Apricot Irving grew up as a missionary’s daughter in Haiti—a country easy to sensationalize but difficult to understand. Her father was an agronomist, a man who hiked alone into the hills with a macouti of seeds to preach the gospel of trees in a deforested but resilient country. Her mother and sisters, meanwhile, spent most of their days in the confines of the hospital compound they called home. As a child, this felt like paradise to Irving; as a teenager, the same setting felt like a prison. Outside of the walls of the missionary enclave, Haiti was a tumult of bugle-call bus horns and bicycles that jangled over hard-packed dirt, the clamor of chickens and cicadas, the sudden, insistent clatter of rain as it hammered across tin roofs and the swell of voices running ahead of the storm.
As she emerges into womanhood, an already confusing process made all the more complicated by Christianity’s demands, Irving struggles to understand her father’s choices. His unswerving commitment to his mission, and the anger and despair that followed failed enterprises, threatened to splinter his family.
Beautiful, poignant, and explosive, The Gospel of Trees is the story of a family crushed by ideals, and restored to kindness by honesty. Told against the backdrop of Haiti’s long history of intervention—often unwelcome—it grapples with the complicated legacy of those who wish to improve the world. Drawing from family letters, cassette tapes, journals, and interviews, it is an exploration of missionary culpability and idealism, told from within.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Gospel of Trees Prelude
I WAS SIX years old, a freckle-nosed girl with long red braids that whapped against my elbows, when my parents moved to the north of Haiti to be missionaries—not far from where Columbus sank the Santa María.
By the time I was in my twenties, a recovering missionary’s daughter, most of the stories I had read about missionaries seemed to fall into one of two categories: hagiography or exposé; the Sunday school version or Lord of the Flies.
When we don’t know what to make of a situation, we grope for a familiar pattern, a path worn into the grass. The danger, of course, is that by imposing our own expectations, we fail to see anything clearly. I am as guilty of this as anyone.
Stories, like archaeology, are fragmentary, composed of scraps and nuances, and—depending on what is left out—most narratives can be constructed so as to end in either glory or ruin. But the missionaries I had grown up with were neither marauders nor saints; Haiti was neither savage nor noble. The truth was far more complicated.
My father, a missionary agronomist, is a man of the earth, his fingernails perpetually stained with berries and dirt. His first language is trees, and he can still recite the genus and species of every tree that grew outside every house we ever lived in. He shimmied up willows and Chinese elms, black walnuts and canyon live oaks, to tie rope swings for my sisters and me to play.
Leave every place better than you found it, he taught us—a mantra from his forest ranger days. He pruned and fertilized a neglected apricot tree across the street from a crack house in Los Angeles county. He rescued an apple tree imprisoned by blackberries in Oregon. In Haiti, he planted avocados and mangoes, and twenty years after the seeds had been buried in the soil, he could still carve a path through an overgrown garden to a cedar so wide that his outstretched arms could not span its trunk.
Yet his anger, too, left its mark. He longed to make the world a better place, but by taking on the sorrows of others, he buried his own until that thwarted grief exploded into rage: a dinner table upended, a window shattered as a Bible hurtled through the air, a daughter slammed against a wall.
I have seen my parents venerated, in church circles, as heroes of the faith. We were the sent ones—for that is the root of the word “missionary”—sent by the Holy Spirit; sent by the churches who paid for our plane tickets and salary, who expected glory stories. A redemptive theme was expected in each and every newsletter and slide show. If my parents couldn’t deliver, then the funding would be redirected to more eloquent storytellers.
My father’s fear and anger was a story we didn’t know how to tell; a story that, for long years, the church didn’t seem to want to hear.
I was fifteen when my parents hosted their last slide show in a church fellowship hall, having left the mission field, this time, for good.
The slide shows, a fixture of my childhood, began with metaphor: a sunrise tilting in white heat over the edge of a mountain; light filling the darkness. But by the time my father had clicked to images of eroded Haitian hillsides so steep and desolate that farmers would, on occasion, be carried into the missionary hospital with broken limbs after having fallen from their gardens, his voice would have dropped into a bitter cadence. The anecdotes grew only more discouraging as the slide show wore on.
My father’s vision of utopia was agrarian: trees on every hillside, vegetables in every garden, water in every dry streambed. Seeds were small, but they could change the world. Roots to hold the soil in place, to allow the rain to drip slowly through a thicket of green leaves, to fall soft into loamy soil, replenishing the groundwater. It was through trees that the earth breathed. And the soil of Haiti was rich—a twelve-month growing season, without cold nights to slow down the pace. Stick a cutting in the ground and out fluttered roots and buds, all on their own. But so little of his missionary vision had unfolded as planned.
One photograph from the slide show, taken during a year of drought, showed a Haitian farmer, his wife, and their five children standing in front of their mud-walled home. At their feet lay a withered pile of corn no bigger than a Thanksgiving turkey: their entire harvest for that year.
In the face of such poverty, further deforestation seemed all but inevitable. Trees could at least be cut and smoldered into charcoal, light enough to transport down the twisting mountain paths on a donkey’s back or a motorcycle to pay a debt in a moment of crisis: a child’s school fees, a doctor visit, a funeral.
The following year, with fewer trees to hold the soil in place, the gardens would be even sparser, the rainfall more sporadic. There were ways around this, for the patient. But patience was a luxury of those who had enough food to eat, whose children were not dying. Patience was what the poor could not afford.
To keep the slide show from being a complete downer, my mother would usually pipe up at this point with anecdotes of our family adventures—rafting trips, crocodile sightings, a haphazard expedition on an overcrowded fishing boat to a remote island off the coast of Haiti. She also mentioned our few small, notable successes: the rabbit projects, the seedling trees, the green beans that grew as long as my little sister’s arm. Sufficient to thrill the supporters, but for my father, it was never enough.
We did not describe, during church slide shows, the time we were evacuated for fear of riots, or the man we watched burned alive inside a rubber tire.
No matter how volatile Haiti became, devastated by drought and military coups, my father rooted himself all the more stubbornly in its eroded soil, so that by the time we finally left, resentment had grown between us like a hedge of rakèt cactus, barbed and impenetrable.
For more than a decade after we left, my family seldom spoke of Haiti. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I asked my parents if they had kept any of our missionary newsletters.
My mother, who seemed reluctant to even talk about Haiti, said she didn’t know why we would have kept them. My father pulled on his rain boots and told me to follow him out to the barn.
It was a bright, cold Oregon afternoon in early November, and the air was sharp with decaying leaves and the mumbled whir of the food dehydrator. My father pulled out a stack of Chiquita banana boxes sticky with tractor grease, hidden under baseball gloves and loose bales of hay.
I pried open the lids and found cobwebs stretched across church bulletins and toys dank with must. Western Barbie, my prized eight-year-old birthday present flown in on the missionary plane, was trapped under a doll bed carved from Haitian mahogany. Her left eye was snapped shut in a permanent blue-lidded wink.
My mother kicked at a box with her muck boot and asked: Why did we even keep this junk?
We both knew it was my father who had guarded the relics.
I waited until I was alone to sort through the detritus. Though I doubted that the cassettes we’d sent to the grandparents would still work, the wheels strained, then slowly spun. The delicate ribbons unraveled tinny, otherworldly stories of near-accidents on the highway to Port-au-Prince, torrential rainstorms, roosters that crowed all night, and peripheral arguments between my sisters and me about who got to play with the coveted blond Barbie. To listen to our childish voices was to reenter a lost world. It was more joyful, and bewildering, than I had remembered.
Buried beneath one stack of papers was a black spiral notebook whose cover bloomed with blue-gray mold. As I cracked open the stiff pages, I realized that the day planner had been used as a journal.
I sat back on my heels and slowly turned the pages. It was no small feat to decipher my father’s cramped left-handed scrawl, each day’s synopsis limned into a single calendar entry the size of a postage stamp.
Came home tired from Garde Conjac, he had written shortly after we returned to Haiti for the last time. Think it was all the suffering I saw.
My eyes burned with the strain, and after a few pages I had to set the journal down and stare out the window. My own journals from those years—in bubbly adolescent penmanship, the “i”s dotted with hearts—were full of passionate meditations on the most recent boy I’d happened to fall in love with, alongside diatribes about my boring, goody-two-shoes father. I had resented him for as long as I could remember—hurt that his agricultural projects always seemed to come first, that the needs of others appeared to matter so much more than our own. Now, for the first time, I saw Haiti through his eyes.
Beautiful sunset coming down the mountain, he had written after hiking miles in the damp heat.
A short while later, he observed: Girls forlorn tonight.
I put my hand over my mouth and choked back a sob. I hadn’t realized that he noticed.
My father is not an easy man to keep up with. My father the missionary will gladly walk for hours under a searing tropical sky with only a few sips of water and a handful of dried fruit to deliver tree seeds to subsistence farmers to keep the soil from slipping down eroded hillsides. My father the forest ranger can traverse miles of unmarked wilderness without a map. My father has never known how to be gentle with those who do not live up to his expectations.
I inherited my father’s anger and his perfectionism. Haiti was a wound, an unhealed scab that I was afraid to pick open. But I knew that unless I faced that broken history, my own buried grief, like my father’s, would explode in ways I couldn’t predict.
Even as a child, I had understood that the missionary compound was a place I would have to one day untangle with words.
I sat down at my empty desk and wrote:
Here’s to home, wherever that is, and whatever it takes to find it. Here’s to taking risks and not running away anymore. Here’s to failing, probably, at everything that I am setting out to do. But here’s to trying anyway.
Here’s to my sisters, and my mother, and to the farm in Oregon; here’s to my father (God bless his emotionally atrophied, demanding, workaholic soul). Here’s to the missionary compound that broke us all. And to Haiti: a country that I have never understood, and have always resented (and have always wanted to belong to).
When I found a map of Haiti among my parents’ letters, I hung it on the wall above my desk—a reminder of the place that I had tried for so long to forget. The illusion of order felt comforting, as if so much jagged history could be made small enough to carry in the mind and make sense of.
On the map, the sea was pale blue, and the names of the bays and rivers were written in French in bold dark letters: Océan Atlantique, Mer des Antilles, Baie de l’Acul. Limbé was no bigger than a citron seed, in a green valley at the base of a yellow sweep of mountains. Three thousand miles from where I sat, pen in hand, trying to find my way through a story that I was still afraid to tell.
When I closed my eyes, I could hear the jangle of bicycles over hard-packed dirt and the sudden insistent clatter of rain as it hammered across tin roofs, the swell of voices running ahead of the storm: lapli tonbe, lapli tonbe—the rain is falling, the rain is coming.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Gospel of Trees includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Apricot Irving. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this compelling memoir, Apricot Irving reckons with her family’s complex relationship to Haiti—and to one another. As a child, Irving and her two young sisters move with their missionary parents to aid in the reforestation of Haiti. But Haiti is as unpredictable as her father’s temper, and as time marches forward each member of the family comes to see their time in Haiti as complicated and messy; there are no easy fixes to the deep injustices Irving’s family witnesses from their privileged position on the mission compound. Told from memory, diary entries, and historical fact, The Gospel of Trees confronts the pains of growing up, fitting in, and finding your own voice in a country and a family that both terrify and delight you.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. In the prelude, Apricot Irving warns us that “stories, like archaeology, are fragmentary, composed of scraps and nuances” (3). Why do you think she wants us to be aware that this story will be incomplete? Does its fragmentary nature make it feel more real to you? Why?
2. Apricot shares with us one of the lines she wrote when she began to tell this story: “Here’s to home, wherever that is, and whatever it takes to find it” (8). Do you think she finds “home” in the end? Where?
3. In many ways, The Gospel of Trees is a portrait of a marriage—for better or for worse. Do you think Jon and Flip’s decision to live outside of their country of origin contributes to the story of their marriage? Apricot describes love as “a patched-together tent of whatever you have on hand to protect yourself from the wind and the sun” (189). In what way does this resonate with you?
4. The author refers to herself on page 17 as her mother’s “first feminist dilemma.” That is, Flip was faced with the decision of finishing college or not given that she was pregnant with Apricot. What subsequent feminist dilemmas do you think Flip faces, according to the narrative her daughter tells?
5. Revisit the scene on page 46 from when the family has first moved to Haiti and Jon calls his daughters outside to see a frog being eaten by a snake. In what ways does this image seem like a metaphor for their time spent in Haiti? For their family dynamic? For colonialism?
6. Discuss the conundrum that the Andersons face during their first year in Haiti; that is, “how to create harmony in an unjust world” (54). Is it possible? How well, in your estimation, does the family do in living up to the missionary ideal: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (54)?
7. There are countless examples of the grim realities of inequality and injustice throughout this memoir, such as the fact that there was approximately one doctor to care for every 600 people in Haiti in the 1980s (92). What dire facts resonated with you as you read?
8. What draws Jon to the missionary life? Do you have a sense of his “gospel of trees” after reading this story? In other words, do you understand his feeling that trees are connected to God in some way? That trees are a symbol of hope?
9. Reflect on Ti Marcel/Cherylene as a character in the story. What does she represent for the family? Discuss Jon, Flip, and Apricot in your response. Does her status as unknown post-earthquake point to a larger mystery surrounding the country of Haiti for the Anderson family? Why or why not?
10. How does Apricot defy her role as a white savior to the people of Haiti? In what ways does she embody that role? In the end, do you think she sees the mission’s—and her father’s—goal to save Haiti through trees as admirable, troublesome, or both?
11. Revisit Apricot’s rhetorical question to herself about suffering on page 166: “Why did she feel so alone? Why did I?” In what ways are the author’s emotions tied to the experiences she had in Haiti? In what ways are they universal in a coming-of-age story?
12. Apricot’s relationship to Haiti changes as she changes. As a teenager she feels both elated and imprisoned by her life in Haiti, both a part of the land and a stranger in it. She notes that Haiti offers a “complicated world where sorrow and beauty lived under the same leaky roof” (201). Do you think that she better understands Haiti by the end of the memoir? Does she better understand her parents?
13. Apricot writes on page 237 that “love was a powerful barricade against despair.” Discuss how love functions in the memoir. Do you think that it is love that keeps the Anderson family from despair? Love of what or whom?
14. Were you surprised by the reveal that Jon had a brief affair while in Haiti? In your opinion, is this his biggest betrayal of the family? Why or why not?
15. Near the end of The Gospel of Trees, Apricot confides that through the process of writing about her father, he has become “a character with whom I could empathize” (301). Did you find, as the story progressed, that you also better empathized with or at least understood the author’s father? Why do you think writing about an experience often leads to a fuller understanding?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Throughout The Gospel of Trees, author Apricot Irving attempts to reconcile the complications of wanting to understand a culture and a people unlike yourself but often reducing the other to a stereotype in the process. “When we don’t know what to make of a situation, we grope for a familiar pattern, a path worn into the grass” (3). With your book club, watch Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TEDGlobal talk: www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story. Discuss how Adichie’s “danger of the single story” might be an apt frame for contextualizing the complications Apricot and her family encountered in speaking to, with, and for Haitians. What comparisons can you draw between Adichie’s experience and Apricot’s?
2. According to Apricot, while the Bible held an important place in her father’s life, it is the writings of John Muir for which he “reserved his deepest allegiance” (15). Take a nature walk with your book club. Chose a nice day and plan a saunter (Muir’s preferred word choice) through your local landscape. If possible, include some tree sightseeing and note the way being around trees makes you feel. Do you, like Jon Anderson, have a sense of hope standing underneath a tree? Afterward, discuss over lunch the experience of being in nature. What connections do you make between God and nature? Would you be willing to dedicate your life to something as simple and necessary as trees? Share your own version of trees—what person, place, or thing compels you to do good in the world?
3. The personal project of the Anderson family to save Haiti through trees contains many attempts that seem to end in failure, although Apricot Irving adds that “failure can be a wise friend” (343). Compare and contrast the reforestation efforts of the missionaries and NGOs with the Haitian farmer Zo Alexandre, who plants trees even on rented land to keep his neighbors’ topsoil from washing away, and so that he can hear the birds sing. Host a movie night with your book club and watch the 2008 documentary Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, about the Kenyan environmentalist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development. How did the colonial legacy in Kenya parallel Haiti’s deforestation? What inspiration do you take from the women in the Greenbelt movement who decide to replant trees? What hope do you find for the future in their stories?
A Conversation with Apricot Irving
This is your debut memoir, though you have spent time on many other projects including contributing to This American Life and an oral history project in a community undergoing gentrification. How does this book compare to your other projects? Did you find one more challenging than the other? Explain.
There is an incredible intimacy to the human voice, and the communal nature of the oral history project felt exciting; we never knew how a conversation would unfold. After the earthquake in Haiti, when I went back on assignment for This American Life, there were so many powerful stories, and it felt significant to be able to preserve the nuances of each person’s voice, which can be lost when spoken language is reduced to text on the page. I didn’t enjoy listening to my own voice, but Ira Glass, Julie Snyder, and Sarah Koenig are masterful storytellers and it was a privilege to work with them on the “Island Time” episode. I prefer the stories of others and can happily lose myself in research, digging through the detritus of history to puzzle out a story, so I hadn’t initially planned on writing this book in the form that it took. I wanted to focus on the rise and decline of the missionary hospital in Limbé, which felt rich with all the elements of classical Greek tragedy: hubris, ambition, pathos. In an early draft, I wrote: “This is not my story,” and believed it to be true. I am a reluctant memoirist. At one point, my editor, the insightful Millicent Bennett, asked why I had offered so much empathy to my father and so little to my adolescent self. It took me a long time to realize that grounding the book in my lived experience gave it an added weight and authority. I hadn’t asked to be a missionary’s daughter and revealing my secret joys, as well as my resentments, my condescension, and my curiosity, would allow a reader to inhabit what it felt like to be stranded between cultures. To write my own story with compassion was by far the most difficult writing challenge I have yet faced. I felt a great deal of lingering shame for my inaction and powerlessness, my complicity in privilege and apathy. When I stumbled across a line of Rilke’s poetry I clung to it as a mantra: “It was not pleasure you fell into. It was joy. You were called to be bridegroom, though the bride coming towards you is your shame.” That said, I am very much looking forward to returning to the stories of others in my next book—a far more joyful and less exhausting process.
Why did you decide to tell this story? For you, is it a story of your family, a story of Haiti, or both?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that the missionary kid experience was one I would have to untangle with words. I wrote my way through innumerable drafts because it felt like the only way to finally come home to myself. In the words of the immortal Ursula Le Guin, “What cannot be healed must be transcended.” It is as much a book about what I wish I had known about Haiti’s history as a child growing up on the missionary compound, as it is a story about how our family was transformed by the years we spent in Haiti. This book is my imperfect attempt at a love song—for Haiti as well as for my messy, well-meaning, passionate, and flawed missionary family.
Discuss the structure of the narrative. Was it important for you to give a platform for some of your characters (namely your parents) to speak for themselves?
The beauty of an oral history project or a podcast is the way that overlapping, even contradictory voices, together can create a more complicated whole. Each unique point of view offers a different perspective. I wanted to bring this multiplicity of voices to a book about the missionary experience because missionaries are so often flattened and caricatured—in literature as well as in church newsletters. Also, the journals, letters, and cassette tapes offered a wealth of detail that, as a writer, I couldn’t pass up. Had my mother or father or sisters constructed the narrative, no doubt other scenes would have emerged as pivotal or metaphorically significant, but it felt like a gift to be able to craft a scene based on the vivid details that were available to me in the source materials. I am not a missionary, and I inherited a deep skepticism of missions, but it felt important to give my missionary parents the opportunity to disagree with me on the page. Many of the certainties of my childhood have been replaced with questions, but I still believe that respectful disagreement can yield fruitful dialogue.
What is one word you would use to describe your life in Haiti? Could the same word be used to describe your family?
Our years in Haiti were unforgettable. The same could certainly be said of my family.
Part of your tribute to Haiti and your family comes from the very act of writing itself. Your memoir moves lyrically and surprises the reader with moments of really stunning prose, even as you are describing the devastation and injustice you encountered so often living in Haiti. Do you see the act of writing this story as an act of love?
Absolutely. The writers I most admire are those who are able to find and create beauty even in the most wrenching moments. True beauty, I believe, is strong enough to hold the full weight of sorrow and absorb the force of anger and pain. Beauty allows us to face what cannot otherwise be endured. I hold in the highest esteem the advice of the poet Nikky Finney: “Turn outrage into beauty.”
Describe the research that went into writing this memoir. What was the process like? Did you uncover any facts that were particularly surprising?
My research, as I describe in the opening chapter, began with musty boxes dragged out of my parents’ barn, and my first task was simply to sort the chaos into chronological order, transcribe cassette tapes, and create a timeline. I loved this part of the research, and probably spent far too long on it, as—unlike writing—getting organized feels like a measurable form of progress. Once I had a working timeline and summary documents, I turned to interviews. There was at least one moment in every interview that surprised me. I came to look forward to the instant when something I’d always assumed to be true would be overturned: a person I remembered as angry and volatile would express an unexpected vulnerability or regret; a scene I’d remembered only from one point of view would suddenly be described from a different angle. I was also lucky enough to spend hours of independent study in graduate school with a Haitian professor of Francophone language and literature, Cécile Accilien, who asked hard questions and reframed assumptions that I had held more or less without examination. It can be an immense relief to let go of mistaken certainties. I’d grown up hearing, for example, the Vodou ceremony at Bwa Kayiman described as the moment when the island of Haiti was dedicated to Satan (a statement bombastically repeated by a conservative evangelical leader just after the earthquake). Reading a version of that event from a very different perspective, which focused instead on the agony that the slaves had endured in the name of the Christian God, who was perceived as a deity “thirsty of their tears” (139), helped me to reconsider that event as the courageous act of former slaves reclaiming their history and autonomy. Reading Maya Deren’s seminal book on Vodou, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, was likewise paradigm-shifting.
You talk a lot about the failure of missionary and development projects in Haiti. Can you talk more about this? Do you see the ideal of the missionary as problematic or do you believe there is a way to approach this type of work that might have more success? You ask yourself a version of this question on page 183: “Should we have kept trying, even if we were doomed to fail?”
As a child growing up on a missionary compound, I often heard the phrase “Haiti is the graveyard of missions” or “Haiti is the graveyard of development projects.” Too often the responsibility for that failure was placed on those who were the recipients of our generosity: Either someone had let their goats eat the trees that we had handed out, or hadn’t followed the doctor’s orders, or a donated water pump was left unrepaired after the first time that it broke down. Haitian culture was frequently blamed for these lapses. We, with our Protestant work ethic and Judeo-Christian values, imagined ourselves to be examples for the Haitians to imitate. It is telling that the absurd arrogance of these assumptions was not obvious to me until years later—so ingrained was my bias that I didn’t even recognize it for what it was: a subtle but pervasive form of white supremacy. As a counterpoint, I felt that it was important in this book to cite examples of where we, the foreign do-gooders, were in fact responsible when projects went awry. As for whether or not there are ways it can be done better, failure need not be the end of the story. I believe that those within a community can be trusted to identify their own needs and priorities, as in the example of the òganizasyon peyizan (355). Being made the recipient of generosity, instead of being given a say in how the terms are negotiated, undermines ingenuity. I am encouraged by contests like Chivas Venture, which funds local entrepreneurs who identify social problems within their own country and come up with viable solutions, and by programs like Hunger Project and GiveDirectly where, given access to funds without strings attached, participants frustrated by poverty were seen to make significant progress in designing and supporting their own self-sufficiency. As the entrepreneur Jacqueline Novogratz points out, poverty should never be equated with intelligence. Nor should wealth be confused with success. The impulse to make the world a better place is, I believe, an honorable impulse, and it is important to recognize that lasting harm can result from well-intended efforts. Fundraising based on images of abject poverty and the perceived helplessness of the intended beneficiaries perpetuates racist stereotypes—unless they are tongue-in-cheek, like the campaign to buy radiators for poor Norwegians. I believe that it is incumbent upon us, if we wish to do our part to make the world incrementally more just and sustainable, to own up to our mistakes and relinquish power whenever possible. Humility and a willingness to listen must be prerequisites. And we should stay out of the way if we are asked to. Dambisa Moyo’s ringing indictment of Dead Aid is a sobering read. I should also admit that I speak here as a novice. I am neither a development worker, an economist, nor a missionary, but I believe that if we do not fundamentally admire those whom we wish to help, our assistance will be destructive. Disdain is difficult to disguise and needs no translation. Respect is communicated far more through tone of voice and body language than through words—though language matters. I absolutely believe that it is a worthwhile endeavor to try to make the world more just, equitable, and sustainable, even if we fall short of accomplishing that goal in our lifetimes. And at the same time, it is important to keep asking ourselves if we are outsiders to the community that we wish to help, if our presence overshadows emerging leaders within that community, in which case the best course of action may simply be to relinquish power, apologize for our mistakes, and walk away from misguided attempts.
In the end you say that it is through writing you came to better understand your father. What is it about writing that holds the power to heal? Do you think that you inherited a love of writing from your parents?
Both of my parents are terrific story tellers and I am quite certain that my love of story can be attributed, at least in part, to the stories they told around campfires, or over the dinner table, as well as to the books that they read aloud to us at bedtime. My father is an impressive correspondent. I don’t know how many thousands of letters and emails he has written over the course of his life, but the sheer volume of family and friends that he keeps in touch with, to this day, is remarkable. Writing has always been highly valued in our family. I remember a summer in Idyllwild that my father insisted that my sisters and I write down at least a dozen new words a week from the books we checked out from the library, then copy out the definitions from the dictionary and use each word in the sentence. My father and I still find it difficult to speak openly about emotional subjects, but I know that he is proud of me when I read the Christmas newsletter or when he copies and pastes sentences that he emailed to others and lets me eavesdrop on what he says about me. I admit that I had been struggling with how I would answer the question—What is it about writing that holds the power to heal?—until my sons got home from school and brought some friends up to visit me in my writing studio. A visiting 11-year-old said he thought could he could help: “It helps to get it off your chest,” he suggested. I agreed. It’s easier to breathe when an unspoken story is no longer carried inside of you. Easier to see it in a different light and let it go. I do believe that writing has the power to heal, and the same time I want to affirm that the healing process is, in my experience, iterative and layered and can feel maddeningly slow. Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho, in their fearless and beautiful meditation, The Book of Forgiving, write: “We are not responsible for what breaks us but we can be responsible for what puts us back together again.” What they learned from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was that when we tell our stories, and name the hurt, we can begin to see with empathy those who did us harm. We regain a sense of agency when we tell our truth; we become the narrators of our own lives. We are allowed to glimpse, in that process, that we are all fragile and vulnerable, flawed and noble, and capable of causing profound harm. I have on my wall a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be gentle, truthful and fearless.” Truth-telling can be painful, but it is not possible to go through life without pain. The question is what to do with that pain: do we turn it against ourselves? Against others? Or can it be transformed into something greater than itself?
In writing a memoir, so much of the story depends on faulty memories and fragmented narratives told second-hand. In your estimation, how much license did you have to take in telling this story?
Had I given myself permission to take even more liberties in telling this story it might have been a simpler process—and a shorter book. Instead, I tried my best to remain faithful to fifty years worth of source documents. But you are absolutely right: memory is deeply untrustworthy. Each time we return to a memory, we alter it slightly. It was not infrequently the case that when I sat down to interview someone about an event described in detail in a letter or journal entry, the story that they remembered left out significant details, or put events in a different order. More than once my father assured me that an event or a conversation had not taken place in the way that I described, until I sent him a copy of a letter or journal entry from which I had gathered the details. Admittedly, by choosing to privilege eyewitness accounts written soon after the events took place, I am still relying on potentially unreliable narrators. There were things that we absolutely did not understand at the time they were happening, like the events surrounding the evacuation of the missionary hospital, and the act of piecing that story together from a variety of sources creates a coherence that we did not necessarily experience. This gathering together of disparate strands into one story can be misleading. The New York Times editor Verlyn Klinkenborg wisely observes that “Fiction and nonfiction resemble each other far more closely than they do any actual event.” Writing is an act of deliberate construction. I had the power to decide, as the narrator, which events to include and which to leave out. I also had the license to choose which point of view to privilege at any given moment in the story. In the early chapter “Saved,” set in the Coachella Valley desert, I gave my mother’s point of view precedence over my father’s memories of those years. She told me, in detail, about her experience of conversion, and the anger and resentment that had preceded it, and I wrote and rewrote that scene until she gave her approval. But it is also true that as a devout evangelical Christian, she tells that story differently than I do. We cannot truly step inside the mind of another. Even journals offer only the smallest glimpse of the inner landscape. My portrayals of my parents, and of myself, must be read, therefore, as only a partial approximation. It is not possible to fully evoke an individual on the page, reduced to words and scenes alone, without also hearing the sound of their voice, observing the subtleties of their body language, and taking into account their wrinkles and the depth of their gaze. So in that sense, I have taken great license in telling this story. The quotations that I use throughout are taken from letters, journals, cassette transcriptions, and in some cases from memory and interviews, but it would be unwise to trust this as a definitive version of events. There are stories and individuals that have been left out, and I still regret those which there was not room to include. Had it been possible, I would have continued to write and rewrite this book until my last day on earth, continuing to uncover new details that might shed a different light on the subject. A hundred books could be written about this one missionary compound alone, told from a hundred different perspectives. For what it’s worth, this is the story that I have told.
What is next for you as a writer?
Having lived with this book for as long as I can remember, I’m still coming to terms with the fact that it is time to let it go. My boys keep begging me to work on a children’s book with them—they have wild and wonderful imaginations—and there was a month last summer when I wrote a poem every night after the rest of the family went to bed, but at the moment I’m savoring the freedom of seeing where my curiosity might take me. It might be another deep dive into history, on the subject of early missionaries in the American West and that jagged legacy. Or perhaps another oral history project or a radio piece. I love the sound of the human voice telling its own stories. I’m looking forward to the next adventure, where ever it leads.