The Swahili Word for Hope
Fogerty was late, but that was to be expected. The old man kept only a passing acquaintance with time, and he could have gotten lost in a dozen different ways on the walk to his office, from a turn of phrase in Ozymandias to the meaning of a soliloquy by Captain America. For all Bertrand knew, the geezer was sitting out on one of the benches on the quad, playing his damned silver harmonica and watching the clouds move across the sky.
But the third floor of Ellison Hall wasn’t a bad way to spend half an hour; the hall itself wasn’t much, just cinderblock walls painted oyster white and warrens of tiny offices for professors. But the coeds were wearing Uggs and yoga pants against the chill, and Bertrand paid careful, if covert, attention. He caught a couple of them staring at him as well, and was pleased. He had scrupulously cultivated his look — the two-day growth of mustache and beard, the tattered jeans and Vans, the fisherman’s sweater and scally cap — in order to catch the interest of a young English major. It hadn’t worked yet, but it was only the end of the first semester.
They all knew about him, of course. If the story in The Times hadn’t caught their attention, then the Pushcart Prize nomination and the Lannan Award almost certainly had. Bertrand saw himself as a rising star. He had to be, considering who his mother was.
Katarine Fournier was a woman who, like Athena, might have sprung directly from the forehead of Zeus himself. Fiercely independent and the wielder of an otherworldly talent, she’d won the National Book Award at the unbelievable age of twenty-three years old, and since then she’d been a finalist for the Pulitzer twice and the Nobel once. If there was such a thing as literary royalty, she was it.
Bertrand knew that his mother considered him the crown prince of the literary fiction world, even if his own publication list was limited to small journals that no one but other academics read. He wanted to please his mother, who had raised him — by her choice — alone. She had dreamed her dreams for him, had pushed him toward the pursuit of whatever talent he possessed, and he mustn’t fail her now. Not when the curtain was just now rising on the stage of his own literary career.
This was to be his third conversation with Fogerty. The other TAs all called him Foggy, but Bertrand had never gotten the courage to call him by anything but Professor Fogerty. The man wasn’t just some has-been word jockey eking out a comfortable retirement in academe. He’d won a Man Booker, a Pushcart, and he’d been a finalist for the National Book Award three times. If Katarine Fournier was literary royalty, Foggy was at least a minor duke in the small, insular kingdom of working writers. Fogerty was the real goods; he was why Katarine made Bertrand apply to this MFA program, where she had once taught. She knew Foggy, Katarine told Bertrand, and knew that the old lion would love his work.
So Bertrand expected the prof to be blown away by his writing, that they would become more than student and teacher. Perhaps they’d sit in Foggy’s office and sip single-malt scotch as the afternoon wound down outside and discuss the Johns — Updike, Cheever, and Irving — or Raymond Carver and Eudora Welty.
It hadn’t happened that way.
Instead of a kindly old professor — maybe not Dumbledore, but certainly in that same zip code — Bertrand had found his own personal Snape. Their first short story assignment — there were two due during the semester — had come back with so much green ink spilled across it (“Foggy” didn’t believe in red pens) that the prof might have slain the Jolly Green Giant. DERIVATIVE was scribbled at the bottom of the last page, along with a note that Bertrand needed to read further in order to develop whatever small seedling of talent he might have.
Bertrand’s face still burned in shame at that first assignment. He’d poured his heart out into thirty-six pages of double-spaced narrative about a young boy orphaned on an Oklahoma farm, too young — too small — to properly bury his parents, and each night the wolves and coyotes and other dust-bowl creatures would come to feast on the bodies while the orphaned child could do nothing to stop them. Bertrand thought the symbolism was clear.
“I wanted to talk to you about my story,” Bertrand told Fogerty at that first meeting, once they’d closed the door to the old man’s spare little office. All three walls were lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and the desk was piled high with advance copies of books due to be published within the next year, from publishers seeking reviews or writers seeking blurbs. Fogerty got himself seated behind his department-issued blond wood desk without toppling any of the precariously stacked volumes and plucked a meerschaum pipe from its stand.
“I’m sure you do,” Fogerty said, and stuck the stem of the cold pipe between his teeth. He didn’t smoke anymore, but he puffed dreams of tobacco past as he listened.
“I think you were a little too, you know, hard on me,” Bertrand said. “I mean, how can you say that what I wrote was derivative? I don’t even know what you mean. Do you mean I copied it from somewhere? Because I didn’t.”
When Fogerty smiled, he looked like a forgetful Santa Claus. His beard was white and trimmed neatly, a counterpoint to the hazy cloud of thinning hair atop his head. The professor leaned back in his chair and removed the pipe from between his lips, holding it absently in one hand.
Then he shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I mean that you know too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right ones.”
Bertrand didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything for a moment. He was unsurprised to find that his rage at the professor’s comments had cooled into an icy diamond of resolve. His temper was a gift directly from his mother, and he must hold onto it, cram everything he felt down into his gut and let it turn cold. He would show this old man, show him where he could push that Pushcart, by God.
“I still don’t know what that means.”
“I know your mother,” Fogerty said. “Did you know that?”
“My mom knows a lot of people. We are talking about my story.”
“Actually, we’re talking about your failure,” Fogerty said, his voice gentle. “Where did you grow up?”
“Just answer the question,” Fogerty said, not unkindly.
“Saddle River, New Jersey. If you know my mother, you should know that.”
“And you completed your undergrad at Rutgers, I believe?”
“Good university,” Fogerty said, and Bertrand brightened a little. For a moment, he thought his background, the summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, all of it, was working in his favor. But then Fogerty asked, “Have you ever been to Oklahoma?”
Bertrand was quiet. He looked down at the artfully torn knees of his blue jeans and didn’t meet the prof’s eyes.
“No,” he mumbled.
The chair creaked again as Fogerty leaned forward and placed his elbows on the desk.
“So why write about a farm-boy in the Dust Bowl?”
Bertrand didn’t know what to say. The idea had simply come to him, as ideas always had, and he had written it on his Royal manual typewriter—why would a real writer ever want to use anything else?—and agonized over the setting and word choice. He had sweated over the dialogue and description, trying to find a perfect balance. When it was done, when it was absolutely perfect—or so he thought—he’d turned it in. And gotten slapped in the face.
“You’ve clearly read Steinbeck,” Fogerty said. “Certainly The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, probably The Pearl, too. Am I right?”
“Yes,” Bertrand said, looking at the vinyl floor tile between his shoes. He could see where the professor was going.
“Your piece doesn’t bring anything new to that conversation. Sure there’s some lovely writing in it, but anybody can string together a few pretty words. Fitzgerald did it pickled off his ass every day of his life. But the only Oklahoma you know is the fictional one someone else has described to you. The story has no heart. And anyone worth a good goddamn can tell.”
Bertrand’s mouth gaped. He’d never had anyone say something like that about his writing. His writing had heart, damn it. It did. He had published sixteen stories over the course of his undergraduate career, and while not one of them had achieved even a percentage of his mother’s acclaim, every piece published was another brick in the foundation of the tower that he would build to reach the constellation of his mother’s fame. He knew that it would happen; Katarine expected it. And what Katarine Fournier expected, she got.
But Fogerty didn’t know that.
“I don’t understand,” Bertrand said finally.
“I don’t expect you to,” Fogerty said. “Not yet, at any rate. If you want to be a writer, it’s your job to find understanding. Find empathy. No matter who you’re writing about. Find something real—Hemingway called it ‘one true sentence’ and hang your story on it like a hat on a nail. If the one true thing holds, then everything you build around it will hold.”
Bertrand had nodded like he’d known what the professor meant, all the while the word DERIVATIVE blinked on and off in neon green cursive in the front of his mind. He couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop thinking about what his mother would say if she could have heard that conversation. When he left the office, he’d gone back to his spartan apartment near campus and drunk all the beer in the fridge. He missed class the next day — it was a lot of beer — but by the morning after that, he felt good enough to TA for the English 101 class. All freshmen were required to turn in a personal essay, and the TAs got to grade them (because the professors sure as hell weren’t going to do that).
He was still thinking over his talk with Foggy while he was grading, and Bertrand’s own pen (his RED pen, dammit) was bleeding all over the essays, making the pages a crime scene. There was one, though, that looked pretty good.
In it, the author described his family’s emigration from Entebbe, in Uganda, across the treacherous waters of Lake Victoria, how the momentum of the waves carried them past Kisumu, where they were supposed to land, all the way down to the port at Musoma, in Tanzania. It detailed how the student’s family had finally moved up the coast, sneaking into Kenya — first to Kisumu, then Nairobi — scrimping and scraping to save enough money to eventually flee to the United States, where the student — Nbushe Okeke was his name — was born. It was a fascinating bit of personal history, written in an open and completely guileless manner. Before Bertrand allowed himself to think about what he was doing, he went to the photocopier hidden in the TA’s anteroom and ran off a copy of the essay.
Over the next two weeks, Bertrand ignored his typewriter. Instead, he bent over his laptop, eyes straining against the harsh glow of the screen. His fingers flew across the keys as he stripped the essay down, switching from first person to third, adding some dialogue, making the arduous trek across Lake Victoria seem even more dangerous than the student described it. For the final draft, he hunched over his typewriter, the posture of a thief, and made the last smooth motions to transfer Nbushe Okeke’s story to himself. At the top of page one, he titled the piece simply “Tumaini,” the Swahili word for hope.
The next meeting in Foggy’s office was much more pleasant.
“You did the research,” the professor said. He wasn’t effusive, and Bertrand got the feeling that the old man would never warm up to him, that he was judging Bertrand’s talent against Katarine’s, and his work would never measure up. “This story is much stronger than your first attempt. The details feel real in a way that your Dust Bowl story didn’t. I must say that I didn’t expect this from you, Mr. Fournier.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Of course, there are still places where you can improve. The dialogue, for instance.”
Bertrand stiffened. That was one of the few things he had actually written himself. And it needed improvement?
“It sounds too American,” Foggy said. “The ease of idiom, the phrasing. Think of how you can punch that dialogue up a little bit, how you can reveal character with it. This is a kid who grew up speaking Swahili at home but English at school, right?”
Bertrand nodded. Foggy leaned back in his chair and put a foot up on the corner of his desk.
“If I were writing it, I would probably make him sound much more formal when he speaks in English. His native language is probably what he thinks in, but English is the language of his classmates, his professors, right?”
“I guess,” Bertrand said.
Foggy dropped his foot to the floor and leaned forward. His usually mild blue eyes were crackling with intensity.
“Don’t guess,” he said. “Know.”
But Bertrand did know. Nbushe Okeke’s spoken English was always formal, nearly archaic. He began to think about how the student acted, the way he gathered the thoughts in his mind before speaking. It was like watching a thundercloud build above Okeke’s browline.
By the end of that meeting, Foggy had encouraged Bertrand to submit ‘Tumaini’ for publication in a small but well-regarded literary journal. Pending dialogue changes, of course.
Then the damned story was published. It won a Lannan Award and the prize money that came with it. The money — quite a lot of it — was nice, but the real victory came when Katarine called to congratulate him.
“I knew you had it in you,” she said. “I have a friend at The Times who’s going to call you to do an interview.”
“What? Mother, no. That’s not necessary.”
“Of course it is. You’ll have to get used to doing these kinds of interviews, you know. The press is going to expect a lot from you, but you can use that to your advantage. And I don’t have to tell you that ink sells books. You know that already.”
His mouth was dry, his stomach hollow. But at last he agreed to the interview with a feeling of impending doom hanging over his head.
It had gone surprisingly well. The questions were easy, most of them the sort of growing-up-with-a-famous-mother softball questions that he’d answered before. The only thing that shook him was when the reporter asked where he’d gotten the idea for the story.
“Ideas come from everywhere,” Bertrand said. “Sometimes you just let your imagination fly.”
And sometimes when that doesn’t work, you steal with both hands, he thought but did not say.
Bertrand hadn’t met with Fogerty since the day the professor encouraged him to submit ‘Tumaini’ for publication. Then, this morning the professor had emailed and asked to meet with him this afternoon. The Pushcart announcements were nearing, and Bertrand wondered if the story could have won. No, that was too much to hope for, too much to fear.
Near the end of the semester, with the hallways mostly empty, and here came Foggy, walking along like a man twenty years his junior. He was accompanied by a young Black professor, Harriet Unjohn, who taught a different track in the MFA program. Bertrand had never met her, but he’d heard good things, and she had some really strong MFA candidates under her watchful eye.
Foggy nodded to Bertrand and introduced Professor Unjohn. The woman nodded curtly, her lips in a hard line like a tightrope stretched between buildings. Foggy unlocked the office door, and ushered them in. Harriet took the seat across from Foggy’s desk, angling it slightly so that she could look at Bertrand, who was looking around for somewhere to sit.
“Don’t worry about it,” Foggy said, dropping heavily into his own chair. He looked tired. “You won’t be staying long.”
Bertrand cocked his head. He felt his heart sink, and he understood at once that Foggy had found out about the stolen piece. He didn’t know how, but that didn’t matter. The old professor was staring him down, practically mad-dogging him, like a physical challenge. Professor Unjohn was sitting quietly, one side of her mouth now quirked upward. Not quite a smile, but some small satisfactory amusement.
It was she who spoke next.
“I’m going to say a name,” she said. “When I do, you are going to leave this office. You will withdraw from this program.”
Bertrand tried not to let anything show, but he could feel the heat rising in his face. He didn’t say anything, imagining himself a prisoner, offered a blindfold and final cigarette before the firing squad did its mortal duty.
Bertrand pushed down the urge to say “bless you.” He was in enough trouble as it was. So he didn’t say anything. Instead, he stood there, a dead man waiting to fall.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
Bertrand shook his head.
“Withdraw from the program,” Professor Unjohn said. “If you try to return for Spring semester, I’ll make sure you are formally dismissed, that your name is publicly dragged through every bit of goddamned mud I can find. Every Google search for your name will detail how you stole that young man’s essay, and how you were thrown out of this university.”
Tears formed at the corners of Bertrand’s eyes and tracked slowly down his cheeks. He didn’t mean to cry. He didn’t want to cry. But the tears came anyway. When Fogerty and Unjohn didn’t say anything else, Bertrand opened his mouth to defend himself, but all that came out was a harsh, guttural sob.
“What about me?” Bertrand asked when he could find his voice. His gaze bounced back and forth between the professors. There was no sympathy anywhere. “What will happen to me?”
Fogerty stared at him a long time, those flinty blue eyes holding no warmth, no mercy, not an ounce of compassion.
“I’m sure we don’t care,” he said. “I have already called your mother, so don’t think that whining to her will do you any good. You are done here. And if I have any favors left, you are done forever.”
Fogerty dismissed Bertrand with a wave of his fingers and turned away to talk with Professor Unjohn about the department’s literary magazine. Bertrand left the door open behind him and fled into the hall, down the stairs to the first floor, and out into the dying afternoon light. His phone buzzed in his pocket. When he freed it and hit the unlock button, he looked at the screen and saw it was his mother calling.
Bobby Mathews is a 5-foot-7 slice of heaven based in Birmingham, Alabama; he’s a Derringer Award finalist, and over the past two years, his short stories have been like Ted Lasso’s Roy Kent: They’re here, they’re there, they’re every-f*cking-where … his novel Living the Gimmick comes out in May 2022 from Shotgun Honey.