RPCV Malawi (1996-98) Ben East was shortlisted among ten finalists for the Dundee International Book Prize for his manuscript Sea Never Dry.
The novel began as a short story about crooked cops and drug trafficking in West Africa, originally published as “One Dead Cop” in 2012 by Umbrella Factory Magazine. Two years later, the story centers on development efforts in the region and the corrupt officials, tribal politics, and black magic that undermine progress there. Sea Never Dry is thick with spies, cops, and fetish priests, crooks, Internet fraudsters, and the unlucky Ghanaian orphans turning a buck on Accra’s e-waste ash heaps.
As a Volunteer Ben taught English in southern Malawi, and has spent nearly two decades working on various teaching and diplomatic assignments in Africa, the Middle East, and throughout the Americas. A Connecticut native, he recently returned to the United States where he lives in Virginia with his wife and two sons. His fiction and reviews have appeared in The Foreign Service Journal, Atticus Review, and Peace Corps Writers. He compiles his work at http://www.benonbooks.wordpress.com/.
The nine other shortlisted works for this year’s prize, from debut novelists in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States, are: “A Village Drowned” by Sheena Lambert of Dublin; “Some Things the English by Rachel Fenton of Auckland, New Zealand; “Ida” by Amy Mason of Bristol; “Daughters of the House of Love” by Veronica Birch of the West Country; “Under the Tamarind Tree” by Rosaliene Bacchus of California; “The Open Arms of the Sea” by Jasper Dorgan of Wiltshire; “The Dreaming” by Suzy Norman of London; “Out Like a Lion” by Robin Martin of New York; and “Cats in a Pipe” by Lora Hughes of Yorkshire.
Over 400 entries were submitted for the 2014 prize, a collaboration between the University of Dundee, Cargo Publishing and Dundee City Council’s “One City Many Discoveries” campaign. The shortlist will be whittled to three finalists before the winner is announced during the annual Dundee Literary Festival in October. Extracts of the top 10 will shortly be published in print and e-book formats.
Author Neil Gaiman and broadcaster Kirsty Lang are among the judges for the prize, which includes a book deal and £10,000, the largest cash award for unpublished work in the UK.
Here is the opening chapter of Ben’s book, Sea Never Dry.
from SEA NEVER DRY
by Ben East
Kerri tried making Africa just another continent, a forgotten place very far away. But Africa would not let go.
First there were the Jamaican migrants who passed her father’s farm each warm summer dusk. She sat on the porch, baseball on the radio, and watched those sons of Africa in broken footwear move up the road to the Extra Mart. There they purchased Slim Jims and pints of rum to liven up the watery beer rationed by the screws at the Colbro brothers’ tobacco farm. They needed the booze after broiling afternoons bending their backs beneath the tobacco nets, slave labor in brutal heat. Their appearance each summer was a fact she’d grown up with. Their continued presence was the only thing about Scarborough that hadn’t changed during her twenty months away.
Later came the call from Fitch, an opportunity to help Otoo and Patience start new lives out from under the clouds of violence, destitution, and sorrow that threatened their homeland.
And finally, today, the envelope by special courier, the offer from Bosche to return to Ghana.
The older aid workers had warned Kerri that adjusting to life back home would be more difficult than the initial adjustment to life abroad. And Kerri’s readjustment carried an added burden: the stigma of her expulsion. How bitter she felt, to be singled out for punishment by a country that had abandoned all restraint after the coup as the Masters of the new Republic settled grievances with those of the old. What had she done that the U.S. government – and who knew which other governments – hadn’t also done? How many families separated, father’s jailed, mothers and daughters sent to witches camps, thanks to foreign intervention? How many arms hacked short? Yet Kerri alone was renounced by her country, in a statement to the press:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
The U.S. Embassy in Ghana is aware of reports that a U.S. national is being held under suspicion of drug trafficking and corrupting the morals of a minor. While we encourage a justice system based on transparency, fairness, and a full investigation of the facts, we also reject criminal behavior of any kind, and we reject reports that tie the accused to the U.S. government.
The brevity of the statement served as a counterpoint to the gallons of ink the Ghanaian tabloids poured into her arrest. Articles recounted testimony from her co-workers calling her a bad nurse, a harlot, a witch. This last they proved by telling of the spells she uttered to save the lives of patients who later vomited toads, grew warts on their tongues, and faded into black death. The tabloids revived Alma’s story, emphasizing Kerri’s connection to the murdered street orphan who dared rise above her station. Worse than these slanders, the ever-present photos of Otoo Ofori, beaten, starved, washed out by photo flash, eyes big with fear.
Her father came out to the patio, a tinkling pitcher of lemonade in hand. His eyes, old vaults for secrets, sparkled with humor. The colonel remained big even after the loss of his wife, grown more powerful from working the farm. Dressed in jeans and plaid and boots, he looked as much a beam of the rustic old home as a retired warrior with an archive of Special Forces secrets to haunt his dreams.
“Not much left of summer,” he said. He spoke without judgement, sitting back in the wooden Adirondack. But living with a man who said little had taught Kerri to interpret, and she heard toughness in his words. His comment was meant to push her, to keep her from the same paralysis that first consumed him when his wife passed. “Anything you want to talk about?”
“No, daddy.” She felt good, calling him that. She flapped the overleaf of the envelope.
“You can go back to work at the hospital.”
“Those cynics?” The crowd cheered a hit on the radio.
“Back to school, then. You know you have to do something.”
“Help you in the wood shop?”
“What time you want to leave for the airport?” He deferred the answer. She knew she was welcome for as long as she needed it. But he wasn’t going to say so. It wasn’t what he wanted for her.
“Their flight lands at 10:30,” she said.
When he came out of his thoughts he said, “You don’t have to leave. Ever. This place is yours. Theirs, too. And you can do this for them. I’m happy for you to do it. Proud, even. It’s what your mother and I did when we adopted you and your sister. But I could only do that after following my heart and answering my own call. You will also have to do something for yourself. Follow your calling. Make things right between yourself and the world.”
The sea-wash of radio baseball filled a period before she said, “That’s right, daddy. I know what it is.” She handed him the envelope. “It’s just sooner than I wanted.”
He took the envelope with a knotted hand. He paused at the Langeley address, let out a breath. His head bobbed as he read. “Want me to take you down?”
“I’ll go by train.”
“What about the kids?” she asked.
He looked at her, eyebrow cocked, forehead wrinkled. “Like I said. Summer’s almost gone. I’ll need lots of help and young energy around the farm.”
During the long drive to meet the orphans at Newark Liberty, he shared his secrets. More than before, anyway. It was startling, then comforting, to learn of his role in her recruitment. They addressed the windscreen of the rattling pickup, a mirror filtering their conversation as they watched the road.
“When your country calls, it’s still your right to decide whether or not you want to give. Whatever you decide, make the decision that is right for you. I’m proud of you, regardless.”
“Have you been called to serve again?”
His reflection ducked and she knew the answer: he continued to serve. Part of his service was letting them have his daughter. She also learned the secret between old spooks. Some parts of their work remained forever private.