The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release

May 4, 2006

Orner Reads At 'Live From Prairie Lights' May 17

Peter Orner, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, will read from his first novel, "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo," at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 17, on the "Live from Prairie Lights" series on UI radio station WSUI-AM 910.

The reading will originate in a free event hosted by Julie Englander in the Prairie Lights bookstore at 15 S. Dubuque St. in downtown Iowa City. Listen on the Internet at

Orner, who won the Rome Prize and was a PEN/Hemingway finalist for his first book, "Esther Stories," sets his novel at an isolated Catholic primary school in Namibia.

Orner has explained, "I lived there in the early 1990's, just after the country became independent. It happened that Namibia got under my skin, way under my skin, and I carried memories of the place around with me for years until the desert farm where I lived (itself a strange thing) became more mythical than actual. I couldn't shake those days, and so I had to try and write about them. What came out, though, as so often happens, is experience totally re-imagined.

"And though I spent nearly a year and a half in Namibia, it still wasn't my place. So I spent a lot of time reading everything I could get my hands on about Namibia. I read a ton of history as well as great African writers like Bessie Head, Dambudzo Marechera, Wole Soyinka, Camara Laye, Can Themba, Herman Charles Bosman, Ezekiel Mphahlele and Richard Rive. But I loathe novels and travel books that go out of their way to announce 'I know this exotic place and you don't.' You know what I mean? I wanted this book to feel familiar to readers, whether they were born in Des Moines or Usakos, Namibia.

"And I've found that certain aspects of love, politics, gossip -- especially gossip -- don't change a lick when you cross borders. The same basic concerns prevail. Tip O'Neill's phrase 'all politics is local' applies also to fiction: all literature is local. Love goes wrong. The government lets you down. You gossip about your neighbor -- a lot. And are there any truly exotic places? I think you'd have to find a place that wasn't inhabited by actual people for it to be exotic."

A review in Publishers Weekly summarized, "Set in the early 1990s, soon after Namibia won independence from South Africa, this impressive debut novel is mostly narrated by Larry Kaplanski, a young volunteer who leaves Cincinnati, Ohio, to teach English and history at Farm Goas. Orner captures Goas's glacial rhythms, the extraordinary contrast between the desert's night and day, and the community's daily privations, including -- for the single male teachers -- a lust arising from boredom and loneliness.

"Mavala Shikongo, the principal's sister-in-law and the object of her colleagues' desires, reluctantly settles at Goas with her illegitimate baby boy, Tomo. Orner punctuates Larry's observations with brief interludes told from the points of view of other inhabitants of the school, and with haunting, cinematic imagery -- boys do pull-ups on a huge cross; Mavala and Larry, who become friends and intimates, hold their afternoon trysts on the graves of Boer settlers. These telling snapshots stand in for the larger sociopolitical, cultural and religious issues facing a country emerging from a century of colonization."

Critic Hazel Rochman wrote, "The weight of the brutal colonial and apartheid past is always there, but the freedom story is never reverential, and the taut vignettes, anguished and sometimes hilarious, are about ordinary people now. The novel is more situation than story, but there are scenes that will stay with you forever..."

Mark Schone's critique in the New York Times Book Review said the novel "Hits the right notes and no others," and a starred review in the Library Journal called Orner "a miraculous writer with a stunning ability."

Orner's "Esther Stories" was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Samuel Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction. Orner's work has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize Anthology and has appeared in national publications including the Atlantic Monthly and the Paris Review. He has taught at Charles University in Prague and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and he now teaches at San Francisco State University. The holder of a law degree in addition to his Master of Fine Arts from the UI, he has served as a public defender in Massachusetts. He remained active in law as a volunteer attorney for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and a human-rights observer.

The Writers' Workshop is a graduate program in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit To receive UI arts news by e-mail,

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073,