The Survival Girls Book Review

The Survival Girls book:

Among her other achievements, Ming Holden gained the top prize in a Glimmer Train fiction contest in 2013. The email announcing her win came into my busy inbox one morning last year, and I almost deleted it. I clicked on it, more to get it marked as read than anything else, and I glanced at some words of acceptance from the prizewinner of the latest story competition, with a quote from Madeleine Albright and something about the power of intentionality.

“Politics and philosophy,” I thought. When I clicked through beyond the teaser (which DID NOT do her writing-advice piece justice, although quoting a Democrat-appointed cabinet secretary, and a bit of philosophy will - surprisingly - get me clicking at anything), there was a wonderful Obamaesque idealism in Holden’s jesuitical plea to write for others, once you have an intended readership in your head. That readership can be the EMO kids, the dispossessed, the refugees, the voiceless, any people who need to read your words, or equally important are those whose stories must be told. (I am paraphrasing, but that was the gist. Actually, I'm not even paraphrasing. I'm just describing nebulously.)

KABLAMMO! “Sold!” I said, like I'd been smacked in the gob. “I needed that today!”

Glad I didn’t delete the pep-talk from my email, I tweeted my delight to Ming on her wonderful piece, and looked up some of her other shizz. She had a book coming out, apparently. And she’s a secular bloody saint.

In The Survival Girls, Holden describes how Congolese refugee women and girls are her primary focus in a development project which took place in 2011, and The Survival Girls is the name given to a theatre group of these same Nairobi-based, Congolese refugees, which is established with Ming’s assistance as director. Their initial aim is to perform an original play for a showcase that will be attended by Kenya’s Prime Minister on World Refugee Day.

Dealing with the bureaucracy and politics surrounding what is supposed to be a safe place for the girls is a thread in the nonfiction novella, and provides just some of the tension within the pages.

Holden has a List of Characters page at the outset of the work.

While it’s appropriate (and clever) for a book with a loose theatre-as-therapy concept at its core, it’s an unnecessary, albeit useful, enhancement. Holden's suggestion – a near apology – that many characters populate the slim tome, and some have been culled, justifies the character list. However, any reader will find the book an emotionally-rewarding and thought-provokingly fluid read without the need to refer back to the helpful aid. (The book does makes you think, but in a good way. And in a way that causes a buildup of the snots, the upshot of keeping tears off the cheeks, coz I am a Big Boy!)

Writing about the victims of trauma also seems an excellent tool for instructing others in how to look after their needs. However, the author-narrator admittedly takes a carefree approach to her classes in Kenya, describing her usual process at one point beautifully as “my devil of inertness” – a clear exaggeration. The freewheeling nature of things is also necessitated – no doubt in part – by the pliability of the circumstances in which Holden finds herself hurled. Regardless, the author's gifts for empathy and intuition are obvious. Her consciousness of the horrific events the girls have experienced, and their need for catharsis, are of primary importance to her. Holden's willingness to fight for them, and her own doubts and reflections over promises made to them, are evoked - juxtaposed, perhaps - alongside the descriptions of the girls' horrific past experiences.

What Holden does provide through the book, rather than a straight blueprint on how to establish similar projects, is an understanding and awareness that might be replicated. Among a plethora of great messages that can be teased out are the primacy of the individual, the importance of being an ear or a shoulder for that person, and an admonition that if you say you’re there for them, you'd better be.

Holden also discusses a variety of techniques and methods on which she relies, or has studied, and how she draws on them in her work with the girls, and in encounters with others.

You'll come away understanding a lot more about Kenya too, and chaotic Nairobi traffic, and the heat, and social strata, and all sorts of other poetically-described, scene-setting ephemera.

The book’s concise and wonderful short chapters are enhanced with artwork by Jody Joldersma between each, often bold and bright in African greens and golds. They are subtle complements to the narrative, while warranting standalone appreciation too.

The slim tome is startlingly frank. There is vivid description of the nuances of Holden's personal-professional relationships at the UN and elsewhere. The author is forced to navigate these sometimes problematic friendships in part because in unreconstructed, pre-fem layman’s parlance, from what can be seen of her online, she is absolutely farking larvly looking (as Janet Street-Porter or Loyd Grossman would say).

Inadvertently, she turns to chaps who misread her signals, or try it on, or get the wrong end of the stick, or give her the unwanted glad eye. The perfect pitch descriptions of these frustrating dynamics require a little digging beyond the subtlety of the writing, as Holden never once cites her cuteness as a reason for their interest.

Bigger problems for our gorgeous protagonist include issues around funding and sponsorship, and dealing with mean or tired people, and contrition, and anger, and Glee-club like auditions, and “non-issues”, and dismay over unforeseeable circumstance, and, and, and...

If there is one fault, the book probably has as many emotional endings as The Return of the King. Fetch your tear-sponge out of the utility room and be ready to dab at your ducts, people! It is beautiful and touching (and it’s not a Richard Curtis movie so you won’t feel like a sap). Holden is very, very good at relating the girls’ stories, and at giving Clemence, Dianne, Nana, Palome, Sofia and Valentine voices on an international platform beyond the stage.

The aid worker’s devil-may-care approach has a fantastic outcome: A talented, self-sustaining theatre troupe of refugees. It may have been possible to publish the stories of the refugees, in their own words, if they had desired that, had a writing circle been the result of Holden’s work in Nairobi.

What we have instead is a drama group of amazing and talented girls and women, capable of writing as well as performance whose emotional immediacy can be appreciated more viscerally by their audiences – removing the filter of the written word, on a continent that still values the oral tradition and performance, in ways that aren’t appreciated elsewhere.

The establishment of The Survival Girls would be enough. The accompanying account, by a writer who understands how to transmit text with at times a descriptive beauty, and at others a bare-bones simplicity – conscious of both the limitations and the profound power of words and literature – is an added bonus. A fantastic and courageous way to generate awareness of the ongoing Congolese crisis, as well as the plight of refugees everywhere.

Proceeds from the book go towards funding a number of The Survival Girls’ college educations in a variety of fields. Buy the book today at Amazon. It's published by Wolfram Productions. Follow Ming Holden on Twitter.