A Heart in Two Homelands: Elaine Neil Orr Opens Up About How Being White in the 1960s American South and Nigeria Influenced her Novel, Swimming Between Worlds

In place of our usual Wednesdays in Publishing post, this week we have a phenomenal name in Southern writing stopping in to chat with us! Elaine Neil Orr, author of the lovely book pictured here, Swimming Between Worlds, “chats” with me about what it was like growing up in both Nigeria and the American South as a young white girl in the 1960s and how her near-death experience later in life changed her life–and her writing. Come sit with us as we learn more about this shining voice is Southern literature; I present to you, Elaine Neil Orr…


Question # 1

Wow, Elaine! You’ve lead a very interesting and harrowing life! You’ve been quoted as saying, “After surviving end stage renal disease in my early forties with the gift of two transplants (kidney and pancreas), I took a right turn in my writing life: from scholarship to creative writing…I am keenly interested in place, not as a backdrop for stories but as a character. What I love most about writing is the practice of it. Writing, I am meditating. ‘How exactly do I describe the feeling of heartbreak? Does the heart really hurt?’ How did these experiences and internal questions work in your favor to write Swimming Between Worlds?

Thank you for such an engaged question. Whether we have actually lived in two countries or not, we are all hearing news of more than one world and often these worlds (even in our own country) are in conflict or misunderstand each other. Having actually lived in two worlds, I am able to show both the connections and the divergences between places, perspectives, and cultural values. In SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS, there’s a seismic shift occurring in the American South. By creating a character who moves between Nigeria and his native country (the U.S.), I’m able to shed a light on how this shift was global rather than regional or even national. The fight for equal rights for people of African descent was occurring on the west coast of Africa and the east coast of the U.S. (among other places). So I’m able to broaden the subject and open it up into a larger frame. At the same time, by making the story so intensely local—focusing on three lives: Tacker, Kate, and Gaines—I’m able to make the struggle and the stakes personal.  And my heart is in both places: the American South and southern Nigeria.  All of my writing is an effort to make sense of these two places and the historical links between them.


Question #2

As the daughter of missionaries, you spent part of your childhood between North Carolina and Nigeria. What missionary work did your parents do, and what was that experience like for you growing up? Why did you feel moved to write through those experiences in this novel?

My parents were sent as medical missionaries. They were not, primarily, evangelists. To my young eyes as a girl, they just “went to work” like anyone else. On the other hand, Nigeria wasn’t just any place. It was a huge, complex emerging nation, full of its own diversities (500 languages, modern hotels and traditional compounds, Muslim and Christian and traditionalist faiths). I’m white but I spent my first five years thinking the world was black. And I felt very at home. We lived in rain forests and savannahs. I swam in Nigerian rivers and reveled in the tropical outdoors. Then my family came “home” for a year of furlough in Winston-Salem and everything changed. I was in a white world that seemed largely homogenous. Yet it was a sweet year. I was a first grader, learning to read. I was curious about the plastic-looking narcissus that sprang up in March.

This double-vision that came to me so early led me to focus on Winston-Salem in that year but to go deeper to learn what was going on below the surface of white America. Once I began exploring the year and the lunch-counter sit-ins, it seemed to me I was addressing complex issues we still face in the U.S. regarding race and injustice.


Question #3

As professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and the low-residency MFA at Spalding University in Louisville, I’m sure you spend a lot of time studying, teaching and reading the work of others – even writers who are just coming into their own. How do these experiences shape your own writing process? How did you incorporate these experiences into writing Swimming Between Worlds?  

 I learn from my graduate students in creative writing. Many of them are more experimental than I am in terms of structure. It was actually in a conversation with a student that I got the idea of having Kate and Tacker cross paths with Gaines on the same day but under different circumstances by using the device of the milk bottle. It could have been another object. I just chose milk. The point was for the character to have some signifying object that would let the reader know that they were encountering the same man. I ended up loving that milk bottle because it allowed me an efficiently and imagistic ally to get all three characters set in motion—and to reveal something about the nature of each.



Question #4

What was the hardest scene for you to write in Swimming Between Worlds and why? Who was the hardest character for you to write?

The hardest scene comes near the end and I can’t say more.

The hardest character was Kate. She’s been almost immobilized by her parents’ deaths. She’s in a house she loves but without a family. I had to figure out a way to get her moving. And her interest in Tacker wasn’t enough. That would stereotype her as a woman whose only potential motivation in life is a man. So I gave her a camera and turned her into a budding photographer. And I made it a hefty character, to give her some weight.


Question #5

The editorial process can be grueling for an author but simultaneously necessary for both the novel and the growth of the writer. Through all your edits on Swimming Between Worlds with your agent and editor(s), what scenes, if any, did you want to ensure remained whole (or as true to your original concept as possible)? Why?

The scene of the Woolworth sit-in had to remain as it was because it’s historically accurate. I was very tied to most of the Nigerian scenes and no one ever asked me to alter those. There was a scene with Janet, Kate’s roommate, seeking an abortion and the two of them traveling to New York. It took us too far afield of the core story, though I thought it was interesting and worthwhile to explore (in a different novel) how a middle-class white woman might get an abortion in 1960.


Question #6

What forms of writing have you not yet experimented with, and would you like to ever try writing in those forms as an author? What makes those forms so different from the writing you do now?

I’d like to try a picture book for children. I’ve even thought about one linked to SWIMMING BETWEEN WORLDS, perhaps one about children integrating a library.  Since I’m not an artist, I would need a collaborator. That’s one way the genre of the picture book is very different from a novel, where the writer is pretty much on her own—for four years, in my case.


Question #7

What is one of the fondest memories you have from growing up in Nigeria? And, was it difficult for you to acclimate between the two cultures—those of the American South and Nigeria—as you were growing up?

My fondest outdoor memory is swimming in a crystal clear, ice-cold river called the Ethiope. All of my memories of being at home with my family: dinners at night, my father waking me in the morning, the sound of birds, thunderstorms—all of it—is very dear.


Question #8

What is the strangest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing?

“You don’t sound anything like a scholar.”  This was said after a reading from my memoir by someone who knew I had a Ph.D. and wrote academic books before I turned to creative writing!  It was a lovely compliment!


Question #9

Tell us one awkward/embarrassing/unique fact about yourself.

It’s not entirely unique, but I started writing creatively when I faced end stage renal disease and was on dialysis, waiting for two organ transplants (in the late 90s). In 2000, I received two new organs: a pancreas and a kidney. Simultaneously, I was cured of diabetes and renal failure. The transplants gave me a new life and I’ve been writing since.



Where the Tables Turn: Feel free to ask me any question you’d like for me to answer for my readers, and/or pose a question to your readers or the general public! (This, of course, is optional and only if you’d like to do so.)


I’m a professor of literature along with being a writer of fiction and memoir. I hear some of my colleagues saying that students don’t want to read hard books any more. Do you think that’s true? What do your readers say? 

Posting responses here as they come in:

Brittain: I think people who were “forced” to read in high school and college resent reading difficult books as an adult because they never developed a love for reading. They see it as a task or assignment instead of as a source of entertainment. I know people who haven’t read anything other than a cosmo for 10 years and are proud of it. 4/25/18


Majera: Personally, I’ve noticed my attention span getting shorter and shorter. Though I believe reading literature can be entertaining, I shy away because the payoff takes too long or requires more work.  4/25/18


Navidad: That’s a really great point, Brittain! My mother, though she is the one who taught me MY love for reading, is NOT a reader herself. She sees it as a boring chore or task and has often said that reading even a page or two of a book often puts her to sleep. She’s a great example of your point, because she was only ever pushed to read in school so it does feel like a chore for her.  4/25/18


Jenny: I teach and tutor college English, and my experience is that a majority of students don’t like reading long fiction. We’re reading Antigone now, and my students are not connecting to it because it’s “difficult.” There are always students who love to read and to be challenged, but when you’re teaching required English classes, it’s more likely that the students will be reluctant, at least. I love when I teach or tutor a student who didn’t think she liked to read but then realizes how fun and informative literature can be even when it’s “difficult.”   4/25/18


Amanda: I feel that way about literary fiction sometimes. Especially the classics.. but sometimes I can love a literary book    4/25/18


Navidad: @ Amanda, I developed a love for lit fic that I just can’t shake now! It wasn’t always like that though. I wish I could pinpoint exactly when it started or what book crossed me over. Probably in undergrad when I started reading short stories and anthologies. They tend to have a literary lean, and I think that’s when I moved from reading commercial books that are breezier and more to read and into literary fiction that pushed me a little harder. Now I can’t stop! 🙂 


Majera: Mostly about “serious” literature. In general, I’m willing to give the slow-starting or attention-requiring books a chance, maybe switch to audiobook format… But if I know it’s literature, I’m automatically wary, which probably isn’t fair.   4/25/18


Grace: I still have a taste for literary fiction. But I have to be in the “right” frame of mind. I’m a mood-reader. If I want pure escapism without too much thinking involved, I go for the more “popular” reads, but there comes a time when I need the intellectual stimulation.    4/25/18


Jenny: Most of my students tell me that they didn’t learn anything in high school English. Some of them admit it was their lack of attention and effort, but a lot of them say that the public education system is at fault. Their teachers didn’t enforce learning so much as getting the work done, and their teachers aren’t as interactive now that technology is integrated in the classroom.

I ask my students what they hope to get out of English, and a lot of them say they want to improve their grammar and content, but some say they just need it to get their degree. But I make it a point to emphasize the connection between English and every other college class they’ll take. Exactly what you said about reading going hand in hand with other classes. I tell them it’s about communication, which they’ll need no matter what career path they follow. 
I should add that I teach at a community college, and that definitely makes a difference in the student population and culture. I found things a little different at the four-year college I attended as a student, but I also graduated in 2008, and learning has changed drastically over the past 10 years!
(by the way, thanks for an interesting question/conversation!)   4/26/18
Navidad: Thanks for your engaged responses! I’m sure Elaine will be pleased to read them! Do they make audiobooks for college classes? If not, someone should get on that! Maybe that would make the learning process in English classes more enjoyable for people (though it would like also perpetuate the issue weak written communication). :/  4/26/18
Jenny: I hope she will be! I wonder how she feels about it since she mentioned that her colleagues feel this way, not that she does, necessarily. 
I think audiobooks could work in conjunction with physical copies! I’m studying French, and I find that reading a transcription or subtitles while I watch videos helps me find the association between the spoken and the written language, which is often lost when only reading or only listening. That’s a great idea, actually!   4/26/18
Navidad: Wow, that’s funny; I do the same thing! I studied in France for a while years ago so in an attempt to not lose (too much) of the language, I watch everything with French subtitles (when possible).   4/26/18

2 thoughts on “A Heart in Two Homelands: Elaine Neil Orr Opens Up About How Being White in the 1960s American South and Nigeria Influenced her Novel, Swimming Between Worlds

  1. Wow – This was like two posts in one!
    I’d be intrigued to read about a character who moves between the southern U.S. and Nigeria in the 1960s – I haven’t read a book that mines those contemporaneous perspectives.
    um…but where’s the image of the book?


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