Sari Fordham teaches creative writing at La Sierra University and is the faculty editor of The Roadrunner Review, an international literary journal that features the work of student writers. Her essays have been published in Brevity, The Chattahoochee Review, Passages North, and Green Mountains Review, among others. Fordham’s first book Wait for God to Notice is a memoir centered on her childhood in a Seventh-Day Adventist missionary family in Uganda during Idi Amin’s dictatorship. It is also a poignant, vivid meditation about her Finnish mother, a complicated, brave, and fiercely independent woman. Fordham holds an MA from Iowa State University and an MFA from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Riverside, California, with her husband and daughter.
Literary Mama Publisher Amanda Fields spoke with Sari Fordham about her memoir, her perspective on nostalgia and political turmoil, discovering her mother through writing, and her own experiences with motherhood.
Amanda Fields: Could you talk about the genesis and trajectory of Wait for God to Notice?
Sari Fordham: I grew up in a house in Uganda surrounded by jungle. On any given day, we would see mongoose, vervet monkeys, driver ants, or even a spitting cobra. I climbed trees with my sister and our friends, and we gathered wild dodo, a spinach-like weed that our mothers would cook for dinner. The roads in Uganda were red, and there were always secrets rustling in the leaves. I began writing this memoir in order to get that home (my real home, as I always thought of it) down on paper. As I was writing, though, I discovered that this project was as much about my mother, who died when I was 25.
It took time to understand my mother, and that understanding was crucial for this book. I started out certain that I did know her. Our personalities were similar, and during my teen years, she would tell me—almost an accusation—”you’re just like me.” Yet the versions of her weren’t reconciling. She flirted with soldiers at military checkpoints and could be a bit of a prude. She swept mambas out of our kitchen and was overly cautious. And then, there was her anger, which I was too loyal to put on paper.
To figure her out, I read her letters and pocket journals, interviewed family members, pored over photographs, and then I had a baby, perhaps the ultimate act of research. Here was this tiny creature who needed so much, taking even my sleep, and whom I now craved. Who was I anymore? And yet, through it all, I existed in a container outside of “mother.” I left my daughter in order to teach or to write. My own mother, who stayed at home fixing the meals we complained about, didn’t have that opportunity. She channeled all her ambition and care into her daughters, and once we were teenagers, we found her embarrassing. No wonder she was angry at the world. She had mom rage before it was trendy.
I no longer saw her anger as shameful. It felt inevitable. Little Oili, as her family in Finland called her, got out of hauling water or picking berries because her mother wanted her to have time to read. By all accounts, she was a bright, talkative, bossy child, who memorized facts quickly and was gifted with languages. She would have made a fantastic medical doctor—the career she wanted for her daughters—but good Adventist girls at the time dimmed their ambitions. They were to be helpmates, and as such, they could be nurses or teachers. My mother chose education. She met my father in graduate school, got married, had a baby, and quit her job. When she finally returned to teaching, no one wanted to hire her.
Once I fully understood my mother, I was ready to finish my book.
AF: Early in the book, you write, “I’m particularly taken with the past,” and this carries you into a vivid exploration of your family’s time together as missionaries in Uganda, as well as in Finland, and upon your return to the U.S. How has your perspective on the past as a fetching space influenced the shape and organization of this book?
SF: I wanted to bring readers with me into the past and make them nostalgic for Uganda. I wanted to conjure the moment when the rains are sweeping up the hill, and you can feel the water coming, but it hasn’t started raining yet, and you have to get the clothes off the line. In order to plunge readers into that exact moment, I initially wrote in present tense. I put music on the radio, looked at pictures, and tried to get the right texture on the page. The descriptive writing came easily, but it was difficult to write my childhood self in present tense. I didn’t want to create an artificial child narrator, and so I wrote the way a fiction writer might: looking down on my family as characters. Early readers told me it wasn’t working, and for a long time, I took that as a challenge to work harder. But the truth was, I was denying myself the tools of nonfiction—reflection, introspection, and inquiry.
The day I gave myself permission to write in past tense I felt such relief. I still love present tense, and those early years of writing benefited the memoir by making it feel more immediate, but past tense allowed me to go deeper into the story and to consider the scenes I had written and why they mattered. Past tense also provided structural clarity. I was able to weigh which stories were necessary for the book and which ones were just me being nostalgic. Turns out: I’m very nostalgic. I had to cut about 100 pages. Once I removed the extraneous, I was able to write more vertically, using those tools of nonfiction.
Nostalgia pulled me into this story, but I needed to step away from it in order to write a book.
AF: You offer a history of Seventh-day Adventism in this book. How has the writing shaped your own perspective on your faith?
SF: The story of Adventism begins with William Miller announcing that Jesus will return in 1844. Obviously that didn’t happen, and as a good Adventist, I knew all about Miller, but while researching, I came upon a detail I hadn’t known: right before 1844, William Miller built a stone wall around his farm. It was a scandal at the time because most who had joined his movement were selling their farms and donating funds to get the word out. What use was money or property if Jesus was coming?
When I read about Miller’s wall, my first reaction was to laugh, and my second reaction was to call my dad and listen to him laugh. Adventists generally have a sense of humor around our history. But that detail of the farm improvement stayed with me. The easiest explanation is that Miller was a hypocrite. But I came to consider Miller more sympathetically. I wondered if Miller began feeling more uncertain as 1844 rolled nearer and those doubts manifested themselves in a stone wall. As a person of both faith and doubt, I’m interested in the tension between the two and what that tension looks like. Maybe in 1844, it looked like a stone wall.
AF: How did your thinking about missionary memoirs, privilege, and colonialism determine the way you approached writing this book?
SF: The more widely I read, the more I’m aware of the damage done by colonialism and well-meaning missionaries. My father would be the first to identify those harms and expand on them. I was a child in Uganda, but he spent hours each day talking with his students and learning about their experiences with racism. While my memoir focuses on my mother, I did want readers to see the link between Idi Amin’s dictatorship and colonialism, and how Western nations were looking down their noses at the whole continent of Africa. It’s cringeworthy to read US newspapers from the 1970s and how they covered Idi Amin. It’s better now, but newspapers still otherize political crises in non-Western countries. During the US election, I began following Gathara on Twitter. He’s an editor and political commentator in Kenya, and he tweets about US politics using the language American journalists use when covering East Africa. His #Breaking tweets are essential reading.
To return to your question, we lived in Uganda when smart people were leaving. Isn’t that its own privilege? I wanted readers to always be aware that as challenging as the political situation—as everyone referred to the violence—was for our family, it was 100 times harder for Ugandans. We had a passport, and, if we disappeared, we knew the United States would look for us. Historians still don’t know how many Ugandans were killed during Idi Amin’s dictatorship.
AF: Tell us about two books you’d highly recommend.
SF: I just finished reading Girl, Woman, Other and I think everyone should read it. Bernardine Evaristo’s sentences blew me away with their perfection, and I’m still thinking about the complex way she wrote about relationships, particularly mothers and daughters, but also friendships.
If you haven’t read anything set in Finland, the novel True by Riikka Pulkkinen is a good introduction. You’ll be immersed in all the saunas, piirakka, and Stockmann department store outings you could hope for, while unraveling a family mystery. I loved the less-central character Elsa maybe too much, and hers is the story I was most invested in.
AF: Which writers have most inspired you in your reflections on motherhood?
SF: I’m inspired by children’s authors, particularly those who move beyond the lens of adulthood and write honestly about childhood itself. Beverly Cleary does this in the Ramona series, and Louise Erdrich in the Birchbark House series. There’s so much squishiness and reverence around both motherhood and childhood, but it’s the truth that honors the experiences.