When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I was playing in the back yard of our family home in Nairobi, Kenya, when I heard the car start up around the front of the house. My father was at work, so I knew my mother was going somewhere.
I ran around to the front of the house, and sure enough, she was pulling out of the driveway. I ran up to her window. “Where are you going, Mum?”
She didn’t look happy to see me. There was a sadness about her that she covered with irritation. “I am just going to shop,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.” And she kept on backing out, leaving my sister and me in the care of our servants.
(P.S. Hiring servants is not odd in a country where the average wage is $76 a month.)
Later that afternoon, my father returned home. Darkness fell abruptly, as it does in Africa, and still, my mother did not return. My sister discovered that Mum had taken all her clothes out of her closet. She was really gone.
I recall standing at my bedroom window for the rest of the evening, looking out for her. I have returned to that moment often in my memory. It was where Mysterion was conceived.
20 years later, a story idea occurred to me: what if there a was a boy who discovered that his father (whom he loved to the point of idolizing him) had betrayed him? Could he learn to love his father despite knowing the terrible truth about him?
The heart of the story was about coming of age, moving from a love that idealizes to a love that sees the worst in the other, and loves anyway. The hero, who I named ‘Jonah,’ would learn that real love is self-sacrificial–emptying your expectations for the sake of someone else, even if that someone else is definitely not worthy.
To learn this lesson, Jonah had to go on a journey. He had to journey from an ideal view of his father to a real view, from a narrow, inaccurate vision to a clear and true vision.
So, I imagined that there is a world one in which we can see things as they truly are, in all their dimensions, and that what we call ‘the real world’ is just our limited, narrow, and ultimately inaccurate way of conceiving that true world.
Jonah’s journey would take him from his limited way of seeing (which I called Lethes, from the Greek word meaning “forget”) to the world as really is (which I called Mysterion, from the Greek word meaning “that which is hidden”). To redeem his father, Jonah would have to overcome his own expectations, idealizations, and illusions.
In the end, though, the story was not rooted in my interests in philosophy or spirituality. It was rooted in that day around 1980 or 1981, when my mother lied to me, and left, and did not come back. The Hidden Island was about me wanting to understand why she left, and why she lied. More than that, I wanted to learn how to love her despite all of that.
I’m not sure why I made it so that Jonah is searching for his father in The Hidden Island, and not his mother. Perhaps it had to do with my love of Michael Ende’s great book, The Neverending Story, which is about Bastian’s broken relationship with his dad. Whatever the case, it seemed right at the time and still does.
But in the end, the book is about and for my mother, my way of saying that I love her, not just as an ideal, but as a real person in all her dimensions.
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