Today we have a real treat – poet, novelist, and educator Harriet Levin Millan shares about her literary activism and intentional writing, especially with her new book, How Fast Can You Run. The Charter for Compassion has selected How Fast Can You Run for their book club because of the incredible narrative in this book that fosters empathy for refugees. Harriet sent me a copy of the book, and I have to say, it is beautifully written, and I immediately noticed greater empathy for people whose experiences were so radically different. I am incredibly grateful for Harriet’s energy around this (and also, half the proceeds of the book go to supporting a Sudanese Foundation!). Check out the story behind the book, and then be sure to pick up a copy! It’s a great read!

Note: This post includes some Amazon affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the picture or other links, I will earn a small commission for the referral at no extra cost to you, and Harriet Levin Millan will earn her regular royalties (half of which go to supporting a great cause!)! It’s a win-win-win!

Interview with Harriet Levin MillanTell us a little about you.
I’ve been publishing and teaching since the mid-eighties, but it wasn’t until about ten years ago that I began to understand the great privilege that is university life. Anyone having access to xeroxing, computers, students, other faculty members and ideas, is in the position to undertake an important project. It would be ridiculous to be in this position, and I would be wasting my time if I did not take advantage of my university affiliation to promote empathy and compassion. Two major projects I have been involved with in the past ten years are the Reunion Project, which seeks to reunite Lost Boys and Girls with their mothers living abroad and an undergraduate creative writing trip that I lead to Haiti, where we visit grassroots organizations to document how everyday people can make change.
When and why did you start writing?I have been writing poetry since I was about four years old. My mother read to me when I was in the womb. Maybe that is why I’ve always been pulled by language and words. I can remember different words I fell in love with as a child and went around repeating. One of those was wax. I just loved the sound of the word wax! Also, my father was a tremendous reader. He was one of those people who always had a book in his hand, and he gave me books to read too. I am sure it was his influence that got me to love words so much. I devoured all the books in our local library. One of the books I loved was Harriet the Spy. There weren’t many people named Harriet so maybe reading that book convinced me to try writing seriously. After spending decades trying to write good poems and publishing my poems, I wanted to write fiction. Fiction is a totally immersive experience. When I am working on fiction, everything I see and experience wants to find its way in. Why did you choose to write your book? 
When Dave Egger’s What Is The What was chosen as One Book One Philadelphia’s 2010 selection, One Book asked me to select ten undergraduate creative writing students to interview ten Sudanese refugees. These interviews were published in Philadelphia City Paper. Michael was the first of the interviewees. When he found out that I was a writer, he asked me if I would write a book based on his life. I decided to write it as fiction because fiction places readers inside the minds and bodies of characters, and I want people to identify with Michael. In fact, the whole purpose of writing the book and educating people about South Sudan is to get readers to move beyond seeing people from other cultures as other. I tossed around several more poetic titles for the book. Shake Loose The Scorpions was a serious contender. But in the end, I didn’t want the title to make the book sound like it was taking place elsewhere. What Michael faced in in South Sudan has parallels to events my own family, fleeing antisemitism faced in Europe. I wanted the book to alert people to the fact that genocide can happen anywhere.
If there is one thing you’d want people to do after reading this book, what would it be?
Twenty years after the Second Sudanese Civil War, which is the war that I describe in How Fast Can You Run, the political situation in South Sudan is still dire. Lots of attention went toward South Sudan and Darfur about ten years ago, but now it’s rare to find information about the region in the newspaper or on radio. In the U.S., it seems like interest in a certain culture becomes a trend and when the trend is over, people’s interest wanes. I’d want people to continue their interest in learning about South Sudan and elsewhere. The literary culture in the U.S is landlocked. Many of us in the U.S., aren’t even aware of the major writers who are Canadian or Mexican, yet these countries are right next door. I hope my book helps readers stop seeing people from different cultures as “other.” I look forward to a time when it will be common for U.S. writers to form affiliations with other writers in the Anglophone world,  or for U.S. publishing houses to regularly publish texts in translation and for readers to have a wide array of books from beyond the choose from. 

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Please consider joining the Charter for Compassion’s book club and following along as they read through How Fast Can You Run (you can click one of the links and pick up a copy of the book!). With all the issues refugees go through, reading a narrative like this is so important. I didn’t have any concept of the experience of refugees until I read this book. It will seriously open your mind about war and its very human impact.

Have you read How Fast Can You Run? Leave a comment below!

Intentional Writer Interview: Harriet Levin Millan
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