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Tim Bascom: Chameleon Days: An American Boyhood in Ethiopia

In 1964, Tim Bascom's missionary parents moved him from the Midwest to Ethiopia. His memoir about growing up there was six years in the writing and won the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference Bakeless 2005 nonfiction prize, which included publication by Houghton Mifflin's Mariner imprint as Chameleon Days (June). Bascom now lives with his wife and two sons in Newton, Iowa.

RBL: Why is the book called Chameleon Days?

TB: The first thing that I remember from going to Ethiopia when I was just three years old—and the first thing I remember as an individual—was this chameleon I saw on a poinsettia plant outside the language school where my parents were learning to speak Amharic. It became a motif that worked well for my experience as a child who had been transplanted into a completely different culture.

RBL: What was your process in assembling memories, events and facts for the book?

TB: I often would start with some initial impression of nuggets of memory, and that would unlock other memories, and they would start to assemble around that initial memory. I did a lot of research as I got further in, particularly in my mother's photo album. Mom wrote very long letters back to people in the United States vividly describing situations and events. The story ends up being my perception of the experience, but it's been checked.

RBL: What connection did you feel as a boy to Ethiopia, and what do you feel now?

TB: At first as a child when you get transplanted into a new place I think there's fear, and that fear permeates the book, in a quiet way. I have been back several times as an adult, and I admire the graciousness of the people of Ethiopia. I guess one thing I've realized as an adult is that I wasn't as connected to the people as I might have been, and I regret that.

RBL: How did the experience of being sent away to boarding school affect you?

TB: It's the most dramatic experience of my childhood. Boarding school for any child who is only in primary grades is wrong. I think that I learned to take care of myself in some sense, perhaps too much, and also to adapt.

RBL: What does your family think about the book?

TB: Now you're getting into the most tough terrain emotionally. When I first started on the book I was not comfortable showing it to my family at all. It took years for me to reach the point where I could say, "Here it is." Even then it created distress for everybody in the family, particularly my parents. They were pained, and in the end, apologetic. In their defense, being people who had committed radically to their Christian faith, they operated on the principle that God would take care of everything if they were doing God's will. That included the children.