Sunday, November 2, 2014

Braiding My Thoughts On THE GOOD BRAIDER by Terry Farish. The Sudanese Story, "Wow."

On the cover of The Good Braider, Naomi Shihab Nye wrote that Terry Farish's novel is "A masterful triumph of character and story."  Similar to my feelings of The Good Lie, which debuted less than a month ago, I have to agree. This is a text that is a triumph for the literary community and anyone who spends time working with refugees as they transition from civil conflicts to the freedom of the United States.

Since 2012, I've had Terry Farish's The Good Braider sitting on my bookshelf. It has been with me whenever I visit teachers or schools to discuss young adult novels that feature relocated African refugee stories. It will, indeed, be the text I choose to work with at the Louisiana State University Young Adult Literature Conference next spring (an opportunity that will allow me to build off of UbuntuMatters, the website I began last May).

Until last night, however, I have not found the right space to read Farish's text. Knowing my love for poetry and my work with relocated refugee youth since 2001 (e.g., Song For the Lost Boys, Opus One), I knew it was only a matter of time before I had to make the location to read the novel. Earlier this semester, I put The Good Braider on my syllabus for a composition class. I knew several ESL teachers were enrolled and that if it was on a syllabus I would definitely get to it.

In a word. Wow. I was deeply moved by the narrative Terry Farish shares.

The Good Braider is written in three parts: (1) Elephant Bone - Juba, Sudan, and Cairo Egypt, 1999-2002, (2) Elephant Footsteps - Portland, Maine, 2002 - 2003, and (3) Elephant Songs, Portland, Maine, 2003. Similar to the three-tiered weaving of an African braid so is the way Farrish intertwines language to shares Viola's delicate, yet harsh, war-story. It is a tale of struggle, both from civil conflict and the aftermath of memories that are brought to the United States upon relocation.

The Good Braider resonates with my research, too. In fact, the eight young men who graciously volunteered their time for my study took books off my shelves and asked for suggestions of better reading material. They were similar to Lokolumbe, the young man in Farish's book who introduces Viola to a world of print texts. He encourages her to read after she arrives to the United States:
He brings many books, all books from the West, 
especially America. He brings mystery stories,                                                               
such as one by Walter Mosley. These are good.                                                             
From these books I learn about clothes styles                                                                     
and boyfriends and dangerous jobs in America                                                                       
We also both like to read Responding to Literature                                                           
full of poems and stories. We have the idea                                                                            
to establish - Lokolumbe's word -                                                                                       
The Viola and Lokolumbe English Night School. (pp. 84-85)
Similarly, two other poems, "United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees" (p. 69) and "Waiting To Become a Refugee" (p. 72), parallel the worlds introduced to me by Somalians, Sudanese, Eritreans, Congolese, Liberians, and Rwandans. I was also reminded of Emmanuel Jal's memoir, War Child, and a particular song, "The Key," from his latest album of the same name. Education is a mother and father, indeed.

The majority of relocated stories written have been male narratives. This is why Terry Farish's YA novel is extra-appealing. Many have wondered about 'Lost Girl' stories and this curiosity is taken up via Viola's experiences in Sudan, Cairo, and Maine. In some ways, the story of this 16 year-old character is a darker truth than the one shared by Marha Aruel Akech and John Dau in Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan. Viola's story provides a fictional account of what Janie Leatherman wrote about in Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict. Too often, young women are harmed by war in unforgivable ways.

This upcoming week my graduate students and I will likely focus on the poem, "Mrs. Mejia Who Gave Me Three Things" (pp. 178-186). It is the turning point for Viola and the moment she returns to school to see a teacher who made her feel safe. Similar to Gerald Campano's 2nd Classroom - the location between home and school worlds where immigrant youth reside - Ms. Mejia's ESL is an in-between space for them to heal. A return to school is the moment when Ms. Mejia, as a teacher, makes a tremendous difference in the life of one of her relocated students. Viola admits,
I am not doing well. I am not American.                                                                             
Or Sudanese.                                                                                                                         
I'm not in Sudan and I'm not really in Maine.                                                                       
Or maybe I'm in both of them                                                                                               
at the same time.                                                                                                                       
I'm in someplace I'm making up.                                                                                               
This story about the soldier...                                                                                                   
my people would never talk about it. (p. 185)
From the first page until the last, Farish scribes from a believable, optimistic, and devoted perspective. The narrative poem is conflicted, torn, and difficult. Viola has to make sense of her new American world and her memories of where she fled.
For this moment, let's be free, I say to them.                                                                         
They could not know the dance                                                                                             
of the journeys I am just beginning,                                                                                        
but they dance with me always. (p. 211)
For an evening, I had the pleasure of dancing with Terry Farish's writing as she braided my mind, heart, and soul with the poetic language of healing.

I am definitely a fan of this book.


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