Is there one thing you’ve done that you think has shaped you the most as a person? What would it be?
No. I mean I would say I’m much more of a product of what I’ve been exposed to, of what’s been done for me, or to me rather than … There hasn’t been very much that I’ve taken huge initiative with.
Let me rephrase it then, what has happened to you or that you’ve been exposed to that you think has shaped you the most as a person?
On that front I think it’s the exposure that I’ve had to four different worlds; growing up in the suburban segregated provincial South, private schools and nuclear families and SUVs, fast food and all of that; I’ve also lived in the Ivy League, and in Europe, and I’ve spent some time in Africa. I think that combination and doing things that range from sitting in cushy ivory towers to sneaking into refugee camps, to hanging out with artists in squats in Paris and living out on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean, gives you four different wings … This is the sort of thing that I’m thinking about a lot these days. I’m trying to figure out where I stand in the midst of all of these fantastic, exotic and different places that have motivated me and affected me in different ways. I don’t know, I’m still kind of waiting … I feel it’s about time that I do something super-assertive that’s not so easy. Something that’s a little bit more ‘me’.
Yeah, I see, although I don’t think that everything has to be hard. You know, just because it’s all felt like it’s flowed quite naturally isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means that the world’s working with you to help you do what you’ve done.
Well again, it’s this privilege thing. I’ve just had so much that’s been offered to me. You know, I’ve just had the chance to say, “Well, that looks good, let’s try that,” and “That, that looks good, let’s try that,” and on and on and on.
But you know, there are a lot of people of privilege who don’t use those opportunities.
So we have choices to make, and most of us in the Western world are bloody lucky. Whether it’s ‘Ivy League’, or just having a roof over our heads. The question is how you use that opportunity. You know, to live a ‘good’ life you don’t necessarily have to go to Sudan and sneak into refugee camps, but you can do your own bit. Was it scary sneaking into a refugee camp?
No, no. They don’t hurt white people, they only hurt black people.
Right, so you were never worried about your position or anything like that?
No, I wasn’t taken hostage or anything like that. They just … I mean, maybe I only say that because I just didn’t know any better, but it was never a real problem. These camps are huge, they’re cities, and it’s about as difficult to sneak into somewhere like that as it is to sneak into the city of New York. It’s not so bad. There’s one in North Kenya that’s been there for about 26 years I guess, and there are more than 100,000 people there.
I wonder at what point, if any, it becomes not a refugee camp but a settlement in its own right. I guess as long as people want to go home, it’s always a refugee camp.
Well, it’s all dependent on humanitarian aid, that’s the thing. Yes, you can walk down paths where there are markets set up, and there are even enterprising folk who have set up bars where you can watch CNN on satellite television, they have gardens, and plants and taxi services and cell phone chargers and things like that too. But, it’s all dependent on the humanitarian industry to prop it up. It’s warehousing; it’s not sustainable living in any way.
Did it feel hopeless to you?
The world they’re in is so far removed from anything that I have ever experienced, or would even have a way to comprehend, that I tend to reserve judgement and my opinion when it comes to words like ‘hope’. I think all of those words are hopelessly inadequate. It’s almost demeaning. I’m very hesitant to say, “Look at the poor suffering Africans, but see how noble they are with their hope and their faith and all of that.” It’s like, yes, they want to get out, and they want to do something better. If you look at the facts on the ground and how fucked up the situation is there, there’s no reason to be particularly hopeful. I mean, yeah, some people do amazingly; they do it with grace and a smile, and they keep plugging away, and they try, and they work … Then some folks just are kind of swimming, just flailing and going through every day as every other day, and they don’t have a plan on how to get out, and they’re intelligent, they would do it if they could, but there’s no … They can’t go back to Sudan and here’s no way that the United States, or Australia, or the EU is gonna accept them as refugees, and there’s nothing for them in Cairo, and so they’re gonna keep going and just gonna keep doing what they’re doing. So, they have daily lives, and they tell stories, and they joke, and they go out for drinks, but I don’t know how to define hope with something like that.
No. How did you find it interviewing them for the book? Was it hard without having that frame of reference and being able to truly relate?
Well, like I said, I’d never done anything like this before, but it was probably a good thing that I’d never done anything like this before because I had no expectations going in on what it should look like or how it was supposed to look. Luckily I had worked there before and so I spoke a bit of pigeon Arabic and I knew the cultural references. The people I was speaking to were very happy to know somebody who had been to Khartoum. I could talk about their neighbourhoods and stuff like that with them. That’s kind of nice for them to see a white kid who’s there and who knows where they’re coming from, at least on that level. I also had my contacts from previous years who introduced me to the folks so they were like, “This guy’s with us, he’s cool,” and then they were willing to talk for the most part. For the interviews themselves, I needed to get the facts and the facts in most cases are harrowing enough. I’d just let people talk. Most people have never been asked, or if they have ever been asked these stories before, it would have been in a 20-minute interview with a United Nations staffer whose first option is to find a way to reject this person from care. To understand what is really going on you need seven or eight hours, and cups of tea, and bars of chocolate, to get through. Everyone that I spoke to made it much easier for me. I didn’t have to do anything except sit there and ask questions, and I was interested. I’m just fascinated with stories, I’m not easily emotionally shocked or … I’d read about all this stuff before, seen it all before. It’s how the other half live. The big realisation is that this makes perfect sense. The reason we are able to live as we live is because this is happening.