Traveling By Book

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Original Air Date: 
March 14, 2020

Before the time of commercial flights and road trips, we traveled to far off places without taking a single step. All you had to do was open a book. From Africa to England, to a kamikaze cockpit, and to realms of fantasy. Books aren’t just books. They’re passports to anywhere.

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman — author of the fantasy classic "His Dark Materials" — is clearly attuned to the imaginative world of children. So maybe it’s not surprising that the book that exerted such a pull on his own imagination was "The Pocket Atlas of the World," which he first encountered at the age of nine.

Dæmon Pan and the alethiometer in HBO's adaptation of "His Dark Materials"

Philip Pullman, the celebrated English writer has just written a 630-page sequel brimming with contentious ideas about religious tyranny, the loss of imagination and the nature of consciousness — all in a book that’s marketed to children.

Ruth Ozeki pulling a book from the beach.

Books can take us anywhere, but they can also take us any time. Ruth Ozeki pulls us through time and across an ocean in her novel "A Tale For the Time Being."

ruth ozeki

For her own book, author Ruth Ozeki drew from “Kamikaze Diaries,” a collection of writings left behind by the young soldiers who died on suicide missions. They represent a generation of brilliant, highly educated young students who were conscripted into the army and ordered not just to kill but to die.

Petina Gappah on "Persuasion"

Author Petina Gappah recommends a book she explains is “The most African of Jane Austen’s novels.” Her reason why is a look at women in Africa today told through the eyes of two novelists: a Zimbabwean in 2020 and English woman in 1818.

Henry Morton Stanley (center) meets David Livingstone (right)

Nineteenth century European explorer David Livingstone died of malaria nearly 150 years ago, but as author Petina Gappah explains, Africans are still debating his legacy today as they assess the impact of European colonialism.


Nature writer and adventurer Robert Macfarlane has given away one book more than any other volume. It's "The Living Mountain," by Scottish writer and poet Nan Shepherd.


Show Details 📻
March 14, 2020
December 05, 2020
September 04, 2021
May 14, 2022
July 09, 2022
February 17, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne] Long before I ever got on an airplane, I was traveling the world. Paris with Madeline, London with Paddington Bear, Boston Common with Mr and Mrs. Mallard. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" and books made a lot of us want to grow up and see the world, including some famous writers.

- [Philip] Hello there, I'm Philip Pullman. I'm the author of "His Dark Materials" currently being shown on television and of a new series of books called "The Book of Dust."

- [Anne] Millions of children have read and loved Philip Pullman's books, but when he was a child, the age of his famous protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, what book did he love most?

- [Philip] I'm going to talk about a book that was a big influence on me, which I first encountered at the age of, let me think about nine. I was nine years old. And it was a little pocket atlas, an atlas of the world, which I could put in my pocket of my blazer that I wore to school. And I took it everywhere with me because it absolutely fascinated me. I was fascinated by the look of my own country, England, looking at the town where I was born, Norwich and East Anglia, and all around the coast that I knew. And looking at all the European countries and wondering what it would be like to go to Italy or to go to Germany or to go to France. I had spent quite a lot of my childhood traveling around the world because my father and then my stepfather were both in the Royal Air Force. And in those days the RAF sent its pilots and its its personnel to, well, what was then the empire, still the British Empire. So I'd spent part of my childhood in Africa, Southern Africa, and part in Australia. And it was nice to look at the map in my little pocket atlas and see where we used to live and all the places I'd been to. One of my favorite pages was the map that covered New England. And I went through this almost with a magnifying glass. So many towns all crowded together, and so many of them had English names. There was a Norwich there, there was an Oxford there. And that was fascinating. And there were towns with kind of names that could only have come from another country. One of them I was fascinated by was the town of Oconomowoc in Wisconsin. Many years later, I found myself actually driving through Oconomowoc. I still have that little pocket atlas. Some of it's out of date now because the names of some countries have changed and some borders have changed. Although the physical geography of the world remains more or less the same, we now know more about it. And I can see that the Arctic ice, for example, doesn't cover as large a space as it used to. So the world is changing, but I still have my little atlas. And although I use mainly now for reference while I'm writing, I use a very big atlas, which I can spread out on the desk and clear everything out of the way and examine. I still cherish that little atlas because it was a book that helped me when I was a child. Imagine far away places that I still haven't been to.

- [Anne] Seeing the world by book, it's a great way to travel. Philip Pullman remembered his old pocket atlas because we asked him to tell us a story about a favorite book. We do that at the end of a lot of our interviews, and we put the best stories in our new micro podcast called "Bookmarks." Season two is up and today we're going to play a few excerpts and meet the writers. So Philip Pullman, the boy who fell in love with a pocket atlas, grew into a writer and creator of one of the most famous fictional worlds, the parallel universe of his dark materials. A place you can only get to with something called dust.

- [Narrator 1] What is the most important question we can ask?

- [Narrator 2] Where dust comes from? The photograms you took.

- [Narrator 1] The aurora, you've seen dust pouring into this world from the aurora. If light can cross that barrier between the universes, if dust can, if we can see that city up there in the sky, then we can build a bridge and we can cross.

- [Narrator 2] Cross to multiple worlds.

- [Narrator 1] Why not? Let's go to the source. Let's ask what dust is. Maybe we'll find out that it's something else entirely. Maybe we'll find out that it is sin. I think that's the sound of that.

- [Narrator 2] I don't know. What I do know is I've done my piece

- [Anne] That's an excerpt from the new HBO adaptation. Philip Pullman loves to write about big ideas, and Steve Paulson loves to read about them. So it's a literary match made in heaven.

- [Steve] Philip, a lot of us have come to love your heroine, Lyra Belacqua. She was 11 when you first introduced her in the Golden Compass, and she and her alter ego Pan who takes the form of an animal, what you call a dæmon, and they've had a lot of adventures with witches and armored bears and this mysterious substance called dust. And now she's back. And your latest book, "The Secret Commonwealth" except this time Lyra is 20 years old and she's unhappy. She's barely unspeaking terms with Pan. Why is she struggling?

- Because people do. One of the things I wanted to do in this series of books was to write... Well, it's a fantasy, I know that. But to write a fantasy that was as psychologically true as I could make it. And I wanted to use the things I discovered about the dæmon, for example, and about dust and about Lyra as well. I wanted to use those things to explore what it's like to grow up. And we see her on the cusp of adolescence in the ambu spyglass. She has a first experience of falling in love, for example. And that makes a huge difference to her. It marks a point in our lives when we're moving out of childhood and into an adult world, which has got strange, mysterious, exciting, dangerous things like sexuality in it, but also curiosity, intellectual curiosity. It's the time in our lives when we are most curious about the world. How does it work? Why are people so cruel to each other? Why is this happening? It is a time of our lives often marked by profound wonder as well as profound depression sometimes, but with the dæmons, which I have in my story, the embodied soul, if you like, of human beings, which has a form of an animal, I can do with that something that's harder to do in our world. And I can express a sense of alienation from oneself by having the human being Lyra in this case and her dæmon not getting on, not liking each other, not being able to speak to each other.

- [Steve] And Pan Lyra's dæmon basically has accused Lyra of having lost her imagination and sense of wonder.

- [Philip] That's right.

- [Steve] Which seems to be accurate.

- [Philip] That's right. So he sets off in search of it. Now, what am I drawing on here? I think it's in that Latin epic romance called Orlando Furioso, where the hero Orlando loses his wits and someone flies to the moon to see if they can find them. And this has always struck me as being a charming idea. And so Pan going off to search for Larry's imagination comes from the same kind of source. So a world where magic exists, where strange things can happen and where people go in search of things like imagination.

- So one of the central tensions here is this dichotomy between reason and imagination and the sense that maybe reason has won over too much. I mean, we've lost the sense of imagination. And I'm struck by this because a hundred years ago the sociologist Max Weber talked, I mean he had a word for this disenchantment.

- [Philip] Exactly.

- [Steve] It seems like Lyra has become disenchanted with the world.

- [Philip] Well, the word disenchantment. Yeah, it's a very good word. It's a state of mind, which is also very well described in that Wordsworth's poem. William Wordsworth's poem "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" which begins, "There was a time when meadow grove and stream the earth and every common sight to me did seem apparel in celestial light, the glory and the freshness of a dream." But he goes on to say that that was when he was a boy. Now he's grown up. The magic's gone. Where's it gone?

- [Steve] So the title of this book is "The Secret Commonwealth." What does that refer to?

- [Philip] It's the title I stole from a little book called, well, I'll read you the whole title, but it would take about five minutes. So I won't, it's a very long title, but it begins "The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Thorns and Fairies." It was written in the late 17th century by a Scottish clergyman called Robert Kirk who'd made a study of the local folklore and legends and myths about fairies and ghosts and spirits and all that sort of stuff. It represents the imagination really.

- [Steve] I find this so interesting what you're saying because you are a highly visible atheist and we tend to associate that with reason and rationality and science as opposed to religious faith. And yet this story celebrates these hidden parts of reality, which fall outside the realms of rational analysis. And I now this is a fantasy novel, but my reading of your story is it seems to be a critique of, I guess what I would call excessive rationality and you're really saying we need to rediscover the imagination and this invisible magical world.

- [Philip] Yes, I am saying that, but in welcoming the world of the irrational, I'm not rejecting rationality far from it. What I'm rejecting is what William Blake called single vision, I suppose you could call it the one-size-fits-all idea. The view that there is one answer, which is Marxism or science or fundamentalist Christianity or whatever it is. And everything must be subordinate to that because there is one answer and I got it, that sort of attitude. So it's against William Blake's single vision. There is a place for reason, there's a place for rationality, an honored place, an important place because the discoveries of science have immeasurably benefited the human race and told us a million things that we had no idea about. And they're fascinating and important to know, but science is a good servant, but a bad master, in the old phrase. If you only allow yourself to see things through the filter of science, you'll miss a great deal of what's there and what's there as well as science are the things that you can't measure, you can't be numerical about. I've just been reading a very good book called "Galileo's Error." Phil Goff is a philosopher who's very interested in a theory called panpsychism. Panpsychism is the theory that consciousness, which is such a mysterious thing to discuss. Can they explain much more simply than philosophers have traditionally done? What Panpsychism does, and this is what I like about it, is to suggest that consciousness is a normal property of matter. Everything is conscious. That's not to say that the cup of tea from which I'm now drinking is conscious and saying to me, come on, hurry up, you haven't finished this yet. No, but consciousness is something that pervades everything. Although many philosophers find this hard to accept, poets don't find it hard to accept. I quoted Wordsworth a minute ago, and William Blake, another of the great romantic English poets was a panpsychist, I think before the word existed. I mean he talks of "Every particle of dust breathing forth, its joy." So the notion of the world is alive, the world is conscious, is something that I find very convincing, very persuasive. And you don't have to believe in a Christian God or a Muslim God to believe that.

- [Steve] And coming back to this idea of trying to see everything about the world that we live in as alive, the dilemma that Lyra faces, it seems like that opens the door to a different kind of mindset about how we look at the world.

- [Philip] It certainly does. And this is what I think people like Gretta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion and the young people who've been protesting so passionately, they're onto this sort of thing. There's a sense that the people who run the world have up until now treated the world as a sort of dead thing that they can scavenge for whatever they might like out of it. They can tear coal and they can pump oil, they can burn them as they will and hurl the smoke into the atmosphere and it's all dead and it doesn't matter. Well, we're discovering now to our great cost that it's not all dead and it does matter. Again, the idea of a Gaia, you know the Gaia hypothesis taps into the same feeling I think.

- [Steve] So I want to come back to the story and talk about how these ideas that we've just been talking about, panpsychism and the origins of consciousness, how they relate to your novel. So you have this mysterious substance you call dust, which is connected to consciousness in some way. Why is everyone fighting over dust? Why does the magisterium want to control it? Why is it so secretive?

- [Philip] Well, because in just the same way that the Inquisition, the Catholic Inquisition of the 17th century persecuted Galileo and people who brought these new ideas, like the son being at the center of the service, the church persecuted them because they seemed to contradict what the Bible said. And the church being in control of everything wanted to command people's thoughts as well as what they said and what they did. And were very fierce and very severe in defending this knowledge that well we now know to be untrue. So the magisterium in my book is doing the same sort of thing with this idea of dust, which seems to be in somehow connected with the change in consciousness that comes to us in adolescence with the awakening of sexuality, with the change in William Blake's terms from innocence to experience. These are all tied up together. And because they involve this notion of sin and because it goes back to the story in the Book of Genesis, in the Bible that Adam and Eve sinned by discovering the knowledge of good and evil. They ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge and it was the knowledge of good and evil, which marked them out. They were innocent no more, and they had to leave paradise. I refer to that story of course in "His Dark Materials."

- [Steve] So this is a total turning the story of Adam and Eve on its head. So traditionally of course, this is seen as the fall from grace. It sounds like you're saying this is the moment of the discovery of consciousness or of self-consciousness when they bit the apple.

- [Philip] Yeah, that's correct. That's exactly what I'm saying. I can see why people would think it was heretical, but I can't understand. I've never understood why a God who invented us would not want us to know about things and would tempt us with the knowledge of something and then forbid us to enjoy it. It seems crazy to me.

- [Anne] That's Philip Pullman talking with Steve Paulson about his novel, "The Secret Commonwealth." That's the second in his new trilogy, "The Book of Dust." I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. This hour we're talking about "Traveling By Book" about the places that books can take us in space and in time. Here's Ruth Ozeki reading from her bestselling novel, "A Tale for the Time Being."

- "Hi, my name is Nao and I'm a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being is someone who lives in time and that means you and me and every one of us who is or was or ever will be. As for me right now I'm sitting in a French made cafe in Ocupa Electricity Town listening to a sad chance song that's playing sometime in your past, which is also my present writing this and wondering about you somewhere in my future. And if you're reading this, then maybe by now you're wondering about me too. You wonder about me, I wonder about you."

- [Anne] Ruth, this character now has such a vibrant, distinctive voice when she really jumps off the page from the very beginning. How did she come to be?

- [Ruth] At the time, I guess it was probably 2004, 2005, I was studying the fascicles, the essays of a 13th century zen master named Dōgen Zenji. And he'd written an essay called "Uji" which can be translated as time being or being time or for the time being. But for some reason, every time I was reading this essay, I kept reading time being as in like time being like human being, right? And this phrase just stayed in my mind and somehow just translated itself into the voice of the 16-year-old Japanese school girl. Nao Yasutani.

- [Anne] So tell us about Nao how would you describe her to someone who hasn't met her?

- [Ruth] Well, I guess I would describe her as displaced. She is a Japanese girl born in Japan, but was raised in Silicon Valley in Sunnyvale, California. And the family was forced to move back to Tokyo where she was put into a junior high school and had none of the cultural fluency. She didn't have money for nice stuff and she just didn't really know how to relate to the other kids. And so she is being very badly bullied. She decides that she's going to kill herself, but before she does, she wants to do one last act of redemption, which is to tell the fascinating life story of her 104-year-old great-grandmother who is a Zen Buddhist nun.

- [Anne] Now you are also yourself a Zen Buddhist priest. I think you were ordained in 2010.

- [Ruth] That's right.

- [Anne] Are there elements of Zen Buddhist philosophy that you wanted to explore or embed in this novel particular elements?

- [Ruth] Well, I think that more than that, it's the other way around. In the years prior to writing this novel, I was practicing Zen Buddhism very seriously. And I was doing a lot of meditating and a lot of study of Zen philosophy. And I think the book really grew out of that. It wasn't so much that I wanted to embed Zen philosophy in the book, but it was more that book-

- It was the novel embedded Itself in your practice?

- [Ruth] Exactly, exactly. And in a way, the novel is an expression of that practice.

- [Anne] In what way?

- [Ruth] I guess the way I like to think about it is in a sense the book is a performance of certain Zen philosophies. For example, Zen teachings on time and impermanence or Zen teachings on interconnectedness, what is called in Buddhism dependent coarising. The way that we are never separate from each other. There's no separation between self and other. And I think that all of these kinds of philosophical propositions, if you read the book with those in mind, you can see how the book enacts those.

- But you're suggesting, aren't you? Also that our notion of self or of having an independent self in the real world is something of a myth, an illusion.

- It is an illusion, yes, exactly. That's exactly right. I mean, there's no way to be an independent self, is there? How could you possibly be an independent self? We come from somewhere, we come from our mothers and our fathers. We can't survive. We can't survive for a minute without others around us. We're like waves in the ocean. We rise up from the ocean and appear very briefly as a little white speck piece of foam in the water, but then we subside again into the larger ocean and we're time beings in that sense. We rise out of time and then we fall back into time.

- [Anne] Or I was going to say, another way of putting it is we're all ghosts.

- [Ruth] Yes, we're all ghosts. Exactly . Exactly.

- [Anne] Yeah, and there are some real ghosts in this book also Nao meets the ghost of-

- [Ruth] Haruki, yes, that's right. Her great Uncle Haruki Number 1. That's right.

- [Anne] So I'm curious, Western culture of course has this long history of ghost lore and ghost stories. But the notion of ghosts in Japanese culture and especially in Zen Buddhist culture, I think is somewhat different.

- [Ruth] That's right. My grandmother, for example, always kept a small shrine, a small altar in her house no matter where she went. And every day she would wake up in the morning and she would boil hot water for tea and she would bring a cup of hot water to the altar and give it to my grandfather who had been dead for many years. But this was her ritual. And in a sense it, it kept him there. It kept him alive and present in her life. In Japanese culture, the ancestors are never far away. They live just on the other side. And they visit frequently. I mean certainly once a year there's a wonderful festival called Obon, which appears in the book as well, but it's a bit like the Mexican Day of the Dead where the ancestors come back to visit the living.

- [Anne] I read an interview with you recently in which you referred to a Japanese word or concept kotodama, which means something like the spirit in words. I don't know much about the concept, but it made me wonder, can words have ghosts?

- [Ruth] Well, I think they are ghosts. Words are ghosts. Language is a ghostly kind of ritual that we perform. We've inherited language from the dead, right? And so every time we speak words, we are actually speaking the language of the dead. The tongues of the dead. Language is ghostly.

- [Anne] That makes me wonder whether writing is a form of Zen practice for you or vice versa. I guess how the two inform each other.

- [Ruth] The two are very, very close to the point where I would almost say at this point they are expressions of each other. How's that? I've been meditating for many years and I find that the relationship between the two practices really is very intimate and mutually supportive. They're both contemplative practices. They both require a tuning in to the mind in a particular kind of way. They're wonderfully supportive of each other.

- [Anne] And circling back to that theme of time, they both seem to me to be practices that are part of an effort to change our relationship to time or change our perception of time.

- [Ruth] That's a wonderful thought because I think one of the things that meditation teaches you, you could actually say that meditation is a way of practicing patience. It's a way of learning to wait for nothing. And this is very, very useful for a novel writer as Nao points out in the book, it's very difficult to keep up with the mind as a writer, it's very difficult to kind of keep up with the mind and you always feel like you're just lagging behind slightly. But I think that once something has been written, then we can look at that and we can think, yes, that is an expression of a moment in time. And so in a way, a book is a time capsule. And it reminds me too of the ancient Greeks used to believe when you recited the poems of a dead poet, it was actually the dead poet who was borrowing your tongue in order to-

- That's lovely. make himself or herself understood.

- [Anne] Well, that's would be a great way to ask for one more reading as we close, there is a scene when Nao meets the ghost of her long dead uncle who was a kamikaze pilot. Would you read that scene for us?

- Okay, "So in the scene Nao is visiting her great-grandmother at a tiny little temple on the hillside. And she was sitting on the temple steps when she was visited by her great uncle's ghost." And her great uncle is named Haruki Number One. "Stupid Nao, what a foolish girl. There I was sitting with the ghost of my dead great uncle who just happened to be a kamikaze fighter pilot in World War II and who was probably the most fascinating person I will ever get to meet. And what did I do? Sing some stupid French sad song to him. How idiotic is that? He must have thought I was just another typical dumb teenager and his time on earth was precious. So why waste even a moment of it with me better to just shimmer off and hang out with someone who could think of more interesting conversational topics? What is wrong with me? I could have asked him about all sorts of things. I could have asked him about his interests and his hobbies. I could have asked him if only depressed people cared about philosophy. And if reading philosophy books ever helped, I could have asked him about what it felt like to be ripped from his happy life and forced to become a suicide bomber. And if the other guys in his unit picked on him because he wrote French poetry. I could have asked him how he felt when he woke up on the morning of his mission, which was also his last morning on earth. Did he have a big cold fish dying in the hollow of his stomach? Or was he filled with a luminous calm that emanated from him so that everyone around him stood back in awe knowing that he was ready to take to the sky? I could have asked him what it felt like to die. Stupid bacca Nao Yasutani."

- [Anne] Ruth, thank you so much.

- [Ruth] Sure, it's my pleasure. Thank you so much.

- [Anne] And one other quick, let me just see, do we have another couple of minutes in the studio, Caril? So Ruth, the other thing, I hate to spring this on you, and if you don't want to do it, it's fine, but when we get writers in the studio, we're asking them what they've read that they would like to recommend to somebody else. And ideally a book that you think most people haven't, or a lot of people haven't really heard of or noticed, could be something very old and obscure. Could be something you read as a child and adored, could be something brand new that you just read that's not getting a lot of play. And is there anything that comes to mind?

- [Ruth] Yes, yes, absolutely.

- [Anne] Can you set it up by just saying, I'm Ruth Ozeki and a book I think everybody should read, or a book I'd like to recommend, something like that.

- [Ruth] My name is Ruth Ozeki and I am the author of the novel, "A Tale for the Time Being." The book I would like to recommend is "Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers" by Professor of Anthropology named Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. Professor Ohnuki-Tierney takes the diaries, the letters, essays and poetry written by the Japanese students who were conscripted and forced to join the Tokkotai, the kamikaze forces. What I found remarkable about these books is the way that they humanized these pilots. In America of course, when you talk about kamikaze, the stereotyping of that word has become the predominant image that we have of these young men. But in fact, a lot of the pilots who were conscripted were really the creme de la creme of young Japanese intellectuals. They were fluent in many European languages. They read French poetry, they read German philosophy. They were able to think about and to discuss and to write about the moral and ethical problems of war and the challenges that they faced in a way that I found absolutely heartbreaking. The young men who were writing these letters and the diaries are so present on the page, they really emerge as sensitive young, intelligent men who are confronting death and not only confronting death, but confronting the worst possible kind of death, knowing that their death will be contributing to the war. Many of them were opposed to the war. They were in a real moral bind. This is a book that I read in 2006 or 2007, the period of time following 9/11 when the word kamikaze and suicide bomber was being used in quite a different context. Used I think in a very, I would say, almost irresponsible way. And so this is a book that I think is really reclaiming a piece of history that has really been erased by World War II propaganda. It's a book that I think is incredibly important.

- [Anne] Perfect, thank you. That's absolutely perfect.

- Sorry about that.

- No, it's great, it's great. We will edit it. Clean it up.

- Alright.

- You'll love it.

- Anyway, thank you so much.

- [Ruth] Thank you for great questions too.

- Okay, sure.

- I appreciate that.

- Okay.

- Thanks very much.

- Yeah, bye-bye.

- Bye.

- [Anne] We started this project about four years ago, and Ruth Ozeki was one of the first we asked to be part of it. By now, we have a library full of books recommended by famous authors, and you can hear them too in our new micro podcast called "Bookmarks." Season two is just out and I hope you'll subscribe. Find out how at I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. This hour we're talking about "Traveling By Book." And our next story takes us back in time to 1873 to the continent of Africa and the death of the famous explorer, Dr. David Livingstone. Petina Gappah is the author of our story. She's a writer from Zimbabwe who's been obsessed with Dr. Livingstone since she was about 10 years old. She spent years researching the history and in her new novel "Out of Darkness, Shining Light" she tells the story not of what happened when Dr. Livingstone was alive, but of what happened after he died, specifically what happened to his body. Here's how it begins.

- [Petina] "This is how we carried out of Africa, the poor, broken body of Juana Daudi, the Dr. David Livingstone, so that he could be born across the sea and buried in his own land. For more than 1,500 miles from the interior to the Western Coast we marched with his body from Chitambo to Gwanamuzungu, from Chisalamala to Kumbakumba, from Lambalafipa to Tabora until 285 days after we left Chitambo, we reached Bagamoyo, that place of sorrow whose very name means to lay to rest the burden of your heart."

- [Steve] Ah, that is wonderful. Thank you so much.

- [Petina] Thank you.

- [Steve] And this is such a great story. I mean, of course this really happened, but why did you want to turn this into a novel? And specifically what happened to Dr. Livingstone's body after he died?

- [Petina] Well, his companions, his African companions, the men that he was traveling with were faced with this great question of what to do with the bodies. He died in the interior of Africa, in what is now Northern Zambia. And the coast was miles away. So they then had to make a decision, do we bury him here or do we take him to the coast and have him shipped off to England for burial? And that decision was a momentous decision both for them, for Dr. Livingstone's family and friends and for the continent of Africa. And I wanted to write this story, but I wanted to write it from the perspective of the companions, because we've never really heard their story being narrated by them.

- [Steve] And why didn't they just bury the body where he died? Why take on this huge momentous, arduous journey all the way to the coast?

- [Petina] That was actually the question that preoccupied me the most as I was researching this book. Why on Earth did they do this extraordinary thing? Because I remember this was in pre-Christian, pre-colonial Africa even. So there would've been a lot of superstition and general unpleasantness when they tried to carry this dead body through these different villages and towns. It really was quite an extraordinary thing to do.

- [Steve] It's such an incredible story because this was a nine month journey. There were 69 people, Africans in this caravan from the interior of Africa all the way to the coast. And I can only imagine, I mean, what that kind of journey was like in the year 1873 in this very tropical environment going across all kinds of lands controlled by various different local people. It sounds just incredibly difficult.

- [Petina] Yeah, not only in different groups of local people, but there were also slave traders amongst them. So in fact, they could have taken a much more direct route to the coast. They could have traveled in a straight line to the coastal town called Kilwa. But Kilwa on the east coast of Africa was a major slave trading port. So they didn't want to risk traveling along the same path as slave traders because of course that would've endangered them. So they took this long circuitous route. So it was an incredibly dangerous journey. And as I narrate in one of the chapters, there was a lot of hunger, there was a lot of weariness, and at one point they actually had to overrun a town in order to find food and shelter.

- [Steve] So they basically had to conquer that town.

- Exactly. With their weapons.

- It was an of conquest.

- [Petina] It was an act of conquest.

- [Steve] Wow, so just a very practical question, how did they transport a dead body for nine months in tropical heat? Why didn't it just decompose?

- Well, what they did with the body, I have great fun in the chapter in which I narrate how they prepared the body for burial. In fact, I was saying to someone earlier that I unleashed my inner Stephen King because they eviscerated the body. They took out all his organs, his lungs, and his heart. Now in the Victorian imagination, it was his heart that was buried. So, there were all these statements about they buried his heart in Africa, like it was this wonderful act, a very beautiful ceremony. But it was actually a very ugly thing because effectively they had to eviscerate him, take out all the insides because then they laid out his body to dry. And in fact, I sometimes call this novel the Livingstone jerky novel because they effectively made him into jerky into what we in Zimbabwe call biltong, which is dried meat. So they dried him on one side and then they dried him on another until after 10 days he had completely dried out. And it was a fairly straightforward process because he was now a very small man by the end of his life. And then what they then did was quite funny. They folded him in half at the waist, right? They disguised him as a package for trade because of course they couldn't afford to look mournful and so in this incredibly long court, they couldn't afford to look mournful or sad. So they acted as though they were just an ordinary trading party.

- [Steve] I can imagine that a lot of the local people, if they had heard there was this dead white man who was being

- Exactly. transported through their land. I mean, that would've really spooked them.

- [Petina] So they were just moving along with their bells and their songs. We're just carrying along this package. What body, what body? This is not a body, this is a package for trade. So it was a really bizarre theater and they had to pretend all the time that the thing that they were carrying was actually not a dead person at all. But a few beads here and there, a few cloths here and there.

- [Steve] They were talking about historical legacy here. And I would assume there's a very different history told by Europeans who celebrate Dr. Livingstonee. I mean, they think that great 19th century explorer as opposed to many Africans. I mean, is he considered an example of European imperialism or not?

- [Petina] That's such a great question, Steve. And it's a complicated one because that history really isn't being taught anymore in Europe. And in fact, in Berlin last week, I argued that they should teach that history again. They should teach the history of European Africa because what you consider to be the European past really is Africa's present. So that act of drawing up and carving up a continent, drawing those borders, those extraordinary straight lines on the countries of Africa, they were drawn with rulers because there were borders that were determined on the basis of geographic coordinates around a table in Berlin by Bismarck and the other European powers. Now, David Livingstone is an interesting one because he wasn't central to the actual colonization. He wasn't like Stanley who basically colonized the Belgian Congo on behalf of the King of Belgium. And he wasn't like Mungo Park in West Africa. David Livingstone was before colonization, before the scramble for Africa. But what he did was to give a moral dimension to the mission of colonization. The whole christianizing the continent, the whole ending the slave trade. That was the moral dimension that was given to say we need to colonize these people for their own good. I don't know if you know your Kipling, but Rudyard Kipling wrote a very famous poem about why the United States should go into the Philippines, take up the white men's burden. So that was the sort of the impetus to colonialism, the psychological explanation behind it, take up the white man's burden, act like Livingstone, colonize and civilize the savages. So in a sense, he was not himself an imperialist, but he was certainly in his death an agent of imperialism. At the same time is then complicated by his role in the slave trade, by ending the slave trade and also by bringing Christianity to Africa. So you find that in many African countries, all the monuments that carry his name are still there.

- [Steve] Really? I mean, so there are a lot of monuments around Africa

- Oh, yes. to Dr. Livingstone?

- [Petina] To this day the capital city of Malawi is Blantyre after the city where Livingstone was born, Zambia has a city called Livingstone, right at the Victoria Falls, which he claims to have discovered. But of course you can't really discover a place where people are living.

- [Steve] Right.

- [Petina] And even Victoria Falls, the falls themselves as well as the city in Zimbabwe. We still have those names that David Livingstone gave to this great waterfall. I went to Cambridge on a Livingstone scholarship. I was a Livingstone scholar at Cambridge. So he is very much still part of the conversation in a way.

- [Steve] See, I know you have been obsessed with the story of Dr. Livingstone for years, years and years, why? What was it about the story that stayed with you all this time?

- [Petina] It was that body. It was that Chuma and Susi carrying the body thing, because I'd been reading about it since I was 10 or 11 years old. I first read the Livingstone book. It was a Lady Bird book that all commonwealth children read. There was this picture, and I remember it vividly, this picture of Livingstone kneeling at his bed. And then the next page was his faithful companion, Susi and Chuma carried his body for nine months so that he could be buried in England. And then when I went to secondary school at the age of 16, I traced out Livingstone's journeys in my history book, because to understand the history of Zimbabwe and Malawi and Zambia, you need to understand Livingstone's journeys. And still there was that line again, his faithful companion Susi and Chuma carried his body. And I kept asking myself, what an extraordinary thing to do. It's exactly the question you asked me earlier, Steve, why on earth did they do it?

- [Steve] So I have to ask, what's your take on Dr. Livingstone? I mean, is he someone you admire?

- [Petina] I don't think I admire him. I think I like him and I pity him, and I think I understand him. I understand obsession and I understand people who are driven, and I prefer to deal with people who are flawed. He was not an evil man. I'm very uncomfortable dealing with evil, but I can deal very well with flaws. He was a deeply, deeply conflicted and tortured man. He had a wellspring of kindness in him, but also an incredible arrogance.

- [Steve] This novel strikes me as part of a larger project that so many African writers and intellectuals are part of. How do you retell this old story, 19th century history, for instance, this is the pre-colonial period, but it would apply to the colonial era as well. I mean, how do you tell that from an African perspective? Do you consider yourself to be part of this larger project?

- [Petina] I absolutely do, and I'm so glad that you recognize, because I think it's part of a decolonization project. I would love to see more Livingstone novels and more novels about this particular era, because I think the more we have of this, the better it is. It's like Americans with the Civil War. I mean, how many Civil War novels have there been, I mean, Margaret Mitchell is just one, but they're also novels by Black authors and by women authors. I recently saw the Big Guild with this Sophia Kokila film, which I absolutely loved. I'd never really thought about the Civil War from the perspective of women. I believe that the more we have different perspectives on the same historical facts and events, I think the richer our understanding of this history is. So I'm very excited to be part of a broader group of writers from my continent who are writing back, the Empire writes back.

- [Anne] That's Petina Gappah talking with Steve Paulson. Hey, remember I said we often end the interviews by asking writers about their favorite book. Here's hers.

- [Petina] Hello, I'm Petina Gappah, the author of "Out of Darkness, Shining Light." I would like to talk about one of my favorite novels, which is "Persuasion" by Jane Austen. I read "Persuasion" almost every year. Sometimes I call it my toothbrushing novel. It's a book that I read and that I can pick up at any time. I can even just pick up "Persuasion" and start reading from the middle, from the beginning, from the end, it doesn't matter. It's a novel I know intimately and that I love very much because it's a different kind of love story, especially for Jane Austen to have written. Her love stories are usually about first encounters. People meet, fall in love, a few obstacles, and then they marry. "Persuasion" is a very much novel about I mature love because it's a story of two people, Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth who meet when they are young and then are separated by eight years. And then they have to discover whether they're still these strong feelings that they have for each other and whether the obstacles that separated them in the first place are still as strong as they are eight years later. It's a book of great sorrow and reflection. Anne Elliot is a very unusual hero and for Jane Austen as well, because she has great interiority. She's very different from Emma or Elizabeth Bennett who are bubbly and lively. Anne is very much in her own thoughts. And Jane Austen really takes us in a very moving way into the deep, disappointed thoughts of this woman who thinks that love has passed her forever. This book is really, it speaks to me very powerfully because it's a book about second chances. And as somebody who has made more than a few mistakes in their love life, I really hope that second chances, third chances, fourth chances will come to me one day. But less frivolously it's a book that I think is the most African of Jane Austen's novels. I always try to give it an African reading to Jane Austen. And I think this and Emma are the two most African novels because I can relate to Anne Elliot's dilemma as a young woman who wants to please her patriarchal and authoritarian family, but does so at the cost of her own feelings and her own heart.

- [Anne] So we began this hour "Traveling By Book", and we wound up in Africa with Jane Austen, which I love. You know, amazing things happen when you ask writers to tell you about the books they love. We have a lot of these little stories and we've collected them in a new podcast called "Bookmarks." Season two is just out. And before we go, let's play one last Bookmark. This one's from another world traveler, the writer Robert Macfarlane. And this is the book that taught him how to really see a mountain.

- [Robert] So this is a book about mountains in the sense that Mrs. Dalloway's book about city streets or maybe Dick's book about Wales. It is a profound investigation of the interpenetration of mind and matter and what matters. I am Robert Macfarlane, the author of "Underland." And the book I'd like to recommend to you is "The Living Mountain" by Nan Shepherd. This is a slender masterpiece of a book's scarcely 30,000 words long. It was written in the 1940s by Scotts Nan and Anna Shepherd who lived in the northeast of Scotland near the Cairngorms Mountains. It wasn't published till 1977, near the end of her life. In it, she describes walking as she puts it into the mountains. That preposition is important because I think most of us often think about walking up mountains. But Shepherd was interested in what walking into mountains might mean. It is really a pilgrimage that she makes into this beautiful ancient Devonian era, mountain range, low slung, high arctic, cliffy, but also rounded, which is, yeah, really Britain's Arctic. Shepherd realizes that this is not a set of peaks. It is not a site to be overcome and conquered, but a place to be explored and walked around as she puts it. "I go around it," she says, "like a dog in circles. I go up to see the mountain as I might to see a friend." I grew up climbing. I was a climber from a young age, a bad climber, but a climber. And I was so drawn to the summit. I had summit fever bad. It cost me scars and wounds and occasionally nearly my life I look back with in comprehension at it. But I met Shepherd's book and it was the beginning of a weaning away from that summit fever. To her the past was so much more interesting than the peak and the pilgrimage so much more interesting than the conquest. I remember once I'm in the Cairngorms a lot and I usually carry a copy of this book. I think it's the one I've given away more than any other. And I met a young man from Singapore deep in the passes there, and we fell into talking and he was very open. He said that just he'd been having a very difficult time in his life. He'd lost someone close to him and he'd come to look for himself or look for some way forwards in the mountains. And we stood by this stream and had this conversation that was completely unexpected to me, far from any road. And I said, "Look, here's this book. Take this book, read this book." Gave him my copy, and I left him my email address. And later he wrote to me this extraordinary letter just saying that, that encounter with me, but really with me as the giver of that book. And then the book, which he'd read had been a map. The book had been a map to him and it had allowed him to find his way back to the world from the lost place in which he'd been. And I just thought, "Well, Nan, thank you."

- [Anne] And dear TT Book listeners, thank you. This hour has been a love letter to books. I hope it inspired you to keep reading. ""To the Best of Our Knowledge"" comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Angelo Bautista and Charles Monroe-Kane produced this hour with help from Shannon Henry Kleiber and Mark Riechers. Joe Hartdke is our sound designer and technical director, and we had additional sound design help this week from Sarah Hopefl. Steve Paulson is our executive producer. And I'm Anne Strainchamps. Happy reading.

- [Announcer] PRX.

Last modified: 
February 23, 2024