I’m going to start writing about my biography, informally and occasionally. I had a fairly unusual childhood, and questions about it come up often enough in interviews and conversations that I’d like to discuss it. I’m not going to focus on the objective details, so much as my own sense of my experiences, and how they might have led to where I am today.
I’ll add to this series on an irregular basis as the spirit moves me. Feel free to ask questions, or treat this as a meme and discuss your own recollections.
I was born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1964. My father was on his first diplomatic assignment, my mother and her younger sisters there with him. We left (I believe) in 1965. While I have a lot of memories of Taiwan, obviously they don’t date from those years, but from our return in the 1970s.
We went back to the US, then briefly to Ottawa, Canada, where my sister was born, then in about 1967 we moved to Contonou, Dahomey. (That country is now Benin.) That was in former French West Africa, immediately in the post-colonial era, and the Biafran War was heating up in neighboring Nigeria. My earliest memories in life date from there. They’re quite fragmentary, like a truncated slideshow in my head.
I recall the cook cutting the head off a gray-barred chicken in the backyard. (An experience very common to Americans a hundred years ago, but not ordinary for urbanized people of my generation.) Mishaps, too — my kneecap bandaged in white gauze over a scab and the yellowed crust of some disinfectant, so I thought it looked like a sandwich; my mother holding me in her lap and picking a fly larva out of my big toe with a needle she kept dipping into a candle flame. I don’t remember our house, but I do recall the pre-school I attended. I also remember reading around the age of three or four; specifically my Cat in the Hat dictionary in French. Alligator: Un crocodile d’Amérique.
I returned to the US with my mother when my parents separated, and was told about the wonderful colors the trees turned in the autumn. My surprise was intense in when the leaves changed colors but the trees remained obdurately brown. In Dahomey I’d seen tree trunks painted white with reflective roadpaint, and in four year old logic assumed this meant that American tree trunks would turn yellow, orange, gold and red in a similar fashion.
My parents tell me that I spoke both French and English, but only used French with les Africaines and only used English with white people. Apparently this theory was tested by having a visiting African-American diplomat sit with me. We conducted a bilingual conversation. He spoke to me in English, I answered him in French. My mother also reports that I announced to her one day that there were two kinds of people in the world. She figured I was either going to say women and men, or black and white. Apparently my Big Deduction was that there were English-speakers and French-speakers. When we did return to the US, my mom brought my sister and I to Austin, TX. I tried speaking French to the African-Americans I met, while refusing to answer my mother when she spoke it to me. The language faded quickly due to my disuse, though it did come back reasonably well in high school.
I’ve been told other stories, for example about my eccentric behavior during a coup attempt as my Dad drove us kids from the school through street rioting to the safety of the American Embassy, where I wanted to helpfully unlock the door to our VW bus and let in the nice men banging on the outside of the vehicle. Apparently that didn’t make enough of an impression on me to stick in my brain through the fog of youthful memory. (You’d think, wouldn’t you?) I’m pretty sure Dad remembers that one well.
What did I learn from my first years in Africa? Hard to say. The memories are fragmented, they don’t mean much except in intensely personal contexts. My sense of culture, of race, of self, of globalism and Americanism and Anglocentrism; those things didn’t come until much later. To a child of that age, the entire world is equally surprising and equally ordinary. Errant bilingualism and red dirt roads and palm trees and dying chickens and insects growing in my feet aren’t the worst way to begin a journey of memory, and they’re not such a bad base coat on which to build the self-image of a writer.