August 1982, Bread Loaf, Vermont. David Stanton shares a memory about the celebrated writer and teacher, John Gardner. In it, the audience anticipated that Gardner’s lecture was to be about literature, of course. Not so. Gardner warned: “I’m sort of interested in politics now. I think that’s what all of us as writers should be interested in now.” Stanton recalls that the audience seemed confused. Gardner was at first apologetic—“I know this is boring, but just let me get through it”—before being direct while cutting short his lecture: “You can’t write cheap propaganda shit. But if you’re not writing politically, you’re not writing.”
It feels like an apocryphal tale, and yet the moment was extended when Stanton interviewed Gardner afterward. Gardner clarified his stance, noting that with such a high level of technique present at Bread Loaf, it was time to consider why there were “very few stories that seem to me really important for the world as it is right this minute.”
Gardner would be the first to admit he was an imperfect prophet. But I’ve never been able to shake this story, which feels like a bugging appendage to his larger narrative as a writer, teacher, and proponent of the pedantic On Moral Fiction. As a product of an MFA program, as an editor and writer within literary magazines, and as a teacher and professor, I always worry about our insular literary world. Are we doing enough where it matters? Yes, we might affect change locally, and certainly literature provides comfort, clarifies experience, enhances the joy of existence, but is there more?
I was happy to discover the work and writing of Ming Holden. She is the author of The Survival Girls, a nonfiction novella about a group of refugee women from Nairobi whose intensely personal performances dramatize the lives and struggles of women suffering from systematic abuse. Here is a writer whose work matters in the global sense, who introduced me to women who have moved past propaganda and politics, toward a human existence that needs telling and action. It was a pleasure to speak to her about the book, these women, and her experiences in varied developmental work.
The Rumpus: Both in your writing for Glimmer Train and your preface to The Survival Girls, you express some anxiety about your role in presenting the lives of these refugee women from Nairobi. Your lament to the reader—that “the Survival Girls have the right to tell you their story”—gives your voice humility and credibility. How do you negotiate a sense of artistry and narrative with the responsibility you feel in revealing the lives of these women to the wider world, and in doing so in a manner that avoids the “Western interloper” stigma you are so aware exists?
Ming Holden: I think there’s probably no way to avoid the Western interloper stigma entirely—I am a Western interloper, whatever else I may be—so I can only try to be the most useful Western interloper I can be. One hundred percent of my royalties from this book are for the Survival Girls’ university tuition. The woman who made the artwork for the book, the phenomenally sensitive and intelligent Jody Joldersma, made that commitment too, without ever having met the girls in person.
It also arguably takes a lack of humility to do this. To say, “Everybody, spend time reading my writing about these people who are less fortunate than me and my first-person narrative about my feelings about them!” I’m hyper-aware of that, and worried about the fact that there’s no way to completely separate from the sort of colonial aftertaste of “development” work—both the doing of it and the writing about it afterward. This larger worry includes the fact that writing “beautifully” about something is what garners readers and makes this stuff art and spreads awareness, but that by doing that I am thereby beautifying horrific things and objectifying silenced women. It is an inherently problematic endeavor.
But that’s a worry I have contended with since beginning this journey of combining writing and international work at the age of sixteen, and it ultimately came down to the choice I referenced in my Glimmer Train essay: do I do this work and make this writing, replete with its unavoidable and valid problems, or don’t I? And because the people I work with want me to work with them and write stories about them, I do it. I do it because they say it has helped, and I believe them. There are a bunch of things they deserve that I don’t have the skills or resources to give them, but there are mainly two things I can do: spend human hours with them in a respectful and supportive way, and create the most compelling nonfiction about them that I can muster.
Rumpus: In your preface to The Survival Girls, you note that “all sides of the conflict in Congo committed war crimes: men from every warring faction have raped and murdered women and children.” It’s the same type of necessary qualification that you voiced last summer, working in Syria and dispatching back to the States. What levels of human and contextual nuance do you hope your nonfiction novella dramatizes that news reports cannot?
Holden: I suppose the simple answer is: any levels of human and contextual nuance that news reports cannot, and that a small piece of first-person-narrated literary nonfiction can. This piece is especially limited, as I see it, by genre and by ethics: unlike I might in a work of fiction, I wouldn’t be comfortable narrating much of what’s going on inside these girls or the perspective of my Kenyan colleagues. I’m just trying to honestly relate my own perspective at the time. But I hope the honest relation of a perspective, in a work of literary nonfiction, does draw out and dig in more to the issues raised by this work than a two-minute news clip would be able to.
Jody Joldersma added another equally crucial layer to the beyond-a-two-minute-news-clip nature of the work when she created these jaw-dropping paintings. She went for allegorical images, ironically, for the same reason I went for first-person narration nonfiction: because it was the only way she could engage with her response to the Girls and the story about them, in a fashion she was ethically comfortable with.
Rumpus: The Survival Girls perform an original work of extreme personal significance marked by violence, lost trust, fear, and redemption. You admit that you are “very worried about them because they identified me as someone to trust, and I asked them to go back into those memories and create art from them, and I am responsible for that. I might retraumatize them if I do not do what I say I will do (secure funding and support).” Later in the book you worry that “perhaps the girls getting a full performance was more of mine than theirs.” Yet we learn performance was intensely necessary, and ultimately a step toward healing. What is it about performance that is so enriching? Have the girls continued to perform after your return to America?
Holden: The girls have stayed together! The Survival Girls is a self-sustaining project. Over the last two-plus years they have created six different pieces about female genital mutilation, the importance of education for girls, and gender-based violence. They’re known in the refugee community, they provide each other with psychosocial support, and they have taken on new members, as some of the original members have been resettled out of the country. The concept I taught the Girls of “safe space,” which itself is a performed phenomenon—it was just me and the girls in a dirty room in a Nairobi slum, nothing particularly safe about that environment—was what the Survival Girl leader Sofia described as “our tower of strength.” We were able to produce what we did together because of that practice.
But then the performing itself was a physiological phenomenon that served as a catharsis for very physically-charged memories of being overpowered. It was heartrending to watch Girls play the role of a male rapist, when you know they have suffered at the hands of rapists before…there really aren’t words for how raw it is. The Girls had their own remedy: there was something deep and wise inside them they accessed in order to know what they needed to do to begin to heal, which in some cases involved impersonating the men who did this to them. They wanted to be seen and heard in their suffering, to tell the story of what happens to girls like them.
Sofia once wrote to me that I had “healed a lot of broken hearts,” and that the experience of being in the group is the “best” of the Girls’ lives. Of course that’s phenomenal to hear, and brings me immense joy, but also, I wonder what made it so healing. I believe the answer has to do with safe space and also with agency. The Girls decided to do this, to act it out; they volunteered to play these characters, and they decided what the characters said. Loss of control is at the heart of a great deal of human trauma, especially that of refugee women. Engaging with trauma bodily and in a way they have sanctioned is, I believe, at the heart of what made the project a success. The Girls taught me indelibly how integral the agency involved in storytelling and making art is to the wellbeing, recovery, and resilience of humans and communities.
Rumpus: You’ve used the word “witness” to describe your role within development work, a journey that has spanned more than a decade. I’d like you to consider the genesis of your passion: who or what initially inspired you to “[find] the liberation in language…[and] give more visibility and empowerment to those who have been silenced”?
Holden: My parents had a philosophy that a good life was a question of luck and circumstance, as well as hard work and talent. My models, in other words, made sure I knew that the good things I received weren’t given to me because I was inherently better or more deserving than the people who weren’t receiving them. My parents chose generously to put their children’s education first. My mother taught at an independent school (The Family School, no less) where we signed the Earth Prayer in sign language to a flag with the earth on it, along with pledging allegiance to the American flag. I then went across the creek (literally) to attend Midland, an alternative boarding high school, living in cabins, going to classes six days a week, chopping wood to build fires to heat shower water, and tending to the garden and school buildings in lieu of custodial staff. I graduated with fourteen other kids. In such a fishbowl, it was nearly impossible to get away with questionable behavior, or patterns that were damaging to oneself or others, for long. Midland wasn’t a perfect community, but it was a community that was aware that it was a community, if that makes sense. Here was an active dialectic between the individual and the community—at fourteen, I was challenged to formulate an idea about what the relationship of an individual was to their community. There was no fading into the woodwork in a community like that.
So in the wider world outside my bizarre, bucolic hippie bubble, when I saw more plainly how many people not only weren’t seen and acknowledged, but that entire systems of thought, economy, and government depended on that invisibility, it struck me as bizarre. It was absurd that a group of people would be believed to be inherently better than any other group. I wasn’t raised to believe I’d go to hell if I didn’t serve in some way; it wasn’t a guilt trip. I just was exposed to parents and teachers who accepted substantial pay cuts and long, grueling hours for my benefit. I’d been listened to by many patient and loving adults as I grew up, and it seemed in keeping with what I valued about life to turn around and listen to others who hadn’t gotten that.
In high school I applied for a grant to go to Ecuador, and my host mother there happened to be the executive director of the country’s largest family planning organization—a powerful thing to see at sixteen years old. Coming to work with her sealed the deal, in terms of my commitment to exploring the capacity of art to expose and address social justice issues. Perhaps I’d have done it some other way, like with film or something, but writing was something I had loved for years already and that I could do with little equipment and no team members at really any time—it was a very portable habit!
Rumpus: I love that you’ve chosen writing—often an internal, self-focused act—for external ends, to reveal the lives of others. One general criticism of the American creative writing system is that the opposite often happens: that workshop breeds a retreat into the personal, writing as competition. How did you arrive—educationally and personally—as a writer? What has convinced you that words can and do matter beyond the page?
Holden: Writing quickly became how I recorded and processed the disparities I saw as I began traveling to other countries. The rest of the arrival took place in college, when I had the warm and fuzzy experience that all budding young scribblers deserve. I mean, I took sixteen creative writing workshops during my three years at Brown, and had more kind and generous mentors than some writers get in a lifetime. What I knew, beyond a doubt, after knowing such a phenomenal cast of role models, was that kindness could go hand in hand with wonderful literary accomplishments. Successful writers did not have to be assholes. Writing and poetry could be a way of living, a way of perceiving the world, a way of including—not a way of protecting oneself, of justifying asshole-ic behavior, of shutting people out.
Rumpus: Early in the book, you share some developmental advice received: “It makes little sense to plan too closely in Africa.” That advice is revealed in the book: the Survival Girls initially struggle to secure sponsorship and funding, their 2011 World Refugee Day performance is marred by external distractions, and your frustration with fellow developmental worker Michael reaches a fever pitch. It becomes difficult for you to trust anyone, and you worry that you might let these women down (“We want language to tell the truth for us,” you tell the Girls—aware of your own guilt). And yet you persevered, and helped bring these women’s deserving stories to an audience that needs to hear them. What helped you to do so? And, in a related vein, what advice do you have for those considering developmental work?
Holden: As for why I stuck with it: the Girls. The Girls, the Girls, the Girls. They were worth fighting for. They’re some of the best humans I have ever met. They teach me all the time. They inspire me every day. Their attitudes and personalities are consistently and deeply better than mine. Their perseverance, making it out of unimaginable, horrific trauma to move forward, work hard, and dream of school—any perseverance I displayed, to advocate for them, pales in comparison.
As for advice: detailed-oriented order-making does have its place in development work, just arguably not at the beginning of a socially-oriented project like the Survival Girls. I think the criterion for effectiveness at development work is the same as that for any work project or workplace, insofar as it involves navigating a system. The advice I’d give people considering international development work is this: when that system, that workplace, is in Kenya or Russia or Bolivia or wherever, there’s arguably more of a demand for social skills and cultural awareness to be part of your toolkit. There will be cultural mores, official processes, and societal differences that have a direct effect on whatever you want done, which in the book takes the form of the challenges you mention.
However, there is often a difference between the skills needed to create something, sometimes called “visionary” work, and the skills needed to officialize the presence of a group or project that requires “business sense,” which visionaries often don’t have. The nonprofit sector the world over runs into this problem all the time: great ideas, but ineffective business plans. Like I said before, there’s a place for every talent in the development sector, and different parts of the process call for different skills. I fought for the Girls because they showed me that I had found the place and time for my talent in that process, and that using it had helped them to heal some.
Michael, who showed the definition of grace when he read the book and was pained by it, but didn’t ask me to change a thing, and furthermore gave it his blessing, was something of an easy target for frustration and stress I felt that summer, that he didn’t necessarily deserve to be the target for. We get mad at the people we love and focus on those small grievances when the true tragedy at hand is too much to process.
Rumpus: The heart of this book belongs to the Survival Girls, but we also learn your history along the way. It extends the world of the book even further, making me feel that we can use empathy without asserting equivalency of suffering or experience. We can be connected by pain and can move toward joy.
I’d like to quote some wonderful prose near the end of the book, when you think of your mother on your family’s California ranch, and lament that these women were without their own mother:
What if there were no ranch to return to, with the barn and the water tower and the spilled sugar of the milky way belting the sky… When [mother] wants the zebras let out of the pasture to chew down the fire-risk of dry oatweed grass, not to startle, she sings firmly to them before walking near them at night to let them know she’s coming. If there were no mother, singing with her headphones, milking the cranky goat who kicks over the bucket sometimes.
How have you changed since writing this book, since sharing life with these women?
Holden: First of all, thank you for reflecting back that empathy is possible without asserting equivalency of experience. That’s the most difficult part of sharing this book—the prospect that I will be seen as someone who thinks she can “feel the pain” of people who have suffered much greater losses and trauma than she has. After first meeting the Girls, I labored under the guilt that I had such a wonderful life of mobility and they didn’t. Then I realized I was missing the forest for the trees: that the way to honor the Girls’ dedication to positivity and social change was to stand empowered in my life, to claim my space as the one in charge of my experience, and to say that, in the name of the Survival Girls, I celebrate my life. Then the quest to help make the lives of the girls and others as full of choice and power as mine becomes a more joyful one. It’s a quest I continue because of them and for them. These girls sing, dance, and laugh like nobody’s business, and they have very loving hearts. They don’t want me to feel bad. I’m not serving them by doing so. Instead, when I feel gratitude for the things I have been given, I do so with them in mind, and thank them for waking me up to how spectacular my life is.
Readers will know that the Girl called Dianne is the one who first told the group her true story of being a victim of sexual assault. The naked courage it took to do so, to break the taboo and to allow that story into the room, and then into the world through the book, is absolutely tremendous. And you know what she said to me recently, when she considered that I get to go and be in other countries? “You can bring what you did with us to other people, Ming! You can help ladies in other communities.”