Monday, April 7, 2008

We've got answers!

Photo credit: Briana Orr (click to enlarge)

First, thanks so much, guys, for reading Camel! It’s great to be able to "discuss" the book with you in this way...

How much of the book is factual? Was the rule of one book lost actually used to eliminate stops on the library's rounds?
I’m going to answer these two together: the camel library actually exists and makes runs in the northeastern corner of Kenya near the border with Somalia. It started in 1996 with runs out of Garissa and with the rule that if any one person in a settlement didn’t turn in a book, it wouldn’t return. In part, this was an effort to get people used to the very idea of a library – this is a region where the illiteracy rate was said to be 85 percent, but I suspect was much higher, and many people had never held a book in their hands. Also, the camel library did not have enough books, so couldn’t afford to lose them. This very intense library fine carries the potential for dramatic tension, of course, and that’s what started, for me, the story of the novel. The camel library does NOT have this rule any more!

Garissa and the bush are described as they really are; I visited the area and went out on some library runs. All the novel characters and the circumstances surrounding them are invented. So are the mosquito quotes.
What impact has the camel bookmobile had on the lives of the people?
I’m guessing this question applies to the real camel bookmobile? Mainly young people take advantage of the camel library, and for them, it is offering new possibilities to their lives. Before now, if you were a child of a pastoralist in this region, you knew that you would grow up to be a pastoralist. Now, the camel library is opening other doors by, first of all, showing people there are other possible ways to live a life, and secondly, giving them the possibility of becoming educated enough to take entrance exams for continuing school in Nairobi. On the other hand, some members of the older generation are sad to see the old ways fading, and they are worried about the corruption of the larger world – this is reflected in the novel as well.
What did you learn from the village people of Kenya?
I primarily soaked up the atmosphere while in Northeastern Kenya. I did write a piece about drought and famine victims, which you can read here:

While I was in Nairobi, I interviewed street kids who are AIDS orphans (there are an enormous number of them) and you can read that article here:
When you visited Africa, did you feel like a zebra among giraffes?
Ha, very nice! In fact, I’ve spent many years living overseas, and was in Afghanistan in 2004, and I usually start to feel comfortable very soon. Additionally, an old friend I’d known in Jerusalem has now settled in Nairobi, and he met me at the airport and provided a driver and too much advice! Besides, I found Garissa to be very wonderful and gentle-hearted.
How did you make the transition to writing fiction from news reports?
I spent five years reporting from the Middle East, based in Jerusalem, and then five years reporting on the collapse of the Soviet Union, based in Moscow. At some point during the latter, I began to dream fictional stories, and I eventually understood I was being shown a fork in the path, and I had to choose. With support of my husband, I quit journalism and began working on fiction.
Do you have several projects going at one time or concentrate on just the fiction?
I prefer one project, if at all possible. Right now, for instance, I’m finishing up revision on the next novel, and I’d like to concentrate solely on that. But I also teach novel-writing classes online and live, run a bed-and-breakfast and do sometimes find myself involved in non-fiction, reporting work. So balance is a key issue for me!
How many people does the camel bookmobile reach?
Great question. I don’t know the answer. I could guess, but I decided I would send Mr. Farah an email asking him instead. I just did that, and hopefully will hear something back in a week or so. I’ll let you know.
UPDATE: On April 11th Masha sent an email saying:
From Mr. Farah:
"The camel service reaches 4,200 people in the Garissa area and 2,000 people around Wajir at this time."
What did you learn in writing the book?
Of course, I learned more about the people of this region of Africa. I also enjoyed the chance to explore something I’ve thought about for a long time: the challenges and pitfalls of being an American overseas. We so often go abroad with such generosity of spirit, but also with the idea that we are bringing ... whatever it is. Money, technology, a better political system, or, in the case of The Camel Bookmobile, books. And in the process, we sometimes fail to honor, or even learn much about, old traditional cultures, that have as much to teach us as we do them. This is the lesson Fi ultimately has to learn.
Thanks again. I’m off to Tennessee, but I’ll look for any follow-up questions at the end of the week and try to get them back to you by end of the weekend. Best, m

Masha Hamilton

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