In her haunting first novel, Slim, Ruth Linnea Sauer Whitney ’65 explores the AIDS epidemic in Africa in the 1980s and the lives of eight people touched by it, examining themes of lust, betrayal, God, and hope, along the way. The title of the book comes from the Africans’ word for the disease. “The African way is to use a descriptive term—in this case what happens when people are languishing and melting away,” Whitney says.
Whitney, who lives with her husband in Port Townsend, Wash., spoke with Arches about the book, her years in Africa, the AIDS crisis today, and how writing helps her “make my way in the world.”
Interview by Andy Boynton
Arches: What is Slim about?
Whitney: On one level, of course, it’s about the beginning of the AIDS crisis in sub- Saharan Africa. But I ran into a woman on the street who had read it, and she said, “I don’t see it as being about AIDS so much as about soul.” And that’s sort of how I view it. It’s really about two Africas. It’s about contemporary Africa in postcolonial chaos, and it’s about an older Africa that has wisdom and magic. It’s about how the two come together, linked by this illness.
You spent a couple of years in Africa?
My husband is an orthopedic surgeon. When he was in his last year of residency, he came home and said, “You know, I heard about this American who started a hospital with the president of Zaire.” I’d never heard of Zaire. They were looking for Western-trained physicians. We went over there for two years, in the mid-70s.
When we first got there, he was one of two orthopedists in a city of 2 million. When we left, I remember we were driving away in our taxi, and he just wept. There was no one to replace him.
Have you traveled elsewhere?
We’ve been back to Africa; we went to Malawi twice. My husband’s a Vietnam vet, so we went to Vietnam—we’ve been there twice. That was a very healing experience. I think it’s something that would be very good for all Vietnam vets to do. I taught English there as a second language to the nurses and doctors. That was very rewarding. Then we’ve been to St. Lucia in the Caribbean. And Indonesia.
Your husband was doing work in these countries?
He’s involved in a program called Orthopedics Overseas. It’s strictly volunteer. The basis of the program is teaching the locals to do this work.
Why did you write this book?
For me, place came first. Slim is the fourth novel I’ve written; the first to be published. The others are in a drawer somewhere. Two of those are also set in Africa.
AIDS came second.
When we were first there, AIDS was present, although we didn’t know it. No one did. Then we heard about a Danish surgeon from Kinshasa at a different hospital who had died of an unknown illness. They saved her blood and later tested it, and she was found positive for HIV.
When we returned in 1987, we could see signs of the illness. But the government was in deep denial. Nobody was talking about it.
Knowing we’d worked at the epicenter of this terrible oddity provided a shock of recognition that moved me to go deeply into the subject of AIDS. It’s the “but for the grace of God” feeling.
The story is told through several protagonists. Did you choose that method for any particular reason, or is that just the way the story came out?
When I initially wrote Slim, it was primarily from the point of view of expatriates, which of course theoretically was easier for me. But as it happened it was much easier to write from the perspective of Lydia and Alinofe, a couple of the African characters. Then there’s Suz-anne, who is sort of like me.
I think it’s how fiction works, if you don’t let go of the characters. I thought I knew what [Suzanne] was like, and I was trying to direct her. I had to let go of that, and then she started to take off. It went through many, many rewrites. Each time it became more of what it wanted to be.
How has the situation changed in Africa, or has it?
It has changed. The governments have gotten on board because they have to. They can’t deny it any more—it’s just so obvious. There are 28.5 million people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. And there are 13 million orphans in the region. It’s just mind-boggling.
During your time in Africa, what struck you most about the people or the culture or what life was like there?
You see the presence of death everywhere. It tends to move you into the present moment. Time has a very different meaning over there, a very different feeling to it.
There’s a word in Lingala, which is the lingua franca of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The word is lobi. It means both “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” [laughs] It just means “not today.”
And, of course, this attitude about time can be hard for Westerners to understand. I remember once I invited a woman from the village to come over for tea. She didn’t come that day. But two days later she came, so we had tea then.
What do you think about President Bush’s $15 billion plan to fight AIDS in Africa?
You probably don’t want to ask me about Bush. [laughs] No, I’m glad that he went to Africa, that he brought attention to it. I’m glad that he wants to spend money on it. But if we’re spending billions per month in the war on Iraq—that sort of puts it into perspective. It’s a start. Put it that way. It’s a good start.
What are you working on now?
I’m more than halfway through a memoir. It’s a memoir about being a mother. And then after that I have another novel that I’m starting to make notes on. It’s about growing up in Seattle.
What do you like about writing?
[laughs] In some ways it’s like asking whether I like breathing. It’s something I’ve always done. I’ve been writing forever, from my days as an English major at UPS. It’s a way, for me, of making my way in the world, of interpreting my life. It hasn’t been a career so much as a spiritual practice.