How Fast Can You Write

An interview with Harriet Levin Millan and Michael Majok Kuch


in Features

How Fast Can You Run is the first novel from poet Harriet Levin Millan. Though a novel, it is based on a real person, Michael Majok Kuch. Kuch became a child refugee, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, when his village was destroyed during the country’s civil war. But How Fast Can You Run is more than a survival story; it also preserves memories of Kuch’s early village life continuing onto his experiences getting his education in the United States. We spoke to Millan and Kuch about their collaboration on the book at Millan’s office at Drexel University where she teaches. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RA: Why is this a novel?

HM: One big reason is I’m more attracted to the novel form. I think it’s more compelling. I think when people read a novel, then they go and do the research. I don’t think it’s the other way around. That’s one big reason. Another reason is privacy. We wanted to respect the privacy of the people involved, and not have their whole history all over the page. One thing I was really conscious of is I didn’t want to filter between Michael and me. If I told it as non-fiction through me, people would be reading it through my eyes. I really wanted them to be able to hear a created voice that was Michael, and be able to get the book through his eyes.

Actually, I think I would have had an easier chance of publishing it if I would have told it through my eyes, because Americans are more interested in the stories of Americans. If I would have written about a college professor or a poet who met Michael and told the story of our relationship, that probably would have been pretty interesting, but I purposely didn’t want that. I wanted people to read the book and stop seeing the people the book was written about as the ‘other’. That’s why I called it How Fast Can You Run. I wanted them to see that this could happen to anyone. It could happen to you. I didn’t want it to be ‘those people’. I didn’t want it to be the other.

Also, Michael was telling me the story and some of the incidents he didn’t remember clearly, so they would need to be reimagined anyway.

RA: How close do you feel to the character of Michael in the book? How close is it to you?

MMK: It is my real story, for sure, so I can’t separate from it because I told that story based on my experience. Where Harriet came in, and that’s mentioned in the book, is making it fiction, instead of non-fiction. It’s to bring out the creativity from the real story. I do feel that it is my story. My character is real; it’s me. The experience that is narrated in the book is my life experience. It was me telling her my story. Yes, just discussing it as we sit like this. It was me telling a story for her to put in writing. Yeah, I do feel the character is me.

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 9781941861202-PerfectHFCYR ARC4.inddHow Fast Can You Run by Harriet Levin Millan

RA: Can you talk a little about the process of how you came to write this?

HM: It was amazing. There is a whole other story, the story of our friendship. Michael literally changed my life. Before Michael came into the room, we were talking about how introverted — I don’t seem introverted, maybe, but I am a poet: a reclusive poet. I would have never considered myself an activist in any stretch of the imagination. Whenever I got involved in a cause, because I did get involved in causes, it was always to promote my own writing. It was always something I wanted to write about, like I didn’t think of the cause in itself, I would always think of something to write about, sort of like a journalist would — as a topic and not getting personally involved.

It was always subject matter. But once I met Michael, I became aware of world movements that I wasn’t aware of. I was living in Bryn Mawr. I was a college professor in this cushy atmosphere, and I really wasn’t immersed in the world. Meeting him, I became aware of the outside world in a way that I hadn’t before. There was no turning back. I really wanted to make an impact. Getting to know Michael was getting to know a whole other world. Interestingly, my own family are refugees. My grandparents came here from Eastern Europe. I knew nothing about their family. It was all erased. The whole past was erased. I didn’t know their names. I didn’t know what village they came from.

In fact, I went to Eastern Europe and I tried to track down the village or the town. Nothing: it’s erased. Meeting Michael, in a way, was like meeting my grandparents’ young selves. I wanted to document that. So I think my own personal history gave me the extra motivation to get it down on paper.

Then we got to know each other first. We would talk for hours. My greatest image is of us sitting on his sofa and we’d start at one o’clock in the afternoon. Well, first of all, of course I wanted to cook for him. We would eat something and then we’d sit down on the sofa. The light changing to dusk, and we’d be like sitting on the sofa and our shoulders would be, just be barely touching, and we had talked for four, or more, maybe six hours. I don’t know.


RA: Did you tape this?

HM: We would, we would tape it. Then I would go back and I would transcribe the tape. Then I would write a scene or an episode. I would show it to him and he would go over it. He would say, “No. It was like this . . .” or “Yes. It was like . . .” or “That could be, yeah, maybe that didn’t happen to me, but it happened to somebody I know.”

RA: Were you influenced by Dave Eggars book (What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng)?

MMK: So our background, how we met. I was asked by a friend, Valentino, to help promote his book. Since I had already been doing a lot of things — talks, workshops — in different places within the US, but with the United Nations, he asked me to promote his book because our stories are the same. We are both Lost Boys from Sudan. I was already active in doing things in Delaware Valley, Philadelphia, New York. He asked me to promote his book and I did that. It was through that, that we met.

The book was chosen as a One Book, One Philadelphia by the Library of Philadelphia. It was after that that Harriet heard of me and contacted me. It was a result of Dave Eggars’s book that we actually met.

RA: Millan, what brought you there?

HM: I was sitting in my office and I got a phone call from the director of One Book. She said, “I have a project for you. How would you like to pick ten of your creative writing students and have them interview ten Sudanese refugees?” I thought, “Whoa. This is amazing.”

At the time I was Director of the University Writing Program, and my colleague, said, “We can’t have our students do this, they’re not prepared for this.” So I said, “If any anybody could do it, it’s them.” He said, “Well I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” I said, “I’m going to do it.” And thank God I did. I picked the ten students, we went to Starbucks, I paired each student with a refugee, and we did the interviews. They’re serialized in City Paper. They had a great response. I wanted to write one, too. Michael was the person who I interviewed.

When we did the interviews, the editor of City Paper, requested that we do it in first person. He wanted it to be like What Is The What. Not all the students wrote it in first person because some of them had trouble with it, but the more experienced ones did.

RA: Right. You and Harriet have been on the radio. You’ve been to the Free Library. You’ve talked a lot about your experience. How is this presentation of this special or different, or what is it putting forward that wasn’t put forward in your earlier tellings?

MMK: In South Sudan the experience that we had in the villages were not written about, at least in my lifetime. But to go farther, because our plight of being refugees — you’re not just that. There was life before we became refugees. I wanted to go to what it had been like before we became refugees.

Not just to tell of the refugee life story, but before I became a refugee.

RA: How clear are those memories to you still?

MMK: Very clear, very clear.

RA: You were awfully young, right? You were five?

MMK: I was very young. But in the Dinka culture, where I come from, you are told fairy tales. You are told stories at a very young age. Since that day when you begin to talk, you are told the stories. Real stories. This is like the education, my experience. All these stories were told over and over again by your family members, you parents, your uncles, your aunties. It is through that informal education that makes who we become later in life. You are forced to constantly remember. I think that is actually the main reason that some of the things that I told Harriet are in the book. When I went back and would discover some of my extended family members, even my mother, were like, “You still remember that? I remember that. You were too young. How do you remember that?” I think there is a cultural thing, when I was growing up, that forces you to remember, even though I was very young.

When I got a copy of the book, I had a number of my friends read: a number of Lost Boys. Some of them are my cousins, and they remember as well. We were about the same age. The same experiences. I’ll tell you, for example, in 1988, I don’t remember the exact dates, but once I did the background timeline, these were always confirmed. Towards the end of 1988, we had an attack in our village. I was attending to cattle in the wilderness. You go to the forest, take the animals grazing. They began to shell, they came with tanks, they shell above us, towards the village. We had left the village for grazing. That I do remember. I was about five years old.

When I have gone back to confirm the dates, usually they talk about rainy season, dry season. They might not give you the exact month or date. People have confirmed that. This was around that time. That has given me motivation. To answer your question, I have always remembered those experiences.

RA: Let me ask you, do you have a particularly good memory, or are you just typical of the world that you grew up in?

MMK: That’s a good question, I’ll tell you two things:

One, I remember when — maybe this could also be a reason, I don’t know. As I was growing up in the refugee camp in Ethiopia and Kenya, and when I was later reunited with my brothers, when we had a chance to attend formal day school on a primary level, all my brothers were either number one or number two throughout. That came all the way to the US. So your question of whether it is particular about me or my family, or overall society, because of that informal instruction, you are forced to remember, because you have no reference there after. It is ingrained in your memory and it remains indelible always, to be able to repeat.

By the way, in our culture you are also whipped. If you are told something and you don’t remember, when we were growing up as boys, you can be caned. So that, as well as maybe, I don’t know, we might have in my family that special gift, possibly, to be able to remember things after a very long time even though we were young.

I want to also say generally, I think it is also because of the culture, more than if it is particular to me or some of my family members. That just tells you, and I have someone recognize this, not only me but my immediate siblings. When we had a chance to go to a formal education we were better than other . . . We always had competition, right? So in schools, the way it is in our culture, when you have to sit for exams, you have to compete, they always have number one to ten. They would announce the results once you pass an exam. That competition of remembering things, and passing and excelling in exams, particularly for my immediate siblings, they were always — they had that gift of always remembering things.

I think both go hand in hand. Our culture first as to always have a good memory, but I think there was also something particular about my immediate family also.


RA: In American pop psychology and American TV shows, these sort of experiences you always talk about healing or going past or closure. How do you relate what’s now a childhood of many years ago and an adulthood that couldn’t possibly be more different? There’s probably not a lot of overlap between how you live now and how you lived before you became a refugee.

MMK: You said a number of things that reminds me of when I first came here. I attended a private school here, in Philadelphia, La Salle College High School. I remember the first month, when we came in, I wrote a letter to the high school. We got there. The high school was a private high school and it was very challenging. In fact, I found out later on it was more challenging than the university and graduate school. I had a perception. The perception was these African students came from a war-torn environment, they came from a war zone. They can not possibly perceive things the way our students would because of that assumed trauma. We proved them wrong.

I remember the Christian Brothers would sit us down and test us in different skills. It became apparent immediately and they were confused given our background how quick we were able to understand what they were telling us. It took them like two months before we could go to regular classes. But they had different people testing us different times, different Christian Brothers. They were only going on recommendation because they didn’t know how to place us. The students were from really good backgrounds.

Of course, we had challenges. I know for sure for me being . . . I was asked, you asked, if pop culture was harder. I remember one of my teachers asking me about Hollywood. I had no idea what Hollywood was. The students were laughing, “You don’t know Hollywood.” I learned English in Kenya primary school. But generally, I think now that I look back, I don’t think we looked like war-affected children in how we performed, getting accustomed to, acclimated to the new environment. I think part of it has to do with our plight. Since I was a kid, we were always moving to a different environment, different challenges. When we came to the US, it wasn’t an easy transition, but again, it was already part of our life experience to always to go to new environments. Maybe there’s an attack and you go to a different refugee camp. You have to deal with new people, new language, new culture. That I think in a way helped in terms of getting use to the United States.

HM: I want to say something about that.

RA: Please.

HM:  I did a lot of research into survivors, how does one person survive over another? Terrence Des Pres is someone who writes about this.

He writes that survivors are people whose spirit is intact. When I met Michael and when I met a lot of his friends, I was overwhelmed by the indomitable will of the people I was meeting. I was overwhelmed by their spirits. Again, it reminded me of my own relatives, or in my neighborhood, growing up, people who survived the Holocaust. I think what Michael’s talking about, part of that is this will to survive, which separates the survivors from the non-survivors. But of course I’m meeting Micheal after the fact. I always joke with my husband, because my husband has it. I always say, “You would be the survivor. I wouldn’t.” My will would not be intact.

RA: Do you feel stronger than those who didn’t make it, or do you feel lucky?

MMK: I feel lucky, I think. I had a number of good friends who, in one way or another, either by choosing or by being unlucky, were not able to make it. I remember when we were growing up, there was this element of recruiting people to join the SPLA, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. As much as I wanted to join the army, I was not likely by then because I was thinking, because going and joining the army when you are young was like you became a man, and you can contribute. But I think I became lucky because of a number of my friends died in the army at a young age, didn’t make it. I made it and came to the US, and now through this book I will be able to tell my story exactly what I went through. So I overall felt lucky. I don’t feel powerful because of the opportunity or privileged over my friends. When I tell their story, it reminds me of them, those who didn’t have the chance to be able to come to America. Part of that is why I tell this story, for them as well.

RA: When you got here you were sort of confronting American racism and the long history here that you probably didn’t know much about before you got here.

MMK: Right.

RA: I mean, you were living in a culture where you were part of the majority.

MMK: Right.

RA: How did your previous experience prepare or not prepare you to face that?

MMK: It did not. But once I came here . . . I came here with an open mind because when I was in Kenya there was an element of this. You are a refugee; you don’t mingle with the locals, the citizens of Kenya. We were in a refugee camp, confined in a refugee camp. I always felt like I wasn’t part of the larger picture of the society that was there. The same was in Ethiopia. When I came here, I had that background that I’m not going to my village. I’m going to meet new people, new challenges. I think in a way I was prepared.

Again, as I said, I came with an open mind and I was just ready to experience whatever it was going to be like. One thing I knew, though: I knew it was going to be better. In terms of basic services, access to food, access to healthcare, access to education, and that to me created an excitement before I came. When I came, though, there were cases that were quite challenging. First and foremost, when I came I went to an all-white school. I would say it was maybe 99%. I think we were the first black students at La Salle College High School. Maybe two other African Americans, but from affluent backgrounds. La Salle mission, though, was about educating the poor, which was very ironic. The people who were being educated there were children of the rich people.

But the La Salle mission, St. John La Salle, who was the founder of the La Salle education system, had this vision of mission about educating the poor. When I wrote that letter, I wrote it under the premise that they should consider, you know, I was advised by my friends that, “You’ll not be able to get in. Even us, we can not afford to send our kids there. It’s a private school.” I insisted, “Let me write and see.” They responded by taking us — myself and my three brothers. Immediately, I began to participate in a number of school activities. For example, I played soccer. I used to call it football, but they made me call it soccer.

When they would have the parent’s banquet, the parents of the team come. I will be sitting alone there not knowing which table to belong. Initially I was like, “Ah, this is weird.” I would have a number of friends invite me to their table.

Racism was not too much of a challenge for us. Initially there were cases of my brothers, but overall we had a good support system. Some of our mentors, our friends from our school, and from the church that we attended. That really helped us at the beginning. There were time when we would go to play . . . Initially we stayed in Germantown. Germantown area, there were times we would play basketball outside, and there were instances of — there were people not accepting us as part of the community.

RA: Because you’re from Africa?

MMK: Right. One of my brothers was very aggressive and would fight with them. So depending on where we were. Then we moved to Chestnut Hill, there were challenges, but so much our focus, my realm was school. Let’s do school. Let’s not get involved in these other issues. We would, at the end of the evening, beside our homework or our part-time jobs to support our family back home, we always encouraged each other not to be bogged down by the problems of this society, because we were prepared ahead of time in these other countries where we were refugees in.

RA: As a novelist, as the writer, was it hard for you, all the excitement, as it were, is front-loaded when you get to the American period?

HM: It’s funny. The American part was harder to write.

RA: I would assume it would be harder, because it’s less traumatic.

HM: Yeah. It was so much harder. I must have rewritten each scene a hundred times.

RA: Why?

HM: Well, the part in Africa was poetic and I could listen to Michael speak or I could research it. Then I went to Sudan and Kenya. I wanted to see the landscape for myself, which helped tremendously. I don’t think I could have written it without taking that trip at all.I needed to smell the air, walk on the earth and hear how the people spoke to one another.

RA: But the American material — you grew up here, you know Germantown.

HM: I lived in Germantown.

RA: You know Chestnut Hill.

HM: I lived in Chestnut Hill. The familiar was harder to write, it really was. I had to give it that excitement. It was just constant writing and rewriting, trying to get the voice. The voice of the character changes throughout the book. He grows up, and he goes through different experiences. He’s much more reflective as he gets older. I had to convey all that. There was a lot to juggle. It was just constant revising, constant rewriting.

That was tough. You would think the first part would be hard.

RA: No, I actually do think the American part would be hard.

HM: Okay, because you’re a writer.

RA: Well, just because everything is so exciting.

HM: Right.

RA: There’s a million opportunities to write about something your readers don’t know anything about.

HM: Yes.

I mean at first the America part just sounded prosaic. As I said, it was the writing process that really saved me. Just writing it and rewriting it to get it.

MMK: Clearly there are times also when she would write, and if she put too much fiction into something, I would actually say, “I would not decipher such words, I would not characterize this story.”

HM: It was a tightrope.

MMK: Like, how do I want that story told? It was quite a challenge, especially the things here, because one: She has a background. Secondly, Americans will relate to this story.

HM: Right.

MMK: I think this was the problem for her. She doesn’t want to be too American in telling my story, especially as it seems that people would relate to an American.

HM: Right.

MMK: Whereas it was less the things I told her, was new for her and was also going to be new for the readers.

HM: It was very difficult. But you know what? I actually like the American part better. As it turned out, I think some of those chapters are better.

MMK: She did fantastic work.


RA: Where you grew up now is no longer Sudan, it’s now of course South Sudan. Are you still immersed in the politics there?

MMK: I went back. I went to high school here, went to college, actually did my Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. Then went on to graduate school. Immediately after I finished my Master’s I went back home. Back in . . . six years ago —

RA: What was your intention? To bring these skills to your new country?

MMK: Yes. My intention again, it goes back to that advice I was given before coming to the US. And that was: go, get an education, and remember us. Do not just go there. The America of the immigrants in various countries, I’ll mention for example in Israel, or Darfur in Sudan. Once you get out, that’s it, you aren’t coming back. For me and my brothers, it was never a plan of ours to come and stay here. What encouraged me the most was, though, when I knew, right around the time I was doing my Master’s Degree, is when the Peace Agreements were being signed.

When I finished my Master’s in 2010, the referendum, which was to be held for our own independence, was scheduled for the next year. So I left immediately in 2010, in 2011 I was on the ground. We became an independent state. I wanted to go for the referendum and contribute. Ever since I’ve been there. Yes, I do work in the government. I’m currently in UNICEF, I go for policy research, within the office of the president. I try to help in times of drafting, formulating policies, the government of the day.

RA: Do you live there or here?

MMK: I live there. I live in Juba.

RA: It’s still not exactly peaceful there. Do you feel like you’re there for life? Are you going to stay there?

MMK: The funny thing about the current situation in South Sudan, it’s sort of in line with my own life experience. Throughout my life, I’ve seen the worst and the best, especially after I came to America. South Sudan life is also full of those, we had this amazing independence that was followed by the whole world, given what we went through. We were recognized as a new state, and then boom, 2013. We got our independence in 2011. Two years later, as you mentioned, rumbling began within the presidency: the vice president and then the president. We signed an agreement until 2016. So there was the fighting in 2013 until 2016, we sign an agreement. The two factions came together and then again, just this July 2016, another fight.

First, yes, we’ve had these ups and downs, but I also feel like the worst days of South Sudan are behind us. I just feel like eventually people will get tired of it, at least in my generation. I don’t know about the current generation of leaders. But we are experiencing a vicious cycle of things that we have experienced already. It’s just a matter of time that I think it will all come to pass.

RA: You sound like an optimist.

MMK: I have to be. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be alive today. I always tell people, you can be pessimistic if you want, but I always feel that for you to succeed in life, you have to have hope. You have to be optimistic somehow. This I never knew, I learned it later on. I was doing it through instinct, but I didn’t, what is the word . . . I didn’t intend to think positive, but a least, for example, if I didn’t have food or water, I’m walking, let’s say from here to Bryn Mawr and I had no water or food, I have to tell myself, “I think there will be food coming. Let me keep walking.” If I say, “There’s no food,” like some of my friends, and they just sit down at a tree and cry and refuse to walk, you will die there.

I remember when we walked from my village, from Ethiopia, there were times when there was no water or nothing to eat. Then maybe five, six hours later on, we would see a gazelle and we’d shoot it and then we can eat, and then we continue walking. Or we find a pond of water when people are eating mud, or drinking urine. Maybe you keep walking and you find it.

The idea of being optimistic becomes in-built because of that life experience. When I came here, of course, I think through education, I became to think better about how you have to be optimistic. That’s the reason that I’m explaining in South Sudan the worst days are behind us. What we went through, we had the longest running civil conflict in the whole of Africa, for 22 years. This is my lifestyle. My whole life. I was born in ’83: At least, that is an assumption based on the world estimation. That is my whole life. The whole conflict that took place in South Sudan, is as much as my age. I knew nothing but bombardments, attacks, having to walk from one country to the next, not having food, diseases, all this.

When I reflect on what we went through and where we are now, it’s not all the same. I think things are a bit better now. I would have to hope that things would be better in the future.

RA: Has this changed your outlook on life?

HM: Oh, 100%, yeah. It has just made me so much more open as a person. So impacted by people. My own life, I was never the kind of person who loved people. I just went about doing the things I wanted to do, my goals, whatever. But now, it’s just showed me that — actually there’s a Haitian poet, his name is Frankétienne. He said it perfectly: “The greatest injustice of life is that you can’t choose where you’re born.” I think that really says it. •

Images courtesy of author