In the summer of 2011, writer, artist, and development worker Ming Holden journeyed to Kenya with the goal of creating a performance with refugee girls for World Refugee Day. At the end of her seven weeks there, she had founded the Survival Girls, a theater group comprised of six Congolese refugee women ages 18-23 living in a Nairobi slum. The Survival Girls have stayed together since then, an independent and self-sustaining women’s empowerment and artistic expression group that has doubled in membership, competed in local competitions, and been contracted by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees to perform all over Nairobi about female genital mutilation and other social issues.
The Survival Girls is a literary nonfiction book fully illustrated by Seattle artist Jody Joldersma. Proceeds benefit university education for the Survival Girls in Nairobi. Written in the first person by Ming, this is just one story of the group’s genesis, a story of how the concept and enactment of ‘safe space’ to assist with trauma recovery impacted women’s empowerment in the refugee community in Nairobi’s slums. – Amazon description
This is the story of a group of Congolese refugee girls living in Nairobi who, with the help of an American writer/development worker, create a moving theatrical performance that is built from their traumatic experiences of rape, death and loss. The Survival Girls, as much as they come to life on the page, must be amazing to watch – by the end of the book I only wished I could be in the front row at one of their performances. Author Ming Holden captured the true spirit of survival she encountered while working with the inspirational group. And she did it justice.
One thing I loved about Ming’s writing is the gonzo-like quality to it – she’s not afraid to place herself in the story, nor does she shy away from sharing some of her own intimate, scary and very personal experiences. She does this purposely, I believe. Rather than taking the girls’ stories and sharing them with the world in a way that could come across as exploitative or voyeuristic, she becomes part of their stories, and they become part of hers. Her book is a tale of community-building, but more than that, it’s the story of building a trusting relationship with people who have suffered indescribable horror – some of whom are still suffering it.
I’m sure there will be those who disagree with me, but my impression by the end of the book was of a woman who, yes, has her own demons to face, and who perhaps uses distance and the trauma of others to put it in perspective. But it’s also the story of a woman who uses her trauma to connect. She uses it for something positive, which is not an easy thing to do or talk about. She creates, in her own words, a “safe space.” Somewhere without judgement, expectations, or further abuse.
This wasn’t what I’d call a comfortable read. The girls’ stories, their lives, and Ming’s own experiences are laden with heavy topics. But beyond that, this is a story written by a white girl from the USA who is writing about the experiences of people a world away – both culturally and physically – many of whom don’t speak the same language. Her time in Nairobi was short, and though she did her best to learn their language and customs, there’s only so much context you can understand when you’re a foreigner. There’s nothing wrong with writing a story from limited experience, and she does an excellent job of contextualizing her own perspective, but it does lead to questions in the mind of the reader. At least, this reader. How much was lost in translation? How much cultural context was missed? How much of their experiences did the girls hold back because it was just to painful for words?
Regardless of these unanswerable questions, I commend Ming for not only hopping on that plane, but for attempting to be a voice of hope on behalf of those whose own voices so often go un-heard – or simply ignored. Despite the issues involved in becoming the voice of someone else’s experiences, there are times when it can be beautiful to help the world see and hear their stories. And when that’s the only way they will be heard.
For such a young author, Ming’s voice is both strong and sincere. Her writing is evocative, and her imagery drew me in. Of course there were parts of the book where I noticed some small stylistic stumbles, or a need for additional editing, but for someone so young, this is an impressive book. Ming is someone to watch – as are her Survival Girls.
And if you’re on Twitter, follow her (she also has one of the best handles ever): @minglishmuffin
Author: Ming Holden
Edition: Review Copy (PDF)
Published by: Wolfram Productions
Released: October 15, 2013
Genre: Memoir, Journalism, Development, UN
Date Read: October 25-November 12, 2013
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