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‘I Lived to Tell the World’: Journalist Elizabeth Mehren on finding hope, resilience, and survival in stories of war and genocide

The Portland author’s new book about 16 Oregonians who survived atrocities ranging from the Holocaust to Rwandan genocide launches March 29 with an event at Mekong Bistro.

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No one has to look hard in contemporary news and media to find stories of human suffering. The 24-hour news cycle bombards people reading newspapers or watching television news with images and stories of a Ukraine devastated by war. And, since October, stories of starving children and destroyed communities in Gaza have saturated the news.  

On the face of it, a book like I Lived to Tell the World is another addition to those tragic stories. But, the book’s author, journalist Elizabeth Mehren, argues the book’s stories are more prescient than ever.

I Lived to Tell the World narrates the stories of 16 Oregonians –– 12 individuals and two married couples –– who survived some of contemporary history’s most atrocious events: the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Bosnian War, the Rwandan genocide, the Vietnam War. (One chapter tells the story of a Palestinian woman who grew up in the Gaza strip. I Lived to Tell the World was written and in post-production by the time the current war between Israel and Gaza began.)

Mehren is a Portland-based journalist who worked at The Washington Post, then at the Los Angeles Times as a national correspondent. I Lived to Tell the World is her fifth book. While writing it, she made deliberate choices to avoid graphic details of violence, focusing instead on her subjects’ determination to survive and the acts of kindness they encountered from strangers. The stories focus equally on the lives her subjects built for themselves afterward, including immigrating to Oregon.

The chapters are also rich with research. Mehren opens each chapter with contextual information –– history, as well as political, social, and economic information –– that situates events in a larger narrative.

I Lived to Tell the World was published by Oregon State University Press in partnership with The Immigrant Story, a nonprofit (and Oregon ArtsWatch community partner) that gathers and narrates stories of immigrants to dispel discrimination and promote empathy.   

I Lived to Tell the World formally launches on Friday, March 29, at an event from 4 to 6 p.m. at Mekong Bistro in Portland. The restaurant owner, Saron Khut, is a survivor of the genocide in Cambodia, and a subject in I Lived to Tell the World. He, and other subjects, will read from the stories. Subsequent book signings and readings around Oregon are posted on Mehren’s website.

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We talked with Mehren about her reasons for writing this book and about finding kindness in the midst of tragedy. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What made you want to write this book?

Mehren: It became clear to me that if we didn’t gather these stories, they would disappear. And I think they’re really important. If you don’t have the first-person account of what happened, you have an arm’s-length-distance account; it’s not the same. So, the idea of recording personal narratives of important events in contemporary history just struck me as very worthwhile.

You said your first interview was with a Japanese survivor of internment.

Yeah. And then I did my interview with Les and Eva Aigner.

Who survived the Holocaust. It’s an incredible story.

It’s a remarkable story. What stunned me was the complete absence of bitterness or self-pity. I’ve interviewed many people who’ve been through terrible things who wring their hands and say, “Oh, poor me.”

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I was really struck by how your subjects derive meaning from their experiences and the perspective that they have on it. I was reminded of Viktor Frankl, who said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

Yes. One phrase that kept coming up was perspective. Sivheng [who survived the Cambodian genocide] told me she was reminded that no matter how bad she had it, someone else had it worse.

And that was something that her dad taught her.

Yes. I think suffering is suffering in a sense. Does it matter if they have it worse? Sivheng keeps her head very, very clear about that. She came to this country, ends up in Portland, Oregon, gets married, has a kid, has a life, has a business, [and then loses] a young adult son. But she said to me, “At least I got to say goodbye to him. Look at all the Cambodian mothers who never got to say goodbye.” It’s not that she was in any way diminishing the loss of her son, it was that she was very aware that there are other people who have [suffered] pretty bad.

The stories could have easily included what we call “trauma porn.” But there is not a lot of violent, graphic detail. Could you talk about your decisions as a writer on how to narrate those events?

I really did not want to write trauma porn. I didn’t want to write gory things that are so hard to read that they overshadow the rest of the story. I thought that the story of these individuals was more powerful. I didn’t think that describing in graphic detail what had happened in Emmanuel’s village in Rwanda was as important as describing the fact that he survived because two women took him and his sister in.

Which was an act of kindness.

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It was an act of humanity.

There are many similar acts of kindness and compassion in the book. One moment that really struck me was when Les and Eva Aigner had escaped Hungary, and some of the first people they met were giving them things they had, including pantyhose.

Stockings! She’d never had a pair of nylon stockings before. I heard this several times … they were all struck by the generosity that came into their lives. An enduring human theme to me is kindness in the midst of tragedy.

You included a lot of history and context –– social, political, or whatever was relevant –– in the book, and start the chapters by situating the events in that context. Why did you decide to structure the book that way?

The stories needed context. That was my goal –– to provide social, historical, political context. For example, Mohamed, our Rohingya man from Myanmar. He said most people probably can’t find Myanmar on the map. I think he’s right.  So, I really wanted to provide context, and I also thought it anchored the stories and gave some political weight to the stories.

What do you think enabled the subjects of your book to find that resilience and that perspective?

I don’t think everyone is able to find resilience. Some people find bitterness instead.  I think resilience is an individual trait, and it manifests itself differently in different people.

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To some extent it has to do with what your attitude toward what your future life could be. For Eva and Les — or any of the subjects in your book — if they were to have survived what they had and then looked out at the rest of their life and said, “I’m never going to recover from this,” or “My life will always be terrible now,” that is hopeless.

They started new lives. And they forged productive new lives, and they were part of the community.  They never talked about it until the Holocaust deniers showed up.

They saw the exact same sort of things happening.

Yes, but in addition to that, Les said to me, “You know that the Holocaust was one of the most well documented events in history. How could anyone deny that it happened?” It’s sort of like the Sandy Hook deniers. How can you say it didn’t happen, when it did? They knew that they could give voice to this, and that’s when they began speaking out. But it was never the defining quality in their lives.

It’s interesting to me, the triggers that motivate people to speak out. One thing I read in the introduction to the first chapter is that people stay silent for a very long time.

I think it takes a long time to process stuff. The timetable of grief is so individual and so ephemeral. It’s different with every person.

This is the first book I’ve written for an academic press. I had to actually defend storytelling as a valid data-gathering technique.

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Really? How did you defend it?

Research, research, research. I did a lot of looking at anthropologists and how they gather information. Narrative medicine is actually a field now. I couldn’t come up with, necessarily, statistics that seven out of 10 stories have validity or something like that. But I could certainly establish the historical significance of storytelling as a way to collect information.

All of the stories in our book are valid. We preserved the authenticity by engaging in “collaborative journalism.”

Where the subjects read the stories beforehand. But for something like this, that’s fine.

We wanted to preserve the authenticity of the tone. And we wanted to make sure that the chronology was correct.

I was intrigued with your choice to end the book with a chapter on the Vietnam War. Tell me about that decision.

It was an important story for a lot of reasons. I wanted to end the book on a high note. It was a hopeful story.

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Literally, the last lines of the book speak so much to the book’s themes of forgiveness and resiliency.  You write, “With great pride, he explains: ‘I’m from Vietnam. My country is the United States of America.”

And release. I heard that over and over. The people in this book … they never miss a chance to vote. They don’t take for granted the freedoms that they have here.

A lot of the factors that led to the atrocities you write about –– economic disparity, a rural and urban divide, hostility toward intellectuals, political instability –– are happening in America right now. How has writing and researching this book given you a perspective on what is happening in our country?

The other thing that’s happening in our country once again right now is anti-immigrant rhetoric, which is very disturbing to me. I’m afraid we’re hearing the record play over and over and over again.

How do you think this book may help stop that?

[I’d like readers to] question and stop for a second. And not take the person who cleans their house, or the person who picks their apples, or the person who does their brain surgery, or the person who cooks their meals for granted. That it makes us express an interest in them as humans, and maybe learn something about their experience. And ask, how does that apply to our own life experiences?

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amanda Waldroupe is a freelance journalist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, Bklyner, The Brooklyn Rail, InvestigateWest, The Oregonian, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and many others. She has been a fellow and writer-in-residence at the Logan Nonfiction Program, the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program, Alderworks Alaska, and the Sou’wester Artist Residency Program.
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