I've been on the road since 2005. I spent three years, on and off, in Bangladesh and India creating a linked collection of stories, revising my memoir, and starting a novel. The rest of the time, I've rented or borrowed rooms in 30 countries on five continents, taken over 20,000 photographs, and kept writing and rewriting my version of how people and places are linked. These connections are older than time, unheeding of distance. It's how I can see Dhaka in London, speak of Mexico City and Kolkata's arty religious topographies in the same breath, compare the sexed-up foodie cultures of Bangkok and Rio and San Francisco, or find the solitude of Bhutan's mountains in the salt flats of Bolivia. I've been lost, robbed of everything, molested, gravely ill, heart-broken, and afraid, but more than anything, it's been a transcending and joyful seven years.
I came back to the States because I was tired of pouring everything into three ounce bottles, of wearing the same pair of jeans, of racking up unpublished manuscripts, of finding friends and lovers only to leave them. I thought I might have to finally break the rule I had set 12 years ago when I left business for writing: to never work more than part time, to make time for making art.
I received the call from the NEA the day after another competition mistakenly informed me I had made their short list. My first thought was that this too was an error -- also that this was more money than I had made in the last three years combined. Then there's the small matter of the acknowledgement and endorsement of my work, and that diamond of a prize: time to write. It couldn't have come at a better moment and I'm more than grateful.
Excerpt from Olive Witch
The horizon is as wide as I can see, and the sky violent with the efforts of the sun. The ground is still hot from the afternoon, almost too much to bear, so I burrow my feet under the rough sand. Mosquitoes are starting to attack, but I can't leave now. I slap at my arms and legs and keep watching.
My mother comes out of the house and calls to me. She is walking down the steps leading out of the veranda, holding a fragile looking graft.
I point to the scrawny plant in her hand. -- Wot eez dat?
She turns to me smiling -- It's an orange rose. No one in Nsukka has anything like it.
I squat down beside her to look at the graft -- Why ah you planting eet now? Eet's almost dahk.
-- I just got it. I could not wait. She straightens one of the leaves in the gloaming. The thorns on the stem are sparse but long and sharp, curved and tapered like claws. I press my finger on the tip of one. It gives, just a little.
-- Come in, she says. -- Wash your hands and face. It's time for dinner.
I pull open the netted door of the veranda and follow her inside.
My own gardening adventure is starting to absorb me. It has taken me two weeks to mould my plot into a loosely tilled hump. Now I'm ready to plant. I scoop out rich little holes twelve inches apart and carefully place my kernels in them. The hard work is done, but I'm hooked. Everyday, I bring as large a jug of water as I can carry with me, and eagerly examine the warm damp earth for a sign. I am never alone in the field. All my classmates are equally intrigued by their efforts. My plot is among the last to sprout, but it does, finally. And within a week, the straggling shoots are sturdy and a vibrant green. The leaves are so fresh, they look wet, and I cannot keep my hands from tracing the veins as I search for dry earth to water.
The orange rose is not faring as well as my corn stalks. It's growing, but its spindly length is overwhelmed by the white rose climber beside it with its hundreds of tiny white blossoms. And in the corner, in defiance, the peach frangipani tree floats an intoxicating scent across our garden, the ground below its knotted branches matted with crushed petals. Every time the rose plant sprouts a bud, insects attack. Amma, and soon our whole family, are on a watchful vigil.
-- Ngozi, the rose! my mother shouts into the veranda where I am playing oga with Muri.
I snatch a broomstick from the broom and leap down the stairs. There is a fuzzy green striped caterpillar sitting heavily on the rose plant, inches from the precious bud. I know why my mother called me instead of taking care of the insect prey like she usually does. She has an absurd fear of caterpillars, though no other insect gives her pause. This one is probably poisonous, as pretty as it is. I flick it off with the broomstick, careful not to injure the rose stem. The caterpillar lands on the ground and curls up. I poke it gently with the stick until it half wraps around the tip, and I carry it out of the compound.
Still, the next morning, we find a sleek black and yellow grasshopper halfway through eating the bud. Muri and I take turns crushing grasshoppers and flicking off beetles. A spray bottle of medicine sits by the front door, and we watch, and we water, and we wait.
Our attendance finally pays off. A month of small tragedies later, a blossom unfolds. As promised, it's orange, radiant amidst the white roses and the pale yellow alamanda flowers. The bloom grows huge, and almost droops with its weight. The orange is swirled with fiery red in the centre and fades to lemon on the edges of its petals. Its scent is faint but we bury our faces in its rich insides and breathe deep.
Later that week, an Indian family, the Singhs, come to visit. I wave to them from the corner of the compound where I'm playing hopscotch. They join my parents pacing the veranda. I can hear Abbu talking, ever the professor, with his particular diction and impassioned voice. Mrs Singh and my mother are walking in the garden.
-- What a lovely colour! Mrs. Singh exclaims to my mother about our pride of an orange rose.
I hop onto a square and look towards them, listening.
-- This plant has given us such headaches. Amma starts to tell her our little garden saga.
But Mrs. Singh isn't paying attention. She reaches out to the rose and snaps off the blossom easily. I am balanced on a bare foot, clutching a pebble tightly in one hand, open-mouthed.
Oblivious to my mother's suddenly still face, she turns and calls to her husband -- Look! It matches my sari so nicely. Take a photograph!
My corn plants are higher than my head now. For a moment, I remember to be glad for the abundance, sorry for the frailty and only-ness of my mother's orange rose. I stand in the middle of our cornfield, and the forest around me disappears. I am canopied by the leaves and the sunlight and the sky.