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Posts Tagged ‘writers’

A Father, a Son, and an African Horse: William and Samuel Miles

Visiting Writers’ at WSU – Second Installment (October 7, 2010)

Cover of My African Horse ProblemTraveling many miles across the United States from the east coast, William F.S. Miles and Samuel Benjamin Miles, a father and son duo, agreed to come to Pullman for the second presentation of the Visiting Writers’ Series on October 7 and read from their memoir My African Horse Problem (2008).  William is a political science professor at Northeastern University in Boston, volunteered in Niger with the Peace Corps from 1977-1979, and has written nine books.  He is a Fulbright Scholar and also received an American Philosophical Society grant in 2001.

Samuel, who is of Franco-American ancestry, is a senior who is studying in the Ethics, Politics and Economics program at Yale.  He speaks French and spent his early life studying in Martinique, Mauritius and the Lycée Français de Jerusalem.

The memoir tells of the trip that William and Sam (only ten years old at the time) made to West Africa in 2000 to resolve a dispute concerning who should inherit a particular horse.  It weaves the voices of father and son together, and this is exactly how they read from it during their performance.  Before they begin reading, however, William starts things off on a humorous note by completely changing his clothes from a normal suit into a traditional African-style outfit.

Samuel Miles

Samuel Miles

But then the two get down to business, and William narrates the more complex, adult perspective of the story, and Samuel, staying true to his ten-year-old self, reads the entries that he made as a fifth grader in a foreign country.  To accompany their reading, Sam and William have put together a PowerPoint presentation with photos. The two work well together, and procure many a chuckle from the attentive audience.  The performance is unique in that the two authors alternate between reading their work and responding to questions asked by WSU English professor Peter Chilson.  At the end of the reading, members in the audience ask more questions, and I follow up with the two authors afterwards, asking them each a few questions separately.

Reading by Samuel and William Miles

Peter Chilson (to Samuel): Do you consider yourself an author?

Samuel Miles: I like to think that I’m half-way there.  There’s also a question of intent.  Was I writing to be published?  Was I hoping to reach an audience? The nature of the things I wrote were a bit more personal at the time.  I wasn’t planning on having this talk right now, ten years later.  What it did do was start me on a writing path, showing me the importance of writing, and the power of it. So, I kind of do [consider myself an author], not necessarily because of this book but because what this book gave me was a mentality of someone who writes to be read and the knowledge that when I write it’s powerful.  It’s something to be taken seriously for myself.

William Miles

William Miles

Peter Chilson: How [did] you work this out collaborating with your father?

Sam: [The writing of the book] was done mostly when I was in high school. So it would happen late at night. I would come home and lay it on the ground and have all these different pieces of paper with all my notes from current memories and writings from my journal. And we would piece together the things that we thought would flow.  There wasn’t exactly an equivalency—I was in high school, and he (William) had published six or seven books at the time, so there was a power imbalance there. My version would’ve included a lot more pictures with dinosaurs or something.  It was actually kind of easy and fun because it’s my dad, and we were doing a really good project together.  The tension was mostly that I was tired and didn’t want to do it.  But the writing process itself was unique, nothing I had ever seen anyone do before.  In that respect it was more fun than anything.

Peter Chilson: Whose idea was this? How did this idea come about? Did Dad just come home one day and say “you’re writing a book with me”?

Sam: Well actually it started with Mr. Foley [Sam’s fifth grade teacher]. I was a ten-year old at the time, in fifth grade in Massachusetts.  I was being pulled out of class, my dad called me and said, “Listen, we’re going to Niger” and I said, “I have school.” So I went to my teacher, Mr. Foley, and I said, “So, I want to go to Africa. Can I not do my math homework for awhile?” I don’t know what kind of process went through his head but he said, “Sure, keep a journal, and that will count for your homework.” [This] was awesome for me, because it really started me off on a process of writing in general, and I [continued] keeping a journal after that. To this day, I still do. It’s a lot of fun, actually.  That was my assignment.  That was how I got out of doing math problems: [by] recording my thoughts and [a] perspective my father couldn’t get.  When I came back, I showed it to my teacher and that was how I got away with skipping school to go ride a horse in Africa.

William: I should explain at this point why it was that I had a horse in Africa in the first place.  That makes me have to go back to my last year in college, when I was a senior and I had the good fortune to be rejected by every law school that I applied to, because I didn’t really want to go to law school. That’s what the parents said I should do; what any social science major would be doing.  I didn’t get into any of those elite schools, [but] I did get into the Peace Corps. I didn’t even know that Niger existed as a completely different place from Nigeria.  It shares five rivers [and] it does share part of a river that flows through called the Niger River.  It’s a former French colony, it’s got a tenth of the population of Nigeria, and it was fortunate that there was a civil war that weekend in the second choice [of country] that they were giving me, which was Zaire.  I chose Niger, instead.

My biggest obstacle was this lady (referring to the picture of his mother on the slideshow).  To say that I had an overprotective Jewish mother would be an understatement.

(reading from memoir)

Mine (his mother) was absolutely horrified that, instead of going to medical or law school after college, I would join the Peace Corps and go off to live in the middle of Africa.  (For that matter, I ought also to thank those half dozen élite law schools that, by rejecting me, rescued me from a post-Vassar life of jurisprudence.)  When she could no longer resist my ultimate expression in youthful rebellion, Mother implored me to heed three warnings.  Remember that my leaving for Muslim Black Africa, in 1977, coincided with seemingly frequent Palestinian hijacking of U.S. and Israeli airplanes as well as an upsurge in other anti-American and anti-Semitic terrorism.

“When you’re over there,” my mother intoned, “do not say you are an American.”

“Yes mother.”

“And do not,” she continued, “reveal that you are Jewish.”

“Yes, mother.”

“And lastly,” my mother implored, “never tell them that you are white!”

[Audience laughter] (more…)

The Literary Journal: A Labor of Creativity and Love

“It’s one of the largest book fairs of its kind in the world,” says Peter Chilson, Associate Professor of English. He’s talking about the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference, held every year in February. This year, the AWP – with some 8,500 attendees – took up residence at the Hilton on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Chilson was to read from his recent book, Disturbance Loving Species published by Houghton Mifflin [WSM review]. I went along to check out the Book Fair, particularly the 100s of literary journals displayed.

Peter Chilson and writer Michael Martone at the Ascent book table at the AWP Book Fair.

Peter Chilson and writer Michael Martone at the Ascent book table at the AWP Book Fair.

With 799 exhibitors, the Book Fair took up the entire lower floor of the hotel, and many of these spaces were rented by literary journals. Some of the big names in literary journals such as American Poetry Review, the Georgia Review, and New Letters can be found on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and Borders across the U.S.  but the largest proportion of literary magazines are more obscure such as the Straddler, Smokelong Quarterly, Forklift Ohio, Slack Buddha, and Duckabush Review. Slotted in between the independently run journals were those housed in institutions—Ninth Letter from the University of Illinois, Subtropics from The University of Florida, and Ecotone from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. What I found exciting was the thought behind some of these, the personality. For example, a woman named Jennifer S. Flescher explains the idea behind her journal Tuesday; An Art Project like this:

I wanted to make a thing we could hold.

I am a photographer, a bookmaker, a poet.

It was a reaction to all of the (necessary and often fabulous) on-line work that is out there.

It had to do with unrest.

There is a postcard in every issue, I hope you’ll mail it. I wanted it to come with a stamp on it, but that would have been another thousand dollars…

Chilson had told me that going to the Book Fair is a one-of-a-kind experience because it’s one place “you get to talk with editors who are so willing to talk with writers. The other thing is a lot of these editors are themselves writers.” (more…)