Carlos Ortega roaming Africa was a ridiculous proposition, which was why everyone who heard the idea savored its deliciousness. For all his thirty-nine years, Carlos had prowled the same few blocks east of the interstate, and to conceive of him…
“Kuchizi” came out of an urge to mess with the “white person goes to Africa” story, which we’ve seen so often on the page and screen. Some versions of this story employ overtly racist tropes: the “white savior,” the “noble savage.” Other entries are more nuanced; nonetheless it is often still the white protagonist whose emotional or spiritual growth is the substance of the story, with everyone else there more or less to assist him on his journey.
All I knew when I set out to write a story on this theme was the setting: a resort hotel in Malindi. I’ve been a “white person in Africa” a couple of times myself, most formatively as a college junior, studying abroad in coastal Kenya in 2002. Toward the end of that trip, I spent a weekend with some friends in a place not unlike the Malindi Grand: a beachside hotel that catered to mostly Italian (and almost all white) tourists.
As in the story, the hotel presented a broad and cartoonish version of “Africa,” which the guests were all too happy to lap up. I was a white kid who hadn’t yet thought deeply about issues of race in my home country, let alone in this foreign one, yet the stink of colonialism was so overpowering in that hotel that even I could smell it.
The place was horrifying enough to excite the writer in me, but by trip’s end had left me feeling sour. I may have fashioned myself an amateur anthropologist, studying the other guests like Carlos does in the story, but I was also a guest. Was I complicit in what was happening? What did my being there say about me?
OK, yes: that is a good place to start a story. Hello, Malindi Grand. But who to send there?
I’ve never been a writer who has had much success with the thinly-veiled alter-ego, and my few attempts at writing about Kenya with a suburban-bred, culturally Jewish facsimile of myself had gone nowhere. Also, if this ended up the tale of a white kid going to a crazy hotel in Africa and learning X, Y or Z, wasn’t I just telling a version of the story I hoped to subvert?
When I began “Kuchizi” in 2013, I’d already written Carlos into a different (now deceased) boxing story. At that point I’d been working out at a boxing gym in Austin for a number of years, and had begun to translate aspects of the place into my fiction. Carlos was a character I thought I knew well. The gym attracted its share of men who were at ease in the ring but who rubbed people the wrong way outside of it; over the years I developed what I’d describe as an uneasy camaraderie with a couple of guys like this. While Carlos is his own man, the initial inspiration for him started with them.
Carlos didn’t fit well into this other story. He was a flat character, good for one-liners and little more. Also, his knees were always bobbing. “Blah blah blah,” said Carlos, knees bobbing. A few pages later: Carlos sat, knees bobbing. What was the matter with this person? Did he suffer from restless leg syndrome? Carlos needed something to do. He needed somewhere to go. Malindi, maybe? I imagined proposing the trip to him. “I get my own room?” he asked.
Stories don’t care much about their creators’ intentions. I agree with the argument that white writers interested in issues of race would do well to interrogate our own whiteness, rather than forever mining (stealing?) the stories of people of color. Carlos’ race is never explicitly stated in the story, but he wouldn’t perceive himself or be perceived as white. With Carlos as protagonist, then, a new challenge emerged: was there a way for me, a white writer, to comment on the “white person in Africa” story when the “person” in question was no longer “white”?
It’s easy, in writing about writing, to make a messy process seem clean. I knew this was a question I needed to grapple with if the story was to work. I knew, too, that in the initial drafting, I’d need to set it aside. At the end of the day, I was writing a story, not a treatise: my allegiance was first to the characters and to the plot and to trying to get the reader to turn the page. But once a draft was written, I began to see the way these characters functioned in relationship to my broader theme, and this allowed me, as I revised, to sharpen my focus and to act with more intention when it came to how whiteness operates in the story.
Though most of the characters in “Kuchizi” aren’t white, whiteness is very much on the scene, from the spectators in Boston who hector Felix; to the “corporate chieftains” in Naples, furious over Felix’s refusal to wear the loin cloth; to the guests at the hotel who shriek for Carlos and the Butcher to have at it. All of these people box Carlos and Felix in, their concern only what they want these men to be, not who the men actually are.
Mama Aisha and her three lieutenants were initially created as send-ups of the “magical” black characters who sometimes appear in “white person abroad” stories. The twist in “Kuchizi” is that Mama Aisha is not only of this world, but has had to make concessions to this world to do what she wants to do, which is coach boxing. Her underlings, meanwhile, are so un-magical that they can’t even get the Butcher to stop coming to their gym.
The gymgoers at Terry Tucker’s are from varied racial backgrounds, and before Carlos’ trip they perceive him as they do not because of his race or ethnicity so much as because he’s socially unpleasant. Still, there is a racialized edge to the language in this section: Carlos “lurks.” Carlos “prowls.” Carlos is likened to a grizzly bear. The storm at the story’s end is Carlos’ chance to break free of their gaze, to break free of mine. Out to sea and off the page he goes.
In the “white person goes to Africa” story it is the protagonist who undergoes the most profound shift, but in “Kuchizi,” it is our perception of Carlos that changes more than our hero does. If it works, the reader leaves the story feeling as I did finishing the final draft, years after first trying to commit Carlos to the page. How foolish we’d been, to think that we knew him! This man so much bigger than our limited imaginations.
LUCAS SCHAEFER’s fiction has appeared in One Story. A graduate of the New Writers Project at UT-Austin, he has received a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center and has been a recent resident at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods and the Studios of Key West. He lives with his husband in Austin, where he is at work on a novel. Find him on Twitter @LucasESchaefer.