Friday, December 28, 2012

The Beauty of Collaboration

Even the most intimate of stories is not told in a vacuum. Storytelling by its very nature is born of collaboration—a connection between the storyteller and the audience. As the storyteller, I feel very fortunate to have a group of committed friends who have shown interest in my story and have encouraged me to share this story with a wider audience. To me, my story is just an ordinary story and for a very long time, I did not see why anyone would be interested in reading about it. But the more I shared the rough drafts of my life’s journey with my colleagues, the more they encouraged me to pursue a formal path of literary publication. And I am glad they were very persistent and convinced me to pursue this path.

The process of working on this memoir has been a journey of self-discovery. And one of the best decisions that I made as I decided to embark on this path was to enlist the help of my colleague Elysia Kotke. With her expertise as an editor and writer, Elysia has been able to go through and make sense of my mountains of story drafts and information about my life experiences, and she has provided the guidance for me to tell my story in a more powerful way.

It is my hope that throughout the course of 2013 you will get to meet some of my colleagues who have been very supportive with this project. And today, I would like to introduce you to one of them: Elysia Kotke. I will let her tell you about herself. Elysia, the stage is now yours…

“Words form a tender bridge extending across distances of time and space to create a place where author and audience can connect.”                       - Anonymous

I can remember clearly the day that I met Chingwell. As an introverted writer born and raised in the Midwest, I’m more comfortable behind the scenes; I often feel shy meeting people for the first time, but Chingwell’s genuine warmth and gentle spirit put me at ease. When I listened to her talk about her work in the DR Congo, her passion inspired me to believe again that maybe I too could make a difference in the world.

Now, having worked with Chingwell for the past three years, I feel that we have formed a unique bond. Although, we have grown up in different cultures and lived different lives, we seem to intuitively understand one another. And we are united by a mutual desire to uncover the commonalities of our experiences.

When Chingwell approached me with the idea of Remember for Me, I was thrilled by the possibility. But the reality of the project has surpassed my expectations. Through written drafts and interviews, Chingwell has shared with me the raw material of her story—her memories and experiences. And with careful hands I have worked to gently shape these stories while always striving to preserve the natural beauty of her voice and the powerful authenticity of her memories.

In this way, I have been blessed with the opportunity to stand quietly over her shoulder, to witness and connect with her stories—and to discover the universal truths and experiences that unite our different lives and cultures. I have laughed and cried; I have learned so much.

Last week, I attended a local school with Chingwell as she read a few excerpts from the chapters we have worked on together so far. As Chingwell read a passage from Remember for Me in which she visits her favorite river stream at five years old, the 12th grade students leaned forward to catch her soft words. When she finished, the class was silent. Then, one by one the students began to share their thoughts. One girl said “I remembered what it felt like to be five again. I felt like I was with you, but I also felt like I was myself as a child. As you were running through the jungle, I was running through my woods.”

Chingwell’s story is powerful and universal. It is the story of children everywhere—their curiosity and joy, but it is also the story of a very specific place and time, the story of what it was like to grow up as a child in a village in the DR Congo at that time. My role in this project is to edit and guide this story, to represent the audience, and to continue supporting the tender bridge of words which will one day allow many other readers to cross over and meet Chingwell as well.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Magic of Storytelling

Growing up in the DR Congo, we did not entertain ourselves with television, movies, or even radio. We owned few books and toys. Instead, we played outside, and on dark nights when the moonlight was too faint to play our games, we gathered around the fire to listen to the stories told by our parents, relatives, and neighbors.

Many of these fables and folktales had powerful morals, but a few seemed to exist for simply the pure joy of igniting the imagination. One of my favorites was the story of the monkey and the crocodile.

The story inspired illustrator Nick Rebman
to create this humorous drawing.
One day a monkey found himself facing a problem. He needed to cross a huge river, but he didn’t know how to swim. As he paced the bank of the river trying to figure out how he would get across, suddenly, a crocodile appeared. The crocodile was very hungry and seeing the monkey, he happily thought to himself “Ah, I have found my lunch!”

But as the crocodile prepared to attack and eat the monkey up, the monkey pleaded, “Dear crocodile, I know that you are very hungry, and that you are going to eat me no matter what, but please I have one wish to ask you still. I don’t want to die on this side of the river. I would much rather die on the other side. Please dear crocodile, I would very much appreciate if you would help me cross the river. And when we get to the shore on the other side, you are welcome to eat me, and I will die happy.”

The crocodile thought for a minute and then agreed to the monkey’s request. He thought to himself “What do I have to lose? I will have my lunch, what do I care which side of the river I eat it on?” So the crocodile, picked up the monkey, tossed him on his back, and the unlikely pair began to make their way across the river.

But as they neared the far shore, the monkey jumped from the crocodile’s back, and ran as fast as he could until he reached the high lands where the crocodile could not follow. The monkey looked back, yelling at the crocodile, “how stupid you are crocodile! Did you think I would sit quietly and let you eat me? You must be nuts crocodile!” And the monkey ran off, leaving the crocodile helpless at the shore of the river. The crocodile was very hungry and angry indeed!

I loved this story as a child and asked to hear it over and over again. I loved imagining the huge crocodile carrying the monkey on his back—a small passenger who had just tricked him in order to get across the lake. Even at the end, I always felt scared for the monkey, and hoped that he would never return to the same river.

The world is changing very quickly, but the magic of stories and the power of storytelling lives on. Even in the rural communities of the DRC, such as the one that I grew up in, technology, climate change, and the progression of time are altering the traditional ways of life. I feel it is more important now than ever to remember and record our stories and our shared history.

By sharing my story in this memoir, I invite you to join the circle around the fire—and share your own story as well.