This week I had the great pleasure of bringing The Good Braider to St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. I spoke at morning Chapel (pictured below in a photo taken in January). Chapel – we gathered at 7:40 a.m.! – is a school-wide tradition for students and faculty. It was a rich opportunity for me to speak for refugees and share an excerpt from an oral history I had recorded of Florence Olebe, a Sudanese refugee, who got a loan from Start Smart in Portland, Maine to open Ezo African Restaurant. The Ezo menu stated, “We believe food unites us and binds us sisters and brothers.” Yes, it does. At the same time that we were meeting in Chapel in Concord, “A Day Without Immigrants” strike had begun in Washington, DC.
After Chapel, I met with three Humanities classes and we could talk in small groups. The last class had all just finished reading the book and our discussion was deep with questions, impressions, sorrow over Viola’s losses. I valued most the pointed conversation we had about the fact that half-way through their reading of the book, the students learned that I was white. They had assumed this was a first person autobiographical account of a survivor of the war, a southern Sudanese girl. Some were on the #ownvoices side of the discussion. I valued that they could say this, that they were safe enough to express this concern. That enabled me to speak in return. I told them about Thich Nhat Hanh and his belief that the greatest gift we can give one another is the gift of our attention. And it’s this desire to attend to and witness that drives me as a writer. We listened carefully to each other. It was the beginning of a conversation I hope to continue. Because we are bound to each other.
Students and teachers have shared with me some of the essays written in response to reading The Good Braider. One student, Steven Kidder, wrote an essay about PTSD. It was both well researched and also deeply personal, and his personal response added power to the facts about PTSD. In Viola he saw a person experiencing flashbacks to terror during the war in Juba in the same way his brother-in-law experienced flashbacks. His brother-in-law had returned home from two tours in Afghanistan. Steven writes that his brother-in-law “avoids large crowds of people, because it causes him to feel anxious and uncomfortable. He immediately feels he is at risk in those situations, so he avoids them at all costs. This occurs for Viola when Jamal runs off and is picked up by a couple of men. As opposed to thinking that they are going to simply return him she thinks they are going to attack her like the soldiers did…Even after she recognizes one of them as her classmate Andrew, she can’t escape that feeling of impending terror …” Steven wrote the essay for Cathy’s Eaton’s Introduction to Literature class. Prof. Eaton’s assignments seem to honor both her students’ life experiences (she explains that a number of her students are veterans themselves) and their diversity of cultures. Steven taught me new facets of the struggle with PTSD. He ends his essay with a call to action: “Though there are preliminary studies being done to see the effectiveness of interpersonal psychotherapy and mindfulness in coping with PTSD, there’s still a lot of work to do. We must work together to make sure these stories are heard and that all the Violas in the world know that they and their stories are very important.” Thank you, Steven.
“When Studs Terkel was asked on Transom what he wanted to hear on the radio, he answered, “Something real.” Jay Allison in his intro to this story on Transom.org, “If You Were Thomas’s White Girlfriend.”
By Terry Farish
Thomas got a job shelving books at a branch of the Portland Public Library, a pretty good job considering that he hadn’t been in the country all that long.
But long enough to have some problems with white girls.
He might tell you some stories, and if he did, you might begin to have an idea of how it would be for a white girl if she was Thomas’s girlfriend. What if you were his white girlfriend?
He might tell you, “Please don’t call my house because it will only make trouble for me with my mom. She will ask me, ‘what does she want? What does she want?’”
You still might be his girlfriend because he will talk to you freely about everything. He loves Portland High School. Maybe it never occurred to you to love a school the way Thomas loves it. He walks down the halls with something like joy across his cheekbones and sliding up into his dark eyes. He’ll say, “Here you can meet any kind of people that you like to meet. You can go with whatever group you want to go into.”
Thomas wears baggy sweats and sometimes a bright white t-shirt .
If he went home with you to meet your mom and dad, he would be formal with them. He would shake their hands. If they asked about Sudan, he would try to explain, “In Boston are what they call Lost Boy. Boys as small as four are abandoned when their parents are killed or they are separated in the shelling of their homes. You can see this on the Disney channel. Maybe you can put on some time.”
Your parents might understand this, or they might not. You might want to get him out of there and drive around.
Thomas likes soccer. You’d spend a lot of time at the soccer field over by the Hannaford supermarket at the end of the Marginal Way, the walk around Portland’s edges.
If you were Thomas’s girlfriend, he might want you to have African braids and you’d sometimes listen to Koffi Olomide. Koffi’s Congolese drums would thunder through the car, if you got one, when you’re driving through the Old Port.
If you brought over a layer cake, with lovely, gloppy chocolate icing between the layers and on the top, Thomas and his brother would love it, and you could work your way into the family when his mom isn’t there.
If you were Thomas’s girlfriend, you would pretty soon pick up on the African saying, “In Africa, you are never late.”
Thomas has a different idea about time than you do. Sometimes Thomas doesn’t show up. Sometimes he comes one or two hours late. He will be very polite and he will recognize that you think he is late and he will apologize, and you can get angry but you’d have to stay angry because Thomas will always pine for the unscheduled time of Africa and it just won’t do any good to rage.
If you were Thomas’s white girlfriend, you would have to pick where you were going to eat your lunch at the high school, in the lower caf with the natives, or the upper car with the immigrants. This is not an arrangement that the school likes. The principal wanted to fix this segregated eating right away when he came to Portland High. But nobody was in favor of that. Students said that they were eating with their friends and they like it that way. So that’s how it stays. Maybe you could cross over. Maybe Thomas could. That happens. Also, sometimes a kid will try to get something going in the hall. Thomas likes to “go friendly” with people. That is one of the reasons you want to be his girlfriend. He says he doesn’t care if they are Muslim or black or white. He would like to go friendly with them. Thomas is patient, but if a kid won’t let up he’ll say, “I’ll fight you.” And you could be the trigger.
If you were Thomas’s girlfriend, you might see a Sudanese mom try to keep her son from a white girl. She would say, “In Sudan our children do not have boyfriend or girlfriend. And here I see the white girls have no shame. One time a girl came and kissed my son on the mouth. I said, please, please do not do this, I have younger children here who can see.” Thomas explains this behavior disrespects the family. The family will lose its dignity.
His family would ask you to explain many things. Why do you go to school in the winter instead of the summer? It is much easier in the summer. Or, how do you send your friends money when they call with a problem? Or, why, here, do the parents respect the children instead of the children respect the parents? Why is it with you Americans, you are so busy all the time. Why don’t you talk to each other?
There’s a chance you could go down the highway to Old Orchard Beach together where sometimes white girls hang with African boys. Old Orchard is a wild mix of beach Americana and signs that say Nous Sommes-Francais to invite French Canadians, and beyond the motels and shops is the fierce ocean. His mom probably would never go there. An African boy could walk with a white girl here on 5th Street, the street with vendors selling tattoos, orange creamsicles, and Caribbean hair wraps. Here, you could laugh together, and maybe Thomas could take your hand.