript , how to put tension on each page (novelist Sena Jeter Naslund encouraged her repeatedly). Her Nigerian background and her early studies as a poet were helpful: she could create the atmosphere “in my sleep,” as when she describes the dry heat of an African summer:

The dry season leapt forward. . . . In the day, every bit of shade brimmed with those retreating from the heat: men, women, children, goats, chickens, squarrels, lizards, birds. Just when you wanted water, rivers shrank; creeks vanished. Turtles pressed into muck. Leaves withered and the shady spaces shrank. The sun proved itself daily, coming and going, chariot of fire, the Yoruba god Shango.

“It’s risky to write about Africa,” Orr says. Readers have an idea of how a book about Africa should be, and even how a book about missionaries in Africa should be.  And though she heard criticism that her memoir was “not African enough” she seems fairly philosophical about this sort of comment. It’s a matter of expectations.

The real-life Bowens served in Africa for three years and then returned to the United States because of Thomas Bowen’s poor health. So, too, with Emma and Henry Bowman in the novel.  In its allegiance to Lurana’s diary, Orr’s book is a story of Africa but also the story of a marriage under duress and of a spiritual maturation. The challenges in traveling so far and adapting to a culture so different from her Georgia origins test and distill Emma’s substance. At first they are the smaller trials of cultural misunderstandings.  The graver difficulties come later—a sudden, devastating death; their battles over Henry’s obsession with pushing northward and converting the African people in areas where missionaries haven’t been yet; and Henry’s lapses into drinking and dangerous illness. And like the actual historical figure she is modeled on, Emma interprets her life through the lens of Christian belief.  Perhaps other good writers and researchers could have written this part of the story, but Orr’s background gives her an uncommon entry point into Lurana Bowen’s experience: Orr’s gift to this story is that having grown up deeply immersed in missionary life and faith, she portrays it convincingly. When Emma prays, the reader experiences her faith as genuine. Faced with crisis, Emma calls out for divine aid as naturally as she breathes.

Late in the novel, when Henry tells Emma about a request his assistant Jacob has made to marry, Emma hesitates.  She has been in love with Jacob, though he recognized the danger in her attachment and carefully kept at a distance. Her first response is an angry resistance, but she recognizes her selfishness in wishing for him not to love someone else—and recognizes also the more ominous fact of her own sense of white power and entitlement.

“I’ve come to know that I am less advanced in charity than I had thought,” she confesses to her husband.  “I had thought I followed God, that I loved Africa. . . .  Yet I am surprised when Africans are more rewarded than we are. . . . I have a long way to go, don’t you think, to share the heart of Christ.”   It’s a spiritual confession so authentic and painful that it makes the reader freeze, go back and read it again.  These are not Lurana Bowen’s words.  This is Orr, “writing out the silences.”

Bloom Post End

Evelyn Somers is a fiction writer and the long-time editor of the Missouri Review, as well as a freelance book editor of all prose genres, from scholarship to young-adult fiction. Her own fiction has appeared in venues as various as Georgia Review and The Collagist. She lives with her husband and teenagers in central Missouri, in a former apartment house that is the inspiration for her first novel. She has done missionary work in Mozambique.

Photos courtesy of the International Mission Board of Richmond, VA

6 thoughts on “Elaine Neil Orr: Haunted by Africa

  1. Pingback: An Interview with Elaine Neil Orr | Bloom

  2. Pingback: Elaine Neil Orr: Haunted by Africa | Inspirations from Wake and Sea

  3. Pingback: No Apparent Boundaries: Julia Glass’s Intricate Realities | Bloom

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