“The best war novel told from a young boy’s perspective since Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird.”
—Nyoul Lueth Tong, author of There is a Country: New Writing from the New Country of South Sudan
Prepare to be amazed. When One Book, One Philadelphia asked author and Drexel University professor Harriet Levin Millan to choose ten of her undergraduate creative writing students to interview ten South Sudanese refugees for a special One Book writing project, she met Michael Majok Kuch, who became the subject of her novel. . Kuch survived the torching of his village in South Sudan, and was separated from his mother when he was only five. His quest to be reunited with her, and the plight of the refuge is both profound and moving. Thank you so much Harriet, for being here.
I always say every book starts with a yearning. What was yours?
My yearning was for Michael Majok Kuch, the S. Sudanese national, I based my novel on, to see his mother. They had been separated since Michael was five-years-old and their village was attacked in the middle of the night and they got separated. So by the time I met him, when he was a senior in college, he hadn’t seen her for nearly 22 years. At the time, my own son was a high school junior starting the college application process, which to me felt bittersweet. On the one hand, I was so happy he had done well enough in high school to apply to college, yet on the other hand I was distraught that his childhood was over. I guess you could say that I was in a state. So when I met Michael, I projected his longing for his mother onto my longing for my son, but it was my son, Josh, who really started the process of getting Michael and his mother together. After Josh heard that Michael hadn’t seen his mother in so long, yet had recently discovered that she was alive and had been relocated from a refugee camp in Northern Kenya to Brisbane, Australia, Josh dropped his video controller, interrupting the game he was playing and rushed to hug me and said, “I don’t know what I would do without you, Mom.” So that was how the Reunion Project was born and we fundraised to reunite Michael and several other S. Sudanese nationals. I constructed the book’s arc around this quest. So although I used a reportorial style and kept myself out of the novel’s narration, I always saw the book as the story of two sons and two mothers, Michael and his mother, and Josh and me.
What kind of writer are you? And did your usual process differ at all with this book?
I am a very disciplined to the point of obsessiveness. I can sit for up to 12 hours and write. But I am also extremely disorganized and rely on memory a lot. I started out as a poet and I write a lot of my poetry in my head just walking around. When I was a MFA student at the U of Iowa, I was fortunate to have studied with Larry Levis. I took a course Larry taught called the 100-line poem. I wrote my entire 100-line poem in my head, same with many poems in my first book, The Christmas Show. So I continued that process once I turned to fiction. I don’t really take notes or outline. I always think about the plot and where the character is going as I go about by daily activities. I project my character onto everything I see and do. Then when I sit down to write, I just bring that part of my day to life, even if the setting is different. In that case, I may make the character do things I’ve done that day such as shop in a market or lose her keys, things that I do. For How Fast Can You Run, I really tried to be more organized. The book is based on conversations with a real person, Michael Majok Kuch. Mike and I met several times a week for about three years. I both recorded those conversations on tape and wrote stuff down as Mike talked to me. But because I’m so disorganized pretty soon I started relying on memory to get me through. There was just so much information that I used the incidents that I remembered most, believing they were the most impactful. I have a very good instinctive organizing sense of writing from having written for over thirty years. It’s almost like driving with an automatic car instead of a manual one. I don’t need the outline or gearshift to get into action, I just let the writing do the work.
What kind of research did you do, and what was that like? Did anything unmoor preconceptions that you might have had? What surprised you the most?
Talking with Michael was an immense honor. No history book holds this information. The stories Michael told me aren’t written down anywhere, stories such as the UN making food drops and thousands of refugees running toward the hundred pound bags of grain as they fell down from the skies and the bags actually landing on people and killing them! Where would that information be recorded? Besides getting to know Michael and hearing about his life, I immersed myself in the S. Sudanese community for about three years. I also traveled to S. Sudan and Kenya, which was absolutely necessary. I felt that I couldn’t write about S. Sudan and Kenya without actually putting my feet down on the land, smelling its flora and experiencing it. And I was right! I got such valuable information on those trips. I even met a Kenyan truck driver who was one of the original aid workers who brought water to boys like Michael who had trekked through the desert for months toward the Kenyan border. His name is Sampson and I wrote an homage to him in the book. And although I couldn’t get a permit to visit Kakuma Refugee Camp where Michael lived for ten years, I flew 1,000 miles to see the landscape around Kakuma Refugee Camp so that I’d be able to write about it. I also read just about every book I could find on S. Sudan, very article. I learned to cook S. Sudanese food, learned some of the language, attended Save Darfur rallies and traveled to meet some prominent S. Sudanese people who lived in the US. I always teach immersion whether I’m teaching creative nonfiction, fiction or poetry. I’m a tactile person.
The whole refugee experience is both so horrific and so triumphant.
What can the average person do to help them—and to change the fear that ignorant people have about them coming into our country?
Something I learned from Mike is that many refugees just want to be known. We think they’ll ask us for things like money or jobs and we don’t get near to them because we don’t necessarily have those things to give. But it’s not true. Most of the refugees I met from Sudan and the Darfur region particularly, asked only one thing of me and that was to spread awareness. Sudan doesn’t make the news very often. Unless you are in the habit of looking for news from Sudan on the internet, you probably won’t find it. I really think that the term refugee needs to be looked at. Right now, refugee might make you think of someone really skinny or ill or in need. Other words such as new immigrant, expat and in exile are much more attractive. But in fact, many of our histories are lost because our grandparents or parents did not want to be called refugees. All four of my grandparents were refugees escaping pogroms in Russian or Eastern Europe, but I know nothing of their past because they so badly wanted to be identified as American. I don’t know their real names or language or the name of the towns they came from. Their histories are erased. This is a great tragedy. Our understanding of the word refugee needs to be improved. To my mind, based on the refugeesI have met, the word means ‘indomitable spirit.’ Refugees are heroes. Writing about my book, Ken Kalfus said that “refugees are the heroes of our times.” Presently there are 65 million refugees on the move worldwide, many of them under the age of eighteen. Something needs to be done. Too much is at stake. Why are there closed borders? Why is human immigration not an uninalienable human right. What I think people need to do is to start reaching out to one another, start respecting people whom they perceive as other and changing the perceptions of refugees from the down trodden to inspirational. That would be a great first step.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The whole experience of getting this book out there, especially during this present political climate has been an education. The book is published by Harvard Square Editions, a small independent press affiliated with Harvard University. I did have a big agent in New York trying to sell this book. She loved the book and sent it out 19 times. When she couldn’t sell it, I broke with her and decided to try the independent presses. The fifth press I tried, accepted the book. I didn’t know at the time that my book, published by an independent press, would not be in book stores, that it would not be reviewed heavily and that people would not have access to it, unless they somehow heard about it and sought it out. I didn’t know how the big presses control what we read and think. This is just another example of how our capitalistic society so controls us. I even tried to hire a publicist, but all the publicists I interviewed turned me down because my press wasn’t big enough and they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to do much for me. These were publicists with exuberant fees. Even if I could have afforded the thousands of dollars they’d have charge to work with me, they didn’t even want to take my money! So, with the help of Harvard Square Edition’s in-house publicist, I did everything myself and managed to get events, interviews and even to get featured on NPR. I’ve vowed to teach books published by independent presses in all my classes. I’d never restrict myself to listening to the top 40 radio, so why would I not explore the independents? I’m not sure how many readers are aware of how limited their choices are and how the big presses control their reading material. I think the internet has changed this somewhat and of course, blogs such as this one, but we still have a long way to go.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have.
The move from writing poetry to fiction was quite the experience. I studied poetry at Iowa but never studied fiction. I had to teach myself to write it. It took 12 years. I wrote two other novels that I felt weren’t good enough to publish. I signed up for writing workshops along with my Drexel undergraduates and also studied with Tom Jenks and attended SLS Summer Seminars and took One Story’s workshops on line. I joined writers groups and got feedback. I leaned on the support of some of my writer friends, particularly women writers. I joined Binders which changed everything. This group is offering a new paradigm of women helping women. It’s a brave new world of writing and I’m glad to be a part of it.