by Harriet Levin Millan
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.
Praise for How Fast Can You Run:
“Generosity and justice prevail in the storytelling . . . an unforgettable individual portrait of all-too-impersonal war. ”