The Power of Storytelling international conference in Bucharest just concluded its fifth edition this month, and thanks to conference founder Cristian Lupsa, editor of the nonfiction journal Decât o Revistă and a 2014 Nieman fellow, and his colleagues, Storyboard will bring you transcripts from some of the two-day conference’s sessions. The theme of this year’s event was: a sense of place.
Our fourth featured speaker is Pulitzer Prize-winner Jacqui Banaszynski. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of her remarks.
The first time I walked into this place four years ago, I looked up and I went, “Holy shit!” And I was a little bit intimidated. Now I walk in and it feels like home. And that’s what I want to talk with you about today to get this all started. You’ve got this incredible line-up of talent that’s going to do a lot more creative stuff than I am, but I just want to set the table for you and talk a little bit about what place means to us as storytellers and what place means to the people we tell stories about and how to weave those things together.
I want to start by asking you to just take a deep breath, and be quiet for a little bit and just listen and see if you can hear the story going on in this little clip. [Plays Anthracite Fields.] This is a piece from an hour-long choral symphony called Anthracite Fields by Julia Wolfe – this Pennsylvania woman and this piece of music won the Pulitzer for music in 2015. Her CD, which was put together with the Mendelssohn Orchestra in Pennsylvania and her own band, which is called Bang on a Can, just came out two weeks ago.
There are five movements in this piece, so if you think about structure that’s an enormously interesting story structure. The first one is called “Foundation,” and it is text that’s made entirely of the names of miners who worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania—where Julia grew up—and were all injured in the mines. There were so many of them when she went into the archives that all she did was pull up the names of those whose first name was John and whose last name was in one syllable, and one entire movement is just the names of John’s. The second movement is called “Breaker Boys,” and it’s that very high-energy piece you heard. It’s about the boys who went into the coal mines when they were children and worked to feed their families. The third is called “Speech,” and it is the text of a speech by John Lewis, who used to be the president of the United Mine Workers — one of the most, I would say, radical unions in the United States back in the days; it tried to fight for the rights of workers. Then there’s one called “Flowers,” which is based on her interviews with the women whose husbands would go into the mine and risk their lives. They lived in terrible poverty, but the women were so proud of the flowers they grew to beautify their homes. The last is called “Appliances” and it is about the everyday things we use in our lives that still rely on coal, that are made out of coal products. She [Wolfe] did an entire story about a big political issue and about history, but instead of preaching about it, she turned it into a story. And not only into a story, into a piece of music.
In an interview with NPR after she won the Pulitzer, Wolfe was asked what she hoped to accomplish with this piece, and here’s what she said: “I just wanted people to know, here’s what happened. Here’s this life and who we are in relationship to that life. We’re them and they’re us. These people working underground, under very dangerous conditions, fueled the nation. To me, that is the ultimate purpose of this work we do in whatever form we do it. We travel into other worlds, we immerse ourselves into other lives, we stand at the edge of another human experience.”
Julia Wolfe grew up not far from the coal mines in Pennsylvania, but she never paid much attention as a child. These mines were not her world. She would leave her house, turn right, and go into her life. But she said if she had left her house and turned left, she would’ve ended up at coal mines. That one act, turning right versus turning left, made all the difference in lives lived just a few miles apart. But years later, as a journalist and a storyteller, who happens to do her storytelling through music, Julia Wolfe went back into those mines. She immersed herself in that other world, through all histories and documents that she found, through old letters, and by taking a trip deep, deep, deep under the earth. She didn’t just settle for distant third-hand accounts; she travelled to the heart of the lives she wanted to know. She walked where they walked, she touched the slick walls where they had chopped coal out of those walls and risked their lives, she felt the clammy air on her skin, and she breathed in a bit of the dust that has killed so many miners in so many countries for so many years. And then she takes all that and transforms what she unearthed into music. We always talk about wanting to make our writing sing—well, Julia Wolfe did exactly that. Damn it all anyway! God, talk about creative.
But here’s the even more remarkable thing to consider: She didn’t just pass along that story, and hope a few people would find it interesting, she searched for a way to make it meaningful for others, and actually make it about those others. To take a story about coal miners under the earth and make it about the rest of us. Remember that line from her NPR interview—“We’re them and they’re us.” To me, that is the ultimate purpose of this work we do in whatever form we do it. We travel into other worlds. We immerse ourselves into other lives. We stand at the edge of another human experience. We taste other people’s food and listen to their music and study their art. We do this in part to discover the novelty of difference, and to see what a wondrous thing each individual is in our society, each culture, each human being. But I think more than that we discover again and again the ways in which we’re all alike, what we share.
Several years ago, 25 years ago actually now, I was covering a dogsled expedition across Antarctica. I went to Antarctica three times. On my first trip there it was winter and so we had light only two or three hours a day, and I remember after we crash-landed the airplane that we were flying in, I was hanging out with the leader of the expedition who happened to be from my home state, and he said, “C’mon here, I want to show you something.” And he grabbed my hand and we walked out on to the runway of this island, King George Island in Antarctica. A runway in Antarctica is really just a strip of what they call “blue ice”—the ice there is so packed and so hard and so dense that the light refracts through it oddly and it turns blue and that’s where they land airplanes. So we walked out to the middle of the blue ice and he said, “Lie down.” We both laid on our backs and he said, “Look up.” And we saw the Southern Hemisphere stars, the Southern Cross. I remember getting incredibly dizzy because I was looking up at the stars and at the sky I have looked up at all my life and nothing looked familiar. Everything was out of place: I couldn’t see Orion, I couldn’t see the Big Dipper, I couldn’t see anything I was familiar with. I couldn’t see the North Star, which has always been to me a beacon in life. So I got a little bit disoriented, a little bit anxious and then I saw the moon, and I realized that the moon that goes around us is the same everywhere. Yet when you understand that the moon is the same everywhere, you also understand that people see it from a different point of view. I have a little card at home that means a lot to me, I can’t remember who the poet is, but it says, “Having seen the moon from the other side of the world, I will never be the same.”
I have lived my life as a journalist, which has been a gift; not because of a great passion or talent for writing—writing for me is like going into the coal mines, it’s just damn hard work—but writing has always been my way of paying the price for what journalism gives me, which is the license to go into other places and into other people’s lives and to get to know other people and experience other worlds. I use my notebook as a passport to cross borders. I use it as an invitation to walk in other people’s shoes for a bit. I use it as reason to sit not in judgement but to bear witness to other people’s realities, to the things that make them marvelously unique and different, but also to the things that never fail to surprise me because they are so familiar to me.
The center of this year’s conference is the exploration of sense of place in storytelling. There is of course the obvious meaning of place as geography—that’s where the news and often our stories happen, it’s in the physical world, it’s in real time and place. Seven hundred pilgrims lose their lives in the stampede on their way to Mecca. Nine people are killed by a crazy gunman in Oregon. A U.S. airstrike hits a Medicine Sans Frontiers hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. And a three-year-old boy from Syria washes up dead on a beach in Turkey as his family tries to make its desperate way to Canada. Considered that way, geography is the thing, politically, that becomes the borders between us, that divides us and makes us different, and causes us to point fingers and say, “You’re right, you’re wrong.” But I like to think of place as so much more than geography, and as geography not so much as a place on a map but as a state of mind, and at an even deeper level, a state of the soul. Mike Paterniti might consider it metaphysical, but I’ve never understood metaphysics. I understand the heart and the soul more than I do the bigger pictures in the universe. And considered that way, geography, to me, or place, is the greatest asset that we have as storytellers who want to go beyond the dateline to try to understand not just what happened, but why; to capture the moments of human spirit and togetherness that we share. Indeed, place then becomes the very essence of story.
A friend of mine who is a literary scholar told me once that there are only two storylines in all of human history, two story arcs. One is “a stranger comes to town” and the other is “a man takes a journey.” Pretty interesting, right? They’re both about place—there’s a character, but that character is moving through place. Now I, of course being the contrarian that I am, said, “Well, wait a minute, what about the boy meets girl, boy falls in love with the girl, boy loses girl?” And my friend looks at me and he says, “Well, that’s a stranger comes to town and a man takes a journey.” Okay, busted. What I’m trying to get at here, and what I strive for in the kind of journalism that I think has a chance of approaching the artistic level of literature and poetry and music, and approaching the small-t truths in the world (I have issues with big-T truths because everybody has a different one) but here’s the small-t truth—no, actually here’s the big-T truth: I can’t ever be another person. I simply can’t, none of you can. But I can stand for a while in somebody else’s place, or at least I can get close to it and try to understand it and try to see their reality through their eyes and their experiences, and get past my own sense of myopic truth, my own American narrative, which is the one I was born with. It’s the place I come from and the place that shaped me, but it’s not the only truth in the world, and stories have taught me that.
All reporting is foreign reporting.
I’ve been lucky enough to go to all seven continents in my career, including three times in Antarctica—and three plane crashes in Antarctica, though that’s another story for another time after a lot of wine. Some of my travels are archived into stories and clips of mine; more of them are on postcards and letters I wrote back home to family and friends. My friend Becky and I have been writing handwritten letters to each other now for 50 years; fortunately she’s kept all of them. A lot of my letters are just tucked in boxes or tossed away somewhere. More recently, my wanderings in the world are kept in little stories I try to write on Facebook. When I travel overseas I try to do a little mini-narrative every day on Facebook—it’s a really interesting way to teach yourself how to write about place and to build a story into place. But mostly, as I was thinking of talking to you about place, a few of the stories that I went back and looked at stood out for me.
They surprised me with how often they connect to the concept of home. I’m not sure why. I’m still thinking about that, because it was sort of a revelation to me. I recently read somewhere that somebody said that the most powerful force in humanity is not love, but the desire for home. Maybe that is because home is where we find our safety. It’s where we’re who we truly are. It’s where we try to protect the people we love. I’m not sure, it’s an interesting concept, though. So even though I also believe that all reporting is foreign reporting, and I mean all reporting: if I go to Romania, I’m in a foreign country; if I go next door to sit with my neighbor, who just gave birth to her second child and teaches special ed at a public school and is trying to figure out how to afford a house big enough for her family, that’s also a foreign country for me because that’s not my life. So what I’ve learned from reporting in other places has helped me report better back home, because I recognized I always need to do what you do when you’re foreign reporting, which is translate, listen, hear, experience and not judge.
I’m going to share a few of these stories, just a few snippets of them and some of the things that I’ve learned most, these little stories that sort of stood out to me most when I was looking through my work for examples of place.
My first ever trip outside of North America was in 1985 to Sudan. The Ethiopian sub-Saharan famine was going on. It was the first big televised famine in history, a nasty, nasty affair—millions of people affected, and refugees were swarming over the border from Ethiopia and Eritrea into Sudan. Photographer Jean Pieri and I, the St. Paul Pioneer Press sent us there to cover the famine along the Ethiopian border and in the refugee camps in Sudan. The big package we published eventually started with the scene of a mother collapsed on the dirt path, ripping at her clothes and keening in despair as her 10-year-old daughter was being buried in the rocky hillside down the way. Her three-year-old son had died a week earlier and her only surviving six-year-old son was now also sick with measles, which was one of the largest killers of children during that famine. At the time, what struck me was that the mother wasn’t allowed into the makeshift cemetery at the refugee camp. When I asked why, a relief worker said they wouldn’t let the women into the cemetery to grieve because there are so many dead, and there are still the living to think of, so they literally wouldn’t let the women grieve at their children’s side. I found myself thinking of all the people who won’t move from the place where their children died because they want to be there with them. That becomes home for them in an odd way.
That seemed to me like a story of a distant place and of “another,” but 10 years later, I was back in my home village in Wisconsin. My oldest brother had been killed by a distracted teenage driver—my brother was 47, had three kids who were all in college; he and his wife were just about to start their life anew and they were very excited. But now here we were after we’d shipped his body from Texas, where he was killed, back to my parents’ little village in Wisconsin to bury him in the home cemetery. I grew up in a small house, and it was crowded with people because the whole family came home for this, so I was staying with a cousin. And one morning about 6:30 the phone rang and it was my father and he said, “You have to come home right now. You need to take care of your mother.” I went home and found my sister-in-law, my brother’s widow, in the back bedroom of the house, sobbing into a pillow, so grief-stricken she couldn’t stand up. We had a little talk, and I said, “Where’s my mother?” Apparently my sister-in-law and my mother had had a little fight, or probably more than a little fight. So I went out outside to the back garage, which my father had built for his workshop, and I found my mother in there, by herself, also screaming into a pillow, unable to stand up. My mother was not someone prone to displays of emotion. She was a very strong, part-Danish woman who just was tough. And yet here she was, keening in despair because she had lost a child. The life of that woman that I remembered slumped on the dirt path in an African refugee camp suddenly didn’t seem to be about another, it was about all women who lose their children and the sheer grief they feel. The lesson I learned from that was yes, we need to marvel at what is different, and be open to it, but I think mostly we need to marvel at the things we share.
“These stories that we tell don’t necessarily end when we go away, they have a life beyond that and they affect people’s lives, and we have to remember that.”
Many of you have heard me talk about “AIDS in the Heartland,”which is a story I did two years later, about two men from Northern Minnesota who met, fell in love, and together died of AIDS. I need to do a little bit of a shout out because some of you who know that story pretty well have also heard me talk about the nieces and nephews of Dick Hanson, the primary character in “AIDS in the Heartland,” and how their mother was so fearful of the AIDS virus at the time that she wouldn’t let her children spend time with their uncle anymore, and how their father came out to the farmhouse one time with the kids in the car so they could say goodbye to their uncle—or, truly, he could say goodbye to them, as they were very young, one last time. And I mentioned that years later I got a letter from a young woman named Jolene Hanson, who was in that car at the time, as a little girl. She reached out to me as she had found the story and she told me, “I want to thank you and I want to know the rest of the story.” Well, Jolene is here today, and I ask you to please make her welcome and ask about her version of the story, because then again we all see things our own way. She’s become and incredible storyteller and photographer in her own right. So these stories that we tell don’t necessarily end when we go away. They have a life beyond that and they affect people’s lives, and we have to remember that. We have to remember we make a difference when we do this work.
But now I’m going to tell you one little story from “AIDS in the Heartland,” which I probably haven’t told you before—a story about place. It is set in the farmhouse, just after Dick Hanson has died, and his partner Bert Henningson has come home after finishing activities for the funeral. He’s exhausted and alone. I just want to share a little passage with you.
It was already dark when Henningson arrived at the farm the next evening. He was tired and still had much to do. He had to prepare for Saturday’s memorial service, last-minute visits with the minister and the florist, and a thorough cleaning to rid the house of countless medicine bottles, stained sheets, sweat-soaked bed cushions and other vestiges of terminal illness.
But those things would have to wait. Henningson went straight upstairs to the screened porch that overlooks the marshes in front of the farmhouse. He found the old pink candle, set it on the small table by the middle window and lit it, placing Hanson’s Bible and the urn of ashes next to it. Henningson lay on one of the metal-frame cots, watched the candle’s flame and remembered.
“We rehabbed the porch in the summer of ’84 so we could use it,” he said later. “The screens had been torn out by kids or whatever, so we screened it up and Dick’s mother went to her auctions and got cots and a table for 50 cents or something ridiculous.
“It was dry that summer, not humid. The strawberries were especially good and I found a recipe for an old-fashioned, biscuit-type of shortcake. We would use the porch in the evenings. We’d spend all day with the hogs, then go up there and have our biscuits and strawberries and cream. There were good memories up there.
“That was an election year, and Dick was running for Congress. And often what I’d do, when Dick was out on the campaign trail, I’d light the pink candle and wait for him to come home. It was a nice signal for him to see as he drove in.”
On this night, Henningson again lit the candle. But his sentimental vigil was brief, cut short by practicality. He fought sleep a while longer, but felt himself sinking into the thin mattress.
The last few months of caring for Hanson had extracted an ironic price. Stress had activated the AIDS virus, which had lain dormant in Henningson’s body for so long but now was attacking his strength with a vengeful speed.
He blew out the candle, took two sleeping pills to ward off anxiety and set his alarm for 3 a.m., when he was scheduled to take his next dose of life-prolonging AZT.”
The lessons that I learned from this was to go to the very center of the story—to go to the places where things happened that mattered to the people in their authentic lives, not their political lives. We use scenes to recreate and restore, but we also need to use scenes that reveal meaning, not just action or description.
Go past the easy cliché. Dare your readers to see past the stereotypes.
Two or three years after I did “AIDS in the Heartland,” I was sent to Turkey to drive across country to Iraq, just after the first Persian Gulf War. We didn’t cover the war itself—it was something of a press conference war at the time—but once the refugee crisis hit after the war and Saddam was pushing Kurds over the northern border, my editor sent me and a photographer to write about the refugee’s flight. At one point, we ended up at a refugee camp in far eastern Turkey, witnessing a food-fight, a riot. The refugees rioting over the fact that they weren’t getting proper food, that the good food was being kept by the soldiers, so what they were getting was just congealed spaghetti noodles; all the meat was being kept behind. In the middle of it, this man stood up and started speaking English, and he tried to calm things down, so I asked to interview him and I ended up going to his tent, which was his home at the time, and writing about him. Yes, I’m again at a refugee camp and again, people are dying. But this is how I started his story:
Toothpaste. And toothbrushes. Ten of them. One for himself, one for his wife and each of their eight children. “Is that so much to ask?” the man who calls himself Ali Ahmet wants to know.
“They’re trivial things but they’re important,” he says. “When I was in my home I cleaned my teeth, and my children cleaned, at least three times a day. Since one month, since I left my home, we have not cleaned. And please, tell the world we have not enough soap.
He pronounces the word “soup,” but he rings his hands as if washing, and when an American visitor corrects his pronunciation, Ahmet writes the word carefully into his notebook, first in proper spelling, then phonetically. After 16 years of being a high school English teacher, some habits are hard to break.
I didn’t want to go to the stereotype of the refugee who was desperate for medicine and for food. I saw something else there—I saw a man whose greatest loss was that of his dignity and who actually was a lot like a middle-class American. This was not a guy we could just pass of as “another.” He was a high school teacher, he had an advanced degree, and by God he wanted his kids to be able to brush their teeth. Go past the easy cliché. Dare your readers to see past the stereotypes. I walked from the food fight with him (his name wasn’t Ali Ahmet, which he explains later in the story) to the tent where he and his wife and his eight children were now living after being pushed out of their home in Northern Iraq. I describe this little tent very briefly:
An infantry of rubber shoes, little and big and in-between, mingles at ease outside the flap of Ahmet’s tent. Humble as it is, this is home, and shoes stay outside. Passima Ahmet has no broom, and even the most carefully brushed of twenty bare feet track in stones and dirt from the dusty camp grounds. Each day she moves through the tent on her hands and knees, using her hands to sweep the blankets that are now her floors.
As small as the tent is and as many as the Ahmets are, the place is not crowded. No furniture gets in the way—just one box of onions, another of bread, and a large pot with a smaller pot and a tea kettle tucked neatly inside.
The lesson here is to choose details that don’t just describe, but that reveal. And to really look, look hard at what’s around you and see it. Really see it. Don’t just assume it.
There’s one other scene from that trip to Iraq that I want to share with you, from up in the mountains. We’re still in Iraq. We had hitchhiked over the border and have come into the country just as the no-fly zone was being put in place by U.S. military and UN peacekeepers. But it was still very dangerous; there were snipers everywhere. We drove up into the mountains and found a camp, just a random camp refugees had set up. We spent a day with them there. It was a very hard and emotional day and when I called my editor that night, I said, “What story do you want from me?” He says, “I don’t know, you’re the one who’s there.” And I said, “That’s a good point, but what do you want? What’s interesting for people back home?” Finally, he said, “Well, what interested you the most?” and I gasped and I said, “Oh, the children!” “What about the children?” he asked. My response: “They play!” “Well, that’s something to write about,” he said and hung up. So I sat down on a crate in a post office where I’d bribed the officials to let me use the phone. I wrote all night about coming into this camp and seeing the children. I want to read a part of that, my opening, and then I want to tell you how I closed it, because of the interesting juxtaposition.
The first toy to be built was a swing. Brazen boys hoarded the tent ropes left behind by a family that had moved on—further into the flatlands of Turkey in hopes for better food, or back to Iraq to take their chances—and found a high sturdy branch from which to swing.
Others charmed rubber gloves from the nurses. Several strong puffs later they had made funny, nippled balloons to waggle at the babies or blurt rudely at each other.
The mountain is filled with trees for climbing and, when the boys take once-forbidden machetes into the branches with them, gathering firewood becomes more adventure than chore.
The rains that eroded the bare mountains left long, steep sandy ruts for sliding. Sit on a torn cardboard box that once held blankets, or a flattened plastic water bottle, and you scoot all the faster.
Every day is a scavenger hunt, with thousands of lost shoes, blue jeans or abandoned clothes for the searching. Pockets sometimes yield coins or worry beads.
And every day brings a parade, a never-ending wheeled march of ambulances and military vehicles and supply trucks. The braver boys hang on to the backs of the trucks to be dragged along, their sandaled feet are as agile as any skateboarder’s, or stand on top for potato fights with their buddies. A favorite game among the younger ones is to squat at the edge of the road and toss water bottles under the passing wheels, watching them explode and flatten. It’s like putting pennies on a train track.
Every night sparkles with campfires, and children are warmed further by the nearness of parents and siblings and cousins and friends, with no one to make them to take a bath or get up early for school.
That part of this refugee camp I looked at and saw as magical. This place where these kids would come with unfettered imagination and just make their own world. And then I moved through the rest of the camp and talked to the relief workers who were there, about the damage this does psychologically to children and what was necessary to keep them healthy. We walked further and we talked to people about where they were getting food or where they planned to go. We talked with some of the military people trying to secure the zone.
And then we walked into the hospital, which was basically a straw hut. There were eight pallets on the floor. I met a nurse, a Dutch nurse named Willibrord Goverde, and I had him giving me a tour of the hospital, one pallet at the time.
All of the patients in the hospital were babies. We went around and he introduced me to each one and to the mothers who were sitting there with them, and he told me about their conditions. I wrote about each one very briefly: this kid has meningitis, this kid has measles, this kid is so dehydrated when you pinch his skin it doesn’t go back. We went round and round and round till we get to this scene:
[Goverde] faces the seventh pallet in silence. Nashan Gorges is 6 months old. He weighs 9 pounds. He has pneumonia, diarrhea and advanced malnutrition. When Goverde pinches the infant’s shrunken stomach, the parchment skin stays wrinkled, failing to bounce back with healthy baby fat. He is bundled in a blanket, socks and a cap, but even so his temperature stays 2 degrees below normal. Goverde finishes his rounds and gets up abruptly. What are this baby’s chances?
“None,” he says.
And if your heart is not yet broken, Goverde pauses only briefly to glance at the eighth and last pallet on the plastic covered floor. Thirty minutes earlier it had cradled a 3-month-old, Koran Skikoy. Now it was empty. The child’s mother wrapped her dead son in a blanket and carried him to the graveyard, just as Goverde was beginning his rounds. Her walk to the cemetery took her under that first swing, built by other children only a week ago.
The lessons here: be aware; pay acute attention and notice everything; use metaphor as a way to make people relatable as the humans they are; let people laugh even in places where there doesn’t seem to be any reason for joy; and always, always try to see through fresh eyes and through the eyes of another. Try to see life through the eyes that you’re writing about, not through your own.
When we finally made it to Iraq we ended up in another hospital in Zakho. It had been left abandoned by Saddam’s army for months and months and months and now some Canadian doctors were securing it. When they first arrived, they found blood and feces on the floors where patients had slept, and six corpses rotting in a room. There were hundreds of people out in the courtyard waiting to get in to see a doctor. There was one room in the hospital that the doctors had cleaned up and there were about 20 patients there, with everything from cholera to typhus to pneumonia.
In the corner, there was a bed with a young woman in it and next to it an isolette with a brand new baby in it, one day old. I sat down, and through a translator I tried to talk to the young mother, and then this happened: She tried to give me her child. She was 17 years old. There were no painkillers for her and they had had to deliver the baby through a C-section. She was in such pain that when they put the baby on her chest to nurse, she couldn’t stand it. She didn’t know whether she could go home, she didn’t know what her future was, and she literally tried to give me her child. The baby had already been named; she was called Zosan.
Now, it might seem easy to just shrug this off as a moment in a journalist’s life, but I was in my late 30’s at the time. I’d always wanted a child but circumstances never sent one my way. And here’s a woman who tries to give me her beautiful child just at a time when I ached for one in every beat of my heart and every fiber of my being. I didn’t take the child, of course, but I wrote an essay about it, trying to figure out what this whole experience meant to me:
My questions about Saddam’s war are more personal and carry the uncomfortable reality of lifetimes. Because lifetimes, with all their uncertainties, are what the survivors will face tomorrow, when today’s saviors leave.
I did not accept the woman’s astonishing gift of her daughter, I did not even dare to hold the child and dream about the future, hers and mine. I held the mother’s limp hand instead, and resisted the urge to take further advantage of a homeless, traumatized people by washing my own desires in the bright name of deliverance. It was not my place to decide that my life, with its material comforts and physical security, would be better than hers, with a house filled with relatives and a strong sense of religion.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder. It is America’s curse and glory to believe it can save the world. It is mine as an American to wonder if I couldn’t have saved one tiny but perfect part of it.
For me now, this war will always be named Zosan, and I will always wonder how it came out.
So, a three-year-old boy from Syria washes up dead on a beach in Turkey as his family makes a desperate attempt to make its way to Canada. That’s geography. But interestingly, as much as Zosan’s reality has stayed with me, the death of that little boy shattered geography for a moment. It turned the numbing numbers of refugees coming over the border into a story of family and home and the search for security. It made it not political anymore, but human. Like the stories of Bert lighting a pink candle as he waited for Dick to come home, of children building playgrounds in a war zone, of mothers pitched in grief on a dirt path or in a back garage, of a beautiful, beautiful infant named Zosan who was born into one war and now, if she has survived, would be 24 and perhaps trying to protect her own children from harm in another war, or get them to a new place, where they could create a new sense of home.
That’s what stories can do, they can remind us that the political is the human and that, as Julia Wolfe said, “We’re them, and they’re us.”