Winner of The Kore Press 2016 Memoir Award, selected by Lidia Yuknavitch
Refuge is a book of lyric essays about a young woman’s life as a budding writer and an international development and aid worker. Spanning twelve years and multiple continents, it focuses in large part on her advocacy and theater work with refugees. From crossing the border into one of Syria’s refugee camps in 2013; to an interview with a man who fled Aleppo for the peace and security of Sweden in 2015; to working in a sustainable forestry foundation near Siberia in 2003; to taking the train from Mongolia to China to visit the home and wife of an exiled writer in 2008; to founding a self-sustaining theater project with Congolese refugee women in a slum of Nairobi in 2013; to finding George Oppen’s old typewriter in the attic of a farmhouse in Maine in 2004; to working as a nude model for artists’ groups in college—the work these lyric essays illuminates is that of a twenty-something year old woman trying to find herself and her world by putting her body in places, within boundaries, others might not ever consider stepping foot inside of.
Praise for Refuge
“The story we need to hear right now in the only voice that can tell it.”—Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Small Backs of Children
“To aim yourself and to stumble, in your twenties, without the blessing of money, all across the world into the meanings of your life, into the meanings of the lives of others: it doesn’t happen to many. And very few would have the lush, the significant writerly gifts to render the experiences so strikingly. It is as though each journey, each foreign and familiar place mines Ming Holden and makes visible her thoughtful, tender, aching, passionate self.”—Forrest Gander, author of As A Friend
“In Refuge, Ming Holden speaks of her work with refugees in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, but also of a young American’s discovery of our wide, tragic, blessed world. Aware of her story’s irony, she writes of finding refuge among those to whom she offered service—this is a classic story, but one unusual for a young white woman to be telling. Refuge is a coming-of-age story for our time.”—Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter
“Evocative, penetratingly intelligent, and propelled by a fierce and tender sense of empathy, Ming Holden’s writing dwells close to the living, beating heart of her material. Read this compelling and thought-provoking collection of essays if you want to be challenged, innervated, inspired, and astonished.” —Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine
“In Refuge, we have an entertaining and edgy travelogue of a woman in a world of geo-political social structures. Ming Holden’s unique existential framework gets up close: focused and humorous, and then wide, keen and surprising. This double-vision allows the reader the pleasure of a landscape made of inner and outer worlds scanned by beams of consciousness: observed and observing, immersed and removed, intimate and foreign.”—Thalia Field, author of Point and Line
“Refuge deserves the accolades it has received. In it, Ming Holden travels two paths: a lyrical and objective memoirist of her own evolution as a young woman in the 21st Century, she also is a witness to the brutality of her time, specifically to the fate of refugees, victims of political persecution and war. She carries her exquisite self-awareness to the conflict in Syria, camps for the displaced in Africa, and the lonely refuge of exiles in Asia—projecting their sufferings as if they were her own. Such a clear bifocal vision is a rare literary achievement. Journeying with her, we discover a fascinating friend and come to a fresh understanding of the wide world we share with her.”—Mark Minton, former United States Ambassador to Mongolia
“Refuge is that rare memoir, a highly intimate story with global reverberations. Ming Holden’s sensitive and openhearted account of her encounters with refugees all over the world challenged assumptions, both personal and political, that I didn’t know I had. This book aches with radical compassion, shines with easy wit, stuns with frank truth, and sings with miraculous beauty. I read it with astonishment, and walked away from it a better citizen.”—Rachel Lyon, author of Self-Portrait With Boy
“Ming Holden is living an extraordinary life. These stories weave its many strands together in evocative, tender, and sometimes heartbreaking ways.”—Anne-Marie Slaughter, President & CEO, New America
Excerpt from Refuge
THE SUREST WAY TO SURVIVE
First, there’s the warm air. Then the strong sunlight. Then the quiet balcony, shading a long white plastic table. Then the shapes and colors of the food: bright red cuts of tomato, cucumber, hummus, dark shiny olives. Then the garden outside, a modest plot with hopeful green stalks.
A block away, next to a paved road, rises a hill. The hill is a summer sort of light-brown.
Shuffling and murmuring. Bread coming in wide discs and torn off by hand. Then the hands doing the tearing, some young, some scarred, some old. A handsome young man sits to my right, with a smile like my old childhood friend Tristan. He laughs at me trying to fit too much into my mouth at once. A quiet man with white hair leans back, looking at his hands grasped in his lap. Four more guys in their late twenties dig in, pouring Coke for everybody and passing plates, conversing quietly in Arabic. The silence presses in, as though the sunlight itself enforced it. When it isn’t very windy, it’s very still. A cat noses the crumbling sidewalk below, near a pile of plaster limbs.
Only now do I feed myself another bit of the story. The man my age who looks and grins like Tristan and who asks for a picture with me, adjusts his torso in his wheelchair. He shakes the stump coming from his hip as though he usually tapped his foot, as though it were a habit of his, before his legs were blown off by one of Assad’s shells. His hands are that graceful because he was a barber, standing in front of his shop when the shell hit eight months ago.
The quiet, white haired man? Give him eight years in a cell in the 80s. Add that history to him, unseen and unverified.
And make the hill a few hundred feet off, the one that looks like it could be California wine country: draw a border, an invisible border, halfway up the hill, and call the country beyond Syria.
I am in Reyhanli, a tiny town in Turkey right on the Syrian border that only became internationally well-known when three bombs went off here in a coordinated attack in May 2013. Because it is meters from the border, Reyhanli has doubled in population. The man who sold me the green patterned dress I am wearing crawled the last of the way through sewage pipes to Reyhanli from Syria. His shop is not far from the seedy hotel where wealthy Gulf country donors come to meet and pass along funds to Free Syrian Army agents.
Abu Faisal, the man who offered to take me into Syria, asks me to lock the metal bar above our knees into place, securing us in our seats as best as we can be secured. Across from us his cousin, Abu Abdo Al Halabi (recognizable by his serious unibrow) does the same in the seat he shares with a surgeon who fled Damascus after being forced to treat six of Assad’s soldiers at gunpoint.
The engine clanks to life and my heart begins racing. It thumps harder when the huge contraption of metal and tires under us begins to move through the evening breeze.
“I’ve never done this before,” I breathe to Abu Faisal, though I suspect that’s obvious. I grip the bar and look around, wondering what to focus on so I don’t get more sick as we pick up speed.
“Looks like I chose the wrong night to wear a dress,” I say. Abu Faisal chuckles.
I tuck the fabric on either side of my thighs as best I can, then let out an involuntary whoop as the ride picks up speed, rocking us up and down through the air, above the game booths and the children’s car carousel and the pepper trees shuddering in the wind.