“It is humbling to have your social fluency, your sense of yourself as a competent, independent person, upended by a foreign city.”
That is the narrator of American Spy, a 2019 novel by Lauren Wilkinson, talking not to the reader so much as to her children. The framing device of the book is that it is a tale told by her (a Black American FBI agent who may or may not have once moonlighted for the CIA) to them while she is evading an unseen enemy — as well as interrogating, through flashbacks, what got her family into this troubling situation in the first place. While the stakes in the book are highly personal, much of it hinging on the circumstances surrounding the death, years earlier, of the narrator’s older sister, the scope of the story is international, its second half occurring largely in West Africa.
Her observation about “social fluency” occurs as a response to an earlier situation, back in Manhattan, when the narrator, named Marie Mitchell, was guiding a head of state around the city (that character, Thomas Sankara, is an actual former president of Burkina Faso). The dignitary was flummoxed at the time by the enormity of the city’s noise.
Now the tables have been turned, and Marie is in his country’s capital city, Ouagadougou, finding herself dependent on the kindness of strangers to navigate a place where no sensory input is familiar. “I thought of the afternoon in New York I’d spent with Thomas, the way he’d been surprised when we were in the park and those kids on bikes had whizzed around us,” she reminisces. “He’d sounded embarrassed when he’d said he’d been unable to pick out the bikes from the ambient city noise, and now with a teenager practically leading me through Ouaga by the hand, I thought I understood why.”
As always, writers of fiction about spies need to be good listeners in order for their characters to be. You can fake an NGO. You can fake a counterintelligence operation. You can’t fake paying attention.