Lisa Cupolo on Her Year in Kenya

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portraits.jpgLisa Cupolo’s story “Long Division” appears in our Spring 2010 issue, and is currently available to read on our site. The journey begins with a father who leaves Portland for an African village nine-thousand miles away, only to remember the son he never was close to:

Then I’m just standing there watching him do the work of organizing things in this camp, or whatever it is. When he was little I helped him with math problems once. Once. His mother talked about that a lot in the weeks before she died; the only instance of my being a father to him. The famous instance.

As their encounter progresses, the father reveals to his son Tim what’s troubling him at home–as Tim questions the certainty of what “home” means anymore.
In her own words, Cupolo shared with us how her own pilgrimage to Africa formed the backdrop of her fiction.

In 2001, I spent close to a year in western Kenya working at an AIDS orphanage in Kisumu on Lake Victoria. At the time, Canadian Stephen Lewis had just been named the Special Envoy to the UN Aids Relief, which launched the Grandmothers in Africa campaign. These events formed the inspiration for this story.

The UN’s work hadn’t reached Kisumu. In fact, there was little to no talk of AIDS in the concrete building where I lived with thirty children. And the patriarch of the house, a man named Nelson, would get very angry if I talked about having the children tested or wanting to explain why their parents had died.

The day I arrived at the orphanage was the day the teacher didn’t show up. So I became the teacher and the children were very patient with me, making it all up as I went along. Their ages ranged from 18 months to 17 years, so I tried to vary things. I am writing a series of Africa stories based on what I witnessed, and what I’ve come to know about that beautiful and tragic place.

Lisa Cupolo has been a doctoring screenwriter at Paramount Pictures, as well as a literary publicist at HarperCollins, Toronto. Her articles and stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Toronto Star, ArtAsia Pacific, and many other publications. She is completing her first novel, titled Two Elizabeths.
You can download “Bread,” a Kenya-based nonfiction story by Cupolo, from Narrative magazine, here.