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Casting with a Fragile Thread: A Story of Sisters and Africa
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Casting with a Fragile Thread: A Story of Sisters and Africa

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by Wendy Kann

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One Sunday morning in her suburban home in Connecticut, Wendy Kann received a phone call: her youngest sister, Lauren, had been killed on a lonely road in southern Africa. With that news, Kann is summoned back to the territory of her youth in what is now Zimbabwe. The girls' privileged colonial childhood, a rural life of mansions and servants, is devastated by


One Sunday morning in her suburban home in Connecticut, Wendy Kann received a phone call: her youngest sister, Lauren, had been killed on a lonely road in southern Africa. With that news, Kann is summoned back to the territory of her youth in what is now Zimbabwe. The girls' privileged colonial childhood, a rural life of mansions and servants, is devastated by their father's premature death, their mother's insanity, and the onset of civil war. Kann soon leaves Africa, marries an American, and has finally settled into the dry sophistication of life in the States when her sister's death calls her back.

With honesty and compassion, Kann pieces together her sister's life, explores the heartbreak of loss and the struggle to belong, and finally discovers a new, more complicated meaning of home.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“One of the most beautifully written, harrowing, compassionate nonfiction books I've read in years. Written with fierce love and a kind of sun-forged courage, it's heartbreaking, almost unbearably real, and incredibly hopeful.” —Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

“[Wendy Kann] writes from the perspective of a daughter and a mother, with a twinge of regret but not the gnawing homesickness of other writers cursed and fortunate enough to have been raised on that remarkable continent. The book's refreshingly crisp, uncloying, practical tone makes you feel empathy for a woman who lost her sister in a faraway land.” —Los Angeles Times

“Kann's debut is brave, brutally honest, and highly readable. Her prose is poignant and elegant; it especially comes alive when she is describing the land and the people of Africa.” —Library Journal

“This is more than a touching story of personal tragedy. Wendy Kann paints an unapologetic and thoughtful view of a different kind of minority. She is first a settler: a white Zimbabwean, brought up in a privileged but dysfunctional cocoon of expats, alcoholics, and hardbitten farmers. She is later an improbable African immigrant: a Western-looking woman bewildered and alone on the streets of New York. Her candid treatment of race is refreshingly free of political correctness, her tales of bridging cultures are insightful and thought-provoking, and her family's searing history is penned with honesty. Best of all, her lovely words reflect an introspection and grace that are sometimes borne out of so much hardship.” —Sarah Erdman, author of Nine Hills To Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village

“I was very affected by this accomplished memoir. Wendy Kann, with often heart-breaking and evocative detail, has brought back a small gem from her colonial experience of Africa.” —Carolyn Slaughter, author of A Black Englishman and Before The Knife: Memories of an African Childhood

“Wendy Kann's courageous memoir is marked by loss--of a mother and a father, of a country, of a sister. Her work is remarkably free of sentimentality. Instead she writes eloquently about her and her sisters increasingly desperate struggle for love and sense of belonging in a family disintegrating at the same time that a brutal civil war breaks out in Rhodesia. She vividly captures the fear and denial and disbelief of her fellow white countrymen in the years preceding independence. Though painful at times, her journey back to Zimbabwe and her reclaiming of her childhood years in Africa is a gripping read.” —Lisa Fugard, author of Skinner's Drift

“Kann writes brilliantly about sisters: their frictions, their intimacies, and, above all, their binding loyalty, even when time has moved them continents apart. Her memoir takes us on an emotional helter-skelter, from the entitlement and raw racism of her African childhood, through troughs of poverty and abandonment, to an ascendant understanding of what means to live and love. Reads like a sequel to Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and Doris Lessing's memoirs.” —Rob Nixon, Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin and author of Dreambirds

Publishers Weekly
When Rhodesia declared independence from Britain in 1965, five-year-old Kann, the daughter of white Africans, would entertain her father's tennis party guests by singing, "Rhodesia has sanctions, and I can't have Marmite on my toast!" In her 20s, Kann left what had become Zimbabwe for the U.S. Drawn back to Africa by the sudden death of one of her sisters (in a 1999 car crash in Zambia), Kann found herself reexamining her earlier life. Her alcoholic mother-"There should be lots of words to describe drunk mothers, like the Inuit have words for snow"-and her morose father had divorced early; the stepmother who raised the girls after their father's suicide was barely able to manage. The country itself had always been in a state of war; as Kann realized when she first met her American husband, "I had never dated a man who hadn't killed someone, or at least been prepared to kill someone." Until recently, writers like Joseph Conrad and Paul Theroux have defined the white colonial experience in literature. Now, with Alexandra Fuller (Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) and Kann, we're hearing from a different constituency: the daughters. Their tales, Kann's included, make for fascinating reading. Look for PW's upcoming Q&A with Wendy Kann. (May 8) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this lush and lyrical memoir, Kann recaptures her sometimes idyllic, mostly difficult childhood in colonial African Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) of the 1960s and 1970s. Kann left Africa as a young woman, but after her sister's sudden and tragic death in an automobile accident there in 1999, she returned to their childhood home. Struggling to deal with the loss, she uses the memoir form to reexamine her own life, which has included residence on three continents and been marked alternatively by privilege and hardship. Though at times self-conscious and chronologically confusing, Kann's debut is brave, brutally honest, and highly readable. Her prose is poignant and elegant; it especially comes alive when she is describing the land and people of Africa. Through her eyes, we also see America from another perspective and are reminded not only of the differences but also of the commonalities between us. Managing to make the memories of her family and past accessible to the reader, Kann has penned a beautiful and engaging memoir suitable for public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/06.]-Mary Grace Flaherty, Sidney Memorial P.L., NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fans of Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight will enjoy this memoir of growing up in Rhodesia. "Lauren, my youngest sister, was killed in a car accident on a straight and lonely road in Zambia in 1999." After that opening line-whose adequate, but not especially lovely prose is representative of the rest of the book-Kann looks back to her childhood. Her mother was a "versatile, complicated drunk," her father died in an accident that local gossips described as a suicide, and her stepmother, trying to bring up five children on little money, was both strong and needy, beautiful and manipulative. Kann managed to escape after falling in love with a gentle, sensitive American, Mickey, whom she followed to Manhattan and soon married. The couple eventually made their way to a suburban dreamland: three kids, sprawling house in Westport, Conn., pool men, gardeners. Kann filled her days with PTA meetings and carpool and "social obligations." She kept up with her two sisters, who both lived in Africa. Kann was especially concerned about Lauren, whose husband was charming but emotionally abusive. Lauren whispered about her unhappiness whenever her sister phoned; the only bright spot in her life was her new baby, Luke. After Lauren's fatal car crash, Kann rushed to Africa, spending many weeks caring for her young nephew. And then . . . well, not much, which is this memoir's weakness. Kann has set us up for great emotional catharsis, for reckoning with one's homeland, for confronting inner demons. What we get, instead, is a canned description of sorting through Lauren's clothes, and a saccharine conversation on the trampoline with nephew Luke: "It's hard for me to explain exactly how . .. special your mummy was. . . . She loved you so very much."Dysfunctional family, the mystique of colonial Africa, grief over a dead relative: This debut has a lot going for it, but never fully delivers.

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.67(d)

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a story of sisters and africa


Copyright © 2006 Wendy Kann
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8050-7956-4

Chapter One

Lauren, my youngest sister, was killed in a car accident on a straight and lonely road in Zambia in 1999. By then I was so comfortable in my American life, so warm in its assumptions, that her death felt like a betrayal. Where I live, in Westport, Connecticut, people don't die. Mothers work on the PTA or spend their days, as I do, absorbed in how to improve downtown parking and which plants are deer resistant. On my kitchen table I have a large flat desk calendar and in it I write my three children's play dates and my school, car pool, and social obligations-but I am still notorious for double booking and forgetting things. My friends usually put me at the end of the class phone chain-the system we have for letting people know about snow days and whatnot-because they know it's a little risky to put me in the middle. I make an effort to stay intellectually active. I read a lot. Helping my children with their homework keeps me thinking, and I always listen to NPR during my long hours in the car to and from their activities. My husband fills me in before bed with stories from the New York Times, if I'm not asleep before he is. By the time Lauren was killed, it had been years since I had worried about whetherpeople whom I loved might live or die.

For most of my childhood, death was background noise, like a TV left on in an empty room. I was born the oldest of three sisters in 1960 in Salisbury, Rhodesia, a teapot-shaped British colony in Southern Africa that is now Zimbabwe. When I was five, the country's two hundred thousand white settlers declared themselves independent from Britain with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, or UDI, as we called it, in an effort to guarantee permanent white minority rule. By then, there had already been alarming changes to the old imperial world: colonies had crumbled, communism loomed, adults around me spoke in nervous whispers about Europeans killed in the African countries to the north of us that had "fallen."

Technically, the Rhodesian civil war began when I was six and lasted until I was twenty, but initially the African leaders of the nascent rebel factions (including Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's current president) were disorganized and easily contained by rigorous emergency legislation imposed after UDI. By the time I was a teenager, however, the conflict had spun out of control, leaving Rhodesia embroiled in a bloody racial clash that lasted until the end of 1979, when warring parties grudgingly agreed to an uneasy peace through British-sponsored talks at Lancaster House in London. Robert Mugabe was ultimately voted into office through democratic elections; nationalists renamed the country Zimbabwe. Up to thirty thousand people, black and white, died in the struggle for independence.

Growing up in Rhodesia, there were layers to my experience of death. Not all death was war-related, but it all was part of a more general death hum that seems to hover forever in Africa. There was the drone of faceless names I didn't know. There was the gasp that came with the death of other people's relatives and acquaintances. Then there was the punch that came with the death of those I knew well and loved-my family, my friends.

But at twenty-four, when I arrived in New York, it was as if my childhood had never happened. A path diverted, a faucet of tears turned off. Americans are without a mental image of Zimbabwe, and in its place are only fumbled associations. In Manhattan, when asked who I was I would reply, "I'm Wendy; I'm from Zimbabwe," to which a response of empty eyes would be returned. I began to feel invisible.

It's difficult even for people who live in Africa to see the continent clearly. Our heads are so choked with images of white foreigners adventuring under a romantic sun or haunted black children with distended bellies teetering on skeletal legs that myth tangles itself up with truth like ancient and overgrown wisteria, hiding and distorting what's really there.

But feeling invisible was painful, so I put aside my Zimbabwean identity-like a party dress boxed and wrapped in tissue paper, only to be taken out on special occasions when I went home-and began to cultivate an American self. For years my new identity felt uncomfortable, like a different dress full of prickles and stays, a corset too tight that sometimes made breathing difficult. Eventually, I stopped looking longingly at the closed Zimbabwean box for something that fitted more easily, as what had initially been painful slowly settled into a dull but manageable throb.

Then Lauren died.

Everyone who dies is remembered by their loved ones as beautiful, but Lauren truly was. She had a particular way of moving that was graceful and deliberate, exuding a sense of, if not serenity, then the feeling that nothing could perturb her. My middle sister, Sharon, who still lives in Zimbabwe, says it was as if Lauren never quite inhabited her body but, instead, seemed to wait lightly outside of herself. Once, when Lauren leaned over to pull a heavy wooden case of beer out from under the bottom shelf on the pantry floor, a huge cobra that had been lurking there reared up and hissed in her face. Richard, her husband, told me she simply wiped her hands on the back of her shorts and went back to the breakfast table, sighing in a ho-hum sort of way. "Richard, there's a cobra in the pantry," she said, while she buttered a piece of toast, as if commenting on the weather.

I can still picture her slow-moving almond-shaped eyes, flawless skin, and high, pronounced cheekbones. She had dark blond hair, which she had highlighted when she lived in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital city, where there are hairdressers, and she used to flick it away from her face with a soft hand in a shy self-conscious manner. Her smile was broad and showed equal amounts of perfectly straight and white upper and lower teeth, which she was proud of and careful to floss.

When Lauren was happy and smiled in that broad way, she was at her most beautiful. When she wasn't happy, which was a lot of the time, she was no less beautiful, but after you first gaped at her you felt her emptiness, a too-long pause that would occur as she floundered in her head, trying to think of what to say. She grew somewhat more certain after she married, but even then those who met Lauren could sense her quiet panic and might grow uneasy and move on, leaving her to drift back into a shadowy periphery, where she was more at home anyway.

She met her husband, Richard, at a party in Wedza, a small and prosperous farming area east of Harare, about ten years after the Rhodesian war ended. It was just like Lauren to drive for three hours alone from Harare on a dark road, on which huge trucks with no headlights rumbled dangerously and abandoned buses waited shrouded in darkness, to go to a party hosted by people she didn't even know. When she called me in New York to tell me about it I muttered maternally at her recklessness and she laughed, explaining that she really needed to meet a new crowd.

Coincidently, Richard didn't know the hosts of the party either. He was from Zambia, an immense country to the north of Zimbabwe that rolls out to almost touch the middle, more unfathomable parts of Africa. There are not many white people in Zambia. Richard, a naturally shy young man then in his late twenties, grew tobacco on the same isolated farm in the southern part of the country where he had grown up.

As Lauren described to me years ago, Richard and two other Zambian bachelors, each still percolating on the warm beer and banter from their daylong drive south, boisterously outdid one another to impress her. But she was most intrigued by Richard. His startling blue eyes were difficult to ignore, his skin was tanned a deep russet, and she felt it still warm from the sun when he draped a self-consciously possessive arm around her shoulders. Fascinated by the romance of isolation, she caught the subtle scent of his loneliness and was touched, in a way, by its intense magnetism.

Lauren and Richard arranged to meet again, a few weeks later, at the elegant Victoria Falls Hotel, on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambian border. Victoria Falls is quite far from Harare, so Lauren flew north. Richard made the long journey south on a potholed ribbon of road in his overheated farm pickup. I remember her telling me how strange their meeting was; Richard's formerly smooth words seemed cut off by the unfamiliar necktie that he had quickly pulled out from the back of a drawer for the occasion, a formal dinner that was regularly interrupted by the noisy clinking of glass and silverware. After coffee Lauren suggested they walk the grounds, and they did, both wondering what to say, the sound of the falls faintly thundering through the far-off trees and the crickets shrieking loud and close.

The hotel pool was bright and deserted, with umbrellas carefully folded and loungers stacked. Lauren laughed unexpectedly and started to unbutton her blouse. She then slipped off her skirt and sandals and stepped out of her underwear. She paused for a long time, quite naked, a little heavier than she liked, her painted toes curled over the edge of the pool, smiling at the water. She let him look at her, young breasts happily unrestrained, tiny goose pimples, shocked and alert, covering her with a fine invisible down. Then she dove in with a small splash, her form cracking and quivering in the illuminated white ripples.

LAUREN WAS WORKING AS A SECRETARY FOR TABEX, THE TOBACCO auction floors in Harare, when she met Richard, a job she felt no qualms about abruptly quitting when I sent her a ticket to visit me in America. I had just had my first baby and spent those long stay-at-home hours lecturing her. I knew Lauren, how much she enjoyed what we in Zimbabwe called a "townie" life: movies and pedicures, cappuccinos (nothing an Italian would recognize), and salads at trendy places for lunch. She had watched a lot of Dynasty as a teenager and sometimes still tilted her chin and tried on those upper-crust mannerisms. Once, for a wedding, she rented an enormous feathered hat from Reps Theatre, which she wore with aplomb, blocking views at the church, tickling polite noses in the car, bobbing like a baby ostrich at the luncheon that followed. And she didn't do it as a joke.

I reminded her that even in Zimbabwe, where most farms and their communities were wealthy and established, a farming life was a lonely one in which men and their African labor took on the challenges of the land and left little, really, for their wives to do. Black servants took care of the children and housework. White women kept themselves sane with sewing groups and gardening clubs and flower-arranging circles. They drove trucks long distances, their hairlines full of dust, to visit female neighbors for tea and cake, desperate to confide frustrations with kids or husbands-impatient to forget their isolation, or grumble how hot it was, or wonder aloud, to another white woman, about whether or not it might rain.

I admit I didn't know a lot about Zambia then. In my mind it was one of those limitless slabs of Africa that baked quietly under the relentless sun. Though it had rich copper deposits near its border with Congo and enough fertile land to be plucked up as the British colony they called Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe was Southern Rhodesia and then, after Zambian independence, just plain Rhodesia), it never attracted many white settlers. It was too far-well, north, and the malaria was unmanageable, so Britain gave it up fairly easily in the early sixties when nationalists made a fuss.

Many of the girls who boarded at my high school in Salisbury came from Zambia. During the war, Zambia supported freedom-fighter or terrorist camps-it's hard to find the right word for them now-and Rhodesian troops staged dramatic bombing raids on Zambian soil. The thick Zambezi River marks the boundary between the two countries. In those days, the bus that took the Zambian boarders home wasn't allowed to cross the bridge spanning the bottomless gorge where the river becomes the Victoria Falls, so my schoolmates were dropped off in their brown pleated skirts and turquoise blouses and instructed to drag their heavy trunks over steamy concrete and steel into their different and dangerous world.

"Is there at least a club in Choma?" I asked Lauren, on one of those afternoons in Manhattan. Every African farming district I'd ever heard of had a club-a few tennis courts for the ladies or a Sunday afternoon of mixed doubles and a hall-like clubhouse with a long bar at one end. Farmers showered and combed, darkly sunburned, uncomfortably formal in long pants, sipped beer there on Friday or Saturday nights while their wives fussed in the kitchen, swatting flying ants off the beef Stroganoff and pinching moths out of puddings. Parties at rural clubs were notoriously festive, with children sleeping in corners or shrieking on the rickety playground long after midnight. Eventually, somebody's husband would grope another woman or vomit into the flower bed, which gave the district something to gossip about for weeks.

Lauren said that there was a club in Chorea, and, during Richard's childhood when Zambia was still Northern Rhodesia, it had once even hosted black-tie dinners, but she laughed now at how hard that was to imagine. The club building still existed, but only just. The swimming pool had been empty for years; its sides collapsing in great concrete lumps atop tufts of grass that pushed through the cracked, chalky bottom. There was a Coke machine-Lauren laughed at my surprise (even Zimbabwean clubs weren't advanced enough for Coke machines)-but then she added that it didn't work. Desperate women sometimes, but not often, drove hot hours to the Choma club to meet other white wives on the potholed tennis court there. It was risky, communication being what it is in Zambia, to plan a game. Too often, one would simply have to sigh and drive those long hours home again after slapping mopane flies and mosquitoes, enduring the whimpers of balding kaffir dogs and giggling hellos from scampering bone-thin children practicing their English, who would be intrigued, in a place where nothing changed, by a mazungu, or white woman, with a tennis racket.

My motives for dissuading Lauren from Richard were not entirely selfless. I was lonely and wanted her to move to America. During her three months in New York I encouraged her to study, but she chose courses like Off-Broadway Theater, which left her lost in a sea of first-world inside jokes. I encouraged her to date, but one young investment banker I introduced her to spent the evening rudely checking the gold price on something demanding and electronic in his pocket.

Lauren, like me, was baffled by America but had no particular interest in grappling to find an identity that Americans could recognize. We laughed when a young woman on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 49th Street approached us to be part of a TV focus group; when we said we were from Zimbabwe, she said, "I'll just put down New Jersey." Later that same trip, Lauren was spat on by a homeless man on the A train, leaving an oozing oysterlike blob of yellow mucus wandering down the front of her shirt. She left New York in disgust.

LAUREN WAS MARRIED IN THE OLD PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH ON Enterprise Road in Harare and had her wedding reception in the Kariba Room of the Holiday Inn. Richard's Zambian friends packed their best clothes and drove south in pickups and station wagons stuffed with coolers, pillows, and orange peel. Delighted at the excuse for a party, they were nevertheless awkward with the bustle of Harare after their quiet farms. When they arrived, they tapped out quick cigarettes, sucking on them hungrily with uneasy sun-browned lips. Richard's best man, Darren, had long blond hair that fell past his shoulders and wore a string of crocodile teeth on a strip of leather around his neck.


Excerpted from CASTING WITH A FRAGILE THREAD by WENDY KANN Copyright © 2006 by Wendy Kann. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Wendy Kann lives in Connecticut with her husband and children. Casting with a Fragile Thread is her first book.

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