D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: Rachel Pieh Jones

A round-up, of sorts

 

So, I keep forgetting to post things here that I have written in other places. If you have some time this weekend for reading, here are a few pieces I have published (plus a very special essay by a friend that I implore you to read). 

 

1. A Review of On Immunity by Eula Biss

This review (done for Books and Culture) turned out to be more timely than I could have imagined (measles outbreak, anyone?) The thing I appreciate about Biss more than anything is the fact that she has so much compassion and empathy and understands why parents fear vaccinations, but she also lays out the case for how harmful individualized choices are for the community. As someone who has always felt uneasy about vaccinations (yet I got them on schedule for my daughter) this book put me solidly in the camp of pro-vaccines due to what my theology of interconnectedness already is. For those who are similarly in a middle-ground place, this is a smart, compelling, lovely read that forces us to consider how much we do or do not love our neighbors (in a myriad of ways). 

Here is the beginning of the review:

 

 

"Reading On Immunity: An Inoculation, I am unprepared to be plunged back into the high drama of first motherhood: the sleepless nights, the endless internet articles sent by earnest and well-meaning friends, the googling of symptoms, that sensation of closing the laptop with a deep unease in my stomach. I suddenly remember my daughter, six months old, happily splashing in her baby bathtub as I hovered over her. I remember vague recollections of an article where Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo had been linked to chemicals which might cause cancer. I remember absorbing the information, adding it to the litany of cautions and chastisements that had begun the moment I had learned I was pregnant. Watching my daughter gleefully slap and smash the bubbles, I felt a deep despair settle over me, staring at that tell-tale yellow bottle. Of course we, and everyone else we knew, used Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. It was the cheapest one available. We were living in low-income housing, surrounded by families hovering near the poverty line. I watched my daughter play in her bath, both frightened and paralyzed by all that I knew. I chose to comfort myself with the blackest of thoughts. Well, if my daughter gets cancer, at least she will get cancer with all of the other poor children. I told this to my husband, wild with futility. He gently suggested that perhaps I needed to take a break from reading articles on the internet.

As Eula Biss would point out, I am but one of a slew of mothers who are trying to outrun the fears of our age. My desire to protect, to love, to nurture, to make all the right informed decisions, can be traced back to the mother of Achilles, who dipped her own baby into the River Styx in order to protect him from harm. On the cover of On Immunity, we see the mother, holding her upside-down fat cherub of a child. We see her fingers grasped around his heel, preparing to dip him into immortality. We know, of course, how this story ends. How the very place she clutches her child will, in the end, cause his undoing.

Biss takes this as her starting point in a book that is not neatly categorizable. It is a book about Achilles’ mother, and it is a book about current Western obsessions with self-preservation, especially in regard to our own children. Using vaccines as a metaphor for our fears, Biss writes a series of short, interconnected essays to highlight how—well, how very interconnected our fears, hopes, and bodies are. It is an argument for a very un-American view of science. It asks us to believe in myths, and it asks us to look at the preservation of an entire community instead of the individual."

Read the rest of the review here

 

 

2. A small piece of writing advice

I wrote a little bit about the best piece of writing advice I have heard in recent years over at Good Letters. If there is one faux pas of the novice (or experienced) writer that bugs me more than anything it is endless self-promotion without regard for the sharing the quality work of others. The second one would be when big name people pick on the little guys--this happened to me in a startling way this summer and I just couldn't figure out why famous people would feel the need to quash someone so obviously less-established, and in a very offhand way at that (to be clear, definitely think that criticism plays a role in refining art, just not a fan of people taking a piss at others in order to feel good about themselves/their work/their views). Anyways, let's all take a moment to reflect on how we can be more generous in sharing the work of other creatives. Here is the beginning of the piece:

 

 

“'I want to write,' people often tell me, eager to talk about the myriad ways that this happens in our mysterious, internet-driven world.

Writing means different things to different folks: “I want to get published,” or “I want to be seen,” or “I want to be heard,” or “I want to change the world.” This last one, so full of hubris and hope, is especially dear to me, and the trap I fall into the easiest.

I try and encourage others the best I can, mindful of the journey I have been on, and how I am only at the beginning. But the best thing I can say to anyone who wants to write is this: you have to be a reader, and you have to be a generous one.

Writing was never a part of my plan A: at six years old I told my family I was going to be a missionary to Madagascar, and while the geography changed, the vocation remained. Over the past few years, the combination of my chaotic life coupled with a need to process led me to start writing, and I was astonished by the community and solidarity I began to discover."

 

Read the rest over at Good Letters here. 

 

 

3. A Guest Post

My friend Martyn is one of my favorite new writers. Everything he does is surprising--which ain't easy when you try and write for evangelicals. He writes a column for Christ and Pop Culture that basically has iconic status now, where he takes an object steeped in Christian culture and writes an essay that somehow always makes one ponder death and life and human fragility and resurrection. He is like super smart and has some sort of high-end philosophy degree. He is a shooting star, and I don't know where he will land. 

Anyways, he is getting married and asked for people to guest post for him for a bit so I wrote a little something about missionary maps (it's also very personal, which is par for the course for me I guess). Here's the start of the piece:

 

 

"The little blonde girl stands in the foyer, thick bangs in her eyes, and stares up at the large map of the world tacked to the wall of the church. At the top of the map it says that phrase she has heard her entire life: “Go Ye Into All the Earth and Create Disciples.” She reads it again.

“Go Ye.” She has memorized the shape of the continents; she knows a bit about most of them (the starving babies in Africa, the orphans in Russia, the communists in China, the shirtless cannibals in Southeast Asia); she knows all of their wants, both spiritual and material; she knows how much they need her. When will she grow, when will it be her time to go, when will all of those other verses she memorizes on Wednesday nights to get fake plastic jewels in her fake plastic AWANA crowns apply to her?

Blessed are the feet of those who bring the good news. She looks down at her own feet, clad in scuffed Mary Janes. She looks at the map again. There are faces pasted all over, portraits of families and singles, spread wide over the earth. She cannot see the feet in most of the pictures, just the smiling faces, the nicely brushed hair, the polo shirts and khaki pants. The families with the multiple children, serving in the Congo, in Guatemala, in India. The young marrieds in Russia, in China. The single women, posing alone and strong, scattered all over the map.

“Go Ye,” says the sign above the map, and the young girl stares hard at the ones who were good enough to obey. It is easy enough for her to imagine her picture up there in a few years, her hair cut short and efficient, her blessed feet clad in sensible shoes. Perhaps she will be a Bible smuggler, or an orphanage director, or an open-air preacher in the refugee camps. Her dreams fill up the map; she is not called to one specific area. She wants to live everywhere, do all the important work, save all the souls."

 

You can read the rest of the piece here. And be sure to check out the other columns!

 

 

4. The Proper Weight of Fear

Now, I did not write this next piece but my good friend Rachel Pieh Jones did and it is stunning--so stunning, that I wanted to make sure I shared it with all of you. Rachel lives in Djibouti and lives the most fascinating, authentic life. My life is very far away from hers yet we are connected in so many ways (the apartments she writes about living in Minneapolis, where she first met all her Somali friends, is where I currently teach). It is a great look into the culture and climate of Somalia too, for those of you who are interested (or obsessed, like myself). It is a long, lush read, so I suggest taking some time this weekend to sit down with a cup of coffee and savoring it. Here's the beginning of the piece:

 

"As soon as the Jubba Airways plane lands I fold in on myself. I tug on my black scarf with fringes and a maroon hem, settle it over the masar that already tightly conceals my curly blond hair. I defer to my husband. I disembark behind him. I keep my eyes on the ground. I don’t smile at the immigration officer, make small talk, or even look at the Somali man with the power to deny me entry. I’ve been here before, to Somaliland, done these things before.

So when the woman behind me presses her large purse with the gaudy gold buckle and her massive breasts into my back in a futile attempt at moving forward in line, I press back. I speak in a voice even more hushed than my normally quiet voice. I notice the color of my ankles, peachy beige, and the way they flash, scandalously, if the wind blows just so and lifts my long black dress.

The first time I landed in Hargeisa was in 2003. Less than a year later my family was part of an evacuation of all foreigners, after three expatriates were murdered.

Annalena Tonelli.

Richard Eyeington.

Enid Eyeington.

Annalena was shot in the head in the dirt lot outside her tuberculosis/HIV clinic in Boroma, a ten-minute walk from our house in the village that we referred to as the end of the earth. Her murder is still unsolved. Richard and Enid were English teachers in an even more remote village. Drive to Boroma and keep on driving, over the edge of the end of the earth, and you will find yourself in Sheikh. The couple was shot through the windows of their home there while watching television in the evening. Their murderer was put on death row, where he remains. I sometimes wonder who died first, if they knew what was happening, if they tried to grasp hands in the space between the living and the dying. Their maid found their bodies the next morning. The television was still on.

I never met the Eyeingtons but their death has shaped the past ten years of my life. I never met them but I attended their memorial service in Nairobi, Kenya. I wanted to memorialize what they had given to Somalia and what we all had lost. A life. A dream. Educating leaders in a country awkwardly and painfully pulling itself out of hell. I never met the Eyeingtons but I will never forget them."

 

 

You can read the rest of Rachel's piece over at The Big Roundtable. 

 

 

So that's it. Have a great weekend, everyone. I am going to take my daughter swimming for the first time this winter and then spend my weekend in a training learning how to work with traumatized people. You know, like you do. 

 

 

The Stories We Want to Hear

  photo by my amazing husband.

 

I wrote a piece for The Curator this week on some ethics we may want to consider when writing non-fiction. It sort of processed a few of my thoughts from the War Photographers series, and I got to name-drop my favorite authors (Rakoff, Foster-Wallace, Boo) and talk about being a Christian and writing about others. You know, my jam.

 

Here's the intro:

 

The past year, my toddler and I started attending a mommy-and-me class. We deliberately picked one that focused on a diverse group of people—indeed, we found ourselves to be the only native English speakers in our class, save for the teachers. As an ESL teacher, this was perfect—hanging out with a bunch of women from all over East Africa (the cohort we ended up in) was the only way I would have been motivated to get my two-year-old and me out the door every week. Interesting, hilarious, devastating—the stories and discussions we had in our little group had me glued to my chair, every time.

One day the head teacher pulled me aside and asked me how I thought the class was going. I told her truthfully that I loved it, especially since we always veered somewhat off-topic (we were an opinionated, non-linear bunch). She cocked her head and looked at me, trying to size me up. “You know,” she said, “our program gets a lot of heat for not being diverse enough.” I knew that we were a blip on the radar, one class out of hundreds full of people who all looked like me. “But after teaching these classes for over thirty years, let me tell you something—people always say they want to be in a diverse class. But what they really mean is that they would like to look around the room and see people who look different from them, but who act exactly like them.” She sighed, and shook her head. “They say it, but they don’t actually ever want it.” She patted my arm, and wandered off to stop Mohammed from flinging himself off the plastic slide. And as she said it, I knew she was right. She was talking about me.

 

 

Go on over and read the rest at the Curator. 

 

 

(PS:  I really like the Curator. They are the only site I could think of that would let me talk about all those aforementioned authors AND what a Christian ethic of non-ficiton would look like. They have inspired me to seek and pursue after beauty, everywhere. They are currently holding a indigogo campaign that you might want to think about checking out).

(PSS: Just yesterday the great Rachel Pieh Jones published a bunch of amazing resources for those of us who are interested in the ethics of non-fiction. I want to read all the books! Go check that out here.)

War Photographer: Rachel Pieh Jones

True Confessions: I have a girl crush on Rachel Pieh Jones. She lives in Djibouti! She is fluent in several languages! She has written for the NYTimes! She has really amazing hair! I could go on and on, really. But what I love most about her is her desire to be real at all times in her writing. She is one of the best examples I have seen of writing with your entire audience in mind (and trust me, she has a very diverse readership). And that stems simply from her entering into relationships with people--they will never simply be props for her. I'm beyond thrilled to have her wise words here with us today.

 

 

 

 

Bridges for the Brave

They're cool, interesting kids, and I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference robs people of opportunity - of the promise our societies squander - but if we don't really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we're not going to grasp the potential that's being lost. But a funny thing happens when you spend nearly four years at the bottom. You see them as people. You see how their stories, despite the details of filth and stink and crime, are really not so different from ours.” Katherine Boo

bridges2

I am in the proposal-writing stage of a book about Djibouti, Somali women, Muslims, and faith. This is dangerous and slightly terrifying because though I do have faith, which has evolved over ten years in Somalia and Djibouti, I am not Djiboutian or Somali or Muslim. And yet.

I am compelled to write. Because, like Boo says, after years living among people, you find out their stories are really not so different. I’m compelled to write their stories and my stories and the way they interact. Awkward, painful, life-giving, thrilling. Always in process.

Part of writing these stories is selfish. Writing helps decompress and life in this developing country overwhelms. If I don’t take pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the weight and emotions and confusions cloud my ability to see and hear. A mentor used to say, “Thoughts untangle themselves over the lips and through the fingertips.” In life outside writing, my words emerge in Somali or French and tangle themselves so badly in the speaking that to untangle them, I turn to the written word.

But also, this compelling comes from what I hear in Djibouti and what I hear in Minnesota, from what I see on bookshelves. Or don’t see on bookshelves.

Book covers of burka-clad women in shadows or only the slit of eyes in a black cloth. Other. Them. Those people. I see an Iranian woman in a suburban post office and no one speaks to her. I see an American in Djibouti and children throw stones at her. I see a Somali cashier at Target in Minneapolis working on Eid and she cries when I say, “Eid Mubarak,” because few non-Muslims know it is her high holiday. I hear Christians at the French Protestant church in Djibouti reciting the Lord's prayer at the same time as the call to prayer rings out from the mosque across the street.

I see people living separate, divided lives, sometimes out of fear and sometimes out of ignorance. Often out of simply not giving a damn. But we need to give a damn because the lives of Muslims and Christians, Somalis and Libyans and Pakistanis and Palestinians and Americans are not separate anymore. "Those people" are now neighbors, the "other" is a classmate or a coworker.

Western photography, movies, and books often present Muslim women as one of two types: the prisoner or the escapee. Either a Muslim woman is trapped in her culture and religion by an abusive husband, oppressive politics, and poverty (Jean Sasson’s Princess series) or a Muslim woman has “escaped” to the supposedly enlightened West (Ayan Hirsi’s Infidel). Rarely in this ‘enlightened’ art is there a picture of the Muslim woman as a flawed (read normal) human being, pursuing an education or career, dealing with family issues, struggling to understand her place in life, and who is content in her religion, not abused, pleased with her modesty, and has no thoughts about fleeing to the west.

This is one of the stories I aim to write. I am not (cringe) a ‘voice for the voiceless.’ Muslim women have powerful voices and are being increasingly heard from around the world. I don’t imagine I have everything right when I explore this world with my friends. This is why I invite Muslims to help me edit, talk me through difficulties, lend me books, straighten my thinking. And this is why I feel led to use my own voice, to be present in the stories I write. So it is as clear as possible that these words are filtering through my own peculiar experiences and perspective.

As I grow in writing, experience, courage, knowledge, intimacy, I dream of writing like Katherine Boo – self completely absent, the portrait of humanity presented with clarity and compassion but not pity or false heroism. I have not reached that level of wisdom or self-perception – to see when the story is stronger without me in it.

I’m not there yet but I do have a vision for my current way of writing. I see this kind of writing, my war photography, as a bridge for the brave. For those who recognize the need to move beyond mere dialogue with the Other into interaction and engagement, into meaningful and mutual relationship.

The Midwestern-evangelical-Jesus-loving-American in me can relate when people are afraid of the Iranian woman in the post office, or intimidated, or could care less. The decade-in-the-Horn-of-Africa, Somali-speaking, Islam-studying, Muslim-women-befriending-and-coworking part of me can relate to the scarf (wear it sometimes), the Quran (read it through in three languages), issues of shame and honor (have experienced both).

And for now I believe there is value in being present. For better or worse, it is often easier to hear from, trust, and relate to someone like you. My writing is an effort to go first, with the desire that some will join. I write so the people I am like can relate and not be so isolated and so the people I am not like can hear how it feels to be ‘outside.’ When someone needs to admit to feeling left out while Muslim women go to pray, I write it. When someone needs to experience the difficulty and spirituality of the Ramadan fast, I write it. And then confess to cheating on it.

These words are a bridge. I see the people (the glory and the gory) with whom I love and cry and sweat and laugh here in Djibouti and I see the people who live where I used to live and think what I used to think and fear what I used to fear and I pray the stories help them cross this great divide. I pray people will read and learn and look deeper than the words. That they will lay down prejudice and fear, take up courage and humility, and cross over to the other side with hands extended.

War photographers and war storytellers weave cables and throw down cement and construct archways and erect bridges for the brave. The question lingering behind every well-crafted, unsentimental, and true story, the question offered to all who will gaze with gravity, is: Will you cross?

Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the War Photographer series, just click on the category by the top of the post.

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