Interview with Eleanor Morse

  • by Janice Bailey
  • May 9, 2013

Eleanor Morse is the author of, most recently, White Dog Fell from the Sky, a rich and intimate portrait of Botswana and of three people’s tragic and extraordinary intertwined lives.

Interview with Eleanor Morse

The bitter heart eats its owner. 

Botswana, 1976.  Isaac Muthethe thinks he is dead.  Smuggled across the border from South Africa in a hearse, he awakens covered in dust, staring at blue sky and the face of White Dog.  Far from dead, he is, for the first time, in a country without apartheid.  Isaac was a medical student in South Africa before he was forced to flee after witnessing white members of the South African Defense Force murder his friend. 

Walking along the road into Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, White Dog following close behind, a chance encounter with an old school acquaintance changes his course.  Amen, a member of the ANC, the South African resistance movement, invites Isaac to stay with his family.  Petrified of deportation and determined to work, Isaac finds a job with Alice Mendelssohn, a young American woman, living in Botswana with her husband.

A year later, Alice heads off on a work-related trip to the vast bush that she loves leaving her home in Isaac’s care.  On her trip, Alice meets a rebellious, untamable man twenty years her senior and begins to imagine a very different future.

When she returns, Isaac is missing and White Dog is at the end of the drive, dehydrated and malnourished.  Alice goes in search of Isaac and finds a life changing experience.

White Dog Fell from the Sky, Eleanor Morse’s rich and intimate portrait of Botswana and of three people’s tragic and extraordinary intertwined lives, is an absorbing and deeply moving story.  She is a writer of wide-ranging gifts.

The Q&A

Is the Kuke Veterinary Fence still in place?

Yes. The Kuke fence, erected in 1958, is still there and is likely to remain. Its function is to separate cattle in the south who are free from Foot and Mouth Disease from cattle to the north who may be infected.

In 1995, the Setata fence was erected to the north of the Kuke Fence to control the spread of Contagious Bovine Pleuro-Pneumonia (CBPP). Later, given the pressure from national and international environmental groups, the government decommissioned the Setata fence but then re-erected it after another outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2007.

According to a study carried out by the Elephants without Borders organization, wildebeest populations in Botswana over the last fifteen years have declined by nearly 90%. In Ngamiland, there has been a 60% wildlife reduction of other species, including zebra, kudu, giraffe, lechwe, ostrich, and tsessebe. Although some of this decimation can be attributed to vegetation changes, drought and fires, much of it has to do with the changes in land use, and the habitat fragmentation brought on by fencing.

Thanks to efforts by the Wild Foundation and the Environmental Investigation Agency to document the impact of fencing on wildlife and indigenous communities, a decision was made in 2008 to allow for a 70 km gap along a critical migratory route in northern Botswana. Ian Khama, Botswana’s president, has pro-conservation leanings, but cattle have a high status in Tswana culture, and the needs of this industry so far have kept most of the cordon fences in place.

Do the cattle ranchers in Botswana think wildlife fences offer their herds protection from disease?

They do. Many of those serving in the upper echelons of Botswana’s government are cattle owners. Beef cannot be exported to the European Union unless it’s proven to be free of Foot and Mouth Disease; and all beef exported to the EU is granted a favored trade levy which makes these sales more profitable. It’s in the self-interest of the majority of those in power to protect the cattle industry from disease. Most ranchers believe that fences, while not 100% effective, do help. 

Is popular opinion in favor of keeping the fences in place?

It depends on who you speak with. Cattle owners are in favor of keeping the fences in place. Indigenous people, environmental groups and people sympathetic to the tourism industry are not in favor. Elephants have also spoken. In April of 2012, a group destroyed parts of a cordon fence. It was repaired, and the elephants destroyed it again.

During Isaac’s time in Johannesburg’s Number Four prison he suffered physical torture and degradation.  What knowledge or experience did you draw from to authentically describe the accompanying deterioration of his mental state?

The first of several sources I drew upon was an article written by a therapist, Leanh Nguyen, who has counseled a number of men and women who have undergone torture; the article described the numbing effects of prolonged torture and the long journey back to life for people who survived. In addition to this article, there were internet sources, descriptions from people who’d spent time in Johannesburg’s Number Four prison.

The second source was my imagination. It was necessary to put myself there in prison with Isaac, to the extent I could. The process was harrowing, and the writing difficult. In the scenes describing what he underwent, I felt that a little went a long way, not only for me, but for readers. There’s only so much horror a person will want to take in, and it seemed to me that if a reader could feel Isaac’s mental state, this would in turn reveal the physical assaults he endured.

The act of becoming a character, of making the attempt to inhabit another life, is connected to the kind of metaphor-making Cynthia Ozick has written about. “Metaphor,” she says, “is the reciprocal agent, the universalizing force: it makes possible the power to envision the stranger’s heart.” I believe in the power of this force; it feels like the engine which drives the human impulse toward compassion, as writers, as readers, as people living our everyday lives.

A third source was my experience teaching in prisons in Maine. Although the facilities where I worked were nothing like Prison Number Four, I experienced the passage through three or four or five locked doors, moving from a world of freedom into a world from which some never return.

The guards who drove Isaac to the border with Botswana carried out a mock execution, covering Isaac’s head with a bag as he kneeled at the side of the road.  I found this to be the cruelest act he suffered at the hands of the prison guards, not only because it was done for the amusement of the guards, but also because it was carried out when he was so close to freedom and the return of his humanity.  Why did you have Isaac suffer this last indignity?

I didn’t want Isaac to suffer any more than he already had. I felt this with my whole heart, yet writing is a strange, incomprehensible business. Once a book gets going, once I’m working one layer down, I feel both in control and not in control of what happens. That sounds crazy, maybe even disingenuous, but it’s the truth of how the process feels. I don’t map out a story before I begin. Often I don’t know what will happen until it happens. For me, stories unfold out of its characters’ longings, passions, delusions, mistakes.

By the time I was in the middle of this book, there was an inevitability to what happened next, and next. To have saved Isaac, as much as I wanted to, would have been to compromise the integrity of the work. I had a responsibility to tell his story, and this was a terrible part of his story.

Stanley Kunitz talks about the wilderness of the unconscious. “Its beasts,” he said, “are not within our control.” I’ve come to trust them, as he did, as terrifying as they can be. This scene was one of those beasts.

Alice was kind, fair, and without selfish ambition. Her ability to love the children who were thrust into her care and to treat Isaac with the basic humanity that he had not been shown by the other whites he encountered seemed natural.  Why was this one character able to provide so much when so many others failed?

Alice lived without an abiding passion. She wasn’t weighed down by preconceptions or a huge ego that swept all else aside. Comparing herself to others, she blamed herself for her lack of focus, but a lack of personal agenda made her able to respond to the unexpected. Because she’d grown up with a mother whose life had been narrowed down by tragedy, she understood at a deep level what it was to suffer.

Finally, it was her internal makeup that caused her to respond as she did, the trait that had allowed her as a child visiting a zoo to look straight into a caged gorilla’s eyes and see something kindred there. In this sense, she was the kind of maker of metaphors Ozick wrote about. She was able to look beyond Ian’s paunch and bluster and see an unusual man there. She imagined what it would be like for a wildebeest thirsting for water to hit a fence. She asked Isaac not to call her ‘Madam,’ a word which not only made her feel a hundred years old, but more importantly sealed off communication between her and him. She abhorred impenetrable boundaries.

There was a balance to the character of Alice, that the same woman who cared for the culture of the !Kung San would also care for the grandson of this tribe who came seeking work, even then his ancestry was unknown to her.  Is there someone who served as a role model for this character?

I had no conscious role model for Alice, and I hadn’t thought much about where she came from until you asked. Alice was originally a character in another book, set during the Vietnam War, a book that never got off the ground. In that book, she was passionately against the war. Like the Alice in this book, she disliked boundaries and saw no difference between the love that Vietnamese people feel for their children, and the love she felt for her own.

If there was any model for Alice, my mother would be the closest fit. Raised in a Quaker family, she had a strong sense of justice and a belief that she could make the world a better place. It touches my heart to remember her trip to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. She learned folk songs and dances from children in Russia, and brought them back to teach to elementary school children in this country. The governments were at war, she said, not the people. Her phones were tapped during the Nixon presidency—she was a rabble rouser, but a quiet one. Her pen was her sword, and she taught me much of what I know about writing. She urged me to say what I meant honestly, without artifice. Just the truth, straight up.

 The story began with Isaac believing he was dead, and that the white dog was his companion for his journey in the afterlife.  So much had already been taken from him before the story began, and much more would be taken from him during the next few months.  Isaac’s companion, the white dog, was the evidence that Isaac was in serious trouble.  Did the white dog save Isaac’s life?

I think he would have made it without her, but her presence as a companion and witness was consoling and necessary to his well-being. When he first arrived in Botswana, White Dog saw him get dumped out onto the ground. She was near him when he read a letter from his mother saying that his baby sister had died. She waited for him. He knew while he was in prison that if she were still alive, she’d be waiting.

White Dog was partly modeled after Blondie, a dog I met in northern India, who belonged to a young Tibetan thangka painter. He paid almost no attention to her, but she was loyal to him in the inexplicable way that dogs are to their humans. Each morning, she set off into her day, trotting down the road with her tail plume high. She was skinny and small, but her heart beat with a spirited optimism unwarranted by the realities of her life.

You’ve written about the intersection of three lives set in a country that should just explode with literary voices considering its history.  Are you familiar with other contemporary writers, Southern African blacks or whites who have written books from this same territory? How do you think your book will be treated in Botswana? 

I don’t know many writers in Botswana who’ve explored this territory. Bessie Head, who died in 1986, comes to mind. She was born in South Africa, the child of a wealthy white woman and a black servant, at a time when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. In 1964 she entered Botswana as a refugee and on and off struggled with mental health problems. Her three best known books, When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power, mostly don’t tackle the realities of apartheid head on, but her early experiences in South Africa can be felt as a stream running under her stories.

Unity Dow is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and a human rights activist who became Botswana’s first female high court judge.

I’m aware of South African writers who’ve explored similar territory: Andre Brink, J.M. Coetzee, Achmat Dangor, Athol Fugard, Lisa Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, Keorapetse Kgositsile, but my ignorance is showing. During the writing of White Dog Fell from the Sky, I steered clear of fiction set in southern Africa, not wanting to blur my vision with others’ words and images. I read books about the history of the region, about the ANC, about Botswana in the 70‘s, about the San people, but not fiction.  I’m looking forward to filling in some blanks.

I can’t predict how my book will be received in Botswana. I’ve written from as wide and honest and humane a perspective as I could. That’s all I could do—and what will happen, I just don’t know.

Do you live and write in Maine?  Was or is there anything about the topography of Maine that takes you back to Botswana, that helped rekindle the atmosphere while you were writing?

I live on an island three miles off the coast of Portland, Maine. On the surface, Maine and Botswana are entirely different, but both have extreme climates. Botswana and Maine also have wildness in common: the north woods and the vast, unpredictable ocean in Maine, the endless veldt and sky in Botswana, the terrifying lightning and savage rains when they come. Humans are not the center of the universe in either place. There are indisputably bigger forces at work. These connecting points may have helped to keep parts of Botswana alive for me, and in addition the writing activated images and memories I had thought were long gone.

You teach in an MFA writing program.  What is the thing that you most fear you will not be able to accomplish with your students?

I teach at Spalding University’s brief residency MFA program in Louisville, Kentucky. Whether it’s as a teacher or as a reader, it makes me half crazy when I see a writer choose the easy stances: to write a glib, flashy, ironic, clichéd, or gratuitously violent story that has no substance at its heart. I believe that writing must matter. Otherwise, why write? Why expect people to read you?

The thing I fear most is connected with this. Will I be able to ignite a student’s desire to reach down to the harder, deeper sources of character and story?

A number of years ago I was working on an earlier book in a remote part of Nova Scotia. There were zero distractions. The buzzing of a fly was a major event in my world up there. I woke up in the morning and had a book to write. That’s all that I had to do, and I realized I was afraid. I wasn’t afraid of the blank page. I knew I could write a sentence. The fear was wondering whether I was a big enough person to tell the story I wanted to tell. To go to the hard places requires bravery, and I want to give my students that courage. Sometimes I can’t.

What is the easiest thing about writing that you find yourself able to teach?

I’ll mention two. The first is to make the physical world manifest: what you can see, touch, taste, smell, hear. It’s amazing how one small detail (say, a dog barking in the distance, or a particular shade of blue) pops a whole scene alive. The other is E.B. White’s battle cry, “Omit needless words.” It’s amazing the simple power of weeding out clutter: adverbs, adjectives, repetitions. In the final editing process, I jettisoned 14,000 words from White Dog. I have no doubt that the book is stronger because of what I let go.

 What’s next for you?

I’m in the formless, embryonic stages of a new novel. I have some characters floating around, and some territory I’d like to explore. So much interests me right now. It reminds me a lot of the way newborn children are capable of speaking any language in the world. As they hear what’s around them, the possibilities narrow. It’s like that with the next book. I’m listening to what’s there, winnowing, seeing what rises to the surface.

Janice Bailey has loved books since she was first introduced to Nancy Drew at age 9.  She has enjoyed countless travels to Africa between the covers of a good book.


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