Chilson, Peter 1961–
Chilson, Peter 1961–
Born July 3, 1961, in Detroit, MI. Education: Syracuse University, B.A. (international relations and journalism), 1984; Pennsylvania State University, M.F.A. (creative writing), 1994.
Home—Moscow, ID, and Portland, OR. Office—Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-5020. E-mail—[email protected]
Essayist, journalist, and educator. Peace Corps volunteer, Niger, Africa, 1985-87; Associated Press, freelance reporter, West Africa; High Country News, Paonia, CO, associate editor, 1997-98; Washington State University, Pullman, assistant professor of English, 1998—.
Associated Writing Programs Award in nonfiction, 1999, for Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa; Gulf Coast Fiction Prize; Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize in fiction, for Disturbance-Loving Species: A Novella and Stories.
Riding the Demon (nonfiction), University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1999.
Disturbance-loving Species: A Novella and Stories, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2007.
Also author of short fiction, essays, and reports for several magazines and newspapers, including the London Daily Telegraph, Audubon, West Africa magazine, and North American Review.
After completing his undergraduate education in 1984, Peter Chilson volunteered for the Peace Corps and spent two years in the West African country of Niger. He then remained for a time in West Africa as a freelance reporter. In 1992 Chilson returned to Niger and traveled that country's rural roads via the notoriously unreliable bush taxi to explore the country and get an insider's view of its society. The result is Riding the Demon, a travel book that depicts the extremely dangerous and superstitious road culture of West Africa.
The book's title comes from the superstitious belief in demons by many of the bush taxi drivers and their passengers as they travel at speeds of up to one hundred miles per hour in the typical Peugeot 504 station wagon. Sometimes filled to the brim with up to ten passengers, these bush taxis are notoriously unreliable and pieced together haphazardly with bald tires, wire, and anything else available that will keep the taxis running. As these pieced-together cars speed down the roads, the drivers and their passengers routinely witness catastrophic accidents—that is, if they're lucky enough not to be in one.
In the book's opening scene, Chilson describes one such accident in which a station wagon and a gasoline tanker collide and leave behind only the charred shells of the vehicles and the remains of the dead passengers. In addition to the harrowing driving and fatal accidents, Chilson also describes how the drivers and their passengers routinely face hostile soldiers who often stop the taxis to collect bribes and harass the drivers and passengers. These soldiers have also been known to rape and kill female passengers. "Little wonder that a fatalistic belief in the ‘demons’ of the road dominates the drivers—a set of beliefs that also draws in the author, whose own fear is assuaged by amulets and, on occasion, numb withdrawal," commented a contributor to Publishers Weekly. Guided by his bush taxi driver, Issoufou Garba, Chilson spends most of his time in Niger but also makes forays into neighboring Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast. For Chilson, the bush taxi and its drivers are a metaphor that represents Africa's struggles for a more stable and prosperous society, and bush cabbie Issoufou enables Chilson to enter a world that few outsiders ever see.
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Adam Goodheart commented, "There's almost a flavor of science fiction to the scenes Chilson describes, as though he were giving us a glimpse into a twenty-first-century dystopia of mad egoism and hurtling hulks of metal." Goodheart went on to note, "And Chilson's book, as vivid in places as a nightmare, has all the revelatory power of the early explorers' narratives, with their shreds of myth and rumor snatched from the borders of terra incognita." The Publishers Weekly contributor called Riding the Demon a "vivid exploration of road culture." Booklist contributor Joe Collins noted that "Chilson is expert at getting readers to shake their heads in disbelief."
Chilson's first book of fiction, Disturbance-loving Species: A Novella and Stories, also explores the culture shock that results when West African and American cultures meet. The novella "Tea with Soldiers," for example, focuses on protagonist David Carter, a young American who teaches English at a high school in Niger. The local government, however, believes him to be a spy, and David's situation—and that of his students and colleagues—becomes fraught with misunderstanding and peril. In "Freelancing," a journalist is shocked at the seeming lack of sensitivity of his photographer, who can snap images of horrors as if unaffected by them. Another story describes the trouble that ensues when a West African ecologist, who teaches in Oregon, boils a goat's head outside of his apartment building.
Critics admired Disturbance-loving Species as an affecting and honest book that avoids the usual cliches associated with its themes. A writer for Publishers Weekly deemed the book a "promising" fiction debut, adding that Chilson "expertly balances the political and emotional realities of troubled people in troubled places." Booklist contributor Deborah Donovan praised the book for the brilliance of its technique and the depth and complexity of its thematic concerns, calling it a "vivid and eye-opening" work. Disturbance-loving Species won the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize in fiction.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March, 1999, Joe Collins, review of Riding the Demon, p. 1146; August 1, 2007, Deborah Donovan, review of Disturbance-loving Species: A Novella and Stories, p. 32.
Library Journal, April 1, 1999, Mark L. Grover, review of Riding the Demon, p. 120.
New York Times Book Review, June 6, 1999, Adam Goodheart, review of Riding the Demon, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly, February 22, 1999, review of Riding the Demon, p. 77; June 25, 2007, review of Disturbance-loving Species, p. 33.
Times Literary Supplement (London, England), July 30, 1999, Deborah L. Manzolillo, review of Riding the Demon, p. 9.
Peter Chilson Home Page,http://www.wsu.edu/~pchilson (June 2, 2008).
Washington State University, Department of English Web site,http://www.libarts.wsu.edu/english/ (June 2, 2008), Peter Chilson faculty profile.