A lot of friends thought I had lost my mind
when I announced plans to drag my two kids around the world for nearly half a
year. Maybe I had. But after my ex-wife moved 1,000 miles away to live with
her new girlfriend and my brother died of cancer, I imagined that a heroic
adventure might bring some clarity and healing to my otherwise shaky
existence. It wasn't as if I thought we could escape our losses by going to
Borneo. But it was arguably a little more distracting to obsess about pythons
and leeches than it was to stay home watching Grounded for Life. By the
time my children and I broke into a frenzied "monkey dance" on a
wilderness island in northern Australia the third week of our trip, I knew a
psychic convalescence had begun--for all of us.
I privately thought of our journey as a "before they're gone" tour.
The literal meaning was to visit amazing critters and places before humans maimed or destroyed them. The second was to spend time with my children before they left my reconfigured single father's nest. Lastly, the big "before they're gone" loomed especially large: after witnessing my brother's death at forty-eight, I knew viscerally there were no guarantees about how long any of us would be around. It was time to do something drastic, and I nominated an epic road trip.
Q: Okay, Ill bite. Whats monkey dancing?
A: I dont suppose I could tell you to read the book?
Q: I promise to read the book even if you tell me.
A: I can live with that. "Monkey dancing" was actually my son Kolyas expression. We had been backpacking on a wilderness rainforest island in Australia for four days, and camped our last night on a deserted white sand beach. After dinner, the kids called me to join them near waters edge, and the two of them jumped me. We began a raucous three-way tag-team wrestling match that mostly involved the kids running kamikaze at me and me tossing them to the sand like a benevolent King Kong. It was a wonderful, warm, tropical night, and without a word, we started a kind of simian step, hunching our shoulders up and down and dragging our knuckles on the fine sand. The three of us peered at each other with cocked heads, and started making monkey sounds. We started moving slowly, almost in a circle, then faster, and faster, with more abandon and less inhibition. Soon we were dancing wildly along the beach, rolling around, jumping and screaming. Kolya dubbed it "monkey-dancing."
Q: Why make that the books title?
A: I guess it just became a metaphor for the trip. Monkey dancing meant wild abandon, it meant adventure, it meant the three of us creating something new together. When our first spontaneous monkey dance erupted on that Australian beach, three weeks or so into the trip, I took it as a sign that something remarkable was being born: a new family of three.
Q: Good lead in to my next question. After your divorce, your wife moved a thousand miles away. A year later your brother died of breast cancer. A lot of people would have crawled under the covers and started hoarding Prozac. You decided to go to Borneo. Why?
A: After a treacherous passage through the past few years, a long, open-ended journey had beckoned to me like a Sirens song. Hitting the road had always served me in times of transition as an entrée into a reflective trance, as a tool of personal reinvention, as literal and metaphorical escape. For much of my life, I had sought psychic salve in the thrill of discovery amidst wild, unfamiliar places, and among unpredictable traveling companions. Borneo certainly qualified as wild and unfamiliar, and my two children effortlessly supplied the unpredictability.
Q: How about your concerns for your daughter when she freaked out after seeing the python and pit viper?
A: I realized the irony that as I was trying to show my kids more about the natural world, at times I made them a little more fearful of it. Leeches, mosquitoes, scorpions and poisonous snakes arent the earths most cuddly creatures. We did, however, see koala bears, kookaburras, wallabies, cassowaries, kangaroos, rhinos, elephants, mongooses, orangutans, macaques, proboscis monkeys, and other pretty cool animals.
The truth is, I'd be lying if I said the trip wasn't challenging. Of course I was concerned about my kids fears of the unknown and unfamiliar. Kids are full of fears, as we all are. Snakes and voracious jungle predators that make little girls disappear without a burp can be scary. I grappled with my fears that the kids would contract malaria or get lost in Phnom Pehn. If youre asking, "Did I ever consider calling the whole thing off?" the answer is, "Yes, several times." But that feeling never lasted long, and now I think the kids are very proud of themselves for doing what we did. So am I. One thing I hope to teach my kids is to make peace with their fears, to stare them in the eye without blinking. Even with that fatherly advice, however, Zoe still makes me look under the bed for googly-monsters before I say good night.
Q: What about after September 11? Did you feel safe being Americans abroad?
A: The response after 9/11 was universally heart-warming. We were in Singapore, and a couple days later we headed for Vietnam. People expressed outrage at the terrorist attacks, and solidarity with the U.S. We were made to feel very much a part of the world community. As the weeks and months went by, though, some people shared their concerns about President Bushs apparent disdain for world opinion. I grew very fearful myself, since our country was being guided through perilous international waters by a man who had spent less time abroad than my nine-year-old daughter.
Q: Can we talk a little about writing? Youve been predominantly a newsmagazine journalist, and your first book was an investigation of a true crime story, the so-called "ecoterrorism" attacks at Vail ski resort in 1998. What is it like writing such a personal story?
A: Talk about scary. In twelve years of working for Newsweek, I used the pronoun "I" exactly twice. Its daunting writing about people I know, about my family, about my own losses and failings. But I realized early on that this book had to be as honest as possible in order to work, so I guess I had to stare my own fears down, too. You may have noticed that I did manage to slip in some old-fashioned environmental reporting about the perilous condition of coral reefs, orangutans, Javan rhinos, and tigers.
Q: You write about your brother, about environmental issues, about parenting, about relationships, about your own inner and outer journeys. The book covers a lot of ground. Where do you think this book belongs in bookstores, anyway?
A: On the must-read, innovative non-fiction, travel, memoir, parenting, environmental table, of course. The book does cover a lot of ground, and my hope is that it will draw people into a genre they might not ordinarily visit. Obviously one main narrative thread is about our literal odyssey around the world: We went to some truly memorable places and met some incredible people. The book is a memoir as well, since I do draw on my own experiences growing up in Africa with my brothers, as well as being with my older brother as he was dying. As I said before, theres also some straightforward journalism about our troubled relationship with the natural world. I cant really say its a self-help book, but I hope that some people might find courage and solace from my journey through loss and grief towards something like hope and redemption. And lastly, Im betting that anybody who is a parent will find some hilariously familiar and thought-provoking lessons here.
Q: Have the kids read it?
A: As far as I know, just a few parts. They of course offered up their journal entries. If they do read it, theyll learn a few things about their father they didnt know. My hope is that theyll see it on some level as a love letter from their dad.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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