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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 7:34 am | Fair 44º


Real-Life Story Sets Scene for Noozhawk Fiction Contest Winner

Robin Tiffney's childhood in Nigeria is backdrop for her vivid tale. Read her winning entry here.

Robin Tiffney expresses herself through the imagery of her painting and the words of her writing about her childhood in Nigeria. (Sonia Fernandez photo / Noozhawk)

Robin Tiffney was 3 when her father, a university professor, traded the ordinariness of life in Nebraska for the weird and wonderful world of Nigeria, taking his family with him. For the young girl, life got just a little more magical.

“My sister and I were sitting in the bath one day and my mother, thinking we needed more water, turned the tap on and a fish came out of the faucet,” Tiffney recalled.

Her mother was properly horrified, of course, because a fish in the faucet meant that somehow contaminants were getting into the water supply, but the child didn’t have time to worry about that — there was a fish in the bath.

But bathing with fish was only one of the many little magical moments the young girl had. There were lizards and spiders, all sorts of insects that crawled and flew, and more snakes than were necessary.

“You could stick a stick in the ground and it would sprout in two weeks,” she said. “That’s how we built our hedges.”

Nigeria too, it turned out, was having somewhat of a magical time of its own. It was 1960, and the West African country had just gained its independence from England, which had taken over the country at the height of the British Empire.

“The whole country was full of hope and potential,” she said. “At that time it was the richest black African nation and the most populous.”

Growing up in a child-oriented society, in an intellectual atmosphere that hosted the likes of writer Chinua Achebe, she said, was more than any kid from Nebraska could ask for.

And so it was for the youngster for another seven years, as her family shuttled back and forth between the United States and Nigeria, staying a year at a time in Tiffney’s grandmother’s New Hampshire farm between two-year stints in Nigeria.

The magic came to an end in 1967, almost overnight, when Tiffney and her light-skinned, half-Chinese, half-white family, clearly foreigners, were ordered to leave for their own safety. The secessionist new state of Biafra, at the southeastern corner of Nigeria, was taking over the southern end of the country and the political tensions that existed before the war were only getting worse.

This moment is the jumping-off point for the amateur writer’s short story, “Post from Umideke,” a story of waiting, a story of hope and hopelessness, depending on who you are. The story also was selected by a panel of Santa Barbara Writers Conference judges as the winner of the inaugural Noozhawk Fiction Contest.

“The government called us and said ‘tomorrow morning at 5 a.m. we are taking you to Port Harcourt — some of you are going by plane, some of you are going by boat.’ Women and children had to go first,” she said, adding that her father was left to make his way by road.

Fortunately for Tiffney’s own family, circumstances played out well, and she continued her life in the United States as she studied art and married her husband, Bruce, a paleocarpologist who taught at Yale before coming to Santa Barbara. Bruce Tiffney also now happens to be dean of UCSB’s College of Creative Studies.

These days she spends her time painting and tending to her overgrown garden in the Goleta Valley, as well as her 11th-grade daughter, Theora (Theo for short), and three cats.

But part of her is still in Nigeria, her Nigeria. You can tell by the way she stops to watch a lizard scuttle across the ground, or how she lets her garden get just a little wild. And definitely by the way she has every kind of book she can get her hands on, fiction and nonfiction, about Nigeria.

“It’s my obsession,” she admitted, and she’ll probably always keep trying to figure out how she got ejected from her own Garden of Eden. She’s gone back once, but only once, although she returns in her stories all the time.

Tiffney’s entry was one of nearly 70 received in the two-week Noozhawk Fiction Contest. For her efforts, she won a free scholarship to the 35th annual Santa Barbara Writers Conference, which opens Saturday at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort Hotel. The weeklong event is filled with workshops, discussions and seminars.

Guest speakers include SBWC regular Ray Bradbury, former Los Angeles police detective and crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh, Latino Literature Hall of Famer Luis Alberto Urrea, local best-selling author Sue Grafton, and novelist Jane Heller.

Click here for the latest conference information.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at [email protected]

Post from Umideke

By Robin Tiffney

© Robin Tiffney, published with permission

I killed the dog. I found him cringing in the broken hut behind a wooden sugar box and knew him for what he was, a foreigner. Like me. A dog from the years before the war, brought from England, maybe. Fine black fur gone starey, liquid eyes that once held brown confidence and the questions of an equal. Crouching, the leg feathers tattered, the tail torn, but the head tilted.

“I see you,” I said. In Africa it means more than it sounds. We mean more than we say. “I’m Wilton.”

He understood that I was white and a woman, and he met my gaze. I sat down on the box. A piece of stale bread brought him to my hand, a warm wet tongue larping over my fingertips and a whine that let me know it was my eye and my hand that mattered, not the food. Starving for his people.

I could see it so well through those brown eyes.

Early morning with the African mist rising off the ground and the towering tangled trees, urgency in the hushed voices, all changed by what had to be done. A sun like a broken egg rising. People getting into a little bus waiting with its chugging stinking motor. The dog’s people, dragging suitcases, a stuffed toy in the arms of the child and the real warm animal held back by the choking collar until one of the servants dragged it over to a strong tree and tied it there.

His people, leaving. A dog less movable than a suitcase. All the lunging, pacing paws going sore. How he wanted them and called with deep whimpers, for he was a good dog. Only one bark or two as the bus turned and pulled away before he gulped the barks down and leaned panting, the sounds striving in his chest. All the world gone to this soreness, the lack, the broken pack. Maybe if he were quiet they might yet come back. Maybe if he were good.

Night and day, he waited. A lap of water. He nosed the food brought to him and could not swallow. Maybe he’d had one servant who tried to comfort him, someone who’d promised to take the care of the dog for a fee, or for love and loyalty. How long before hunger had broken through his panic, and he’d accepted those first bites that meant he would live, even as the people began to run out of food for themselves? Maybe three months or more tied in the village among thin brown children afraid of his size and blackness until the cord broke. A dog searching ever since.

“But, dog,” I said to him, “the scent died at the river, at the tarmac, at the dock. There is no home without the people, is there?”

I saw Gilman’s shadow then on the floor, but she chose not to come into the hut: not to interrupt us. I’m sure she thought the dog would comfort me. She believed in the innocence of dogs just as she believed in the innocence of children.

He settled by my sandaled foot, a whine low in his great chest. I had wanted a dog so much. A flat coated retriever, possibly, I remembered from the books. This could be one and looking at him hurt my heart. My parents never allowed me a dog.

The dog shifted a little, and I felt the warm lean of his bony flea-ridden flank. I could see the ways for the future splaying out before us, the dog happiness that snatched from moment to moment seems to a watching man so complete. Women know better. I could see his dreams, the flickering hope that finding me had brought him closer to his own. Did he smell in me some way to his pack? Or just a moment of refuge before he moved on?

Through the broken wall I saw the village, thatch slumped upon crazed earth. Palm fronds, mud walls tumbled like giant’s tantrums had scattered them. People standing, sitting; members of a dismissed cast, dusty with red earth they did not brush away.

I looked down. What small girl with sometimes-cruel fingers had twisted this dog’s silky ear and made him yelp with the pride of belonging? What big man’s hand once cupped this smooth head and ran along the curve of his neck? I heard his sigh, and the skin twitched along his ribs.

Now I saw him drinking this small comfort of a human being who understood a dog, and I knew he would never be mine or anyone else’s. I saw on his black shoulders something like the streak of tears a child might have shed. I heard the yearn in an Englishman’s voice who knows he asks the impossible and dreams of faith restored. You will take care of him, Samuel? Until they let us come back? The war will be over fast; we’ll be back in a couple of months as soon as the peace comes.

“No one knows what they do,” I said to the dog. He lifted his eyebrows, tired, and sighed again. I didn’t know either. He had lived all these months on a rat snatched here, a mouthful of lizard. And carrion. Not garbage. Biafra had no garbage; we ate it all. There are worse things than eating garbage.

“You terrify me more than the children,” I said. I looked into his eyes and saw there no promise and no beginning.

“Dog is good meat,” I said to the old woman watching me from the doorway. “Bleed it fast and cook the meat well.”

She panted to move him. Forty-odd pounds of slack weight, bone and gristle and offal with a bit of meat still, and she was old with want, weak beyond weariness. Others came, and she would have beaten them back if she could. Of course she would have to share. I could not even see the dog anymore; there were so many people. So busy.

“What have you done?” Gilman screamed, and Jantor caught her around the waist. Her hair tore loose, red and gold in the sunlight, spinning out against his camouflage jacket.

“There wasn’t anything else to do,” he said.

“We could have kept it ...”

“And starved what one of our people to feed it? And taken it with us? Alex, we can’t even take one patient, how could we take a dog?” So gentle, his arm still reaching to hold her back.

“It was happy with Wilton, and she killed it.”

“It’s not the kind of dog to be happy with anyone but its own people. They’re never coming back, Gilman. Never. A moment’s comfort, and shot fast. Never felt a thing. Wilton did right.”

I turned away. Never felt a thing. In all the months of the dog’s loneliness, only enough to break a village of hearts. To even break mine.

“Never felt a thing,” Jantor said.

I hoped he had not seen how easy the gun lay in my hand. I walked past them, and I did not look at him, either, as I passed.

Excerpt from Night Must Wait, a historical novel set during the Biafran/Nigerian civil war.

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