It was a hot, hot day in May 2000 when Tony D’Souza arrived at a Muslim village in the north of the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire. All 700 villagers set down their tools and crowded around the young Peace Corps volunteer. In the chief’s courtyard, D’Souza sat on a stool and, according to custom, avoided looking the chief in the eye, addressing him only through a go-between. After a half-hour interview during which the entire village-even the dogs-pressed around D’Souza, the chief allowed D’Souza to be led to his hut at the edge of the village beside a forest.
"I had a mat, put it down on the floor, and slept on it for two-and-a-half years," says D’Souza, now 31.
To the villagers among whom he lived, dispensing AIDS education, D’Souza was "whiteman." The title-now the name of the novel he has written based on his experiences in the Peace Corps in Côte d’Ivoire-is an ironic one.
D’Souza, now a Sarasota resident, spent much of his childhood painfully aware of being the only biracial kid in mostly white Park Ridge, Ill. His mother, a white American Peace Corps volunteer, met his father, the son of the chief of police, in Goa, India, when she was teaching women there how to make smokeless stoves. The couple settled in Chicago; and whether it was inherited from his mother or nurtured by the urge to escape the parochial confines of Park Ridge, D’Souza grew up with a wanderlust that has sent him to far corners of the globe.
Whiteman, which will be published by Harcourt in April, is D’Souza’s debut novel; and it sparked a frenzy when it was put up for sale, with five publishers vying for it. The New Yorker published a chapter in September, and Playboy will publish another chapter in April. The novel is about a young American named Jack who works for an organization named Portable Water International. He comes to Cote d’Ivoire shortly after 9/11, but the funding is cut for the program he was supposed to run, so he spends most of his time just getting to know the village and its people.
"I didn’t want to write a Peace Corps book," says D’Souza. "Lots of Peace Corps books romanticize the Third World, talk about the people over there being better than we are. That’s insulting to the people and to us here in America."
The book’s premise is autobiographical, but D’Souza says that he took plot points from real incidents and anecdotes and then attached "what if" scenarios to them. Club Des Amis, the chapter The New Yorker published, is about a Chinese man, Wu, whom Jack befriends. Wu-as much a foreigner as Jack in this dusty African town-loses his son to Africa but launches a desperate search for the mixed child of his son and a village girl. D’Souza knew the person on whom Wu is based; however, the story takes on its own life.
The novel is bookended by violence. D’Souza arrived in Côte d’Ivoire three days before soldiers took over a highway and started shooting travelers, and the violence escalated until he was forced to leave in September 2002, when bloody civil unrest and factional violence culminated in a failed coup d’état.
"The war will probably be the most interesting part of the book for people," says D’Souza, reluctantly. "I didn’t want to write about that. That’s the Africa we know, that everyone has written about, from Conrad to Hotel Rwanda. Unfortunately, that became my Africa as well. The book opens and closes with violence, but the long stretch in between is about the joy of life in West Africa."
D’Souza had traveled widely before, starting with a bicycle ride through Alaska immediately after high school and stints in Europe after college. He worked in construction and on fishing boats in Scotland, and studied German-with a number of mail-order brides-in Germany. Soon after he returned to the United States, his father unexpectedly died. D’Souza was devastated by the loss, but he says it also gave him the freedom to write. His father, a practical Indian immigrant, had urged D’Souza to find a secure profession; writing was not something he encouraged as a full-time job. After his death, D’Souza obtained his master’s degree from Hollins University and an M.F.A. from Notre Dame University.
And then, in the tradition of the storytellers he most admired (Hemingway leads the list) D’Souza decided to travel and tell stories. The Peace Corps allowed him to do so and gave him insurance, so off he went to West Africa. There he immersed himself in his tiny village, with no toilets, no running water and no electricity.
"I loved it," he says. "I felt alive. I felt important. It was an adventure every single day."
D’Souza lived in his hut and visited each family daily. They soon became familiar with their whiteman, and he grew so accustomed to their ways that when he caught sight of himself in a mirror during rare trips to Abidjan, he was shocked by both the changes his new life had wrought in him-he was thinner now, darker-and by the forgotten fact that he was a foreigner. He grew his own crops, protecting them from marauding wild bush rats with a shotgun, and when a logging company came one day and chopped down the trees at the perimeter of the village, he ran out waving his gun, as outraged as if they had attacked his own land. Though D’Souza is not religious, he respected both his Muslim villagers’ Friday prayers and the potions and charms of his neighbor, the local witch doctor.
Beyond the village, though, ethnic fighting between tribes and religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims were intensifying. D’Souza remembers visiting the nearby town of Daloa, a commercial crossroads through which much of the country’s cocoa and cotton passes. While strolling in a market, he saw a group of young men with painted faces chanting and walking in his direction, armed with machetes and nail-studded two-by-fours. D’Souza hid in the bushes with other frightened townsfolk, and later learned that the gang abducted and killed 12-year-old Muslim boy shortly afterwards. He grew accustomed to the sound of gunfire and learned to be wary of the powerful, terrifying roar of a mob.
It was exactly the type of life that D’Souza, in his earlier innocence, had thought he would want to experience.
"What was alluring to me as an artist was that the books I loved the most centered on violence," he says. "Hemingway wrote about going to war, seeing if you were a brave person. Well, I got my war. And I realized what a foolish wish it was, because the price of war is so high. Did I learn if I was brave? Yeah, I did, and I’m proud of that. But I’d rather not know."
Matters came to a head in September 2002, when military troops mutinied and wrested control of the northern and mostly Muslim part of the country and murdered the former president, General Robert Guei, who himself had seized power in a military coup in 1999. D’Souza was visiting a friend’s village the day it happened, and the radio, which villagers powered with old car batteries to listen to Brazilian or Mexican soap operas, died ominously. Rumors of attacks and violence began to fly. D’Souza walked to the nearest city, where he and other Peace Corps volunteers holed up in a safe house with nothing, not even food, for a week. Finally, they bribed officials to get out of the city, and set off on a hellish daylong march in pouring rain with refugees, enduring checkpoint after checkpoint manned by belligerent soldiers.
"We had a dog we wanted to take through," D’Souza recalls. "At one point, we ran out of money, and these soldiers were really tense. They took the dog and said, ‘We’ll shoot the dog.’ I said, ‘You can shoot me first.’ For a few heartbeats, I thought that was going to be the end. But I had had enough."
D’Souza and his fellow volunteers made it across the war zone and to a hotel in Ghana. From there, many of his colleagues flew back to America, but D’Souza didn’t join them. He was disturbed by the trauma of his experiences and confused about what to do next. The Peace Corps closed the Côte d’Ivoire program, but D’Souza joined other volunteers in Madagascar, where they reopened an orphanage. Racked by worry about his Côte d’Ivoire friends and consumed by reports of massacres there, he was unable to face the thought of returning to the United States.
"I was looking for something," he says. "I was looking for a place where people are good to each other. And they were good to each other in my village. They were bad, too, but mostly they were good."
Searching, angry, depressed, he wandered through Africa, from South Africa to Uganda. He risked, almost courted, danger by straying into newly ravaged Zimbabwe and even asking border guards at Burundi and the Congo to let him in.
"By Kampala, my money was gone. I knew I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for," he says.
So he returned to the United States and stayed at his mother’s Sarasota home, watching CNN and feeling depressed. He was shocked by the decadence of America-the abuse of fossil fuels, the abundance of technology, driving everywhere when he was used to walking and growing his own food. A fellow Côte d’Ivoire volunteer who was teaching in California invited D’Souza to move out there, and he got a job teaching creative writing at Shasta College. He wrote short stories and poetry, and eventually started to write about Africa.
He struggled until he found a fictional organization for his protagonist to be a part of, and once he had established Portable Water International, the novel took off. D’Souza taught four classes, came home and wrote for six, eight, 10 hours, passionately pouring out the story of his time in Africa. He drew on people he had met and situations he had experienced or witnessed, then took them further. In six months he had a book, and this spring he’ll be doing a national book tour.
For now, he’s living in Sarasota, spending time with his mother and sister, writing his second novel and applying for teaching positions for next year. He’s coming to terms with his success and with the party invitations from the young social set in Sarasota (with whom he’s not quite comfortable).
"I’m still nervous about the financial future," he says. "I’ve worked hard, and I’m going to keep working hard. For now, I’m just trying to relax and say, OK, I’m OK."
D’Souza says he may go to India next, to get to know that country in a more profound way and to learn his father’s language. But he’s not ready to revisit Africa, not yet. Writing the book was not the catharsis he thought it would be; the images of everything he saw remain too vivid today. And when you ask him whether he’s made contact with his friends in the war zone in Côte d’Ivoire, the neighbors and families with whom he lived for two years, his pain shows through.
"No," he says flatly. "I tried. I haven’t heard from one single person."