There’s a term of art in science-fiction writing and criticism called a “jonbar hinge.” Named after a character in an old story by sci-fi author Jack Williamson, a jonbar hinge is a crucial moment in history — things go one way, history unfolds one way; it goes another, very different things happen.
Abilene native Mary Helen Specht’s personal jonbar hinge was an 18-month trip to Nigeria in 2006. The Austin writer and St. Edwards professor, whose debut novel “Migratory Animals” hits shelves Tuesday, developed an interest in Nigerian literature while, after graduating from Rice, she was working on an MFA in fiction at Emerson College. So she jumped at the chance to apply for a creative Fulbright grant to live and write in Nigeria.
“So many American writers tend to write for each other and read for each other and publish each other,” Specht, 35, said over lunch at Curra’s. “The Nobel Committee is always giving Americans (flack) for not knowing the writers they pick, you know?”
She noticed that the Nigerian writers often reflected on their time in the West and integrated the insights into their work. Specht wanted to do the reverse: “I wanted to see if going there and studying the literature while I was there could aid and open up my creative process.”
While most grant recipients last between nine and 12 months, Specht spent a year and a half in Nigeria, staying at the University of Ibadan, north of the Nigerian capital of Lagos.
“They give you a certain amount of dollars, and it goes a lot further if you don’t live in a gated community in Lagos,” Specht says. “I just stayed until the money ran out.”
She also fell in love with a man in Nigeria, an event she chronicled in a 2010 essay for the New York Times.
Specht found herself back in Texas, in Austin specifically, in 2008, a University of Texas Dobie Paisano writing fellow. The above essay came out of a time where she was working on —at the urging of folks in the publishing industry — a memoir of her time in Nigeria rather than a novel. It’s didn’t work. “I ended up with some essays, but nothing really jelled as a memoir,” she says.
No, her time in Nigeria and its aftermath were meant to be fictionalized. “The big ‘what if’ I began thinking about was what if I stayed in Nigeria and built a long-term life there,” Specht says. This led to the lovely “Migratory Animals,” the title a reference to the idea that, these days, few people die where they were born.
There’s Flannery, who after five years in Nigeria leaves the country and her Nigerian fiance Kunle (say it “koon-ley”), to spend some time in Austin, intending to return soon, to have “a wedding here and a wedding there.”
But when Flannery arrives back in town, she finds herself pulled back into the lives she left behind. There’s Molly, Flannery’s sister, who starts to show signs of the Huntington’s disease that took their mother; this disease drives Molly further from her husband, Brandon.
There’s Alyce, Flannery’s best friend, who struggles with her own mental health. And there’s Alyce’s architect husband Harry, along with Santiago, Flannery’s ex-boyfriend and Harry’s business partner.
As Flannery negotiates what Molly’s illness means for both of them, the latticework of these relationships shifts and bends.
But this isn’t a memoir. Specht is married to writer Tyler Stoddard Smith, and sure, Flannery and Molly hail from Abilene, but Specht says she finds that place impossible to write about. “I could do the little flashback stuff you see in the book,” she says, “but I can’t write about it. I don’t know if I am too close to find it too easy to take potshots or what. It just doesn’t work.”
But Specht is an only child of two university librarians. “My friends became my extended family,” Specht says. “Friendship is important to me, and I think the way friendship changes over time isn’t explored enough in literature. When you write a ‘sister’ or a ‘husband” or a ‘mother,’ those relationships have very specific resonances for a reader. Friendship means different things to different people.”
However, Specht says her friends keep guessing wrong when they try to see what about the characters, if anything, is based on them: “I stole some external stuff, but the more internal characteristics are not.”
Nor was the issue of Huntington’s drawn from Specht’s life. That came from an NPR report by journalist Charles Sabine, these days a spokesperson for advocacy organizations for those with the disease. “It was a very moving story,” Specht says. “Huntington’s forces people to watch their parents go through a horrible and magnified version of what we all ultimately go though with our parents.”
The other character is, of course, Austin, a place tailor-made for people, even long-term residents, to meditate on their youth. If Specht had stayed in Nigeria long-term, her life would have gone in one direction, her writing likely far different than what it is now. Instead, she came back to Austin and we get “Migratory Animals.”
“The original drafts had a lot more Nigeria in them,” Specht says. “It sort of fell away as I revised. I can’t not set my work in the place I am living, I think.”
Mary Helen Specht
Harper Perrenial, $14.99
Specht will read from, discuss and sign “Migratory Animals” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd., as part of the Statesman Selects monthly series.