SERVICE & WITNESSING
In 2004, I published a magazine feature on the Lost Boys of Sudan, and for the first time in my writing life experienced the personal and public impact of using language as a form of witness. In 2006, I flew to India to hold writing workshops for young survivors of sex trafficking, returning again in 2007 and 2009. Again, I experienced the power of language, of poetry and storytelling, to bear witness to and begin to heal, trauma. Invited by the co-founder of Women for World Health, Dr. Denise Cucurny, I flew to Cuenca, Ecuador in 2008 with an all-volunteer team of female physicians, surgeons and anesthesiologists and observed their remarkable medical efforts to help indigenous families. In 2009, I flew to Afghanistan as a journalist to embed with American female soldiers on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Panjshir Province, who were working with Afghan women in peaceful ways, building medical clinics, roads and schools. Two months after the death of one of those soldiers, Sr. Airman Ashton Goodman, I founded the Ashton Goodman Fund, as part of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
In 2013, I accompanied renowned photographers of African tribes, Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, as they revisited the Kara, Hamar and Nyangatom tribes along the remote Lower Omo Region of Ethiopia, tribes under imminent threat of extinction due to the relentless encroachment of global investors on their tribal lands and ways of life.
Closer to home, I wrote and published the story of my informally adopted South Sudanese son, William Akoi Mawwin, his harrowing experiences as a child slave in Sudan.
I live with an almost constant tension between the writing of fiction and non-fiction, between the solitude needed to imagine fictional landscapes, and the desire to travel to all parts of the world, to hear and record stories of people in war zones, in brothel districts, in hospitals, on tribal lands under assault, in prisons, wherever the freedom of a people, a culture or the liberty of individuals is threatened. I have established an uneasy truce between the two forms of writing and work to keep a vital, volatile, fluid balance between the two. When I lose that balance, when I despair of having a positive effect in either form, I am comforted by these words of Rumi:
Don’t worry about it.
Create a cup from which your
Brother or sister can drink.”