Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send? And who will go for us? And I said, Here am I. Send me. –Isaiah 6:8
What is the nature and source of faith? Can faith be taught and learned? What does faith demand of the faithful? These questions lie at the heart of Elaine Orr’s debut novel, A Different Sun, a vividly imagined account of one of the earliest Southern Baptist missions to West Africa. With this book, Orr joins such writers as Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) and Elizabeth Strout (Abide With Me) in crafting fully realized fiction that reflects on the vicissitudes and wonders and complexities of a life devoted to ministry.
I confess that I came to Orr’s book with a limited understanding of missionary life. As a child, I sometimes accompanied my Southern Baptist grandmother on mission trips—not to foreign lands but in our town. My grandmother carried out her work on foot, traipsing up and down the oak-lined streets of her little mill village to collect and distribute sacks of food and clothes for the needy. Most neighbors invited her into their homes and listened politely while she testified. Others—the poorest, it seemed—wanted none of her charity and had no time for her testimony. She was never embarrassed. I, on the other hand, was squeamish. As much as I admired my grandmother’s commitment to helping others—like her, I wanted a life of service and even briefly entertained her notion that I should become a foreign missionary—I had trouble with the idea of exporting religious faith.
Emma Davis Bowman, the protagonist of A Different Sun, longs for such an opportunity. The daughter of a wealthy Georgia planter, she grows up rooted in Christianity. From an early age, Emma takes her faith seriously and understands its implications for her home and community. She agonizes over the condition of slaves on her father’s plantation. In one brief, affecting scene, she watches her father send nine-year-old Hannah, a girl her own age, into the field to work:
“Go on,” her father said, and Hannah turned, her dress slipping down one shoulder. Something fell away. Emma wanted to cry, not weep, but cry, like the Bible says: someone crying in the wilderness.
Later she attends a revival where she responds to the smooth-voiced minister’s call “to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior” by dashing to the altar, nearly stumbling in her hurry.
Though her family discourages her, Emma insists on attending college, where she decides to become a teacher—a decision she experiences as a religious calling. “As far back as I can remember,” she writes in her journal, “I have felt something amiss, whether in myself or in the world. I am no more perfect today than I was yesterday. But as God calls, I follow.”
She approaches the local minister for permission to start a Sunday school for slave children and defends herself to her disapproving father: “Our slaves might at least look forward to heaven if we instructed them in scripture.” She announces her ambition to be a missionary, arguing that she can “at least teach children to read and write.” She has a particular interest in Africa, where the old slave she knows as Uncle Eli was captured in his youth. But in 1853, foreign mission work is not available to her as a single woman.
She meets Henry Bowman, a former Texas Cavalryman-turned-missionary, when he visits her church. Henry is about to embark on his second African mission and needs a wife—a practical helpmate, someone to nurse him through recurrent bouts of illness, to help him resist his lust for African women. Henry is twenty years older than Emma, lean, dark-haired, and fiercely handsome—“prettier” than most of the women he has known. Emma is big-featured and plain. She is a sexual innocent; Henry has a scandalous history. “I was a wicked young man on the Texas prairie,” he confesses to Emma. “Do you understand what I mean?”
She took this to mean more than killing Mexicans. … Being courted by such a man put Emma in a new relation to herself. She was now attractive. And wasn’t the man before her like the apostle Paul, a wicked man who had seen the light?
Having renounced God as a young man witnessing the untimely death of his mother, Henry is now making up for lost time. His religious calling has about it a sick feverishness; he is less focused on serving others than on atoning for his corrupt past. But for all their differences, Henry and Emma need one another. They marry and depart the slaveholding South to carry the gospel to West Africa—an irony not lost on Emma.
Africa tests them individually and as a couple. Emma comes of age in a vast, searing landscape where she is isolated by language, culture, religion, and even by her marriage, which is as strange to her as Africa. Henry is often away; not content to build a single church but determined to expand the mission northward, he regularly sets out on scouting expeditions, leaving Emma behind. When he is home, he struggles with poor health and frightful bouts of madness. Emma eventually turns for comfort to his African assistant, Jacob, who is everything Henry is not: young, vital, self-possessed, and present. Over time, Emma’s longing for Jacob intensifies into possessiveness, a feeling that shames her much as she is shamed by her family history of owning slaves.
In her isolation, Emma instinctively reaches for God. Her prayers are passionate and purely felt. In these sacramental moments, she is subtly transformed. She learns humility.
Henry’s faith, by contrast, is rigid and desperate. He is hell-bent on converting others—specifically, Muslims in the North—as a way of redeeming himself. He is also frustrated that Emma does not understand “the imperative posed by the Mohamedans. He was pressed by time. So much of his life behind him. The Kingdom of God yet to be won.” His relentless ambition nearly destroys him.
But in Orr’s fictional world, redemption is an ever-glimmering possibility. And for these characters, one way to redemption is through language. Henry and Emma share a deep reverence for the power and sanctity of the written word. For all his overzealousness, Henry has a genuine interest in the language and culture of Africa. He compiles a Yoruba dictionary. His careful collection and translation of African words has a holiness about it that is absent from his preaching. The work also sets him on a brotherly footing with his assistant, Jacob, a former slave.
Emma, too, finds grace in language. She keeps a journal throughout the novel, distilling her faith into words. Forgive my papa. Forgive me. Watch out for Uncle Eli. Henry’s wedding gift to her is an elegant wooden writing box that holds her diary. The writing box accompanies her throughout her travels, a touchstone in her brightest and darkest moments.
The author took her inspiration for the novel from the actual diary of Lurana Davis Bowen, the first female Southern Baptist missionary to Africa. “In this young woman’s diary I found sentences so compressed they seemed nearly to explode,” Orr writes. This tension fuels A Different Sun, which is a nuanced, compelling elaboration on Lurana Bowen’s terse document. The novel owes its authenticity not only to Orr’s meticulous research but also to her own African upbringing as the child of medical missionaries in Nigeria, a country she still considers her spiritual home.
In a recent email conversation, I asked if she had ever considered returning to Africa as a missionary.
ENO: Early in my marriage, when my husband and I were trying to decide what to do with our lives, a friend suggested we go to Africa as missionaries. My husband said, no way. He was right, of course. I didn’t want to be a missionary. I wanted to go home to Nigeria. And perhaps I wanted a missionary life, but only the parts after work, such as playing tennis in the afternoon, going to swim in a beautiful river, going to the night market, wearing light cotton dresses all the time. And the drives through the country. And living in an African culture: hearing the music, seeing the cloth, the women’s beautiful hair; talking with Nigerians. The trees, the smells. All of it. I never really wanted to be a missionary.
KC: How did your parents’ missionary work shape your own faith and work?
ENO: The most significant messages my parents gave to me, and that their lives showed me, were: (1) you are talented; you can do anything, and (2) make the world better. This message took me some time to figure out since my talents and my desire tended toward the artistic and, I thought, not the useful. My mother was a nurse, a teacher. My father was a businessman and administrator. They were clearly helping people by being medical missionaries. I compromised by following the path of a Ph.D. and university teaching rather than an MFA and poetry (which is where I started in creative writing). After publishing two scholarly books and getting promoted to full professor, I could return to “poetry”: the literary arts, in memoir and fiction. I love teaching and I love writing. It wasn’t a bad compromise.
My parents’ lives and work caused me to see faith as action. They were not very evangelical. Instead, they rather humbly went about training Nigerians to run their own hospitals. There is no doubt that Jesus is at the center of my religious sensibility and that I see him in the same light: as a helper, healer, teacher, and (thank goodness) story-teller, and thus, in a sense, an artist. The parables are the remnant I seek to live by, my moral compass. But Nigeria also deeply influenced my spiritual experience. I feel the presence of divinity in trees, hills, rivers, crossroads. When I visit Nigeria now, I feel God more intensely than anywhere else. So it’s not just any tree that houses God. It’s the frangipani, the palm, the baobab.
KC: You’ve said you wrote this book on “bonus time.” Tell me more about that and how you think it affected your writing process.
ENO: In 2000, I received two organ transplants: a pancreas and a kidney. They came from an eighteen-year-old donor who had died. Two and a half years earlier, I had been diagnosed with end-stage renal disease and I had been on dialysis all that time. With these two new organs, I no longer suffered either disease. The window opened. I had a new life. It was then that I returned to creative writing. The first thing I wanted to do was write the story of my African life, which I did. [Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life, University of Virginia Press, 2003]. And what I learned was that writing could be a magic carpet, carrying me back home.
About the time I started writing A Different Sun, I told my doctor I was afraid “the window might start closing.” I meant that my organs might fail. He said, “Quite the opposite. You’ve gotten this far. The window is just going to keep opening.” That gave me the confidence to take my time with the novel. The transplants and my new health renewed my faith in life. I didn’t worry that I had never written a sentence of fiction. Miracles seemed to be quite possible now. In fact, I began to imagine that as long as I was writing, I couldn’t die. Of course I knew better. But I thought: I won’t really care. The thing is to keep writing. It’s what I was made for. So I revised and revised and revised again. I wanted the novel to be the best I could make it: my second letter to the world, after my memoir.
KC: To me, this book reads as if divinely inspired, as if it were the book you were meant to write. Did it feel that way?
ENO: I think A Different Sun is a novel few other people could have written. My life began at the crossroads of Yoruba culture (in southwestern Nigeria, where my characters travel) and missionary life. My “head” (the Yoruba equivalent of “soul”) is shaped by my life in that country. I guess I had a mission, though not quite like my parents’, and that was to show the light in Africa, and to show it through a particular ethnic group, and, if not to redeem the image of missionaries in fiction, at least to give them their due. What that required was simply to treat them as human beings rather than stereotypes. In a sense I am inspired to show my world just as Lee Smith is inspired to show Appalachia or Chinua Achebe is inspired to show Igboland—not to make all the characters good and the women beautiful, but to offer that world in all its dimensions. There were moments when the work felt divinely inspired—for example, when I would create an object in the novel, such as the writing box where Emma keeps her diary, and then in my research the item would show up. It was as if I had dreamed a world into being. And it became the most real world I could imagine.
Elaine Neil Orr was born in Nigeria. Her Yoruba name, Bamidele, means "follow me home" and most of her fiction and memoir takes readers to West Africa. She also writes about her second home, the American South. In memoir and fiction, she writes richly about the natural world, complex human relationships, and spiritual longing.
Kim Church's her first novel, Byrd, was released by Dzanc Books in March 2014. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has received grants from the North Carolina Arts Council and fellowships at Millay Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she divides her time between writing and law. Visit her online at www.kimchurch.com.