When a memoir has the power to transport the reader to a different time and place, that’s a gift. And when the author’s words evoke the emotions she experienced during a profound period in her life, you’ve unearthed a treasure. My friend Jill Kandel’s beautiful book So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village did all that for me, and more. Here, Jill shares how writing healed her and why she continues to write the stories that are part of her life. It’s a blessing to welcome Jill to Slice of Life.
Guest post by Jill Kandel
I have recently passed my 60th year of life on this earth. Yet, I often still view myself as a twenty-six-year-old newlywed, married to a man from the Netherlands, living in a village in Zambia. I go back to that time, the six years that shaped and molded me, tore me, rebuilt me. I look back with amusement, with horror, with sorrow, and with pride. I lived for six years in a village that took a ten-hour bus ride, and an eight-hour canoe ride to reach. Our first two children were born in there, near the edge of the Kalahari Desert, in the land of the Lozi people.
My husband worked long hours teaching farmers. There was no telephone, no internet, a letter took six weeks. I witnessed starvation, civil war, the death of a friend. I saw incredible wildlife and a magnificent variety of birds. We were involved in a car accident that took the life of a twelve-year-old girl. I loved Zambia. And I hated it. Those years made me who I am. Those years nearly destroyed me.
When we returned to the U.S., Zambia came with us, too. She came with me physically in the form of bilharzia, dysentery, hepatitis, and giardia. It took two years of medical care before I began to feel better. She came with me emotionally in the nightmares I carried and dreamed night after night, as we stared at each other, cross-armed, and angry.
One of the quotes Ingrid uses in her e-book Do Tell, says, “When we keep silent about our stories, the church suffers.” I kept silent for ten years. The church liked happily-ever-after stories of angel wings and rapture. That was not my story. I didn’t know how to write about the vast suffering I had lived with, the endless loneliness, and all of the unanswered questions.
I began to write after my fourth child was born, getting up each morning at 5:00 a.m. and writing till 9:00 a.m. I held that writing time tightly. The rest of the day was spent with diapers, feeding a family of six, homeschooling, soccer matches, laundry, orthodontics, and puppies. I wrote for fifteen years, slowly building a resume with essays and articles published in small local anthologies, and later in literary journals across the U.S. Then I put my essays together, writing them into memoir. Five rewrites and many years later, I submitted to Autumn House Press where my manuscript won the Autumn House Nonfiction Prize and was published in 2014 as So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village.
Writing is a lot like faith. You hope, and you work; you do not see. I didn’t know when I started writing if it would become something. I did the work because I felt God had called me to tell my story. I studied writing and I sat and wrote. Each day. Every day. And when it was finished, it felt like a miracle, and I wondered how I had actually created a book.
God knew I needed to go back to those hard places. I needed to uncover the pain and suffering in order to mourn, in order to heal. The day I finished writing, my nightmares stopped. And then something even more unexpected happened. Women read my book and began to write to me. They said, “I’ve never been to Africa, but …” And they wrote about their own hurts and struggles and loss of faith. They said my book had encouraged them, given them hope. This is one of the great joys of writing. Seeing our stories go into the world and take up their own life, free to do a work that is beyond us.
Right now, I’m finishing up my second memoir, set in the Netherlands. It is a story about the joys and complexities of building a cross-cultural marriage and family, as well as the story of my difficult Dutch father-in-law and his life as a child in Nazi-occupied Netherlands during WWII. It is about the complicated grieving that accompanied his choice of euthanasia.
I resisted writing this story for a long time. The subjects are not pleasant or easy. But I am not called to easy. I am called to faithfully write the stories which are—whether I like them or not—a part of my life. In telling our stories, we are opening them up to something greater than ourselves. We are opening them up to the work and Spirit of God. Our lives matter. Our stories matter. And the stories of our lives matter very much indeed.
Jill Kandel has lived and worked on four of this earth’s seven continents – Europe, North America, Africa and Asia – and says it’s been grand seeing so many parts of our globe. She married a “foreigner” and lived overseas for a decade, which she says “has made my life rich and complex.” On her website, she writes about those experiences, about teaching journal writing to female inmates, and about her current location: Fargo, N.D. Much of her current work circles around the Netherlands which is the country her husband grew up in. Her book, So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village, won both the Autumn House Nonfiction Prize and the Sarton Women’s Literary Award. She also has contributed her work to literary journals and a book on memoir titled The Magic of Memoir.
Life stories knit us together, whether to family or to others who just need to know they are not alone. In these 31 days of October, I’ll be exploring the importance of STORY. You can read all 31 days by following the links under “31 Days of Story”. And, you can read blogs from other writers taking the #Write31Days challenge by visiting the website here.
Tomorrow: A Saturday gift from me to you