Both Haiti and the Haitian American immigrant experience loom large over these eight short stories by Edwidge Danticat, an acclaimed novelist and Plough contributor. This specificity only helps to better sound some universally human chords.
Danticat mines the perils of privilege and charity for riches, as well as our unconscious biases. Which doctor, for example, will prove to be the quack? Infidelity is also a recurring theme – a reality of families torn by the tides of emigration and return.
In “Sunrise, Sunset,” a daughter’s post-partum depression meets a mother’s Alzheimer’s in a heartbreaking family crisis that calls forth a deeper love in both.
But most memorable has got to be the final story, “Without Inspection,” in which an undocumented construction worker sees his life flash before his eyes in the six and a half seconds it takes to fall five hundred feet (an improbable nine pages, with an even more improbable landing). His employer and the coroner will never know his true name or nationality, but “there are loves that outlive lovers.”
Then They Came for Me
Matthew D. Hockenos
Martin Niemöller will always be remembered for his much-quoted confession: “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out.… Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” This, however, is not the full story. In this biography, Hockenos shows a deeply conflicted Christian leader who initially espoused anti-Semitism and welcomed the rise of the Nazi party as a chance for Christian renewal. It was only after he voted for the Nazis in 1933 that Niemöller gradually recognized his folly and shed his nationalistic sympathies, eventually emerging an outspoken protester of the regime. He was arrested in 1937 and sent to concentration camp.
After the war, Niemöller sought to make amends by devoting the rest of his life to fighting anti-Semitism, nuclear weapons, war, and imperialism. For all Niemöller’s flaws, his is ultimately a story of deep repentance and atonement, one that gives hope that anyone can truly change.
A Door in the Earth
Rooted in her experiences in Afghanistan as a reporter for the New York Times, Amy Waldman has created an engaging novel that vividly describes life in a village in Afghanistan. More importantly, it probes the harm done by Western paternalism and shows how even the most well-meaning intervention can be destructive.
Idealistic and eager to help, Parveen, a young Afghan American anthropology student, travels to a village in the land of her birth. She has been captivated by a book that details the tragedy of women who die in childbirth with little or no medical attention. The author of this book has dedicated himself to building clinics and saving women across Afghanistan. However, the reality Parveen encounters differs widely from the book, which now seems filled with fabrications.
Parveen begins to realize that often outsiders’ wish to help is tainted by other desires. “The village was a backdrop against which Americans played out their fantasies of benevolence or self-transformation or, more recently, control.” Parveen recognizes this in herself too: she dreams of bringing a young bride with a gift for poetry to the attention of the world – and seeing her own name in print alongside.
Yet Waldman’s book raises important questions: If Western intervention can be so harmful, is non-intervention better? How is that different from simply not caring? What actions should we take upon learning of the suffering of others around the globe? A Door in the Earth offers no tidy answers, but it does counsel humility. As Parveen discovers, often we can do little – and even when we try to help, we may be the ones who are most changed.
Jeremy Courtney offers a real-life rejoinder to Waldman’s critique – or is it a confirmation? Newlywed Baptists, he and Jessica left Texas shortly after 9/11 to help fight the War on Terror by converting Muslims to Christianity. It wasn’t long before these modern crusaders were brought to their knees by their own hubris – and a timely copy of Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is within You.
Now eager to take Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” at face value, the Courtneys asked: What if instead of “preemptive strikes” we offer “preemptive love”? They found their calling connecting Iraqi children with lifesaving heart surgery, particularly in Fallujah, where environmental toxins left by a US offensive had resulted in a surge of birth defects. Then, in 2014, ISIS arrived, and the Preemptive Love team pivoted to serving the immediate needs of refugees, and then of residents in areas liberated from ISIS control.
Throughout the book, Courtney seems fated to hit all the pitfalls awaiting American do-gooders abroad. Repeatedly the humblebrag is cut short by another face plant. The first night of their aid mission to liberated Fallujah, for example, the Preemptive Love convoy gets stuck to the axles in a sandstorm and is overrun by fleeing ISIS troops, while others on the team suffer an errant American airstrike. Later, they enter Mosul only to be met by tragedy: snipers open fire on those coming to receive their aid, killing a little girl.
Alongside these defeats are moments of moral triumph, as when Courtney’s Muslim colleague Sadiq recognizes a shackled detainee as the man responsible for the beheading of Sadiq’s best friend. Everyone expects revenge; instead Sadiq offers the man bottled water.
Eventually, though, the horrors of the warzone leave Courtney traumatized. His relationship with his closest coworker breaks down, and so, seemingly, does his faith. Jessica takes the lead in Preemptive Love’s next phase, helping Mosul residents rebuild homes and businesses while he minds the kids. The book leaves them there, and leaves the reader asking hard questions about what radical Christianity should look like. Few will match the Courtneys’ courage in taking Jesus at his word, even when this meant breaking with Christians back home. Yet how much more could be accomplished, and pain avoided, if they had a committed church community behind them to offer guidance, support, and discernment?