Notes on Tanya Shaffer’s Somebody’s Heart is Burning

A long-standing debate among travel-lit critics is the issue of perspective: Should travel authors involve themselves as active, changeable characters in their own narratives, or should they record their destinations at arm’s length, avoiding mention of themselves whenever possible? Many critics (especially British ones, it seems) insist that dispassionate objectivity is the proper way to write a travel book — claiming that a writer’s personal involvement in the story only clouds his ability to truly examine the places to which he travels. From a scholarly or journalistic standpoint this approach makes plenty of sense, but it also has an inherent weakness: In the process of ferreting out social, cultural and historical facts, objective travel writers usually fail to communicate the actual experience of travel amidst other cultures. After all, your typical traveler doesn’t spend all his time visiting libraries and arranging interviews — and this is why there will always be a need for travel books that draw us into an author’s personal experience of a place.

A new book that wonderfully evokes the subjective experience of travel is Tanya Shaffer’s Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Tale of a Woman Wanderer in Africa. Based largely upon a year spent as a volunteer worker in the West African country of Ghana, Shaffer’s stories read more like parables than journalism, gracefully bringing to life that tenuous zone where people of different cultures interact and try to understand one another. Like many veteran volunteers in Africa, Shaffer is a world-weary realist, but she readily admits the desire to be “knocked over the head by a sense of purpose.” She realizes that her work is futile at times, but she hopes it will nonetheless make her a better person. As she describes interactions with the Africans around her, she draws the reader into the simple mysteries that arise when working in an unfamiliar culture: Are the men she meets do-gooders or scam-artists? Is the na

Posted by | Comments (1)  | May 27, 2003
Category: Travel Writing

One Response to “Notes on Tanya Shaffer’s Somebody’s Heart is Burning

  1. Valerie Says:

    Yes, but in one sense it’s a bit of a false division, isn’t it? For instance, in the excerpts below from Chris Whetstone’s ‘Stories from Ouidah’ (not published) observation dominates, but what he has chosen to observe reveals his values, I think, and really ‘puts you there’. I like the stripped-down quality of his writing.

    Oh, for access to a scanner. Sorry about any typos.

    The flag of the small West African country of Benin was green with a small red star in the upper right corner, and every Monday to set the tone for the school week, the students and teachers gathered round the flagpole on four sides to watch the fading green cloth ascend. The pole was anchored in the center of a red cement star which rested on the sandy dirt of an empty field between the two long classroom buildings. Eight hundred students stood one Monday morning under the tropical sun, arranged in neat rows, all wearing their khaki uniforms, and many of the dark heads already shone with perspiration.


    Ragged looking trees with light green leaves grew randomly in the field between the classroom buildings. Every year the trees were hacked down brutally during weeding week. At the beginning of the academic year all students had to report to school with a hoe or a machete to tame the weeds that had grown up freely all over the campus but which were especially thick near the buildings and the vegetable garden. Over the summer break the heaviest rains and the wildest winds did their work, and the students’ first task of the year was to tidy up.


    About a half year later I met Ildevert {a student who had tried to commit suicide} one night on the open square where the French fort used to stand. The square during the day was busy and dusty with motorcycle taxi and minibus traffic. Women tressed each other’s hair in the shade of its trees, boys played little soccer games in the dirt, and vendors sat behind tables with round baskets of nearly piled oranges and French bread. At night the square was still busy, but dark, lighted by the slickering smoky flames of petrol lamps on the tables of women selling food or men selling coffee drinks. Around each table the faces gently glowed as around a campfire, andstepping away on a moonless night, one could barely see the ground. Motorcycle taxis came and went through the square, moving shafts of yellow light in the dusty air, and bicycles clattered through, too. Many young people sat around chatting in the comfortable dark. On such a night I rode my bicycle into town to buy some rice and beans for a later dinner. Children moved about the tables in the dark, picking up and washing dishes for the fat woman who served u food from her big pots. I was eating at her table when Ildevert arrived. I recognized his voice immediately as he ordered hs bowl of tapioca, sweet. He sat down not far away, and in a moment he had spotted my glow-in-the-dark skin. “Ah, Comrade Professor, you eat here? You don’t have a woman to make you food?”
    Everyone at the table looked at me as I shook my head.
    “No, well, that is not the end of the world. It is good to get out here since you have no one at home. That’s what I love about Benin. Maybe there is no money, but you can walk out here where there are always people and friends and get a good bowl of tapioca. I bet you couldn’t walk out at night under the stars and get a bowl of tapioca without getting shot over there shere you come from. No, Ilove living here. If only we had a little bit of money.”
    I stayed on talking with Ildevert some more. He ordered me a bowl of tapioca and it was delicious.