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.