One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist…she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us. Geoffrey Canada, Waiting for Superman
I don’t love documentaries across the board. Maybe I should (I know my father, husband, and more sophisticated friends think so) but I don’t. I’m generally drawn to those about children and teenagers; this is true when it comes to books and films alike. I’m sure that after Monday’s post on Bringing Up Bébé, this doesn’t come as a much of a revelation. I watched Mad Hot Ballroom back to back with Waiting for Superman last year for the fun of it (as it turns out, the fun of it involved a lot of crying).
At Christmas two years back, my father gave me a PBS documentary called Children Will Listen about a production of my favorite musical Into the Woods, put on at the Kennedy Center in New York by group of underprivileged students and a dedicated group of teachers and arts professionals. It reignited the dream I had when I went to college as a Theatre Education major; I wanted to open an after-school arts program for children whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to expensive classes. I have no idea how I would have funded such a program or who I would have found with the business savvy to balance out my flightiness when it comes to spreadsheets, but it was born out of an unwavering belief that all children deserve more than the bare minimum.
A month ago, we happened upon a new documentary called Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. I watched it even though I hate muppets (and had always hated Elmo in particular). Kevin Clash, Elmo’s creator and a master puppeteer, started making puppets when he was in elementary school. He was sewing and building his own puppets and putting on shows in his neighborhood by his early teens. The film followed his whole career, but the part that drew me in was the old film taken by his family during his childhood – he was so focused, so passionate – he believed he had the ability to create magic.
When I find stories like these about children rising to meet the high expectations of themselves or of dedicated adults in their lives, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. How fortunate that people exist who care so much about improving the lives of children and families – it makes me happier just knowing such people are out there.
With a book like The Good Braider, that same feeling explodes out of my chest and just covers the rest of my life. Terry Farish has written a novel in verse that combines the stories she has heard for years directing the literacy program at the New Hampshire Humanities Council (serving immigrant and refugee populations) into a stunning novel about a young woman struggling to survive, first in war-torn South Sudan, then later in culture-exploding Portland, Maine.
Whenever I read a book, I fold pages down, I underline favorite passages, I make notes to myself to share with others later. This book is full – I want to share so many sections of it just to help you understand what a deft hand Farish has, how aptly she renders both the atrocities of war and the simple joys that defy it. When I looked back through all the pages, however, the piece I finally decided on was the very first poem of the book.
I run breathless into my house.
What will I tell her?
I will tell her, Andrew has my book.
The teacher assigned us to work together.
But my mother does not turn to me.
She wears her after-work clothes,
her African dress that hangs
loose from her shoulders.
Maybe she has not seen me with Andrew –
my friend – seen me leap from his truck.
I watch the bend of her shoulders.
She holds herself rigid and does not
look at me. I’ll leave here again when the families
from Juba come to eat and watch news of the war.
I turn and look toward the door.
As if she can read my mind, she commands,
“You will stay in this house!”
She knows I have been away from our people.
I have slipped out of Africa for a breath of time.
Do my hair and skin smell different?
I pause at the kitchen doorway.
She turns, and her eyes are ferocious.
I watch the water bubble up.
In Juba, the pot would need huge flames
to build the water to this boil.
I step toward my mother and the boiling water.
I mean to take the spoon and stir while the aseeda
thickens in the boiling water, this dense white food
that to our Sudanese people is life.
Instead I say, “Sometimes I do not want to know
how many people have died in the war.”
I say this
as the aseeda bubbles loudly
over the red electric coils.
Maybe it is those words
that cause what happens next.
She grabs my arm. She holds it hard
by my wrist and my elbow.
She twists my hand over the steam.
“Yumis! Mother! You are hurting me!”
Now the war comes back to me.
Again, there is only the war. (pg 10)
This is the first book I’ve been sent to review before publication (it came out May 1st, but I’ve been hanging onto it for a while). Terry Farish is a friend and colleague of my mother, and she asked me, after reading J’adore, if I would be willing to look at a copy of the uncorrected proof. We’ve never met, and I probably never would have seen this book if she hadn’t sent it to me. That’s the cruel way of the world – so many life-changing books exist just outside our daily experiences. I think it might be the universe’s way of apologizing for all the terrible things we have to witness and endure when the right book does manage to find its way into our hands.
This is that right book. It’s the right book if you’re socially conscious, if you’re family centric, if you feel displaced, if you love to teach, if you want to learn, if you read about children and weep for the injustices they encounter, if you read about adults and feel shame for things you cannot change, if you read about mothers and marvel at their strength, if you read about fathers and wonder at their absence, if you read about war while hating the bombs that fall on your doorstep, if you read about peace and appreciate what little you have – this is the book for you. This story might not have the power to save us like Superman, but it inspires that breast-beating hope that ordinary people can make changes with their own two hands.