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*The Road to Makokota* by Stephen Barnett - author interviewAn Interview with
Stephen Barnett

Interviewer Luan Gaines: Newly arrived in Africa, your protagonist is in danger from the first page, surrounded by unfriendly faces and a man wielding an Uzi. Is your intention that the reader be immediately aware of the inherent violence of the situation?

Stephen Barnett: Yes, plunged into menace, extremity, and a sense of movement through that. People living under the light of sunrise obliterated by dust. Hammond crosses his first trickle of water and gets into a car. I thought of John Lennon’s comment that dying is like getting out of one car and into another. It could also be seen as a writer’s device, approaching the story, boarding a ship, getting off a train. Hammond has a big backpack, too much stuff. The people are neutral at first but by the end of the paragraph they show their concern for him, or at least their interest, they engage him. Their faces change, he sees them as real people, not props or statistics. That’s the movement. So it’s a context of menace and violence, struggle and chaos, moving toward human contact and engagement and meaning.

Prior to Chapter One, you quote from Wole Soyinka’s “Idanre", part of which reads: “Fated lives ride on the wheels of death when,/ The road waits, famished.” Why is this particular road, The Road to Makokota, significant for Craig Allan Hammond?

It’s a road that Hammond built, or planned and supervised, a physical road with a subbase and a crown and gutters and culverts and gravel. Building a road to the village has effects. Trade, migration, contact with outsiders, connection to every other road. For Hammond, the road is his singular achievement. It’s the one thing he looks back on with pride. It’s his contribution, a tangible improvement. Its deterioration mirrors the collapse of the country. His desire to reach the road propels the story, and the road itself comes to play a role.

An American, Hammond returns to West Africa searching for the woman he left behind sixteen years earlier. Clearly, he has made a spiritual commitment to this woman, Oussumatu, and their son. Given the upheavals in the country in the intervening years, is Hammond’s pursuit realistic?

It’s a question of Hammond’s options. I like novels that suggest things, leave scenes unwritten, things unsaid. Like The Stranger, by Camus, probably the first novel I read, back in high school, that really got my attention. I mean, you could easily turn The Stranger into a 350-page book. So, Hammond is living in a trailer, working at a job that doesn’t mean anything to him. His mother has died. He’s approaching the middle of his lifetime, where you can get lost in a dark wood or fall out of bed one morning transformed into a gigantic insect. He’s an alcoholic, a kind of drifter, haunted by this woman and son he left behind in a place where things have fallen completely apart. It all hits him one day. If you’ve fallen out of a boat and are going down, and somebody tosses you a rope but it’s twenty feet away and you can’t swim, is it realistic to try to grab it?

How has the loneliness of the last sixteen years prepared Hammond for this great test?

At one point he says that leaving is the one thing he’s gotten good at. He’s one of those people who had twelve or thirteen addresses in the last sixteen years. A lot of us go through that. My parents have this old address keeper that flips up when you pull a little slide down an index, and it’s really strange when I look at it and see all my addresses, rows of them, lined out one after another. Another thing is that he’s had hardships. He’s been down. But inside him there’s still something alive, fundamentally human, and he can still feel it. It’s not dead yet. He’s been carrying that weight for so long that he’s ready for one final push.

Saturated with impressions of all that he sees, the intense white heat and the constant draining of his physical resources, Hammond is overwhelmed by Africa. Faced with sensory overload, how does he overcome these debilitating extremes?

One thing you can say about Hammond is that he has a terrific will. He just won’t give up on something once he starts it. I think a lot of engineers, or people who build things, have this. Nurses, too. Also, he’s no stranger to altered states of consciousness. He has a strong will but he’s mentally flexible at the same time. He can take a punch. He’s physically strong. And he learns to listen and lean on other people.

The African landscape that Hammond remembers is now damaged by unremitting violence and rampant disease. With the devastation that lies before him, what inner strength does Hammond tap into, facing the uncertain days ahead?

Well, he doesn’t believe in God, so it’s not that, and he doesn’t believe in any ideology either. He realizes at one point that part of it is fear. He’s out of options, has one thing left—trying to find Oussumatu and Abu—and he’s afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t keep trying to find them. He feels a certain shame in the way he left them and guilt for the way he was never a father to his son. Fear, shame, guilt, pretty strong motivations. Plus, he has that pit-bull quality of not giving up. Later in the novel, enduring physical pain becomes a source of strength for him. It’s an initiation. And then love for the people around him.

*The Road to Makokota* author Stephen BarnettAlong with a Polish nurse, Hammond buys passage into the interior from gunrunners headed in the same direction. Is he prepared for the jeopardy they face in the company of opportunistic and immoral men?

No, he’s not prepared for it. It’s one shock after another, from the physical shocks of bouncing along in a truck on a rutted road, layered with dust, to his first look at a destroyed village. It just keeps going. He has an innocent quality, like an idiot, as Wilson observes right at the beginning. At one point he thinks of leaving the convoy but realizes that he’s better off with them than in going off alone into the bush. So he has that basic sense of self-preservation. And he and Katya, the Polish nurse, have made a connection, a contact.

On his journey, other women offer Hammond opportunities to abandon his quest, distracting his focus. One such woman is Madame Nettie. How does she personify Hammond’s temptations?

She feeds him. She washes the blood and piss and shit off of him and comforts him after soldiers beat him. She talks with him and listens to him and advises him. She finds a woman for him to sleep with. She gives him up, lets him leave her. Ridiculous, isn’t it? But she does it, because she loves him, and like him, she takes things to extremes. Yes, she distracts him in that he says to himself, I’ve got a good thing here, why go on searching? But she sharpens his focus, too. Her crazy love attracts and scares him. He has to leave, the same old story, and he realizes that he needs to keep looking. Close to the end, he tries to get back to her. She’s one of the things that keeps him going after he becomes a refugee.

Craig Allan Hammond is embarked upon a quest. Can you describe the ramifications of that journey, beyond the obvious search for his lost love?

So many ways to look at this...in your review you wrote that dualism runs through the novel. Right, dualism is the starting point, and then movement, the sense of peeling off layers. The opposite of dualism is layering, shading, gradation. Beyond dualism and gradation is human will. A good friend and teacher of mine read the manuscript and said she thought it was a secular Grail story. I hadn’t thought of that, but she was right, you could look at it that way. One of the reasons quest stories won’t go away is that they involve this testing of the will. Will Frodo give up the Ring?

In great physical danger, Hammond acknowledges a face from the past, an old and wise man, Kuyateh. What is Kuyateh’s role in the protagonist’s journey?

Kuyateh becomes Hammond’s father, a guide, a beacon. A teacher. He has endured so much and survived, been transformed. You mentioned Idanre in the epigraphs to this book. One of the reasons I also used a quote from the Metamorphoses, aside from the connection to Orpheus and the conjunction of these two mythologies, Greco-Roman and Yoruba, is that all of the characters in the novel undergo some kind of change, the landscapes, even the machines. Kuyateh’s transformation, which takes place before the novel begins, is probably the most radical. He’s become like a mirror or a magnet. He provokes religious experiences in the religious. He imbues warriors with will and devotion. He helps Hammond heal, and through him Hammond begins to accept himself and clearly see where he is and what he’s doing. Yet Kuyateh has a sinister side, too. His motivations and intentions are hidden.

In spite of horrendous conditions, your description of the people of Africa and the place itself is luminous. How did you recognize that beauty in the midst of such suffering?

It’s part of that sense of transformation, one thing into its opposite, and then movement. And people are people everywhere. As a society, we’re close to losing the sense of that. It starts with people far away, someplace like Afghanistan or Iraq, we think of them as insects, we don’t even keep track how many of them we kill, or Central Africa, where millions have been killed in the last decade or so, a holocaust by any standards—just numbers of little brown insects who squeak and twitter in languages none of us bother to learn. The luminosity doesn’t come from the gods or culture or languages people create. Like you said, the people and the place itself.

By the end, Hammond’s journey is extremely graphic and intense, difficult to read. Yet, as a reader, I trusted you. As the author, how would you define the process by which you access this internal vision, this tortured self?

Starting out with the physical details, a mosquito bite that itches, sweat trickling down your neck, the stiffness of riding in a truck. That old writing workshop cliché “Write what you know” can really get you into a bind. You ask yourself, “What do I know?” Fine...but you have to go beyond what you know. Writing becomes a dance in the zone between what you know and what you imagine. We go through the same thing when we fall in love. At some point we have to try to get beyond who we think the other person is and touch them.

What must Hammond be willing concede in order to attain his epiphany and spiritual transformation?

You can just go down the list. He loses all the stuff in his backpack, almost all of his clothes, his shoes, his material possessions. He loses his health. He more or less loses the ability to say his name and speak his native language. He loses the ability to recognize his own reflection. He loses the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is unreal. He loses the identity that he has constructed and been constructed for him. He loses his way in a forest. He loses track of time. In a sense, this has to be emphasized, he loses his life. What does he keep? Human fundamentals. His will, the ability to love other people, enhanced perception, memory, a feeling for the tragic and the sublime, a yearning to be whole.

Along with the atrocities against humanity, the endless cycle of brutality, starvation and disease, you offer a vision of hope. In writing The Road to Makokota, how did you meet this challenge and sustain your vision against such staggering odds?

I really don’t know the answer to that. All I can say is that the characters in the novel did it for me. I believed in them. I tried to imagine them as fully as I could. I fell in love with some of them and hated some of them. I tried to keep myself out of their way. If I’ve imagined these characters and the world they inhabit fully enough and presented it well enough, it’s possible that the vision of hope for the human being is an intrinsic quality of their reality, and maybe our reality, too.

Hammond’s story is often allegorical: his struggle to continue, his sexual temptations and finally, the loss of all to find the self. Do you agree? Why/why not?

Well, every story is probably allegorical in some way. Stories are made of words, words are symbols, and allegory is using symbols to express something fundamental. What really distinguishes allegories is that the interpretation, the parallel meaning, is more important than the story or characters. When you read an allegory, you find yourself decoding everything. I’m thinking of books like Animal Farm and Gulliver’s Travels. But what about books like The Plague or Things Fall Apart? I wanted to write a novel that had layers of meaning, one that people could interpret in different ways. But I also wanted to tell a story about someone, what happens to him, and what happens to other people, the real conditions, the causes and effects. The allegory is there, right in the title, but I don’t see it as primary.

I found The Road to Makokota compelling, yet exquisitely painful. Can you speak to the nature of this journey and your intent for the reader?

Well, first of all I’d like to thank everyone for hanging in there so far through this interview...Kuyateh says that pain is a gift. I do believe that. One element of the nature of Hammond’s journey is that he’s African American, which in this context mainly means that some of his ancestors were Africans. His son is an African, specifically, a Katene. He returns to an African country in what he sees as his last chance. Yet to some extent, he must always be a stranger there. This tension between the Katene worldview and the American worldview is something he has to resolve. As for readers, well, I want them to be entertained in the best sense of the word. I want them to be immersed in the world I tried to create, and when they come out of it I want them to feel shock and awe over what it means to be a human being.

You served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. Was that when you fell in love with Africa? Can you share some of that experience?

“Africa” is such a huge word, whenever I hear it I substitute something like “Europe” or “South America.” But it does mean something, doesn’t it? And love...well, it was a love/hate thing by the time I left the Peace Corps. Certain things I really did love, like some of the people, some of the culture and music and food, and I was immensely struck by the landscapes, the old forests and rock outcroppings, the mountains and rivers and savannas. I got frustrated by the whole development thing. Basically, I was encouraging farmers to build irrigation systems and grow rice in swamps instead of doing slash-and-burn on hillsides, and I ended up doubting how valuable certain aspects of that were. And some of the officials were cynical and corrupt liars and thieves, about as bad, on a vastly smaller and more intimate scale, as some of the public and corporate officials here in this country, whose lies kill thousands and whose thefts amount to billions. But there I had to work with them as they profited by and exploited the misery of others. Perhaps I was guilty of that as well.

Was your time in Sierra Leone the inspiration for the novel? Any particular incident?

This novel had several inspirations. One is a man I knew in Sierra Leone who used to teach me the language of the people where I lived—and he taught me a lot other things, too. A wonderful man. I used to go to his house. He lived on a hill, and we would sit on his verandah and he would try to teach me how to pronounce these words. The language was very difficult for me to pronounce. He had one sentence we used to work on: “Show me the road to go to Matotoka,” a town at an important crossroads. I had a motorcycle and used to ride all over, and I would get lost, so I needed to be able to ask directions. That sentence resonated in me over the years. Another inspiration is the non-African men I knew who fathered children in Sierra Leone. Some of them took their wives and children back to their own countries, and some, for a variety of reasons, left them there. Some of them stayed. Then, I had this image of a man and a woman careening down a hill in a truck on a rutted road with palm fronds and branches whipping by their windows in the dark, and then the truck tips up on its side and goes over. And finally, about ten or twelve years ago I started learning more about what was going on in Sierra Leone (see, for example, the background information about the civil war in the Human Rights Watch publication “We Will Kill You If You Cry,” available online at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/sierraleone/sierleon0103-05.htm#P302_34890). That’s when things started to come together.

What was the most challenging element of writing The Road to Makokota?

The hardest thing was discovering where to begin telling the story. At first I began with the man and woman in the truck. But I had to explain who they were and why they were there and where they were going. Then the identity of the woman changed, and where they were going changed. One thing kept leading to another. I would start at some point in the story and write 50 pages and realize it wasn’t right and then start over again somewhere else. I did this quite a few times over three or four years. I always thought of my mother, knitting, pulling out row after row of stitches with an exasperated but somehow gleeful look on her face when she found she’d dropped a stitch.

Can you tell us about your next project? Are you planning another novel?

Yes, I’m writing another novel. I had the same problem (or pleasure) I had with The Road to Makokota, I couldn’t get the beginning right. I wrote long beginnings, 50 or 60 pages, and then started over again and again for about two years. I think I’ve finally found it, though. The novel is set in 2006, we’ve had troops in Iraq for three years. A soldier in Iraq kills himself on the day he’s supposed to rotate out and go home. His best friend makes it look like he was killed in action and then goes to his friend’s home to try to understand why he killed himself. His home is a big farm in an isolated valley in southeastern Ohio that his family has owned for six generations. They’re African Americans with roots in Virginia. The soldier, an African American who grew up poor in St. Louis, gets involved with the family, especially his dead friend’s twin sister. It’s a family saga, in the same way Makokota is a quest story, and it’s turning into an antiwar novel, too. The title of it is “Daltrey Run.”

Do you have any advice or suggestions for aspiring writers?

Aim high. Don’t give up. Toss out anything that doesn’t feel right—the next thing you write will be better. Take risks. Open up. Watch the fundamentals: grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling. Get a good dictionary on CD-ROM and look words up constantly, even the ones you know. You’ll be surprised. Keep sending out your stuff no matter how many rejections you get, because one day you’ll hear from an editor who understands your work and it’ll knock your socks off. But the most important piece of advice is to work all this out for yourself. Don’t pay too much attention to advice from other writers.


Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Stephen Barnett via email for curledup.com. Click here to read her review of The Road to Makokota.

 

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