My father used to tell me stories all the time, stories of the Old Country. That Old Country being Nyasaland, of course, and sometimes Rhodesia. Neither of those countries existed by the time he left the Old Country with my mother and me for Canada.
His stories were weird in the kind of way that stories immigrants tell can be, but it used to hammer home to me the fact that, despite being a white man, he was absolutely a foreigner to the place I was growing up. It’s not to say he didn’t have advantages over, say, some of the immigrants from Serbia, or Somalia, or Ethiopia: heavy accent or no, his first language was English, and he was outwardly indistinguishable from the dominant majority of white Canadians.
But I found it interesting just how well he got along with immigrants from those places, compared to “white bread Canadians.” At work, I remember him siding with the Serbian guy who’d been a QA agent back in his homeland, and pushing for the guy to have a lab assistant job because he was, indeed, qualified. I remember him going out of his way to give business to a Somalian guy who ran a samosa-making business or something. And he did have other things in common with those people, after all: he’d left the world he’d known for another; his educational background had been all but dismissed outright; and he experienced the people with whom he was surrounded, including, I think, me and my sisters, as a foreign culture.
And the man could tell stories. He told them all the time, though I was less around to hear them as he got older. But I remember passing afternoons or evenings in the car with him, driving from Prince Albert to Saskatoon for my bass lesson and my sisters’ Youth Orchestra rehearsals, or for my saxophone lessons on Sundays. The Sundays were the best, because it was just him and me, and though it was five hours in the car every second week, and though for about half a year a miscommunication — which my teacher never pointed out or corrected to me, though we’d prepaid the lessons — cut my lesson time in half, the real happiness of those Sundays for me was being with my dad, who told me these stories.
Crazy stories: stories of being in the riot police in Rhodesia (because Nyasaland was no more — it was Malawi, and it was independent by then, or at least the British colonials were doing there service in places other than Malawi). Stories about how my great-grandfather had been a Knight of Malta, as well as a newspaperman. (My dad said he’d covered the Spanish Civil War, but all we have of the man anymore is a notebook full of poems translated into languages like Spanish and Esperanto — and a pendant and tie pin I haven’t seen in years, and which I left with my mother years ago.
And he told me weirder stories, too: stories about mercenaries at a bar he was working at once summer; stories about secret societies targeting him as the local chicken inspector; a myth about a banana mountain that might just as easily have been heard in the barracks as read in some novel by H. Rider Haggard. It is that one, the story of the Banana Mountain, that was in my head all day on Sunday, which was father’s day. No, I didn’t forget, I just didn’t write about it. I had that story in my head, though, all day long, and I’ve been thinking it over, trying to remember it as he told me, trying to think of it.
One of the last times I saw him, I gave my father a notebook and told him he should write some of his stories down. That I’d like to read them one day. But he stayed true to his response, which was, “No, son, you’re the writer. You should write them down.”
I’ve no illusions about the fact that the stories changed, over time. That the details that crept in as he got older sometimes left me wondering which version was true — though once in a while, we discovered something was, indeed, true, that we’d doubted. (Like the story of the hidden village of two-toed people, which, when I told it to some friends last summer at WorldCon, evoked doubt, but turned out to be true — though of course the hokey explanation offered in my dad’s telling of the story, which was, “so they could climb trees better,” wasn’t at all true.) But I still feel like I should have gone back at some point and sat him down and interviewed him for a month, just to hear all those stories. I feel like, for all the listening, the one story I never really heard was his life’s story.
But then, that’s how lives are — my father didn’t know my life story, either. Your life story is your own, and finally, it’s the stories you spin off into others’ worlds that are what you give away most honestly and most freely.
So here is, as best as I can remember it, but of course, colored by my understanding (or misunderstanding), mangled by my memory…and I do find it curious that the wild bananas in the story are so unlike real wild bananas. Ah well. Maybe it was a mountainful of Gros Michels? I do remember my father telling me African use of bananas almost always depended on the banana being green. I’m sure there’s much more that’s misremembered, some by me, perhaps some by my father too, but this is the best I can do at the moment.
Anyway, here it is:
The Story of Banana Mountain
There was a man who was traveling in what is now, but was not then, Zimbabwe. It was a rough, mountainous area that he’d not been to before — not many white men had ventured in those parts. He pointed at a mountain and asked his guide what it was called.
“No, boss, we don’t go there,” the guide replied with more than a touch of anxiety in his voice. What he meant was, you don’t go there, but the man wasn’t about to take orders from a guide, and anyway, he’d only asked for information.
He cleared his throat and turned to look at his guide once again. “I asked, what’s it called, right? Now what is that mountain’s name?”
His guide looked at him warily and said, “In my language, it is called ‘Banana Mountain’.”