Much has been made of the supposed decline of short fiction in recent years. But Peter Chilson’s intelligent, gripping, and emotionally complex new book, Disturbance-Loving Species, winner of the prestigious Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for fiction, defies that doomsday thinking.The one novella and four short stories that make up this collection throb with the life of Africa, from a market “like a great pond-based ecosystem, billowing with hierarchies of species and teeming with predators and parasites, opportunists and victims” to a taxi ride in which “the driver sped across a crowded city, slowing for no person, no camel or donkey, no pothole . . . flashes of faces, bits of clothing, lives and personalities hanging in flickers of light from passing cars.”
Such descriptions are often flat-out terrific. But Chilson recognizes that the best place-based writing is focused on people and their stories. Those in Disturbance-Loving Species are told from the point of view of both Americans and Africans, both here in the United States and in Africa. The Americans often burn with anger at the injustice they see and their inability to help, despite their best intentions. The Africans do not have the luxury of feeling this anger. They live in a world governed by fear and resignation. Signs of colonialism remain everywhere, from the omnipresent French language to a French hospital run “out of the grace of colonial guilt.” Most chillingly, these signs are seen in how the natives use the brutal tactics of their former repressors in order to repress their own people.
Themes rise up, disappear, and then reappear again like hot West African winds: cultural dissonance; the power—and concomitant danger—of language; the shockingly similar ways people everywhere grapple with feelings of anxiety, dislocation, and their own human frailty. The title story “Disturbance-Loving Species” provides the collection’s overarching theme in referencing those plants, like lupines, that somehow take root in the most disturbed conditions, that “live where other plants cannot, breathing nutrients into torn-up soil so that others might grow.”
In “American Food,” a West African research professor finds that his taste for goat head troubles his American neighbors, particularly when he cooks it in his backyard. “Freelancing” follows two aging journalists, a quiet newspaperman who hates “human conflict, the stories of wars, massacres, and coups d’état” and an obnoxious but talented Scots photographer who finds such material “sexy.” “Toumani Ogun” features a brutal mercenary who has relocated to Oregon only to find himself stalked by an American who personally witnessed his crimes in Africa.
The centerpiece of the collection is the novella Tea with Soldiers, which explores the friendship between Salif and Carter, two teachers at the Lycée Centrale in the capital of Niamey in Niger. When Salif is detained by the military regime, Carter attempts to find him, and the story unfolds in alternating sections between the increasingly frantic search and flashbacks that show the deepening connection between the two men.
“How do you explain Africa?” Carter wonders. He’s unable to formulate an easy answer to his own question. Neither can any of his African friends offer one. There are no clear-cut heroes here, no clear-cut villains. Traditional lines of morality blend and blur, like the dust and heat that throughout these stories form a haze over the African countryside, both oppressive and beautiful.
– Jeff Fearnside, Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing, Western Kentucky University