Friday, October 15, 2010

Somebody's Heart is Burning - Tanya Shaffer's book

Sitting on buses and tro-tros, I find myself repeatedly telling strangers the story of my life… Some need seems to drive my narration, as if through the telling I'm constructing a self-image that I can anchor myself to and believe in. I want the events to be linear and the lessons cumulative, building on each other like Legos: this led me here, and I learned this, and then I was here, and I was lost, and I found this. Life, of course, was never so orderly. It was more like my hair after a ride in the back of a truck: an ungovernable tangle... Growth happened when I wasn't looking. It happened later, after I'd given up hope. And love wasn't like that: so transparent and unequivocal, a balance sheet of pros and cons. Life was life and love was love. All the explanations came later.
From Tanya Shaffer's "Somebody's Heart Is Burning"
Tanya Shaffer's book Somebody's Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa is different from many of the other travel books that I have read.

Her real-life stories do not at all adhere to the typical arc of it-was-so-difficult-then-but-seems-funny-in-retrospect travel writing narratives. Tanya's stories don’t end the way we might expect them to, and this being non-fiction, they don't end the way we want them to end.

Tanya Shaffer is an American (Bay-area based) woman who spends a year going to western Africa to volunteer in various projects. She travels mostly in Ghana, with side trips to Burkina Faso and Mali. The stories (15 of them make up the book) are mostly about the people that she meets, their lives and ways of thinking, and about how the Western volunteers interact with the locals. She writes with vividness, choosing many small anecdotes and details that bring the many facets of Ghana's daily life alive for us.

Every writer strives to portray themselves in a good light. Tanya resists this impulse and chooses to include aspects of herself that many other writers would have rather left out of the stories. And this makes the writing very authentic. In particular, I enjoyed the story titled "Sand Angel" which is about her eventful boat trip up the Niger.

To me, good travel writing has to do at least one of two things: 1) I should feel that reading about the place is just as good (if not better) than going there and 2) it should make me want to go there to experience things first-hand. Somebody's Heart is Burning does both.

Those who like travel books might want to check out the book.


There is one paragraph towards the very end of Sand Angel that I really liked, even though it is quite possible that the sentiments she writes about were developed much later than when the events unfold in that story.
It struck me, then, that the only changes we humans are capable of are small ones. You can beat yourself up for years, wishing you could be kinder, happier, more decisive and secure. And then one day you realize you've made a slight shift, moved your inner lens a fraction of an inch to this side or that. Not a whole new self, a remade identity, just a little change in perspective. A loosening, really, an out-breath, a drop of acceptance in the salty ocean of the soul. You haven't solved everything, maybe you haven't solved anything, but if you're lucky, that small shift will be the difference between holding your life in grace and simply holding on.

No comments:

Post a Comment