Novelist Ponders Borders

Peter Orner writes about people seeking safety — or something — far from home.

An indigenous Guatemalan whose father has been murdered by government soldiers spends ten years in virtual slavery, held captive with his mother and sister in the home of a paramilitary officer — then sneaks away, heads north, and swims across the Rio Grande. A beautiful single mother, formerly an anti-Apartheid guerrilla fighter, seeks a return to intimacy in the arid heat of newly peaceful and independent Namibia. She has trysts with her American lover atop Boers’graves.

These are the kind of traumatized searchers — the first one flesh-and-blood, the second fictional — who fascinate Peter Orner. The Guggenheim and Lannan Foundation Fellow and San Francisco State associate professor of creative writing spent a year as a volunteer English teacher in Namibia during the early ’90s. This provided material for his Bard Fiction Prize-winning novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, in which a Midwestern-bred English teacher very much like himself ponders postcolonial growing pains, devastating drought, and the endless sands of the semidesert veld. Nights in the teachers’ dorm are agony during “whatever you call that even hotter time before summer starts because your skin wasn’t used to the night heat yet and the mosquitoes began their bloodlusty moaning … feverish because of the unbearably beautiful proximity of your flesh and yet the netting and the coils worked for the most part and the lust changed to frustration and you’d listen to their hunger for you rise and dissipate, rise and dissipate, until you sank into a sort of stupor. … And in the morning, the hopeful ones, the hangers-on, so exhausted from unrequited aches they were simple to kill, and so on hot mornings you’d hear, from every room in the singles’ quarters, the sound of joyous acrobatic whacking.”

Orner, who as part of the Contemporary Writers Series will read on April 8 in the Mills Hall Living Room at Mills College (5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland), also has a law degree. His experience representing undocumented workers and asylum seekers — such as Eduardo, the anguished Guatemalan — laid the groundwork for Underground America, a collection of oral histories that Orner edited. The third book in McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series, it’s due out in June. 5:30 p.m.


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