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Reading Gatsby in Dakar


Susan Zakin

A dozen years ago, I accepted a teaching job in Senegal. An undistinguished American university had opened a campus in the West African country and it is worth noting, although I did not do so at the time, that the university’s business school had taken ownership of the campus. The school’s president had been an early adopter of ideas that were becoming popular, even faddish: globalization as the path to riches and the university as capitalist enterprise.

I decided to teach The Great Gatsby in my first-year literature class. My African students were completing their first two years of college before coming to the United States, and I imagined that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel would serve as an introduction to American life: the depthless yearning that bears tragedy in its wake, the inchoate nature of a culture that has never quite defined itself. I have to admit my motives weren’t entirely selfless. I was writing a novel and I wanted to examine Fitzgerald’s writing more closely.

At first, my students hated Gatsby. I mean, hated it. Fitzgerald’s parsing of 1920s upper-class mores, punctuated by moments when he tears them apart (“the secret griefs of wild, unknown men”) were tough calls for teenagers from Francophone Africa struggling with basic English. After a while, though, it became clear that my students and Jay Gatsby shared a a lingua franca: money.

The students’ view of America was as a Promised Land, the Magical Realm of the Bizopp. Their imaginings were mirrored by the university president’s aspirations for his African venture. Their shared fantasy was Gatsby’s, too: a hazy, half-angry, half-romantic view of an earthly paradise where a sense of injustice was salved and dreams came true, all powered by unexpressed greed.

My revelation didn’t come easily. For the first week, I winced inwardly at my struggles to elicit a reaction from my skeptical students: a smile, a nod, an argument, anything but resounding silence. “I know you’re out there, I can hear you breathing,” I wanted to say, the plaint of a Vegas comic. Was it a problem with the language?

As it turned out, I was the one who didn’t understand.

The first student to take pity on me was the affable son of a Nigerian customs agent. (“My father is the only one who’s not corrupt,” he volunteered, before describing luxurious family vacations in Hawaii and the South of France.) The university’s West African campus had been a bust, he confided during his requisite appearance for my office hours.

The idea was to offer two years of college at relatively low cost: $12,000 a year. After completing their basic courses, the students could transfer to the university’s American campus, where their parents would be on the hook for $40,000 a year. Or they could apply to other universities in the U.S., two years of American-style education strengthening their application.

The proverbial win-win, on the face of it. For African families, the university not only cut costs, but streamlined the challenging process of obtaining a student visa. For the university, Africa’s newly monied classes — Africa Rising! — promised an expanding revenue stream.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Originally, the Dakar campus had been conceived as a desirable assignment for the university’s professors. By the time I arrived, there was only one other American. Ted, I’ll call him. Ted reminded me of the agent Marlowe encountered on his way upriver in Heart of Darkness, a low-level bureaucrat believed to be spying on behalf of the rubber plantation’s manager. Conrad’s character was notable for being a hoarder of small luxuries that are difficult to obtain in remote places.

Illustration for Heart of Darkness competition by Sean McSorley

“He struck a match, and I perceived that this young aristocrat had not only a silver-mounted dressing-case but also a whole candle all to himself. Just at that time the manager was the only man supposed to have any right to candles,” Conrad wrote.

Like the manager, Ted kept the one working printer in his private quarters; the rest of us were left to the empty promises of the Liberian computer teacher, who doubled as the school’s IT guy. In practice, this reduced us to begging the boubou-clad Senegalese secretaries to print out our readings and assignments.

Ted had an explosive temper, and it surfaced almost immediately. I arrived a week before the semester started, and in that first week he fired me three times. The first was after I read student essays to determine placement. Shocked at the students’ poor English, I handed the majority of the papers back, telling him these students needed to remain in developmental English. Having recently earned my MFA, I was stoked about teaching, but I had no training in English as a Second Language, much less English as a Fourth Language, which it was for many of these freshmen. Their essays were incomprehensible.

Ted went postal, accusing me of not wanting to work, as if I were a recalcitrant coolie. Here’s what I didn’t know: parents had been complaining about spending $12,000 a year on developmental English classes that earned their kids no college credit. With enrollment declining, the school had been forced to engage in what is politely termed social promotion. The university could have allowed teachers to switch between French and English in the classroom, the more modern bilingual approach that has been shown to improve student performance, but we were strictly forbidden to speak French anywhere on campus.

As I was to learn, the upside of Ted’s rages was their brief shelf life. Minutes after he fired me, he was calmly showing me how to evaluate the student papers. One simply got used to a certain version of English, a language unto itself. Alrighty. I cut the reading list for my classes in half and carried on.

To be fair, Ted cared about the students, and at times, he acted as their advocate. He didn’t feel the same protectiveness toward me. After he had fired me two more times - I no longer recall why - someone on the staff told me that he had Asperger’s. Nobody had informed the students, of course. My second informant, a female student with a ladylike Jackie Kennedy flip who struck me as mature beyond her years, explained that Ted’s rages were the reason the students were so determinedly silent in class.

“They think that’s just how Americans are,” she said.

Americans, one can say generally, are not at their best in foreign countries. We speak too loudly, few of us speak foreign languages, our manners are brusque to nonexistent. My own stress was exacerbated by the fact that I was newly married. At a writers conference in Kenya, I had fallen in love with a former professional soccer player from an island off the coast. We married quickly; otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible for him to come to the U.S. We were madly in love and perhaps, like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, I craved an answer.

The deal was that my husband would take college courses in Dakar while I taught. He chafed at being a student again. He found Dakar oppressive: hot, humid, too urban. He hated being supported by me, he said. I think what he actually hated was the loss of status that he had on his home island, and the strangeness of it all. We began to live separate lives. He gave English lessons to a cute neighbor. Refusing to go out with me, he watched music videos and smoked. I stayed awake until the early morning hours, watching 30 Rock on pirate websites because it reminded me of being single.

At the beginning of the second week, I abandoned my purist notions of the written word. My odd fixation on the antiquated practice of reading hadn’t been popular with my post-literate, social media-addicted American students either. Firing up my laptop, I dialed in the school’s Internet connection and slalomed through the Jazz Age: the wild music, the relaxation of moral standards, the artwork of Modigliani and Picasso with their whopping debts to African art.

The Roaring Twenties were a lot like present-day Senegal, where globalization was running up against the country’s rich and creative indigenous culture. Rap music and Facebook were popular among my students, but so was “tradition” which had a fashionable black power aspect including a cordial relationship with Bob Marley. When several of my male students wanted to write a defense of female genital mutilation, I used every bit of tact that I possessed to gently convince them that this was likely to cause a controversy that would obscure our larger mission: ensuring their ability to write a bulletproof college admissions essay.

The Jazz Age made sense to the students, its convention-defying flappers and post-modern juxtaposition of old and new. At Modigliani, the hands started going up, tentatively at first, then energetically. Modigliani’s narrow, mask-like faces, the slits of eyes, the sense those faces conveyed of a knowledge beyond the quotidian power of words, seen in a new context, these qualities were both arresting and familiar. The notion that Africa could influence Europe instead of the other way around wasn’t something the students had learned in secondary school.

Our classroom became more enjoyable. But when they turned in their Gatsby essays, I was flummoxed again. I had offered several choices, but many students chose to write about Daisy. Not Jay Gatsby, the book’s most complex character. Not Nick, the preternaturally passive narrator, or Tom Buchanan, a rich bully with no redeeming characteristics other than his immovable status in the stratified world of 1920s America. No. They wanted to write about Daisy.

“Daisy only cared about money.” I read this simple declarative sentence, written in surprisingly clear English, in almost every essay.

Poor Daisy! I wore out my pencil reminding my students of the passage describing Daisy’s decision to marry Tom Buchanan, if it was a decision - and that’s just the point. How many choices did Daisy have, a woman in the 1920s?

It seemed perfectly clear to me, an American woman, as Gatsby finally unveils the secret of his past to Nick Carraway. Gatsby’s real name is Jimmy Gatz. Daisy was the first “nice girl” he had ever known. Nick hears of their wartime courtship, Gatsby’s success in the military, and how it went wrong:

After the Armistice he tried frantically to get home, but some complication or misunderstanding sent him to Oxford instead. He was worried now there was a quality of nervous despair in Daisy's letters. She didn't see why he couldn't come. She was feeling the pressure of the world outside, and she wanted to see him and feel his presence beside her and be reassured that she was doing the right thing after all.

For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the "Beale Street Blues" while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.

Through this twilight universe Daisy began to move again with the season; suddenly she was again keeping half a dozen dates a day with half a dozen men, and drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed. And all the time something within her was crying for a decision.

“Doesn’t it sound like she’s depressed? I asked. “She’s drifting, right? Passive. Do you think women had freedom back in the 1920s? She took a risk by falling in love with someone who wasn’t from her social class. And Gatsby didn’t come back for her!”

One student tapped his pencil. Another simply shook his head, and then cut his eyes away.

“She just wanted money,” he said, finally.

The others nodded, looking at me expectantly, as if hoping if a light bulb would incandesce over the head of a particularly slow child.

My husband decided to bag the whole thing in November. He missed his children and it was becoming clear that I would not stay for the spring semester. Naturally, as he prepared to leave, romance reared its paradoxical head.

I have the photograph of our bittersweet night at a faux French bistro, quite Parisian, as if it were the Roaring Twenties, my husband’s face, the cigarette in his hand, piano player in the background. In the photos of us together, I am tan and smiling and utterly bereft.

Once I was no longer worried about my husband’s unhappiness, I noticed that classroom participation improved. I may have been less stressed out. At the same time, I suspect my informants had reported back to the other students, reassuring them that I wouldn’t go ballistic if they spoke up in class.

The final papers on Gatsby showed students expanding their notions of the book, particularly its social context. They had learned about the Jazz Age and its similarities to contemporary West Africa. In Senegal, and virtually every country in the world, diverse cultures were flooding into people’s consciousnesses, thanks to Facebook, and music videos, and universities like ours.

Taking a chance, I assigned Heart of Darkness, followed by Chinua Achebe’s landmark 1975 speech “An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness,” and a passage from Adam Hochschild’s groundbreaking history of the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost. This risky move became the high point of what would turn out to be my abbreviated teaching career. I could barely stop the students from shouting at once. The semester ended on a high note.

I won the war, but I lost the battle for Daisy. I insisted that they were applying a double standard - I hadn't heard any criticism of the horrible Tom Buchanan - and suggested that their singleminded focus on her materialism was simplistic. I identified with Daisy: the inability to make a full-throated decision, the need for an outside force to shape one’s life.

I remembered a friend, another Peace Corps veteran, bemoaning her teenage daughter’s feigned helplessness in the presence of boys. “Africans don’t have our cult of helpless beauty,” she had said.

After basically getting myself fired, I joined my husband on Lamu, the island off the coast of Kenya where he had lived most of his life. I fell madly in love with his kids, we sorted out some issues, as they say, and after five months, when I was running out of money and headed home, we decided we were in it for the long haul.

None of this made me an old Africa hand, yet when I returned to the U.S., everything felt wrong. A Stanford grad who served in the Peace Corps in Somalia in the 1960s told me that the reverse culture shock is worse than the normal kind. The place you considered your home suddenly feels vertiginous and unfamiliar; threatening, even. What I experienced is essentially what many Americans feel now, in the Age of Trump. Dude, where’s my country?

I had left for Dakar in August of 2008, slipping out of the U.S. effortlessly, the housing meltdown a collection of headlines on the financial pages. I sold my house in Tucson close to the top of the market, using the money to bankroll research for my novel.

I expected that I’d move back to one of the places I’d lived before: New York, Washington, D.C., maybe San Francisco. Our unplanned departure had bollixed up my husband’s visa status and I had no idea how long it would be until my husband arrived in the U.S. Everything felt provisional, unsettled.

I spent a month in Manhattan, where I had grown up, staying at an apartment that had belonged to the mother of a high school friend. Margie’s mother, a sculptor, had recently died and her apartment was on the market. A rambling co-op with casement windows, the living room proffered a view of city streets like an Atget photograph. When the real estate agent wanted to show it, I would clean frantically, or call my mother’s housekeeper, who was seventy-five years old and needed the extra money.

I spent long days riding the subway around Brooklyn, looking at apartment shares with people several decades younger than myself, the only places I could afford. I saw a lot of Brooklyn, and the subway, until a sensible young woman in Carroll Gardens told me that if I wanted to finish my novel, New York wasn’t the place. You had to work full-time to live there; it was just too expensive. My best friend swooped in, offering to rent me her mother’s pied a terre in San Francisco’s Marina District. I’d helped her find it, so I knew how much it cost: fifteen hundred dollars a month.

“How much can you pay?” she asked me.

“Three hundred,” I said, honestly. Three hundred was what I had paid as a renter in Tucson and I had less than $10,000 to my name. The same friend helped me land a gig with the University of California, providing “content” for their website. I trolled Craigslist, looking for the same mythical “deal” I had searched for in New York, with the same success: zero.

And I wrote.

I knew what denial was, and I knew I was practicing it. I told myself this was the only way I could finish my novel. I was wrong, of course: I should have rushed to get a job and written on the weekends. But I was convinced that if I could just finish the book, I would be able to go on to the next stage, whatever that might be. I’d enjoyed a certain success in my earlier career. I assumed that all I had to do was show up, once I deigned to, work like a demon, and it would all happen again.

The university gig became sporadic. My editor had reached the terminal age of sixty, the factor of irrelevance in American society, and was being eased out. As my Dakar savings drained away, I kept bankrolling my husband’s visa fees, including the trips back and forth to the U.S. consulate in Nairobi. Before becoming a tour guide, he had been a plumber, and I’d seen Moonstruck. Once he arrived I figured my troubles would be over.

The next nine years were marked by unpredictable fits and starts. My husband had elegant manners; truly elegant because they were genuine. He listened sympathetically when people unburdened themselves. He was unfailingly kind, at least to strangers. Put him in a suit and he could pass for a lawyer or a banker. My stepsister once called him an angel.

He couldn’t fill out a job application, read a map, or drive a car. Every few months, he would insist on returning to Kenya, overcome by the strangeness and difficulty of life in the United States. Even if he left with money, a crisis inevitably arose: malaria, his mother’s tuberculosis, an Al-Shabaab attack that shut down the construction project he was supervising. Western Union and I became close; closer than I wanted.

I was becoming African. I had warmth, loyalty, and kinship. Money was another matter. As work on my novel dragged on, and my assignments for the university dwindled and finally disappeared, it dawned on me that I was poor. Not the voluntary poverty I’d embraced in Tucson, leveraging my expensive education to spend time in nature while earning a marginal living as a writer. This was real poverty. Desperate, powerless, unable to plan for anything beyond the next cri