In her debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, poet Harriet Levin Millan (The Christmas Show, Girl in Cap and Gown) gives an insightful and carefully crafted account of just one of the many consequences of the second Sudanese Civil War and refugee life in America. In 1988, Michael Majok Kuch was violently uprooted from the Dinka plains of Southern Sudan to the Kakuma refugee camp to Nairobi and eventually to Philadelphia. Millan’s novel is inspired by Michael’s story.
In the late ’80s, while Americans listened to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy” or simply sat back to enjoy the The Cosby Show (then in its third season), this five-year-old was running for his life, fleeing his village after the government in the North of Sudan ordered attacks against the South. Along with thousands of other refugees, Majok trekked through war zones and wilderness to a series of refugee camps where he would live for the next ten years. Eventually, Michael Majok Kuch would attend high school, college, and graduate school in Philadelphia. He would be featured in the PBS documentary, Dinka Diaries. Later he would meet Harriet and spend countless hours telling his story.
In the preface to How Fast Can You Run, Michael Majok Kuch writes:
This book bears witness to my childhood experience right before I would have undergone initiation, which typically marks the end of childhood in the Dinka Bor cultural heritage. My story begins just as I was about to learn to be, and grow into, a successful herder.
I include his words to stress the fact that most of the novel is based on a real person and very real events. Furthermore, Kirkus Reviews does not exaggerate when they write:
…the strength here is in Millan’s ability to fully inhabit Majok’s consciousness; she has crafted a rich tale that authentically portrays—and doesn’t exploit—Majok’s refugee experience. A deeply felt novel of grace and intelligence.
Millan is a poet and master storyteller. How Fast Can You Run is a story that is both heartbreaking and compelling.
Maribel Garcia: Harriet, thank you so much for being with us today and for telling such an important story. Let’s start with how the book was born. Who planted the seed for it and what was the process of writing it like?
Harriet Levin Millan: Michael asked me to write this book. I met him in 2008 through One Book, One Philadelphia. The director called me one day to ask me to choose ten of my undergraduate writing students at Drexel to interview ten Sudanese refugees for a One Book project. The interviews were serialized in Philadelphia City Paper. Michael was one of the refugees. We related on so many levels, and at the time I was in-between projects, so when Michael asked me if I was interested in writing a book about his life, I thought, yes, this is a person I’d like to spend more time with and learn his story.
We met several times a week over a two-year period. He was in his senior year of college. I’d ask him questions and tape his answers and take notes. Then I’d go home and write a scene. I’d show the scene to Mike and he’d point out what worked historically and what didn’t, and I’d go home again and revise the scene multiple times until it was something we both agreed on. Once Mike returned to S. Sudan in 2011, we corresponded over email and kept up the process. Perhaps because I am a mother myself, and at that time, with one child in college and another about to leave home, I saw the story’s arc very clearly and then too, it was the way Mike presented it to me. He told me that he felt like there was a curtain around him and that the curtain would not be pulled open until he saw his mother again. The book conveys this yearning starting from page one up until the end when they are finally reunited.
The first half of the book takes place in South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, and the second half takes place in Philadelphia and Australia. When Mike arrived in the US, his ordeal was not over. In some ways, it was only just beginning. He met some wonderful people who became his mentors and friends, but he also faced discrimination and ultimately betrayal. In some ways, the African part of the book was easier to write because it was a new world to me. The American part was more challenging because it was so familiar. There’s always this tension in fiction between the familiar and the strange. It took many revisions to figure it all out. The book took about five years to write.
I never considered writing the book as nonfiction. First, Dinka culture is very private. If the book had been written as nonfiction, I’d need to reveal my sources. I did not want to exploit Mike’s family and friends in any way. They might have granted me permission if I had asked, but I did not want to put them in that position. Second, this is Mike’s story and I wanted the reader to hear it just as I did sitting on a couch beside him for hours. I didn’t want there to be an intermediary. So I wrote the book in the third person and used a reportorial style and kept myself out of it as much as possible. Draggan Mihailovich, the CBS 60 Minutes reporter who was one of the first to break the story of the ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan in the West, and who wrote the book’s introduction, remarked to me that writing this book must have been like walking a tightrope. And it was.
I needed to stay close to the truth as Mike presented it to me, yet use my imagination to write through my senses. Initially, I tried to capture Mike exactly as he is, but I quickly realized that in order to create a believable character, I’d have to fictionalize him. I know that sounds contradictory and it is, but that’s the truth that writing is based on. You have to create the conditions of verisimilitude, and as Robert Olen Butler teaches us, tell the story moment by moment. The truth is in the details and in the layering of consciousness, both the narrator as an adult looking back and in the body of the young person living through it. I kept the historical incidents of Mike’s life, but I recreated him and several other of the characters, using the five senses to convey the specifics in an engaging way.
MG: In the West, (America, in particular) we are bombarded with the faceless, nameless children on the evening news who are suffering as a result of wars. We forget that refugees are individuals. Your compassionately told story had us reliving Majok’s trek through war zones and wilderness to a series of refugee camps. As a mother yourself, and as someone who has now become like family to Michael, how hard was the creative process, given the real-life events?
HLM: If I understand your question correctly, I take it to mean that I listened to Mike’s story while enjoying certain privileges of living in the US, and yes that’s true. I couldn’t help comparing his life to mine. Part of the reason I wanted to write this book is for people to feel more compassion for war affected people. We agreed on the title How Fast Can You Run because we wanted to include the reader in Mike’s struggle and to stop readers from seeing war affected people as ‘the other.’ I return to Chimananda Adichi’s Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” that warns people against seeing others through a singular perspective. Everyone’s life contains multiple perspectives. Anyone’s life can change in a single instant.
I’ve been leading a study abroad trip to Haiti for the past six years. It’s a country where the vast majority of the people live in poverty. The Haitian writer and artist Franketienne is someone who had the means to leave the country but he chose to stay. He once told me that the greatest injustice of life is that we don’t get to choose where we were born and the circumstances we were born into. And that’s true. In the 1980s, while Mike was walking barefoot through the wilderness in South Sudan, searching for his mother, I was a punk-rocker, living in New York City, waiting in lines outside clubs like Danceteria, furious over not being let in. So here I was complaining about something so frivolous, while Michael was facing life and death. Living is to despair and we all will face illness, death, loss. Mike faced despair at five years old, yet he is one of the most optimistic, life-affirming people I know.
At the time of my meetings with Mike, my son was in 11th grade. When my son met Michael, Mike told him that he had recently discovered that his mother was alive. Mike had discovered that his mother was living in a refugee camp in Kenya. Actually, it was Kakuma, the same camp Mike had been living in for close to a decade, but they didn’t know the other was there. They were both there at the same time and didn’t know it. Mike had not seen his mother in ten years. Even if he had been standing next to her in a food line, most likely, he would not have recognized her. Hearing Mike tell him this, my son’s reaction was to hug me and say, “I don’t know what I would do without you, Mom.” He really meant it.
That night he confronted my husband and me with a plan to help reunite Mike with his mother. As a mother, this made me very proud. My son has always been empathetic, and this time he really carried his plan through. He brought the project to his high school and with the help of a kind teacher, Dr. Terry O’Conner, they fundraised and raised the money for Mike to travel to Australia, where his mother had recently been relocated. I tried very hard to raise my children to become compassionate people, and I think they have an awareness from which they could begin to do great things. My daughter is an actor. She was just featured in a Broadway play. My son works for an interactive sports network. I think they will both be in the position one day to use their influence in positive ways, and I look forward to the good they will continue to do. But, of course, compassion leads to despair too. We can never step into someone else’s shoes. Everyone journeys through life alone.
MG: The novel is filled with exacting detail from beginning to end. We get a real feeling for the landscapes and the desperate conditions — little food, no latrines, rampant illness. Tell us about the process of combining research with personal interviews and even visits.
HLM: As a writer, I need to be immersed in a project. I read just about every book I could find on South Sudan. I attended political rallies, conferences, advised an Amnesty International chapter at Drexel, attended countless dinners and lectures and befriended South Sudanese people living in Philadelphia. I traveled to Kenya and South Sudan to trace Mike’s route. My family and I traveled with Mike to Australia to meet his mother. When we got there, I asked her to cook us the porridge that she’d cooked for Mike when he was a five-year-old child in South Sudan. It was the last food she’d cooked that he’d tasted before they got separated by war. All through the book he yearns for it and I too, during the writing of the novel, I was yearning for the taste of that porridge. It appears on the very first pages of the book and I think the yearning for it is embedded in the text. I don’t think I could have written the book without absorbing this information first-hand. I know some authors invent the terrain where their novels take place and don’t feel the need to travel to them in actuality, but I have always been a very tactile writer. Maybe it’s because I came to writing fiction through poetry and still think like a poet. I need to put my feet on the earth of the place I’m writing about and breathe in the air.
MG: What would you say to readers who may ask, “Why is it important to read about the refugee experience?”
HLM: Obviously, the entire US is a country of refugees. Some of us know our family’s stories and others do not. I am one of those who do not. Some of my grandparents came here around 1900 and others around 1920, but I don’t even know the names of the towns they came from or their original names. Because so much is lost, I can’t go on ancestry.com and trace my roots. My family came here to escape pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia and if they hadn’t come they’d most likely have perished in the Holocaust, as I am sure so many members of my extended family have. When I met Michael, I felt duty-bound to get his story told before it was forgotten. The world is so filled with hate, that I don’t think we can remind ourselves to love often enough. When I read about Trump’s travel bans and his policies on immigration, I am sickened. Instead of stopping immigration, we should be working toward a new paradigm. I read somewhere about a panel that took place at the 2106 Australian Book Festival where the participants talked about the possibility of open borders between countries and posed questions such as, “Why isn’t immigration a human right?” I’m interested in these questions and in pursuing dialogue that poses answers.
MG: In 2000, the International Rescue Committee helped hundreds of Sudanese to start new lives in cities across the country. Michael, like other Lost Boys, has faced enormous challenges in adjusting to American culture and modern society. Many of our readers are going to want to know what they can do to help. Any suggestions?
HLM: There are so many organizations that people can donate to such as the VAD foundation(//vadfoundation.squarespace.com) and the John Dau Foundation (//www.johndaufoundation.org/) where the money goes directly to help individuals in South Sudan. I also recommend that people join The Charter for Compassion (//www.charterforcompassion.org) and work toward changing the paradigm to make compassion a condition for living. I was really excited when The Charter for Compassion chose How Fast Can You Run for their global read. It was a tremendous honor and I was very happy that Mike’s story was being read world-wide. I am still trying to find ways to get copies of the book to South Sudan where it could inspire people who are unfortunately now facing similar traumas to what Mike faced in 1988 as the country is plunged back into conflict and famine. Even though How Fast Can You Run is based on Mike’s story, South Sudanese people who have read the book tell me how much it resonates with their own experience. They tell me, “This isn’t just Mike’s story, it’s my story too.” I’d like to find a way to get copies of the book into refugee camps like Kakuma. It would mean so much to the people living there, especially young people, to know that others are aware of them and trying to understand what is happening. We can remain ignorant and not try to respond to the suffering of others, but we have seen the refugee crisis grow worldwide. We all accountable, all part of the universal human story.
Harriet, thank you very much for joining us today. Readers who would like to hear more may tune into one of our Author’s Cut interviews in September.
Harriet Levin Millan is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her debut book of poetry, The Christmas Show was selected by Eavan Boland for the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and also won the Alice Fay di Catagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America. She is also the author of Girl in Cap and Gown and a third book of poetry, My Oceanography, forthcoming in 2018. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as The Iowa Review, The Harvard Review, Ploughshares and Prairie Schooner and she’s written columns for PEN America, The Forward and The Smart Set. Originally excerpted in the Kenyon Review, her debut novel, How Fast Can You Run: a novel based on the life of Michael Majok Kuch, is a 2017 Independent Publishers Book Award winner and a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She teaches Creative Writing at Drexel University and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing. You may visit her website here: harrietlevinmillan.com