Southport writer explores complex pilgrimages to Africa

Otis L. Lee Jr.’s latest, “The Last Train from Djibouti,” reads like a novel but is actually fascinating non-fiction.

Otis L. Lee Jr. is a retired lawyer, currently living in Southport. In 2013, he wrote a memoir, “From South Boston to Cambridge: The Making of a Philadelphia Lawyer,” covering the history of his African-American family back to 1840s Virginia.

His latest book reads like a novel but is fascinating non-fiction: “The Last Train from Djibouti” (Virginia Beach: Koehler Books, $19.95 paperback).

Lee’s text follows two remarkable African-American women who each make pilgrimages to Africa.

One is his wife, Dr. Michelle Palmer Lee, who spent a year in Uganda in the 1970s as an exchange student. The other is Lee’s mentor, Harriett Karuhige, who married a Ugandan student in the USA, followed him back home, and later labored to launch a nursing training program in Botswana.

Both women are enthralled to discover Africa and to find that it’s not like the Tarzan movies. (One of Dr. Lee’s relatives worried that she might be attacked by wild animals.)

Both, however, soon discover that modern Africa is not Marvel Comics mythical Wakanda. There are political troubles, for one thing: both journeyed to Uganda in the early days of Idi Amin’s presidency. Both women must cope with archaic class and tribal boundaries and long-surviving customs — including polygamy.

Lee could have cited his wife as co-author; much of the text is quoted directly from her memoir and journals. (As it is, he dedicates the book to her.) He sums up his premise in the book’s subtitle: “Africa Beckons Me, but America is My Home.”

Light dims in Tar Heel literary world

North Carolina literature lost another giant when Elizabeth Spencer died just before Christmas. She was 98.

A Mississippi native, Spencer had lived in Chapel Hill since 1986 and taught for many years at UNC. She wrote nine novels and eight short story collections, including 2014′s “Starting Over.”

Her big book, however, was 1960′s “The Light in the Piazza,” the story of a North Carolina tobacco executive’s wife who travels to Italy with her daughter. The daughter, Clara, soon attracts the attention of a handsome Italian nobleman, who wants to propose marriage. But there’s a hitch: Clara suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child, and as a result will remain childlike all her life.

A best seller, “The Light in the Piazza” was made into a 1962 film starring Oliviia De Havillian, Yvette Mimeux and George Hamilton, and later was adapted as a long-running Broadway musical.

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