Africa draws mystery scribe into unquiet past

Prolific mystery scribe Tamar Myers delves into her girlhood for a dark, heartfelt series

06/06/2012 12:00 AM

06/07/2012 10:00 AM

Tamar Myers has a dog that never barks, an imagination that never quits, a sense of humor that never lets her take herself too seriously, and a bank of memories that never seems to run dry.

Her pink complexion makes her the palest African-American likely to claim that designation, but who better? The girl who spent her first 16 years in the Belgian Congo still lives inside the shyly gregarious writer who has settled in south Charlotte.

There she surrounds herself with symbols of the old continent, from spearheads on her living room wall to palms in her small, dense garden. There she began her third and most personal series, set in her homeland before its 1960 declaration of independence from Belgium. “The Boy Who Stole the Leopard’s Spots” added luster to that newest project this spring.

You are investigated at the door by Pagan, the basenji. (Barking might have led enemies to human encampments long ago; he sneezes to get attention.) You may be sniffed silently by Dumpster-Boy, the gentle-eyed rescue feline, or Kasha, the Bengal cat with leopard in his DNA.

Your hostess greets you with coffee and chocolate wafers and five decades’ worth of stories. She waited almost that long to tell them to the world, through 19 years of publishers’ rejection letters and then two successful mystery series set in an Amish inn and a Charleston antique shop.

So why the delay, when her mind was full of unrepentant cannibals, stubborn missionaries and subtle, eternal unrest between natives and European interlopers?

“I wrote a semi-autobiographical book, ‘Where the Jackals Sing,’ in 1968 or thereabouts, and I was told people didn’t want to read about Africa,” she recalls. “People kept telling me, ‘You have to make a name for yourself first.’ It took me 16 novels with Harper Collins/Avon before they’d let me write about Africa in a fictional way.”

Thus she half-jokingly says that all we need to know about being a professional author can be found in Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler:” You need to know when to hold what you’ve got, fold (for now), walk – or run – away from the table.

The shaping of a storyteller

“We had no way to amuse ourselves in the Congo: no radio, no television, a limited number of books,” she remembers. “My father was a raconteur; my mother upbraided him for embellishing, but he was just taking out the boring parts. My sister and I learned from him and became storytellers for other missionary children.

“Actually, my passion then was painting and drawing. We had a fabulous road in front of our house; when it dried out, there’d be a fine coating of white sand. When you moved that aside, the black sand came through, and you drew in it. One day, I went into the elephant grass and reached down to get a drawing stick – and the stick moved. It was a pit viper.”

Her recollections often have a hint of danger. (You’ll find a spate of them in a self-conducted “interview” at She recalls a visit from a local chief, shortly before the Congo declared independence from Belgium:

“We were eating. He came on the porch and told my father, ‘This house is mine. I want you out. Or I’m going to burn this house down and kill you and your wife and take your daughters for MY wives.’

“I was about 10, and I asked what had happened. My daddy just said, ‘Eat your lunch.’ That was it! So for my sisters and me, the phrase ‘Eat your lunch’ means ‘Get on with the business of living!’ ”

Experiences like that can be turned into dramatic narratives, but they also have a negative side. Says Myers, “I’m gifted with a good memory. I hear the sounds of roosters crowing and children crying, I smell the smells, and I’m taken with a fear in the pit of my stomach because that scene with the chief is in there, too. At the end of the day, I’m totally whipped, because I’ve spent that whole day in the Congo.”

Rock Hill author Faith Hunter, who has also written multiple series – most recently about Jane Yellowrock, a Cherokee skinwalker – thinks her friend’s work has deepened over the years. They met after both holding readings at The Bookworm, when it was an independent Rock Hill bookstore; now they have monthly catch-up sessions over pancakes at the Cracker Barrel on Carowinds Boulevard.

“I liked the snarkiness of her character in the inn series. But the new stuff is so evocative and the descriptive passages are so intense that she’s on an entirely new plane,” says Hunter. “Earlier books were a foot in the door; these are the books of her heart that she’s always wanted to write.

“She’d never had a chance to delve deep into her own past and her own soul. Coming to grips with what shaped you as a child is so difficult, but she has been honest about it being a joy and a painful experience. The end result, to me, is that she’s more at peace for having written about it.”

Finding peace in many places

With her 64th birthday coming in September, Myers seems to have settled into a kind of long-range serenity. She has stayed with one husband, the boy she met on her first day in an American high school and married six years afterward in 1970. (Jeffrey, her spouse, is a metallurgic engineer.)

She was raised in the Mennonite church; her parents wed just before going to the Congo in 1932 because only married people were allowed to represent that church in Africa. But her father’s father came from a line of German Jews, and Myers embraced that faith after immigrating to the United States 48 years ago:

“We’d been here two weeks, and my father and I went to a synagogue out of curiosity. I immediately said, ‘I’m home!’ And I turned my back on his religion.”

Was he comfortable with that?

“Oh, no. But I’d gone to religious boarding schools in Africa, two days’ drive from our home, where they would beat boys and girls for the slightest infractions. They literally tried to beat God into you, and I couldn’t accept that.” So today, she hoists the Torah at Temple Beth El in Charlotte.

And she has embraced a philosophy of writing that makes her smile, knowing others will smile when she explains it.

“Are you ready? I call it the Woo-Woo Theory,” she says, elevating her arms in a V to become a funnel for inspired ideas.

“Time is a man-made construct: Past, present and future are simultaneous. In the greater cosmos, my books have already been written – so why not just download them? I sit at my desk and say to my creator, ‘Please send my daily quota.’ And if I keep my a-- in that chair, I get my 1,000 polished words. That’s our agreement.”

What if she’s really cooking that day?

“If I get past 1,000 words, I find an interesting place to stop – one where even I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

She smiles again, and you can see why Hunter says of Myers, “She’s a fantastic stand-up comedian. She opened a writer’s conference recently and did 15 minutes of comedy that rocked the house. She’s terribly shy, until you put her onstage.”

Myers says she never suffers from writer’s block now. The woman who switched from art to literature in college because she couldn’t stand a professor’s harsh criticism has learned to get beyond doubts, whether they’re external or internal.

“I write a book every nine months, and it’s like giving birth,” she explains. “That means you have to be as honest about your emotions as you can be.

“My books end up on the mystery shelves now by default, but my first African book was just billed as ‘a novel,’ and I liked that. All the joys and loves and hates I’ve ever had are in these stories.”

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