Paul Theroux: The Urge to Write (Malawi)

Paul Nelson (Malawi 1963-65) remembers that Paul Theroux was always writing while a PCV. As Nelson told me, “Paul on many occasions in Malawi would show up late or disappear or not show up at all because he was writing. I don’t think he let a day go by without writing—writing all sorts of things: poetry, essays, letters to the editor, short stories, novels. His discipline was remarkable. So the Peace Corps did not provide his motivation or discipline.”

The Peace Corps did, however, provide him was new experiences that enhanced his writing.

In the introduction of Sunrise with Seamonsters published in 1985, Paul writes about Africa and describes the moment when he realized he had a mother lode of material to write about.

“I remember a particular day in Mozambique, in a terrible little country town, getting a haircut from a Portuguese barber. He had come to the African bush from rural Portugal to be a barber. . . . This barber did not speak English, I did not speak Portuguese, yet when I addressed his African servant in Chinyanja, his own language, the Portuguese man said in Portuguese, ‘Ask the bwana what his Africans are like.’ And that was how we held a conversation — the barber spoke Portuguese to the African, who translated it into Chinyanja for me; and I replied in Chinyanja, which the African kept translating into Portuguese for the barber. The barber kept saying — and the African kept translating — things like, ‘I can’t stand the blacks — they’re so stupid and bad-tempered. But there’s no work for me in Portugal.’ It was grotesque, it was outrageous, it was the shabbiest, darkest kind of imperialism. I could not believe my good luck. In many parts of Africa it was the Nineteenth Century, and I was filled with the urgency to write about it.”

(And write about Africa, he did.)

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