Harriet Levin Millan’s first book, How Fast Can You Run is based on the true story of a South Sudanese refugee. She spoke this week at Explore Booksellers.
Harriet Levin Millan’s first book, How Fast Can You Run, is based on the true story of a South Sudanese refugee. She spoke this week at Explore Booksellers.
Millan’s debut novel is based on the story of Michael Majok Kuch, a boy featured in the PBS documentary Lost Boys of Sudan. Millan said the two decided to call the book How Fast Can You Run so readers could put themselves in Michael’s or other refugee’s shoes. Because being affected by war doesn’t only happen to “the other.”
“The history of humanity is really a refugee narrative,” said Millan. “And the perpetrators may vary, but these stories have been repeated since Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden.”
It started when Kuch was 5 years old…
“His village was torched and he was forced to run for his life,” she explained. “He ran into a forest, and he hid in a tree for two days. He was found by a child soldier. And this child soldier said that if he followed him, Michael would find his parents.”
He did not find his parents there. Instead the child soldier led him into an Ethiopian training camp. When he was deemed too short for the Army and war broke out, Kuch was forced to walk again, through desert and forest without food and protection.
“He joined up with thousands of other so called lost boys,” she continued. “Then eventually wound up in Kenya where he lived for about 10 years. That was a real refugee camp as opposed to a training camp.”
Millan, a creative writing professor at Drexel University, first met Kuch in Pennsylvania. Together the pair worked for two years to transform his true story into a work of historical fiction. Millan said the collaboration was a difficult line to walk.
“He would tell me something that happened to him,” she said. “And I would go back and I would create scenes. And then I would show it to him and he would say, ‘you know, that’s not the way it happened,’ you have to put this in, but eventually I would try and do it in a way that was satisfying for both of us.”
As she travels to promote her book, Millan reminds readers in Aspen that a person doesn’t get to choose where they’re born. She calls this the great injustice in life, which is what makes these refugees stories significant.