I caught the travel bug from my husband, the intrepid former Peace Corps volunteer. Since I met him, this girl from the Bronx – who’d previously been as far as Niagara Falls – has done her fair share of packing and unpacking, schlepping, trekking, and traipsing. Forty-odd years, fifty countries and counting.
Many of our trips were the “normal” kind – a week here, two weeks there. But there was a two and a half year period in the 1970’s when we lived in West Africa while my husband had a Peace Corps staff job. During those years, we lived in three different countries, but traveled to many more. And then in 2000, when we retired, we took a series of 2-month volunteer assignments in Africa and Asia.
As it turns out, of the 50 countries I’ve visited, a disproportionate share – about 15 – are in Africa. The others are spread out among Europe, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, and an itty-bitty bit of South America.
Along the way, I realized something I couldn’t believe I didn’t know before: I’d always thought I was just “me.” It turns out, though, that I’m an American me, having been shaped by the culture I grew up in. If I’d been born somewhere else, I’d be someone else. And if I didn’t spend time outside of the U.S., I wouldn’t realize things about my own culture that had been invisible to me before, because they just seemed normal, as in the saying “Fish never discovered water.”
And that’s one of the reasons I like to use exotic settings in my books. It’s almost as if the setting is one of the characters: what’s seems ordinary for the Africans is not ordinary for the Americans, and vice versa of course.
In my mystery, Deadly Adagio, the protagonist is the feisty wife of a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, living in Senegal, in West Africa. (Yes, I lived there. No, she’s not me.) If the book were set somewhere else, it would have to be a different book. Victim, murderer, investigation: all different.
Bargaining for baskets and fabrics at the market, squeezing into a crowded pirogue with women whose babies are on their backs while their bundles are on their heads, visiting the chief of a village and meeting his entourage, ruminating about the dramatic difference between American brooms and African brooms – those things are part of the fabric of the story. Going to Macy’s, taking the Staten Island Ferry, meeting the CEO and her staff? Nah, just not the same.
I love using my experiences in Africa when I write. They may not have molded me as American culture did, but they’ve become part of who I am and the way I see things now. I try not to say things like, “Oh, that reminds me of the time I was in…..” too much, so it’s not tiresome for my friends. But writing is a different story. Using those experiences in my writing is like looking at my photo album, but with the smell of the wood-fire, the sounds of the traditional Wolof greeting, the taste of the street vendors’ brochettes thrown in.
It’s better, much better, than a photo album. Maybe I’ll “visit” Thailand next time.
When you’re choosing what to read next, does the setting influence your decision?