Book Talk with Harriet Levin MillanThursday, December 1, 2016 @ 8 p.m.
Join us for a book talk between the author of How Fast Can You Run, Harriet Levin Millan, and the protagonist on whom the book is based, Michael Majok Kuch on the subject of immigration, refugees and life in South Sudan.
Set across a backdrop of refugee migration that spans Africa, America and Australia, How Fast Can You Run is the inspiring story of Michael Majok Kuch and his journey to find his mother. In 1988, Majok, as a five-year-old boy, fled his burning village in southern Sudan when the North systematically destroyed it, searching for John Garang, the South’s leader. Majok, along with thousands of other fleeing people, many of them unaccompanied minors, trekked through the wilderness in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya to arrive at a series of refugee camps where he would live for the next ten years. When the U.S. brokered an agreement, granting approximately 4,000 unaccompanied minors political asylum, Majok, now Michael, was given a new start in the U.S. Yet his new life was not without trauma. He faced prejudice once again, disrupting the promise of his new beginnings. This is a story of a survivor who in facing challenge after challenge summons the courageous spirit of millions of refugees throughout history and today.
Harriet Levin Millan is a prize winning poet and writer. Her poetry collection, The Christmas Show, (Beacon Press) was selected for the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and The Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She received a MFA from the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop and has written for The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, PEN America, The Smart Set, among other publications. She and her family founded the Reunion Project and along with the participation of Philadelphia-area high school and college students, raised money to reunite several Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan with their mothers living abroad. She teaches creative writing in the English Department at Drexel University and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing. She lives with her husband outside Philadelphia.
Michael Majok Kuch returned to his homeland of South Sudan in 2010, after attending high school, college, and graduate school in Philadelphia. In 2005, he was featured in the PBS Documentary, Dinka Diaries, as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. In 2008, he was the recipient of a Fulbright U.S. Department of Education Scholarship to Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. He currently works for the government of the Republic of South Sudan, where he is an advisor in Research and Policy in the Office of the President. He lives in Juba with his wife and daughter.
Professor Taylor Seybolt will be moderating a discussion after the reading. He is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh.
Read an excerpt of How Fast Can You Run here:
How Fast Can You Run
From Chapter 5
Biar hissed. Five times he sang out a different brother’s name. Five brothers in total. Two from the same mother, two from a senior mother and one from a junior mother. Majok didn’t want to know their names. He moved his hands to his ears. This covering his ears was still listening and it used up all his strength, so he whistled into his hands to drown out the sound of Biar’s voice. “Tell me my brothers’ names,” Biar said. “Stop whistling, you have to repeat them back to me.”
After hearing the singing and objecting to the singing, Majok waited for Bol Jang Juol to stop Biar. But that didn’t happen. Bol Jang Juol said to Majok, “Listen. Listen to Biar. It happened in Juet. You have to know that.”
Majok said, “No, no, I don’t believe you. It didn’t happen.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what happened. It happened in Alian. It happened in Aboudit. What happened in Aboudit happened in Pathuyith. The same thing happened in Mading Bor. Biar and I have talked. We both talked and agreed that this is how it happened.”
“No, it didn’t happen like that,” Majok said “That is not what I saw. My parents are not dead.”
“You didn’t see dead people on the ground?” “No.”“You didn’t see your mothers or brothers?” “No.”
“If you won’t admit it, then go away. We don’t want you with us.”
There was nowhere else for Majok to go.“Are you going to listen?” Bol Jang Juol said. Majok had no choice but to listen to Biar sing about how he ran out of the hut he was sleeping in. The hut was still standing. It hadn’t caught fire yet. His brothers who had fallen asleep around the campfire were outside it, lying on the ground very, very still. They didn’t raise their heads to call to him as he got closer.
The bullet holes on their bodies. The six initiation scars on the foreheads of his two older brothers. Biar sang:
When a warrior has died,
the initiation scars on his forehead
have been dug so deep
they can identify his skull.
Majok felt less and less like walking. His legs felt limp. Even if he cleared his mind and concentrated on walking, Biar’s voice came through, painting a picture of his brothers’ skulls grinning back through the darkness.
“Come on,” Biar said, “Let’s see who can jump further.”
“In the dark?” “I can see you.” “I’m tired. Leave me alone.” “That’s because you know I can jump further.” Thousands of stars glinted in the sky, but Biar was no longer beside him. Majok didn’t know where he was. “Biar, where are you?”
“Over here.” Biar was whistling, humming, repeating the names of the victors and who their fathers were and where they were born. Bol Jang Juol ordered Biar to come back. Some boys up ahead heard Bol Jang Juol whistling for them to slow down.
Through the darkness, no one could see Biar. They could hear him, and his voice sounded like it was moving further and further away. Akol ordered Biar to return and other boys shouted for him and everyone stopped walking and waited. No one could get Biar to come back.
“Come back and I’ll say your brothers’ names!” Majok shouted.
And Biar answered. “Promise?” “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Majok called back. For Biar to return was to listen. Biar sang about Juet, where there were no survivors. He sang about the Jallaba who stood over Majok’s dead family and friends and pushed their spears into the flesh of Majok’s mothers and untethered his father’s cows and led them out of his village.
Majok screamed. Why was Biar saying these things? What was he trying to do? His singing had turned into his desire to inflict as much misery on Majok as he himself felt.
“Say my brothers’ names,” Biar demanded.