Author Elaine Neil Orr explores the turbulent civil rights movement in Winston-Salem in her new coming-of-age novel, “Swimming Between Worlds," while drawing on her own experiences living in Africa.
Orr was born in Nigeria in 1954, where her parents were stationed as medical missionaries. She spent most of her first 16 years in Ogbomosho, Nigeria, a big village with huge markets and no high-rise buildings. She spent occasional nine-month furloughs in the American South to attend school and one year in Winston-Salem from 1960 to 1961. She was just 6 years old.
Her personal story seems to provide inspiration in part to “Swimming Between Worlds,” which was published this week.
It's a love story about Tacker Hart, a high school football player who returns home after spending time in West Africa, and Kate, a young woman struggling with the loss of her parents. It’s also about their encounter with an African-American man named Gaines Townson who is figuring out his place in a world far from colorblind.
Orr, an English professor at N.C. State University, is the author of “A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa,” and the memoir, “Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life.”
As she sipped on a cold Dr Pepper, Orr talks about her love of the novel as a form, West Africa and Winston-Salem.
Q: It’s clear the novel was inspired by your own life growing up in West Africa and Winston-Salem, why did you chose to write a fictional account of that time period?
A: I’m enjoying fiction. It’s the major reason I fell in love with the novel as a genre and a form. I feel like sometimes fiction gets us closer to the heart of the matter because we can do research. We can learn beyond what our personal story has to tell about a period. Part of what I want to discover was what had been going on in the larger world in that blissful year I had in Winston-Salem. ... I’ve come to love the novel as a way to explore history.
Q: Swimming plays an important role in your novel. Could you talk about where the title, “Swimming Between Worlds” comes from?
A: It came from the end of the process. I had a difficult time titling my first novel and I had a difficult time with his one. My agent and I were talking on the phone … and she and I came up with this. The between worlds, I think, is autobiographical in many ways. It doesn’t just talk about Tacker Hart being between worlds or Gaines Townson being between worlds. It’s also about my being between worlds. …
We were trying to find something to capture the two worlds that characters are trying to bridge in the novel or that I’m trying to bridge in my writing. One of the things I’m always interested in is showing, whether subtly or directly, how West Africa is often ahead of the conversation. It’s important to show how Tacker was learning things in West Africa that he hadn’t found a way to learn in his own country.
Q: How does Tacker’s experience in West Africa frame his perception of the civil rights movement?
A: He begins to have close friendships and relationships with Nigerians. Now, he doesn’t make the automatic leap to understanding the oppression of African-Americans in his own country. He’s at least transformed and awakened enough when he comes back to the U.S. So when he encounters someone like Gaines, he has enough of an inkling about another way of seeing the world. So it’s plausible that he could be awakened to the injustice around him.
His Nigerian experience is a catalyst. That’s what I want it to be, that’s my intention. I want to bring him closer to seeing what’s going on in his own country. He doesn’t automatically see that. He still thinks in many of the ways he did before until he meets someone who challenges that. And that’s Gaines.
Q: What inspired your coming-of-age novel set during the civil rights era?
A: That’s a really good question. In many ways, it’s a question about process and how I write a novel. In this case, the first thing I decided was that wanted to set a novel in Winston-Salem. That’s because I wanted to write a North Carolina novel. … I didn’t even know who the characters were.
I did pretty early on conceive that I would have a young white man character, who lived in a house my family lived in. I did a Google search of Winston-Salem and 1959-60, and the first thing that came up was the civil rights movement. I thought, this is going to be the conflict.
Actually what’s in the characters and their own limitations are really the conflict. But I thought this is going to be the event that tests the characters, this is going to be the central event.
Elaine Neil Orr will talk about her novel, “Swimming Between Worlds,” (Berkley Trade Paperback Original, April 3, $16) at the following events.
▪ April 7, 11 a.m. at McIntyre’s Books, 220 Market St., in Fearrington Village in Pittsboro.
▪ April 11, 7 p.m. at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.
▪ April 17, 7 p.m. at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham.
▪ April 26, 6:30 p.m. at Page 158 Books, 415 Brooks St Unit B, Wake Forest.