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Day in the Sun

[whitespace] Susana Herrera
George Sakkestad

It Took a Village: Susana Herrera celebrates the strength, power and spirit she discovered while with the Peace Corps in a West African village.

With a debut novel and rediscovered strength, local author Susana Herrera shines

By Mary Spicuzza

FLASHING A contagious smile and giggling as she buries her head in her tiny hands, Susana Herrera doesn't exactly inspire fear. The local author and teacher, who stands a diminuitive 5 feet 1 inches, laughs as she confesses that her principal sometimes mistakes her for a student and yells at her for running through the halls of her school. Tucking a tight chestnut ringlet behind her ear as she delves into tales of her surreal experiences while living in West Africa, Herrera seems more like an old friend than a brute force.

But recalling some of the chapters in her debut novel, Mango Elephants in the Sun, I realize that the woman sitting across from me, happily sipping chai, is a warrior in her own right. She's offed giant snakes with the single swing of a machete, put a lecherous king in his place and survived a near-fatal bout of malaria--all while teaching children as a Peace Corps volunteer and learning to live in Cameroon's remote northern desert.

Now, at barely 30 years old, Herrera is celebrating the release of her novel, which arrived in local bookstores this month. As she reflects on her two years in Africa, her present teaching adventures in Watsonville's E.A. Hall Middle School and navigating her multitudinous future plans, she breathes strength. With every tale, the young writer proves that though she's no longer wrestling chickens for supper, she's still a force to be reckoned with.

Woman Warrior

HERRERA OPENLY admits that she arrived in West Africa in 1992 trying to run from her past. Following her second year in Cameroon, she considered running even farther. Rather than returning to America, she had decided to apply to Peace Corps Asia--until a quick call from her mother set her straight.

"My mom asked me, 'How long are you going to keep running?' " Herrera remembers.

Thinking back over some of my favorite parts of her book, subtitled How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin, I'm betting that Herrera could run forever. Her autobiographical novel tells how she jogged 52 miles through the hot African desert to say goodbye to a friend. Since returning to America she's competed in 16 marathons and is now engaged to her devoted running partner, John David Guillory.

But on a spiritual level, her mother's question forced Herrera to admit a pattern of running from her fears. "I was so scared about coming back. The person I got to know in Cameroon was this machete-swingin', snake-killin', termite-eatin' woman. This woman I was so proud of," she says. "Coming back home felt like stepping out of the story. I was wondering, If I'm not a machete-swingin', snake-killin', termite-eatin' woman, who am I then?"

With Mango Elephants in the Sun, Herrera answers that question beautifully. And she is still telling the story--as in April, when she learned that copies of her book wouldn't arrive in time for her first reading and booksigning at downtown's Gateways Books and Gifts.

Many an author would have canceled and gone into hiding. Instead Herrera entertained with stories of Cameroonian stores sporadically closing during business hours, bush taxi rides to the nearest town becoming all-day affairs and a surprise gift of a goat head given to her by a courting village king.

"In Africa, whatever you expect to happen won't," Herrera laughs.

With a spirit like Herrera's, it's no wonder that the mango magic continues. At this year's Frankfurt Book Fair the crowd snapped up all 400 copies of Mango. Before even printing the book, her publisher, Boston and London's Shambhala Publications sold translation rights. By next year, fans can look forward to finding the book in both Chinese and Taiwanese.

And the afternoon of her book-less booksigning, Herrera left Gateways with a list of folks who'd already paid for the novel. She smiles: "It was a perfect reminder about being in my skin."

Skin Deep

BEING IN THE SKIN may sound like a New Age/Zen fusion, but the Tapouri people of northern Cameroon have used the phrase as a greeting for centuries. The question "Jam bah doo nah?" literally means, "Are you in your skin?" Or, as Herrera explains, friends greet each other by asking if the soul is in the body.

A changing writing style charts Herrera's journey as she grows into her skin. In the first chapter, "Awakening," she writes about the romantic mango trees, banana leaves and zebras she expected to find in Africa.

"Africa's essence fills my body," she writes. "I exhale and linger in a sacred silence for which my heart has hungered." But Herrera quickly realizes Africa is not all palm trees and drum circles. Soon she's writing letters to her mother about amebic dysentery and squat-toilet latrines. She begs for Kool-Aid and less shippable treats, like Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey.

"I had to laugh at myself," Herrera remembers. "Struggling to get basic things like food and water, trying to get my basic needs met. And here I was supposed to be the teacher."

Herrera first arrived hoping the village would greet her with a warm embrace. As a Latina with Navaho, Sioux and Arapaho roots on her mother's side and a French-Irish father, Herrera hoped to find a space where she could feel accepted. Instead, villagers labeled her nasara, or "white man." Children ran from her, screaming. Women laughed as she struggled to balance a bucket on her head, trying to carry water from the well, only to end up lying in the mud, soaking wet with a sprained ankle.

Since nothing inspires creativity quite like alienation and loneliness, she writes continually: "So I wait for the place I can finally reach inside myself that I can call home."

But Herrera's stories are not only about sadness. She also pens sweet episodes about falling in love with a Cameroonian doctor, forming friendships with village women and adopting two African sons. As well as tales of watching helplessly as termites devour her bed.

"And it's so hard to get a bed," she now laughs. "Each time, we had to carry it on the back of a moto taxi [moped] with some little 9-year-old driving, speeding through the village at, like, 90 miles an hour."

Susana Herrera Wild Ride: While living in Africa, Susana Herrera learned to never forget the importance of a good sense of humor.

George Sakkestad

Inner-Body Experience

AS HERRERA weaves together tales of her Peace Corps experience, she also shares a deeper story about spiritual growth through developing comic sensibilities. "The Peace Corps told me that you go to Latin America, you come back more political," she says. "You go to Asia, you come back more spiritual. You go to Africa, you come back with a really good sense of humor. I said, 'I'm goin' for the humor.' "

As she pounds her fist decisively, a warm smile lightens her face. Herrera is charming, and both in person and through her writing she shows that spirituality isn't all about heavy realizations and processing pain--although delving into both in her completely new village world gave her the confidence to tell her story.

"Before Africa, I thought no one would want to read about my life," Herrera admits.

Yet even before she ever set foot in Cameroon, Herrera clearly had amazing stories to tell. Born to a father who wanted to be a priest and a mother who entered a convent at 11 years old, Herrera grew up in a family of seekers. The New York native spent nearly 10 years living in the poor neighborhoods of New Orleans with her family. Then her father's spiritual quest led him to Buddhism, and he brought the family to Rinzai Soto Zen monasteries in Los Angeles.

"At age 14, I took my Buddhist vows. I shaved my head and became a monk. And I went to Mercy Academy," Herrera laughs. "A Catholic by day, a monk by night."

Mango Elephants offers glimpses of the past she ran away from as it chronicles her life in Cameroon. Using the character of a lizard, she explores the spiritual level of her journey in Africa--and past memories too painful for her to talk about.

"There are some things I don't talk about," she says quietly. "The lizard has to tell you."

Malaria Dreams

EVEN COFFEE SHOP passersby seem fascinated by Herrera. Maybe it's her endearing facial expressions, enormous gestures and laughter. Or perhaps we're causing a caffeine-fueled ruckus reminiscing about our parallel lives in West Africa. She faced stereotypes about white women based on TV soaps like Dallas and lived through a bout of malaria that sent her temperature skyrocketing, above 105 degrees.

And although I'm supposed to be doing the interviewing, I find myself babbling about my year in Ghana--assuring West Africans that American women aren't all like characters from Dynasty, falling in love and being hospitalized with a bad case of typhoid in a small village 100 miles outside of Timbuktu. Only in my high-fever hallucinations, rats were scampering through my veins, and in her "Malaria Dreams" chapter Herrera describes tarantulas burrowing under her skin.

In person and on paper, her stories move people. As Herrera explored her soul in letters home, her mom was busy photocopying them and sending them on to friends and relatives.

"I got letters back from people I didn't even know, saying that they loved my letters and telling me that I should write a book," Herrera says.

But she was set on penning a screenplay until she wrote to her and her stepfather's former creative writing teacher, local screenwriting guru Dan Bessie. "He said, 'Your screenplay is terrible--write the book first,'" she says with a laugh.

But Herrera isn't one to give up in the face of obstacles. UCSC's creative writing program rejected her three times. "I was crushed!" she confesses.

But she apparently recovered quickly. Herrera sold Mango Elephants to Shambhala after writing only five stories, with another 57 outlined. She sent out 10 copies of her manuscript, and Shambhala contacted her within weeks. She signed a contract less than a month later, in April 1997.

Herrera wrote almost the entire book during a seven-week break from teaching. "I felt like everything I dreamed of being, I could be," Herrera says. "I got that message in Africa, but thought I'd lost it. Then all of a sudden it was coming together again. That I could be happy, I could be in a relationship that works, and I could reach inside of myself and bring this writing out."

Balancing Act

ONE OF THE MOST powerful vignettes in Mango Elephants tells of Herrera teaching her student Lydie to ride a bicycle. Villagers forbade women to ride bikes, insisting it would make them sterile.

"I want to be strong, Miss," Lydie pleads. "I've watched you cross that bridge so many times."

Together, they sneak out before sunrise to practice. And after watching Lydie lose her balance and crash the bike, Herrera remembers learning to carry a bucket on her head. She couldn't do it until a village woman told her she needed to find her center.

The chapter, appropriately titled "Balance," speaks of both women's struggle to find their equilibrium. And busy Herrera, a self-professed day-planner addict who is constantly on the go, confesses that trying to stay in her skin is a perpetual balancing act.

She is already busily plotting out her next book. A prequel, Laughing Girl, Howling Woman, will tell her parents' stories. And there's even a chance that Ben & Jerry's ice cream may soon introduce a new flavor, named after the book. It will be mango ice cream with mango chunks, dark chocolate elephants and a vanilla swirl.

It's hard to tell whether the sparkle in her eyes is from excitement about her future or the new flavor. She smiles, adding, "I'm learning to be my own best thing."

Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin by Susana Herrera; Shambhala; 270 pages; $22.50. Susana Herrera reads on Thu (7pm) at Crossroads Books, 1935 Main St., Watsonville. For more info, call 728-4139.

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From the May 26-June 2, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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