PapaGino caught the writing bug at age nine when his Sunday school teacher, Lucille, gave him a copy of “Moby Dick.” Most of Melville’s novel was beyond his grasp, but he was able to wrap his mind around enough of it to be hooked on the notion of becoming a writer. His literary ambitions, however, were interrupted by several years singing DooWop bass, and singing Blues and Spirituals with the original Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Then, after singing African chants with Olatunji, he turned to acting. On stage he played Sgt. Tower in David Rabe’s “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.” He had movie roles including the character ‘Mel’ in Elaine May’s cult favorite, “Mikey and Nicky.” On television his roles included, William Lee, George Washington’s factotum in “Martha Washington’s Diary.” During this time he continued to write. His first book, “Songs of the Zodiac: In Doo-Wop America,” was published in 2006. Today he is here to talk about his children’s book “The Legend of Moon Mountain.”
Tyler: Welcome, PapaGino. I’m very happy to talk to you today since I love ancient myths and legends, and Ancient Egypt is fascinating to me. To begin, will you tell us a little about the basic story of “The Legend of Moon Mountain”?
PapaGino: Sure. My book, “The Legend Of Moon Mountain,” tells the story of a journey begun by six adolescents in the mists of far antiquity. The young people, Shani and Unyofu; Rubani-Zeruzeru and Meli along with Taka and Ajali set out to find what lies beyond the place of The Setting Sun. Their search turns out to be to discover Truth.
After generations their journey is completed by their descendants.
Tyler: Is the story really an Ancient Egyptian legend, and if so, what if anything did you fictionalize about it?
PapaGino: Tyler, nothing in the Khamitic (Ancient Egyptian) oral history was passed on with any specificity. That is to say, they were only clear about their ancestors having come from Ruwenzori (Mountain Of The Moon).
One thing is clear in written history. The very first Deity to gain currency was the Goddess Auset (Isis). Because of this I chose to make the central figure in my fable female. Also, the oral history-to my knowledge-does not give whys or wherefores regarding the ancestors’ decision to come down North to the Nile Valley. This allowed me to create fictional characters and motives. And as you know, in fiction, characters and events lead the author into areas he/she has not anticipated.
Tyler: What first gave you the idea to write this story?
PapaGino: During the 1960s, like many people of African descent, I turned my attention to African history and culture. My quest was to uncover the mass of information that had long been ignored, even denied. In my search I became aware of many African and African diasporan scholars who were as hidden from our awareness as the valuable information they possess. Among them is the Egyptologist, Dr. Josef Ben-Jochannan. During a study tour to Khamit with ‘Dr. Ben’ it occurred to me that a fable based on Khamitic oral history might be useful.
Tyler: When you say “useful” what do you mean? What about “The Legend of Moon Mountain” do you hope is useful?
PapaGino: First of all, too many people in our society are not aware that Egypt is an African country. More importantly it is useful that young people gain knowledge of history in general. You can imagine how helpful it is for the many American children of color—most of the young population—to know of Egyptian traditions.
Tyler: What about exploring these ancient African stories do you think is important or relevant for people living in 2009?
PapaGino: There is an Ashanti term, SANKOFA. The following Wikipedia quote sums up its meaning. “It symbolizes one taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge.”
Tyler: For those of us not as familiar with the geography of Africa, for the characters to travel from Moon Mountain in East Africa to the Nile, how difficult of a journey would this have been?
PapaGino: Moon Mountain is in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The journey entailed negotiating the many rivers and lakes of east Africa. In the era of my story, boats were primitive. The journey from Moon Mountain to the Nile Valley took generations.
Tyler: Why did the people think the Nile Valley was the home of their ancestors?
PapaGino: Actually the people of the village Watu Chelezo believed their ancestors dwelled in the Land Of The Setting Sun, which was down West from their mountain home. When Shani and her party set sail, they had no knowledge of the Nile Valley. In fact they had no knowledge of any geography beyond their mountain lakes. As they, then their descendants, traveled the lakes and rivers, their knowledge and wisdom grew. Eventually the long journey led the travelers northward to the Nile Valley.
Tyler: PapaGino, I’m reminded of the film of “The Lion King” when we talk about the ancestors. Is the idea of the ancestors in “The Legend of Moon Mountain” a similar idea—that our ancestors live on within us?
PapaGino: Unfortuately I’ve not seen “The Lion King.” That said, ancient peoples pretty generally believed their forebears to have been Divine. That was what led to ancestral worship or so called Totemic societies. If you think of it, the ancestors are not only spiritually within us, they are within us physically as well.
Tyler: Ancient Egypt is known as one of the oldest and first civilizations on earth. At what time would this journey from Moon Mountain have taken place? Is this really the origins of Egyptian culture with the migration of these people to the Nile region?
PapaGino: As far as is known, the earliest people to occupy the Nile Valley came there from deeper in Africa. Bear in mind the fact that culture flows downstream. The Nile is the one major river that flows South to North. As Dr. Ben is fond of saying, “Those folks didn’t have motor boats.” That is to say, culture only flowed downstream in those prehistoric times. There is no doubt that, as in every other place on Earth, people from far and near also came to the Nile Delta. However, Kush, with its indigenous African population, seems to have been there first. Anyone who is interested should look into Ethiopian and Nubian history.
Tyler: In ancient stories and legends, the hero is usually male, so what made you decide to make the main character female?
PapaGino: I am not so sure that ancient African legends were necessarily centered around male figures to the exclusion of females. Certainly in the ‘Osirian Drama’ Isis is at the center. Osiris, the king is murdered by his brother, Seth. Horus, the son of Isis, avenges Osiris’ murder. Note I did not say Horus avenges his father’s murder. Horus was born of “Immaculate conception” to Isis as was Jesus to Mary millenia later. In short, the female is the vessel, the vehicle. The female delivers the Avatar to perform the mission.
Tyler: What about the characters do you think will interest young readers?
PapaGino: My hope is that readers young and old will be drawn to the central characters’ faith and courage. They leave their mountain village on a dewy morning not knowing what awaits them beyond the horizon. They are sustained by their need to know what they will discover in the Land Of The Setting Sun.
Tyler: Will you tell us more about Shani specifically? What about her do you think makes her a special character?
PapaGino: Individuals like Shani arrive in societies unannounced throughout history and mythology. Such persons are bold, bright and forward looking. They are curious beyond what we are accustomed to expect. Such persons are, in a word-phrase,
Tyler: What age group would most enjoy reading “The Legend of Moon Mountain”?
PapaGino: The sub-title of the book is, “RUWENZORI A fable for every age.” But inevitably the book will be steered to children thirteen and under.
Tyler: Tell us more about the journey itself. Was it a difficult journey by foot?
PapaGino: The journey, which took many years, was mostly made on water. Of necessity, some portions of it would have been made by foot. The travelers would have occasionally had to cut their way through jungle thickets while making their way across land to reach a body of water on which they would again set sail.
Tyler: What made you so interested in retelling a story about Ancient Egypt over other legends?
PapaGino: I was guided by the fact that of all African nations, Egypt garners the most interest. Also, of all nations of the world, none has a more fascinating history or mythology than Egypt. And of course, Egypt is in Africa. I am of African descent.
Tyler: PapaGino, do you plan to write more children’s books based on legends, and if so, what legends are you considering?
PapaGino: The answer is yes, absolutely yes. At this point I am torn between writing a book about Queen N’Zinga of Matamba or one about the Egyptain genius, Imhotep.
Tyler: That sounds fascinating, PapaGino, since I know nothing about them. I can see that this is territory that deserves exploring. Could you briefly tell us a little about each of these people?
PapaGino: N’Zinga aka Ann N’Zinga was a warrior Queen in what is now, Angola. She waged war against the Portuguese Army and enslavement in the 17th Century.
Imhotep (He who comes in peace) was the first physician to emerge from early history. He was advisor to King Djoser, Egyptian 3rd Dynasty (ca.2650-2600 BC). Imhotep was also the architect who designed and built the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Additionally he was Priest, Scribe, Sage, Poet, Astrologer and the only non-Royal to be apotheosized to Deity status. Imhotep was eventually named the Egyptian God Of Medicine.
Tyler: Thank you, PapaGino, for joining me today. Before we go, will you tell us where our readers can find out more information about “The Legend of Moon Mountain” online?
PapaGino: Tyler, you are most welcomed. Readers can find information about “The Legend of Moon Mountain” at my newly launched website www.papagino.info.
The Legend of Moon Mountain: Ruwenzori A Fable for Every Age
Reviewed by Brenna Bales (age 11) for Reader Views (2/09)