An endless supply of quotes exist telling us we should do what we love in life. Though many are cliche, I found myself rooting around for just the right one after hearing Alexander McCall Smith read from his latest book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. Having read most of the books in his No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, I was eager to see and hear in person the man who brought me the much adored Precious Ramotswe. As I entered the Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor, it was evident that I was not alone.
Since I probably haven’t had the pleasure of listening to someone read to me since kindergarten carpet time, it was with happy nostalgia that I sat cross-legged and elbow to elbow on the bookstore floor, listening to the cadenced voice of Mr. McCall Smith. Bewitched by his lilt and laughter, he quickly transformed the packed room of overwrought adults into a sea of sunny, eager faces as he read his favorite passages from Tea Time.
Now if you haven’t read any of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, it would be prudent to inform you of their beautiful simplicity. Sprinkled with charming formalities, this modern day series lends itself an air of forgotten sophistication and decency so integral to the traditions of Botswana. The detective, Mma Ramotswe, cheerfully runs her laid-back operation with both cunning and disarming common sense. In signature McCall Smith style, these modest mysteries quietly play themselves out while the background literary score pays tribute to the deep-rooted customs and ways of Botswana.
Referring to himself as a “serial novelist” in the Q&A portion of his appearance, the author made no apologies for the multiple series he now has moving through the markets, and quite frankly we don’t want him to. With three series in addition to The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, the prolific McCall Smith claims to write on the road, in the air, or wherever his travels take him. When asked how he keeps all of his characters straight, a broad smile takes over his face as the question inevitably cues up their images. Like a proud father, confusing his creations is not a problem; he knows every nuance of his characters including voice, personality, strengths and vulnerabilities. Clearly born out of creative love, McCall Smith regards his characters with a wistful and paternal adoration only solid nurturing can bring about.
Taking in the vibrant crowd, I sat marveling as each brief pause between questions brought about the fervent waving of hands, showcasing that age old “pick me! pick me!” determinism. One such hand belonged to an enthusiastic, heavyset woman in the front row. Quite overcome, she tearily thanked Mr. McCall Smith for making Mma Ramotswe a “woman of traditional build.” She said that having Precious Ramotswe portrayed as a heavier woman “made her feel beautiful again.”
Equally poignant was the comment shared by a dark, lovely woman, dressed in her bright yellow Sunday best. Waving throughout the majority of the appearance, the author finally chose her to end the session. Beyond pleased, she broke into the traditional greeting of Botswana, charming both Mr. McCall Smith and the audience at large. We listened intently as she thanked him for portraying her country in such a positive light. She added that her people constantly hear about America and that it is nice to be able to share the beauty of her homeland with others.
As I made my way home, I realized that this excursion meant to satisfy my curiosity had actually shaped itself into something far more humanitarian. Rather than self-promotion, Mr. McCall Smith seemed absolutely delighted to simply share both his words and our company. As readers, we wonder about the author behind the works that move us, and hope deep down that the real life version measures up. We give ourselves over to the imagination and creativity of others, also with the hope of finding growth and inspiration. For me, Alexander McCall Smith’s sunny, engaging manner simply validates the importance of pursuing our passions in life. After all, as philosopher Albert Camus once said, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”
-By Megan Shaffer