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  • JillianForsberg

Firsts: Colliding Waves

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

I'm sitting on my couch, cat curled up beside me, resting on a surprisingly cool June afternoon. I'm finally home, and grateful for it. I'm blessedly tired, the kind that makes you settle and slow down, sink deep into familiar spaces and exist with no plans or desires to move.

My early morning flight woke me before dawn, though the humidity and heat of San Antonio felt like high noon. The most Texas vehicle I could imagine, a Ford F-150, took me past the 19th century buildings downtown and the Alamo and onto the highway, away from a place that's (perhaps) changed my future. On the plane I decompressed, thinking and smiling and shaking my head of the things that had happened over the course of three days in Texas.

It's my first blog post on my author site.

It was my first author's conference: Historical Novel Society North America.

It was my first time meeting people who only existed on a screen before. I got to experience the cadence of their voices and the sound of their laughs after reading both their messages and their published prose. What an absolute joy it was to be around real, live humans, and feel like I belonged.

I don't know what other writer's conferences are like, but I've been to conferences for the museum and bridal industries. I have *never* seen so many smiling faces.

The question of the weekend was: "What do you write?" and stories flitted from eager mouths, like fairies dancing in the light, waiting to be asked and land upon eager ears, whispering histories from long ago that have escaped from modern writers' keyboard clacks.

I have never talked about my book so much. The Rhino Keeper, by the end of the weekend, was known to many and as I introduced it, many had heard of it. "Oh! You wrote the rhino book! My friend was talking about it..." And the swirling rumor by the end of the sessions was that my book was written from the perspective of Clara the rhino herself. It's not, but I wholeheartedly loved the chattering assumptions. People were genuinely curious about my book, and I reciprocated.

There were many moments of kismet. I'll share one that will never leave me:

I was standing in line for lunch, and the common question arose with a woman standing next to me. She was warm - despite her silvering hair (like mine), she was young and smiley, genuine and interested. When she spoke she had a lilt of an accent I couldn't quite place.

"What's your book about?" she asked.

"It's the true story of an eighteenth century Dutch ship captain who abandons his career and takes a baby Indian rhino around the Horn of Africa. They tour Europe for eighteen years together."

"Where did you say? The Horn of Africa?"

"Yes - where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans collide, one of the most treacherous stretches of sea on the planet."

"That's where I'm from - I'm South African. My ancestors are Dutch, and came to South Africa in the 1700s. You're writing about my ancestors."

A chill tumbled down my spine. I was wearing my VOC coin from 1734, strung on a necklace, purchased years ago before I even began writing the book that brought me to this conference. She saw, and touched it, fingers trembling.

The Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC was the most successful trading company in the world in the 17th and into the 18th centuries. My main character, Captain Douwemout Van der Meer, joined when he was 15, traveling the world on a colorful Dutch East Indiaman ship. His journeys took him on the voyage around Africa, where the waters of the world collide to moor at the Fort of Good Hope for a month with Clara the Indian rhino, his greatest treasure.

But the VOC and Dutch influence in South Africa wasn't all good. This woman, Jeanie, knew that. And we talked about how the oceans colliding in this place where cultures clashed like cresting waves served as a symbol of South Africa's legacies. She existed because of it.

I told her what my characters conversations were like, how they felt about the mistreatment of the native farmers by the VOC, and I saw the goosebumps rise on her arms. She left South Africa years ago for many reasons, and now lives in L.A., and we spoke of her decisions to leave. They echoed the feelings of 1740s narratives.

This moment of connection created by characters in my book, felt deeply by this South African woman in front of me, was surreal. How is it that we existed in the same time and space? Me, wearing a silver coin from her ancestor's plunder, walked into her life in a casual lunch line. There are no accidents. Her fingertips touched that coin, as someone from her ancestor's past had done.

The moments of kismet are still unfolding. The connections are not yet fully known. For now, I'm reveling in the small moments that remind me why I write in the first place: to find the connective pieces that truly unite us all, across the world and time.

The currents of our own lives, like oceans, meet and mix and collide, sometimes in soft, tender trailing waters, and sometimes like the colliding of oceans in cresting waves. This weekend brought me both, and the waters of my own life are slowly and surprisingly mixing with others.

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Lisa Oakley
Lisa Oakley
Dec 12, 2023

Reading about your meeting with Jeanie in a lunch line gave me goose bumps. What incredible serendipity. Lisa (from the workshop with Colin).

Dec 12, 2023
Replying to

Thank you. It was a moment I’ll never ever forget!

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