In mid-winter, 1968, I wandered into Discount Books & Records off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. and spotted a thin novel entitled Fong and the Indians. The author was Paul Theroux. The setting was Africa.
Theroux would write later of this novel, “I began writing about the Chinese man who ran the grocery store around the corner from where I lived in Wandegeya [in Kampala, Uganda] . . . The Chinese man, his grocery store, his Indian competitors, his African customers - these were my characters . . . I had written two novels before this, but Fong was the first piece of fiction that satisfied me.” Theroux would come back to this Chinese immigrant. In a New York TimesOp-Ed piece about Hong Kong (June 10, 1997), he mentioned again this lone Chinese family in Africa.
What Theroux was writing about was not Africa and Africans, but about the outsiders in Africa. The Chinese man in Uganda. The British ex-pat in Malawi. The colonialist in Mozambique. And yes, Peace Corps Volunteers.
These “displaced people” in Africa fired both his curiosity and his prose. They were the source of his famous scorn, off the written page as well as on it.