Interview by Gina Warren
JOHN ASHFORD volunteered in Botswana with the Peace Corps from 1990-1993. Upon his return, he earned a Certificate in Writing and Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. He has participated in critique groups and edited several nonfiction books. In addition to newspaper pieces, his story “The Boycott” appeared in the anthology, One by One, Thirty-one years of the Peace Corps in Botswana (1997). He has returned to Botswana twice and for several years has been at work on a book about travels in the Kalahari Desert. His nonfiction piece, “Topo,” appeared in Volume 6, Number 2 of Silk Road.
Read “Topo” here.
Gina Warren: When did you begin writing? Have you always written creative nonfiction?
John Ashford: I really began writing when I was in the Peace Corps. In the village where I lived in Africa, there weren’t many distractions and I had the time and personal space to write.I often used the time to sort out my thoughts. Some of my journal writing began to develop into a structure that felt comfortable. When I came back to the U.S., I enrolled in writing classes and, a few years ago, took a workshop on creative nonfiction led by Lee Gutkind, long time editor of the Creative Nonfiction journal. That was where I learned there was a name for some of the writing I’d done in the Peace Corps.
Before that, in college I’d written short stories, but none of them ever found a publisher. For several years, working as a teacher and librarian, my writing was technical, or for a professional purpose.
GW: Writing creative nonfiction sometimes requires a catalyst for a story, whether it’s an insight, reflection on an experience, prompt, or moment in time. What gave you the idea to write “Topo”?
JA: An excellent question. Much of my identification with Topo was a subjective experience beyond my ability to analyze. I felt a sense of empathy for him, in the recognition that here is a young man living a life with elements of tragedy, but he’s learning how to cope.
I think the catalyst you refer to can be a rather complex experience. As far as writing the story, my interest in Topo began with a mystery. Topo’s name on my class roster was Ketopoyaone, though everyone at the school used the shorter form, Topo. I asked an African teacher to translate the meaning of his name and was told it meant, ‘This is the child I requested from God’. I realized, here is a young boy, at birth he’s given this prayerful name. I asked myself, what happened during those years to create the kind of turmoil he was facing at age fifteen? I was never able to fully answer the question, but it provided a focus, and when Topo’s problems were discussed among the teachers, I paid attention and took notes that later became part of the narrative.
I should make a confession here. I’ve formed a habit over the course of a career working in schools and colleges. When I’m in a meeting, I jot notes on everything that’s being said. The habit comes from the need to keep myself awake during often boring meetings. But in this case, the subject of the meeting in the story shed light on Topo’s background and was helpful to me in understanding his story.
GW: Readers get a clear picture, not only of Topo, but of the narrator in this piece. What do you believe are some important aspects of characterizing yourself as a narrator?
JA: I am, obviously, a Western observer seeing the landscape and some of the events at the school from the point of view of a foreigner. As the observer, I filter information and describe the elements important in the story.
Readers will be aware that, although the story is mainly about Topo, there is this other character who narrates the sequence. Naturally, readers will want to know how this person finds himself wandering down a road in the Kalahari Desert reacting to the arid landscape and the misguided donkey cart. My interactions with the headmaster at the school make it clear that in some ways, I don’t quite fit in here. The ways that I am an outsider provide a certain kind of context for the narrative.
GW: What drew you to Botswana? Did any of your initial motivations, besides teaching, for going to Africa come through in this piece?
JA: Actually, the place was selected by the Peace Corps. They try to match skills and experience of volunteers with the needs of a country. So, that part was accidental from my point of view. But it was a happy accident because I love being in the desert. I live on the wet side of Washington State and I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the arid sections of the Pacific Northwest.
But another motivation was my need for change at the time. I’d worked at an administrative job for twenty years and when I started working with immigrant students, I found the experience very satisfying. Eventually, I made the decision to teach overseas and got the necessary experience and certification for teaching English as a Second Language. As it turned out, I found it very fulfilling to live in another culture with a different language, different reactions, mannerisms, way of life. It really stimulated my ability to observe. I began seeing everything around me in a new way and I’d like to think that quality comes through in the story.
GW: It seems that Topo would not have had the same respect for the teacher had he beaten him, and perhaps that Topo wouldn’t have been supported by his community if he was violent. What is the importance of not being a “whip wielder”?
JA: You’re correct to think that if Topo had been violent he would have been considered an outcast. Despite the problems in his life, I never saw Topo express anger or aggression. Actually, in the context of an African village, very seldom do people resort to violence. Villages are typically very safe in that respect. However, in schools, corporal punishment is used widely. I myself did not feel comfortable with the practice and made a decision not to use physical punishment to deal with student behavior.
In a situation where a school uses caning, one kind of misbehavior is treated the same as any other kind. I’d rather come to an understanding with students verbally. I think students gain maturity with adults in the process of talking about a problem.