by Stephen Mustoe (Kenya 1983–84)
Brevité is a collection of concise, imaginative stories that range widely in focus and spirit, from poignant to upbeat, unsettling to comical. In Acceptance a son struggles to deal with his mentally ill mother’s impending death. In Dogfish Blues and Blind Faith a young boy, later a teenager, survives hilarious yet terrifying adventures in the company of his outrageous uncle. Parallel Lives has an ailing man considering a series of malaria-induced recollections that might or might not be real. A young woman tries to make sense of a quirky accident that spared her life in Encounter. Each of my brief stories has its basis in either personal experience or an event related by a friend or acquaintance. Nevertheless they are all fictional works, which gave me liberty to make things up as I went along. And that was the truly enjoyable part.
I grew up in a small town north of Seattle, later moving to the green pastures of Harvard College and the University of Oregon. As much as I enjoyed creative writing, my more practical younger self chose to pursue degrees in economics instead. Alas, I lost interest in the dismal science after a few years. After exploring careers as a photographic salesperson, freelance photographer and bicycle mechanic I decided to follow my dream. I joined the Peace Corps at the ripe old age of thirty-two — and my life was changed immeasurably.
My two years in Kenya, teaching math in a village school, were rich with new experiences, new friends, new ways of viewing other cultures (including my own). Elation and depression were the twin emotions that dogged my days and nights. I did not keep a journal, relying instead on several thousand photographs to capture memories of my experience. Still, I wrote incessantly, chronicling my experiences in thin blue aerogrammes, my cursive so frugally small that one recipient had to use a magnifying glass to read them. Upon my return several friends presented me with stacks of my correspondence, a treasure trove that serves me well whenever I wish to place myself back in that challenging, emotionally turbulent world. Though I have returned to Kenya eight times since the end of my Peace Corps service, the experience is simply not the same. I still love the country, with all its quirks and frustrations, but I find myself longing for the experiential intimacy that only a Volunteer can embrace.
Three of the stories in this collection draw heavily on that time and place. Merrick of Batua is an amalgam of my own difficulty dealing with an unwelcome visitor and the experiences of a Volunteer I met only once, a man whose existence in the harsh Turkana region made me feel spoiled and sheltered. Theft is based loosely on an event that transpired during my second year in the village. Though the outcome in the story is different, my own sense of frustration and confusion is voiced by my protagonist. The idea for Vision came to me after chatting with a young optometrist who had spend several weeks bringing eyeglasses to schoolchildren in remote villages of western Kenya.
A fourth story, Parallel Lives, has a more tenuous link to my Volunteer days. While I did contract malaria in the Kakamega Forest, it occurred several years after I had left the Peace Corps. The idea of addressing conflicting, possibly imaginary recollections came from my own struggle to identify and ultimately reject false memories formed during the several days of high fever I endured before receiving medical attention.
My approach to creating these stories is perhaps closer to serial editing than creative writing. Invariably my first drafts are cumbersome, loquacious, loosely structured efforts that cry out for serious paring down. Repeated applications of the literary equivalent of Occam’s Razor (Can I replace two adjectives with one? Do I even need this sentence?) eventually leave me with a piece I am not embarrassed to share with others. Though most of my favorite authors are adept at creating lengthy illuminated passages, rich in descriptive language, that is not something I do well. I can only hope my readers will accept that limitation and appreciate the brevity I strive to achieve.