Cities of Emerald, Deserts of Gold


I live in a city. I have a horror of emptiness. I avoid the golden lands, where the wind travels alone for miles, like sunflower-colored Kansas, whose fields, cropped close in the autumn, resemble the hair of a blond military recruit. I have a horror of emptiness, the military, and on some days even blondness. I keep to the coasts, where the cities flash their greenish windows. When I travel from coast to coast—for example, to visit my mother—I never take the train through the golden lands. I fly.



Dorothy’s lesson, “There’s No Place like Home,” was intended to reconcile her to the monochromatic endlessness of Kansas. This is a lesson neither of my parents learned. My mother was born in North Dakota, my father in Somalia; both fled those vast and empty landscapes. Tonight my mother places a call from her emerald city to mine. She says she remembers walking to school after a blizzard: the silence of the world, and the pegs of buried clotheslines poking through the snow at her feet, like fragments of yellow brick.



A friend of mine, an Egyptian doctor, once worked in North Dakota. He made house calls. At night, his car was often the only one on the road. There was no one to ask for help if he lost his way. He didn’t want to stop at a farmhouse, either: what would they make of his dark face and foreign accent? This was in the days of paper: he was alone with his wrinkled map, his small car light. He told me this story in Cairo, one of the great emerald cities. A city surrounded by deserts of gold. The people of North Dakota were kind, he said: quite often, in the velvet night, his patients offered him pound cake.



In college, I tried to reconcile myself to my family deserts by reading Dakota by Kathleen Norris. I remember one sentence, quoted, I believe, from the Desert Fathers: “Everything empty is full of the angels of God.” This sentence is lovely, but its heels, when tapped together, produce no magic. I am ashamed of my inability to love the land. My fear of open spaces, my “black thumb.” That’s what they call it when you can’t keep houseplants alive. A black thumb.



In the Emerald City we carve statues of clear jade. All of our surfaces are smooth, our trees of wire. Our sidewalks wink like aquamarines, and at night, when we light the glowworm lamps, the darkness throbs like the dream of a person addicted to absinthe. I would describe my relationship to land as one of distrust. In the Emerald City we flit effortlessly from one window to another. Despite this elegant mobility, this extraordinary lightness, some ignorant people refer to us as monkeys.



One day we decided to get out of the city. We drove to Brackenhurst, a Christian retreat center near Limuru. Once we had left the Nairobi traffic behind, the day opened out and we could see the boundless sky with its herds of clouds. At Brackenhurst, we sat on the porch of a quaint half-timbered building, drinking tea with our friend and listening to the birds. Our friend is a descendant of Chief Kinyanjui, the Kikuyu patriarch in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Chief Kinyanjui impressed Dinesen with his immobility: he sat so still, she writes, that he transformed himself into “lifeless matter.” Our friend waved his hand at the hills of Brackenhurst gilded with the light of noon, and smiled. “All of this used to be ours,” he said.



My great grandfather purchased our family farm in North Dakota. He rode there from Pennsylvania on his bicycle. Like Isak Dinesen, he strove and struggled and loved the land. Like her, he dispossessed a darker people.



The same can be said of Dorothy’s Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. Reconsider the meaning of ennui. Reconsider Dorothy’s longing for many colors, her final acceptance of dusty Kansas. Reconsider the role of flight.



You would not describe a body in flight as “lifeless matter.” You might, however, describe it as an animal. This does not make much difference to me. After all, L. Frank Baum asks, “Why should not the animals have their Fairies, as well as mortals?”



Last night I dreamt I was stretched on a desert of snow. I grasped the tops of the clothes-pegs, dragging myself painfully toward the glow on the horizon. The city, the city. As I squirmed forward I left my coat and even my skin behind, with a sob of grief and also a great sense of physical wellbeing. I would describe my relationship to land as one of distance. I would describe it as truncated. I would describe it as numb. I would describe it as essentially a relationship of mourning, not for lost land but for the capacity to believe.



Primary disadvantage of flight: exposure. A black silhouette on the open sky is so easy to shoot down.



Primary advantage of flight: rejection of the land, which makes it possible to reject the category “landless.”



Sometimes after a dust storm fine gold sand covers my floor. One of my friends habitually rolls in this dust, in order, she says, to feel “grounded.” The city, she claims, is an artificial construction, a kind of no-place. I am interested in how a no-place can be home.



Oh, flight! Oh, flight!



In my city, I sip green tea. I avoid vacant lots, which are full of the angels of God. When the wind blows, a subtle excitement tugs my heart, as if clouds are forming somewhere over this rainbow nation. Is it a storm? Not yet; but the wind is strong enough to lift me from the roof. Screeching with joy I tumble into the sparkling air, where thousands like me already cavort, rising and falling on stunted wings, like miniature cyclones among the grinning towers.



L. Frank Baum, The Annotated Wizard of Oz. Ed, Intro, and notes by: Michael Patrick Hearn. W.W. Norton & Co. 2000

Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, 1937

Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston/New York City 1993

Many of these reflections are inspired by the question at The Black/Land Project: “As a black person in the U.S., how would you describe your relationship to land?”



Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria, winner of the William L. Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She is also a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist and the recipient of the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her new novel, The Winged Histories, was published by Small Beer Press in 2016.