this blog appeared in Streetlight: http://streetlightmag.com/2016/08/08/a-place-to-flee-by-harriet-levin-millan/
A Place To Flee by Harriet Levin Millan
Michael fled his village in South Sudan at the age of five. He trekked a thousand miles through war zones to arrive at a series of refugee camps where he lived for a decade. As a child at Kukuma Refugee Camp, Michael played soccer using a blown up latex glove fished from a trash bin outside the hospital tent. He learned to play chess and checkers under the punishing sun from old-timers who sat bereft of their children and their land.
One of the most life-negating situations a person can face is to live without a sense of a future. Added to the threat of war breaking out, attacks from hostile tribes, lack of food and water, recurring malaria, typhus, tuberculosis and a host of other diseases, day to day existence is dire in the remote desert climates where refugee camps like Kakuma are located. “Living in a refugee camp means that your life is on hold. Once I came to the States, I was able to plan ahead, to have a future,” Michael told me.
9781941861202-PerfectHFCYR ARC4.inddIn a deal brokered between the U.S. and the Southern Sudanese leader John Garang, who died in a mysterious helicopter crash, Michael received political asylum to the States along with approximately 4,000 other unaccompanied minors, the so-called “Lost Boys.” We met when One Book, One Philadelphia chose Dave Egger’s novel What is the What about Valentino Achak Deng, another “Lost Boy” of Sudan for the city-wide book club. One Philadelphia asked me to choose ten of my undergraduate creative writing students at Drexel University to interview ten Sudanese immigrants for a City Paper series. Michael was the first of those interviewees. We became fast friends. Soon he asked me to write a book about his life.
I found him to be in possession of a rare sense of optimism that I couldn’t help comparing to my own relatives and neighbors who had escaped pogroms in the early 1900s or death camps in Europe during the Holocaust. Considering that they came from different parts of the world and experienced different traumas, this shared characteristic struck me. Then I realized, this is the indomitable spirit of a survivor, this is what it takes to survive. And I wondered how many of us have it.
As I was finishing the novel that would become How Fast Can You Run, South Sudan was about to become the world’s newest nation. After twelve years in Philadelphia, where Michael attended college and graduate school, he yearned to return home.
I traveled to Juba to visit him in 2011 and witnessed the euphoria that seized everyone. Something miraculous was happening. A new nation was coming into being after a civil war between the north of Sudan and the south of Sudan that had started when Sudan was first declared an independent country in the 1950’s.
But now that the South has gained its independence, its dreams are on hold again, and not because of the North. The fighting is internal. The Vice-President is in hiding. The lines of contention are split between Dinka and Nuer, the two dominant tribes in South Sudan. “Alongside the civil war raged southern fratricidal conflicts,” National Geographic reported in a 2013 article about the region, “the most bitter fighting between Dinka and Nuer factions.”
According to Aljazeera, the number of South Sudanese refugees in East Africa could hit one million this year. “Nearly 1 out of 4 South Sudanese has been forced to flee for their lives.”
One reporter wrote that learning about the plight of refugees puts the vagaries of “her own life in perspective.” We know this view. It’s the one that continues to alienate us from the suffering of others.
I want to put forward a different view. I named my novel How Fast Can You Run (instead of Shake Loose the Scorpions, a title I loved suggested by the poet Kate Sontag) because I did not want the title to make the book sound like it was happening to people other than ourselves. I want to help cultivate compassion, encourage involvement in campaigns to open borders and aid refugees. I want my book to reverberate: this can happen to you or me, it can happen to anyone.
May the hostilities end, may the people of South Sudan be restored the peace they deserve after so much suffering and travail, after so much dispersion and bloodshed. And here in the U.S. as our cities become divided and as acts of unpredictable violence become predictable may we all heed the lessons.
Harriet Levin Millan’s debut novel novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of Michael Majok Kuch, is due out October 28, 2016, a Charter for Compassion Global Read. Her poetry book, The Christmas Show, won the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Catagnola Award and the Barnard New Women Poets Prize. Her second book of poetry, Girl in Cap and Gown, was a National Poetry Series finalist. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and teaches creative writing at Drexel University.
Attending this year's Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Washington D.C. next week? Harvard Square Editions is excited to be presenting migrant novel author, Harriet Levin Millan, in conversation with authors Fabienne Joshaphat and Dina Elenbogen in a panel entitled, “When Writers Move In and Out of Their Countries and Genres,”
Friday, February 10th at 9 AM
in the Liberty Salon L, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level 4
What happens when poets delve into fiction and expand not only the borders of genre but their physical and emotional terrain? What explorations do they conduct in their attempt to resist limitations and cross cultural divides? The three panelists have among them written books set in Israel, South Sudan and Haiti. Come hear these practicing writers talk about what they have learned in their journey to overcome ascribed attitudes and identities.
HSE’s How Fast Can You Run
will be for sale on the Politics and Prose Book Fair table or reserve your copy here
, and don’t forget to sign up for How Fast Can You Run’s
Charter for Compassion Global Read that will take place on
Feb. 22 at 12 noon: for free registration, click here
It wasn’t an ordinary book launch. The real life characters I fictionalized in my novel based on the life of Michael Majok Kuch, How Fast Can You Run (Harvard Square Editions, October 28 2016) were in attendance.
I got the chills just looking around the room and seeing them. They included my protagonist, South Sudanese national, Michael Majok Kuch, his American parents, two of his former employers and several other friends and S. Sudanese immigrants. However, in order to write a compelling work of fiction, I needed to invent them as characters with different physical features, names and personalities than they had in real life. All good fiction is expressive of an imaginary realm of being, and that’s the great paradox. The more invention a writer can imbue into a scene, the more truth it holds.
The launch was held in Drexel University’s Pearlstein Gallery, 3401 Filbert Street, Philadelphia, PA concurrent with the gorgeous textile exhibit “Warp and Weft” by PEW Fellowship winner, Caroline Lathan-Stiefel. HavingHow Fast Can You Run’s real life protagonist and his friends in the room, helped the audience to experience how special it was for me to have worked with Michael. For three years we sat side by side on his couch while the afternoon light turned to dusk and I tape recorded his experiences. Afterward, I would go home, write a scene, come back the following week, show it to Michael to be certain that I did not make any historical errors, and if I did, revise it. I became a witness to Mike’s life. I learned how the UN dropped food bags from airplanes too close to the people running toward the food, which landed on several refugees and killed them. Or how boys in Kakuma Refugee Camp constructed soccer balls out of bloody surgical gloves wrapped in twine and covered in torn socks. These are details that no history book contains.
Drexel’s Africana Studies Director, Alden Young moderated the panel that both Michael and I participated in. When Dr. Young asked how the book came into being, I described the snowy January day that One Book, One Philadelphia’s director called me on the phone and invited me to choose ten of my undergraduate creative writing students to interview ten Sudanese refugees for a One Book writing project. These interviews were serialized in Philadelphia’s City Paper. Among the students who conducted the interviews was Deborah Yarchun now a rising playwright living in New York City. Michael was the first person we interviewed. Soon after, Michael, still a college student, asked me to write a book about his life. The moment I met him, I was overwhelmed by his brilliance and his buoyant spirit, which enabled him to overcome the trauma of fleeing his village in South Sudan at the age of five and live in various refugee camps for the next ten years before receiving political asylum to the US. So when he proposed that I write a book about his experiences, I jumped at the chance. Myself, a grandchild of refugees, I recognized the importance of telling Michael’s story so that it would not be forgotten the way my family’s history has been wiped out.
When Dr. Young asked how the book’s title got chosen, I explained that the reason Mike and I decided to title the book, How Fast Can You Run, was because we wanted people to stop seeing refugees as other and that we wanted people to understand that the unspeakable could occur at any moment to any one of us. At that point, Kuch explained how the book’s title particularly resonates with him.
“Being a refugee,” he said, “means having to always catch up.” Besides its references to fleeing, he described how the title portrays his feeling, once he came to the US in 2000 of trying to keep pace with the people around him and having to work extra hard to stay ahead.
Michael, who now works as a Research and Policy Advisor in the Office of the President in Juba, South Sudan, will be appearing with me on our book tour. We will be speaking at several other universities, schools, Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, synagogues, book clubs and other organizations. Once Michael returns to South Sudan, Charter for Compassion will be sponsoring a Global Read via phone conference on Feb. 22, 2017 with the two of us. Besides the Drexel Panel, we will participate in a panel moderated by Dr. Derrick Kayango, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta on November 17th at the Book Festival of the MJCCA.
We stopped sending people to S. Sudan on reunion trips when the new violence broke out. It just didn't seem conscionable to send people back to a war zone where anything could happen. Instead we used our funds to pay for the school tuition of an awardee's sister and also to pay money toward airfare of an awardee's mother to visit her in the US. I am so happy to say that this visit occurred only this week, (October 2016). The awardee and her mother were reunited after close to twenty-five years! Congratulations to the families involved. This is an overwhelming moment. Hearts filled to breaking and eyes welling with tears. Yet there is laughter too and joy.