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African Childhood Inspires Novel

Professor Elaine Orr discusses her new book, a novel set in West Africa. Photo by Jerry Siegel.

Elaine Orr’s unusual childhood is perfect fodder for fiction. The English professor was born and raised in West Africa until age 16, the daughter of Baptist missionaries. Her new book, “A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa,” is inspired by Orr’s beloved Nigeria homeland, her mother’s missionary life and the 1853 diary of a Southern Baptist missionary wife who “believed she was taking the light of God to Africa.” The central characters in her novel, Emma and Henry Bowman, are inspired by these historical figures.

“The diary of their time in West Africa and their relationship—the troubled, worldly husband and the headstrong wife half his age—was so poignant, I wanted to create for them a full scene in which to live and breathe,” Orr says.

Great Inspirations

Orr’s mother received a copy of the diary when first arriving in Nigeria in 1952. The book demonstrated the earlier woman’s devotion and was meant to prepare missionaries for serving in West Africa.

“In the mid-1800s, nobody understood malaria or other diseases that killed Westerners in Africa,” Orr says. “This diary offered a glimpse at that.”

Orr was fascinated by the diary’s setting and the tragic writing. For instance, one entry read, “This morning the spirit of our only earthly treasure took its flight.” The 4-month-old daughter was described earlier with malarial symptoms.

Another entry read, “Feelings deeply wounded.” From this and other clues, Orr concludes the husband (who becomes Henry in her novel) is moody and hurtful.

Intriguing Characters and Racial Themes

The dynamic and dichotomy between the two central characters is interesting as well. Henry is dashing yet mercurial and traumatized by his early years in the Texas cavalry. The plain Emma is the daughter of a prosperous planter and slave owner. She is college educated, highly unusual in the 1850s, and much younger than her husband—her first love.

“It’s so intriguing to think what her life was like beyond what the diary records,” Orr says.

But what really wowed the publisher were the links “A Different Sun” draws between West Africa, the American South and the heroine connecting the two.

Early on Emma shows compassion to African-Americans and discomfort with slavery. In her Georgia home she befriends Uncle Eli, an African-American artisan and craftsman. But once in Africa, she struggles with racist thoughts.  She is surprised African men find her unattractive and address her directly. These tensions contribute to a complex story in which Christianity and African religions must ultimately coexist.

The Writing Process

Orr spent six years writing “A Different Sun.” Her previous books include two academic works and a memoir, “Gods of Noonday.” She taught herself fiction writing by reading and studying great fictional works, including Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady,” “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf and “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje.

“I had to learn everything from transitions to bringing scenes to life,” she says.

Orr also feels indebted to NC State. Her literary agent lived in Africa and was referred to her by a former colleague. The university has allowed her leave to pursue creative writing and she is the grateful recipient of writing grants through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“I love and appreciate that Dean Jeff Braden considers writing a novel as research,” Orr says. “I hope my new work provides richness for my students I couldn’t otherwise offer.”

Responses (16 Comments)

  • Kim Church

    Intriguing life and story — can’t wait to read this novel! Congratulations to Elaine and to NCSU.

  • A great achievement. Warmest congratulations, Elaine!

  • Maria Rouphail

    So happy for Elaine and for those who love great stories. Looking forward to this one. Congratulations, Elaine!

  • Carmine Prioli

    “A Different Sun” is another testament to Elaine Orr’s formidable gifts as a scholar, memoirist, and creative writer. The NCSU English department and College of Humanities and Social Sciences should be proud to have supported the writing of this novel and Elaine’s earlier literary forays into the mysteries of the human spirit.

  • Juliana Nfah-Abbenyi

    Congratulations, Elaine! As people say in Cameroon, “More grease to your elbows.”

  • Sheryl Cornett

    So happy for you Elaine. Looking forward to reading “A Different Sun” and to learning from your craft. Congratulations!

  • John Kessel

    Elaine, congratulations on the publication of your novel. I know how hard you worked on it, and I look forward to reading it. Every success!

  • Barbara Bennett

    I’ve read Elaine’s memoir of growing up in Africa, so I’m familiar with her style. Her work is poetic and beautiful, and I simply can’t wait to read this new work by her. Congratulations, Elaine, on writing your first novel. I know it will be read and appreciated by so many people.

  • Prof. Orr’s A Different Sun is a splendid novel (I had a sneak peek.) Goes deep into a long-ago Africa; deep into the complexities of a troubled missionary and his adventurous struggling wife.

  • Jane Andrews

    Elaine Orr’s poetic vision and formidable gift for paying exquisite attention grant people and things deeper, more colorful lives. I can’t wait to read this book.

  • Dr. David Dixon

    I have been waiting for this book for 23 years. Thank you Elaine. I wish you all the best with this beautiful child and I cannot wait until April.

  • This beautiful novel is expansive, deep, and utterly engaging storytelling at its best. I have been privileged to get a glimpse of what readers are in store for and know that they will be captivated, as I was, by the sheer depth and scope of the landscapes, the passion of her characters, the exquisite detail of “other suns” Orr provides. We are all in for an unforgettable reading experience!

  • Congratulations, Elaine. It’s a magnificent novel. I enjoyed working on it with you. Wishing you much success.

  • Katy Yocom

    I am so excited to read this book. I’ve heard Elaine read excerpts from it and I know already what a beautiful and utterly relevant work it is.

  • Casie Fedukovich

    We are so lucky to have Elaine Orr in our department! Congratulations to her on the publication of this elegant book. It’s on my spring break reading list!

  • Congratulations, Elaine. I’m so eager to read this.

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