A Home Away From Home
A home away from home and the possibilities describes Marta Maretich. Marta was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. “I thought it was the best thing ever. I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
“We had a different background. I always felt different – like we knew about a bigger world. When you spoke to people in Bakersfield, you were met often with incomprehension. They really didn’t get it. There is something about being someone like me, where none of it is obvious. If we don’t have a conversation, you’d never know. So you have to know me.”
“I feel I spend a lot of my work trying to explain my life and get people to pay attention to its details. You can look at my life in a superficial way which is the tip of the iceberg. You can say, oh, she’s just this girl from California, went to Berkeley, it’s all fine. But when you start picking it apart, nobody’s life is really like that.”
The Possibility of Lions is a story about loss, love and the difficulty of finding a home in a changing world. The fictional book speaks about an American family, the McCall family, and they’ve always lived in Nigeria. The Biafra civil war comes in 1967 and they have to flee Nigeria as refugees and return to the United States, where they returned to a small town in San Joaquin Valley, California.
It’s also partly difficult because they don’t look like refugees. People who did not know where Nigeria is, found it very difficult to understand that this family, which seems so ordinary has been living in Nigeria for years. Everyone assumes they must be delighted to be back in their own country. This story is about difficult adjustments. Life in the States is safe, but for the McCall family, the most unlikely of refugees, it is also foreign. They dreamed of the day they would return to their real home in Africa.
Marta’s personal story is quite close to her fictional book “We literally walked out of our house with one suitcase. We left everything in there and we never saw any of our stuff or anything else again. We never went back. Marta who could be described as a Caucasian refugee in California shares an interesting insight; “People don’t realize, refugees just want is to go home”
The discussion notes Marta produces enables people to have conversations about what it could be like if you didn’t look like a refugee and had an authentic experience that no one else understood.
Success for her entails creating things that are surprising, meaningful and connecting with the readership. If it delivers, someone feel something. “That’s true, both in my creative work and in my sort of more commercial work.”
She is the author of three novels, “The Possibility of Lions“, “The Merchants Of Light” “And The Bear Suits“. Her short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in publications, included ” Boom! A Journal of California“, “The Mantle“, “The Harvard Review” and “The Anthology Inspired Journeys, Travel Writers In Search Of The Muse“. She’s been awarded artists residencies at the “Eastern Frontier Educational Foundation at Norton Island and Yaddo. She serves on the Editorial Board of the Literacy publisher, Open Door for Adult Literacy. All books have been made into audio books. This helps to break through the confusion or the difficulty people have with reading.
00:00:00 Paula: Welcome to “TesseLeads” with your host Tesse Akpeki and your cohost Paula Okonneh. “TesseLeads” is a safe, sensitive, and supportive place and space where we listen to our guests share their stories and tell their stories, and their experiences, and sometimes some of the limits that they have faced. You our audience may find these stories helpful as you navigate the uncertainties and the opportunities in your own lives. Our guest today is very special, her name is Marta Maretich. She is a novelist, she’s a journalist, she’s an editor, she’s a researcher as well as a freelance writer. Interestingly enough, she was born in a town in Nigeria called Port Harcourt, but she was raised in Bakersfield, California, and she now lives in London. She is author of three novels, “The Possibility Of Lions”, “The Merchants Of Light” “And The Bear Suits”. Her short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in publications, included ” Boom! A Journal of California”, “The Mantle”, “The Harvard Review” and “The Anthology Inspired Journeys, Travel Writers In Search Of The Muse”. She’s been awarded artists residencies at the “Eastern Frontier Educational Foundation at Norton Island and Yaddo. And in 2021, she was the visiting lecturer in creative writing at “Regions University” in London. There’s so much to say about her, but as I mentioned, in “TesseLeads”, this is an opportunity for you, our listeners to hear the story of our guests. So welcome Marta to “TesseLeads”.
00:02:05 Marta: Thank you, Paula. Thank you.
00:02:06 Tesse: Welcome Marta.
00:02:07 Marta: Hey Tesse.
00:02:08 Tesse: I’m delighted to have you. A friend, a colleague, and just so gifted. As Paula was reading your bio out, I was just beaming with pride. It’s just like, it’s me, you know. You are an amazing person. And I know that you’re serving at the moment on the Editorial Board of the Literacy publisher, Open Door for Adult Literacy . And you have a campaign of some description going on. Would you like to say a little bit about that campaign?
00:02:36 Marta: Open door is a publishing imprint that publishes original fiction for anyone who is learning to read, for reading learners. It’s geared toward adults, but they’re not abridgments and they’re not dumbed down versions of bigger books. They’re books that are written for the series by writers, not for educational purposes, but written by novelists and writers. Some of them well known. So we’re doing something that’s unusual in the literacy space, which is we’re publishing for new readers and it’s a big, series now there’s a lot of variety in it. The most recent innovation that has happened is, we’re getting all of our books made into audio books. It turns out to be a fantastic reading teaching tool. Because when you, especially when you’re talking about adult learners, you’re talking about intelligent people with families and businesses who’ve managed to live their lives without being able to read. And so listening, hearing, that skill is often very developed in them. This is how we learn. They listen and remember, and that’s how they’ve gotten by a lot of these people who are not proficient readers in adulthood. So having audio books, having books that you can read and listen to and read and listen to. You make the connect, you start making the connection between reading, speaking, and listening. And it helps the reading comprehension. It helps break through the confusion or the difficulty people have with reading. So that’s our newest triumph, which has been pulled off by our editor in chief, who is a woman in Boston named Trisha Ohara. Remarkable! This is her baby, and she has taken it from strength to strength. From her desk in her living room. She amazing.
00:04:26 Tesse: That sounds awesome. I know that you’ve written three books and they are others in the pipeline, but let’s talk about a specific one. “The Possibility Of Lions”. I’ve read it so many times. I know what’s in it and yet it continues to fascinate me. So for those people who don’t know about that book, tell them a little bit about that one.
00:04:47 Marta: “The Possibility Of Lions” is a fictional book and it tells about an American family, the McCall family, and they’ve always lived in Nigeria. But the Biafra civil war comes in 1967 and they have to flee Nigeria as refugees and return to the United States, and where they returned to a small town in California. And it’s difficult for a lot of reasons, obviously. But it’s also partly difficult because they don’t look like refugees, your normal refugees. There are white American family. They are in a place where nobody knows the story and they don’t know where Nigeria is, and people find it very difficult to understand that this family, which seems so ordinary has been living in Nigeria for years. So it’s just a very traumatic time for them. And they befriend another African sort of refugee. He’s not exactly a refugee, his name is Anatole Hachette. Anatole Hachette comes from another country in Africa. He comes from the Congo. But equally in the sixties, the Congo gained independence from Belgium, which is where he’s from and asked all the Belgians to leave. So he arrives in America, and he’s a kind of great white hunter type, let’s say. He was that in the Congo. He arrives in America with an assistant Congolese, a young man whose name is and together they have this scheme for setting up a big outdoor wild animal park in the middle of California. And they’ve brought with them a lion, a real big African lion named Roland. And they’re trying to raise money from local people to establish this wildlife park. And the McCalls, the mother, and the two children befriend Boniface Bilebu, Anatole, and try to help them get the wildlife park off the ground. And it doesn’t happen, but that’s really what the story is about. It’s about the adjustment, difficult adjustment.
00:07:03 Tesse: Difficult adjustment, and Paula I welcome your thoughts. And they said there’s never been a time in the last maybe hundred years that we’ve had to make so many difficult adjustments for all kinds of reasons. Paula what do you think ?
00:07:16 Paula: Difficult adjustments for me starts from way back. As you mentioned the Biafra war. Cause I was there in the Biafra war.
00:07:22 Tesse: I was in Ireland.
00:07:24 Marta: Yeah. I was born in Port Harcourt, and we left in 1967 with one suitcase. Literally walked out our door with one suitcase.
00:07:33 Paula: We left too in 1967. We had to leave from Enugu and go through, I don’t think we went through Port Harcourt. But we ended up in Cameroon and had to take a plane from there. That’s a long story. As I listened to the story, what was going through my mind was the similarities. We talk about difficult adjustments. I have’nt read the book, but I want to read it now, because there’s so many.
00:08:00 Marta: I’ll send you a copy.
00:08:01 Paula: Similarities. Thank you. And so my question was, how do you think being born in Port Harcourt has impacted your life and your writing? I guess that shows up in this book.
00:08:13 Marta: I always thought it was a terribly lucky thing for me to be born in Port Harcourt. My mother, I have an older brother, and my mother flew back to America to have him. And she had him in Carmel. But because she had a baby already, I ended up being born in port Harcourt. And I thought it was the best thing ever. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. And we always, my father was an oil man, and he literally hadn’t lived in the United States for 20 years. Because after the war you went prospecting, he opened all of the wells in Venezuela, the first ones. And then he opened all of the wells in Libya, the first ones. And then he went to Nigeria and opened all the first offshore wells in Nigeria. So he hadn’t lived in America forever. So we had this sort of international thing going on in our family. And the place that we moved to was basically a small, very conservative farming town, where there just weren’t people like us who had lived in other countries and who could speak other languages. Bakersfield is an oil town. It’s an American oil town. And it’s quite famous for being conservative. It’s like the two Trump supporting Senate, majority leaders, Kevin McCarthy and Devin Nunes are both from Bakersfield. And that is really the way it is. It’s a very Southern place, it was settled by people who came directly from the south to pick cotton, to have cotton fields in Bakersfield. It’s very racially divided, and we were just quite different. We had a different background. And I always felt different. I always felt like we knew about a bigger world. And when you spoke to people in Bakersfield that you were met often with incomprehension like they really didn’t get it. They didn’t get, and this is in the possibility of lions, like why it was fantastic to live in Africa. They thought everyone was like starving all the time. And in some ways, the book is really about like ideas about Africa, because Anatole Hachette the man who wants to start the wildlife park is playing into this idea of Africa, where you have lions and giraffes and guys in safari jackets and stuff, which is another fantasy people have about Africa. But it’s at least an attractive kind of one, I know it’s not, it’s a fantasy. So it’s a book about being somewhere where just people just don’t get you. You cannot find people who get you. And how hard that can be, and how hard that is to accept that you have to stay there.
00:10:56 Tesse: Yeah, so, so beautiful. As you’re just speaking, what’s coming into my mind is the struggle that you as a child and growing up now and with your parents and your brothe, as well as the trauma you might’ve gone through. I am very curious about dealing with the kind of fantasy of coming to America type Eddie Murphy type thing, “In The Possibility Of Lions”. And alongside that, I’m actually dealing with this feeling of difference. And on the surface, physically people looking at you visibly wouldn’t think that would be your struggle.
00:11:39 Marta: You guys can see me, in the podcast, people can’t see me. I just want to stress that, even though we were technically refugees, we had it as easy as a refugee could possibly have it. We had another country to go to, where we were safe and we could stay and stuff like that. But there is something about being someone like me, where none of it is obvious. So you have to know me. And it’s probably why I wanted to write this book, because, and this book is also being used to teach literacy. It’s about a seventh grade level, this one. I wrote all the teaching guides for it. I wrote guides for teach, because I teach reading. It’s being used with refugee organizations and things, because it has a lot of themes that people can talk about. People can discuss it and think about what would it be like if you didn’t look like a refugee and nobody knew you were a refugee, and yet that was really your authentic experience, because it was.
00:12:35 Paula: And I think it’s pretty relevant now that we have with the war in Ukraine and the Ukrainian refugees, having to flee their countries and people saying, what is it? What’s your definition of a refugee? Because typically when people think about refugees, they think about brown skin or black skin people leaving war zone. And this was, non-typical. Your story’s really very relevant in 2022. Because there’s a different expectation. And as you said, you came to Bakersfield, but you were a refugee, but you were Caucasian. And so people couldn’t fathom that. How could you be?
00:13:17 Marta: We spoke American just like everybody, and people didn’t know where we had come from. And I’m sure it’s worse if you are a classic refugee, I’m sure it’s much, much harder. And the other thing people don’t realize about refugees is all they want is to go home. People don’t realize this. In America, they’re like, oh yeah, they’re trying to get over here. Oh, of course you must be so glad to be here in America. We were glad to be safe. But we wanted to go back to Nigeria. I certainly did. And we never made it because the situation for us never was right again. We never went back. We never saw anybody again. That we were there, it was complete break. We literally walked out of our house with one suitcase. Everything in the house, left everything in there and we never saw any of our stuff or anything again. We never went back.
00:14:07 Paula: I could relate to that 100%. Because that’s how we left too, everything in our house and never went back.
00:14:13 Marta: Everything, yeah. And the lines of battle went back and forth. And we lived in a compound like you do in Nigeria, and the lines of battle went back and forth until there was nothing left. Nothing, nothing of our stuff.
00:14:29 Tesse: It just a moment of insight for me that my own story, when I was almost 10 leaving Northern Ireland to Nigeria with a little bag with my brothers. And we were in a children’s home in Belfast and they didn’t tell us where we were going. We had no idea. And it’s just as you and Paula are saying this that I’m realizing different kind of story that we’re little kids and we just put on a plane and that was it. So there’s similarity.
00:15:02 Paula: That’s like a refugee too in a different light.
00:15:04 Marta: Yeah. It’s that uncertainty and the trauma of, and also the puzzlement of people saying, oh, you must be so glad, you must be so glad to be here. Oh God, you must be so glad to be back in America.No, I’d never lived in America. Yes, so in some ways it’s probably not a coincidence that I’ve ended up living here in London and marrying someone who is an American. I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve lived in France, I’ve lived in Taiwan. And a lot of my early work I taught English, and composition is about communication. I feel like I spend a lot of my work is trying to explain my life and get people to pay attention to its details. Because you can look at my life in a superficial way, the tip of the iceberg, if you will. Or look at me superficially and say, oh, she’s just this girl from California, went to Berkeley, it’s all fine. But you start picking it apart, nobody’s life is really like that. Mine is certainly isn’t. But there’s nothing about me that makes it obvious. So if we don’t have a conversation, you’d never know.
00:16:10 Paula: No one would know. They wouldn’t even understand how you felt being a, I want to say a Caucasian refugee in California. Nope. You just fitted right in.
00:16:21 Marta: Oh yeah. I looked the part, definitely.
00:16:24 Paula: So Tesse, any last questions, because we want to be respectful of Martha’s time.
00:16:30 Tesse: I just would love just for Marta to say, I believe that you have been successful. I believe it. Do you believe it? And if you do, what has made that success possible for you?
00:16:45 Marta: If I am successful, it’s because I always try to stay close to the work. And in fiction in my creative work, that’s almost more important than my kind of commercial professional work. Because if you get confused about how you’re supposed to be or what you’re supposed to be saying, or what you’re supposed to be doing, or like all the current is coming from the outside and opinions of other people, you never really make anything that’s original. And if you stay close to the work and you dig into your own work. You dig into your own memory. You dig into the historical context around your own life. Or anything that interests you, but if you do it in a serious way, you start getting things that are surprising and meaningful. And for me, that’s what success means. If I am successful, I’ve created something with meaning. And the other bit of it, is trying to create something that connects with the readership that somebody else can pick it up and feel something from it. And that’s success for me. If I can do that, then I feel success. And that’s true, both in my creative work and in my sort of more commercial work. If it delivers.
00:18:04 Paula: I know. Cause I was going to say that that’s a very powerful statement. What I mean for me is created something with meaning. I wrote it down. So every time you saw me look into my right hand, I’m writing down things. Yeah. That says a lot, because you can create something that has no meaning. Anyone can do that. But when you create something that impacts someone’s life, or they’ll think about it deeply and resonates with them. That’s impressive. That’s solid work. Leaving a legacy before you pass on.
00:18:38 Marta: Yeah. And you find the meaning in the work. It doesn’t come to you like out here, it comes from honestly really getting into doing that work, then you find it.
00:18:49 Paula: We would love to have you talk for the next 30 minutes or more because you’re amazing. You’re amazing.
00:18:57 Marta: I’ll just talk and talk. Oh, thank you, thank you so much. I only do that with champagne. When there is champagne.
00:19:10 Paula: So we got to wrap this up so that you can go. So I’m going to just read the outro, then we would let you go. Not because we want you to go, but because you have to, unfortunately. So for our precious listeners, your stories and your lives matter. As you can hear from our guests Marta, she likes creating something with meaning. And it’s not meaning from out there it’s with a deep meaning. And so that’s what we do. We love to encourage, we love to support and we love to nurture our listeners like you. So if you have heard something here that has impacted your life or stands out with you, please make sure that you head over to. “Apple Podcasts”, “Google podcasts”, “Spotify”, or anywhere that you listen to podcasts and not just click subscribe, but please follow us. And if you have any questions or topics, you’d like us to cover, please send us a note. And last but not least, if you’d love to be a guest on our show, “TesseLeads”, please head over to our website, which is “www.tesseakpeki.com/tesseleads” to apply.