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Professor's debut novel garners rave reviews

May 31, 2006

Photo of Peter OrnerPeter Orner, assistant professor of creative writing, has garnered praise from book critics nationwide with the recent publication of his debut novel, "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" (Little, Brown and Co.).

Praise for the book -- about a Cincinnati man who travels to the remote veld of Namibia to volunteer at a Catholic, all-boys boarding school shortly after the country's independence from South Africa and apartheid -- has come from the likes of The New York Times, Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

"Orner has a gift for language," Mark Schone wrote in the April 23 edition of The New York Times Book Review. "He writes with confident economy, evoking and peopling his parched, lonely world with patient detail."

Orner drew inspiration from his experience teaching in Namibia in the early 1990s. He based the central character, "the beautiful and sleek and unsmiling" Shikongo, on two real-life teachers who were combat veterans of Namibia's long war. They died in a car accident a few years after Orner returned to the United States. He dedicated the book to them and another Namibian friend who died more recently.

The vast deserts of Namibia, located in southwest Africa, set the stage in "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo." But it is the Namibian people who are the focus and inspiration, Orner said, recalling their infectious spirit, vibrancy and optimism.

Orner returned to the United States from Namibia 14 years ago, but said the country "never left me -- mostly the people, what they'd gone through, with 30 years of being occupied by an apartheid government. Kids were singing songs. Everybody was excited. I wanted to capture a sense of euphoria and independence."

The open land and desert life of Namibia also inspired the look and feel of the book's short chapters and concise writing style. The longest of the book's 153 chapters is three pages.

"Every day was the same, rhythmically," Orner said. "By thinking about how the place would look, I wanted to give that feeling of space."

The concise writing in "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" is also inspired by poetry.

"I read a lot of poetry and envy the wallop poets can pack in a few words," said Orner, who holds a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and a law degree from Northeastern University.

Orner does not practice law regularly, but has volunteered for a San Francisco nonprofit that represents asylum seekers in immigration court. He lost his first case, on behalf of a torture victim from Guatemala, but the judge's decision was recently overturned in an appeal -- much to Orner's relief.

In April, just before "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" was published, Orner was one of two SFSU faculty members named a 2006 Guggenheim fellow. (Britta Sjogren, associate professor of cinema, was the other.)

Previous honors for Orner include the Pushcart Prize and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His 2001 short-story collection, "Esther Stories" (Houghton Mifflin Co.), also garnered praise from critics and authors. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, Bomb and The Best American Short Stories. Portions of "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" appeared in literary magazines as early as 1995.

Orner, who describes his writing process as slow and "obsessive," sometimes spends days on the same couple lines. He writes by hand, "until it hurts." He said he'll be satisfied if he has one more book published in the next five or six years, but is already at work on another short-story collection, with the working title "Pampkin's Lament," which he described as "very strange," sad and depressing. His next novel will return to Fall River, Mass., the setting of "Esther Stories" and his family's hometown.

-- Matt Itelson
Photo: Kristin Hepburn


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Last modified May 31, 2006 by University Communications