Chasing Misery (book review)
Chasing Misery has quickly become one of my favorite books in the aid worker reflections and autobiographical writings on humanitarian work department.The main reason is that the book achieves something rare for anthologies: After the first few reflections/chapters you feel that you are included in an interesting conversation, maybe hanging out with a group of friends on a weekend, listening to real, sad, enlightening stories from the lives and work of expat aid workers. In the words of editor Kelsey Hoppe:
Chasing Misery is an anthology of essays and photographs from 26 women involved in humanitarian responses. All of the women contributed their observations and insights from their experiences of humanitarian aid work over the past decade. Contributors come from a variety of countries-from Yemen to Australia-and most still work in either humanitarian aid or development around the globe.One of the book’s many strengths is that the authors manage to add an important and powerful gender component to the discussion around aid work; I have reviewed quite a few books written by female aid workers, including my latest review of Jessica Alexander's Chasing Chaos, but this anthology manages very well to find a common voice, a voice that I could imagine is of a group of girlfriends who meet, chat, maybe even gossip, but have an element of camaraderie amongst them that is unique:
"What motivates any of us to do the work we do? And more importantly does that work make a difference?"
While, at times, tears were still embarrassing at others they were the only appropriate reaction to what I witnessed. Tears might be considered a display of weakness but I have learned that they express more than that – they can show solidarity and strength (Melissa Philips, Real Women in Aid Work, p.29)I am glad that ‘tears’ and ‘showing (perceived) weakness’ are not the only and dominant representations of the voices of the authors and the book takes the reader to authentic place and spaces where humanitarian work happens.
Parties, ceiling fans & instant coffee – the days of our aid workers’ lives
Many anecdotes manage to share the reality of aid work and expat lives without snarky and ‘emergency sex’-style references:
The parties are made more bizarre by their absolute consistency in format, style and attendance each time – week after week. After a while you feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, only more hungover (Helen Seeger, The Field: The Ever Receding Vanishing Point, p.34)
…and yet I just had an extremely frightening near-death experience while safe and alone in my bedroom. I had survived drunken soldiers waving guns in my face, bandits on the roads, cockroaches and frogs, only to be almost killed by a poorly-installed ceiling fan (Steph Roberson, Falling Down, p.67)
On more than a few occasions since I’ve been laughed at by colleagues who wonder why I always travel with peanut butter, Starbucks Via instant coffee and a fully charged little Nokia phone with tons of airtime on it, but – you never know when it will come in handy (Erin Patrick, The Coup, p.289)It has always fascinated me how humanitarian and development work has the ability to turn absurd at almost every turn of the road which also helps you to better understand why ‘chasing misery’ can be appealing and is almost always a lifestyle choice as much as a profession.
Well-being and compassion between resilience and amnesia
The book certainly doesn’t shy away from the complexities and paradoxes that are inherent to aid work and live. Being (and staying!) healthy is one of the recurring issues:
I had a shorter temper, thinner patience and almost any trace of compassion had been dutifully packed away in a proverbial closet. I took cues from the other, more experienced expatriates around me. Compassion was for sissies, or at best, something the communications department needed in order to raise funds (Lucy O’Donoghue, Relationships: At the heart of, well, everything, p.79)And easy answers (‘go with a partner’, ‘find strengths in a relationship’) sometimes work out:
I would go back home to the biggest hug I ever had from the arms of that generous man, who was brave and resilient enough to become my husband a few years later (Roberta Romano, The Subtle Thread, p.205)And sometimes they don’t-and the seemingly care-free, elite existence as international aid worker may not help that much:
My feelings of isolation and loneliness were amplified by shouldering the burden of our dissolving partnership in silence, maintaining the façade of happy couple-dom rather than exposing our situation for dissection and scrutiny in the small, and often unforgiving, expat community or to my religious colleagues at work (Caryl Feldacker, Home is where the hard is, p.269)So?
This sort of amnesia is not always bad. It keeps your heart from breaking continually at the enormity and beauty of the world, at the evil you have experienced, and the sheer weight of living (Kelsey Hoppe, I Know What Fear Tastes Like, p.210)But in the end the stories are also testimonials that relying on the industry to take better care of its professionals is still ‘hit and miss’ and nurturing alternative relationships and networks is key to staying healthy and sane...
Working in the ‘field’ with ‘beneficiaries’
But aid work is not just a self-absorbed and self-reflective endeavor-it is meant to improve the lives of the infamous beneficiaries, right? And again we find many nuanced observations and reflections that challenge the dichotomies and easy ‘solutions’ that ‘we’ bring’ to ‘them’:
The Iraqis I met in Syria were hospitable and generous, interesting to talk to and interested in different types of people. Higher education degrees abounded. Doctors, lawyers and academics. Artists, musicians and poets. These were the ‘beneficiaries’ (Kari Woronka, Of Pastries, Loss and Pride, p.119)
It never matters how clearly, and how many times, you explain your role and how limited it is, people believe something more will come from you being there, from seeing their lives and hearing their stories. They think that somehow telling you their story means you can do something about it. And every time that trust is broken (Wendy Bruere, Memories of the Niger Delta, p.194)Especially with Jessica Alexander’s book in mind, Chasing Misery is another reminder how Sudan/Darfur/South Sudan have been focal points for aid worker initiations into the industry and life-changing, -affirming and –doubting experiences that have affected hundreds of thousands Sudanese for decades:
For the possibility that someday it may shed its darkness, that the condition will have a cure, that I will understand the why, and Darfur will at last become just one more place on a map (Carmen Sheehan, No Place, p.240)By engaging with Sudan you understand quite a lot about humanitarianism and the humanitarian industry, yet you are none the wise when it comes to the answers of why? How? And is there hope?
I search for something to give her, and find a shawl that I brought from home. I hand it to her, and she takes it, confused. Then she is gone. In the months and years to come, I will imagine her wearing it in school, her head bent over her books, or laughing with her friends (Mia Ali, Built to carry thirteen, p.60)‘We both know that he won’t be in Canada’
Aesthetically the book also sets a great tone for the kind of storytelling I would like to see more of in literary representations of development: The photographs, most of them by Jenn Warren (full disclosure: Jenn is currently a student in our Communication for Development MA program), add an additional nuance to the imagination of what humanitarian is, where it isn’t and how it moves with us and sometimes against us.
We both know that he won’t be in Canada. There will be another earthquake, another flood, another war, another reason to not go where we think we are going. It is a strange life, this. Chasing human misery around the planet. We are not the sort of people who go where we say we are going. We are not the sort of people who go places for other people. We are not people who need others to come and be where we are. This is what makes us interesting. This is what makes us think we are in love with each other when we are not. We are in love with ourselves. We are in love with the idea of ourselves (Kelsey Hoppe, Chasing Misery, p.23)It is difficult to do the book justice by highlighting a few themes, vignettes and quotes. Chasing Misery is a mature, well-written and –edited anthology that represents many of the aspects that make aid work(er) literature important and powerful.
Whether you add the book as a teaching resource, share it as an inspiration for students to reflect on their own professionalism or give it as a gift to aspiring aid workers or curious ‘civilians’, this is a book that should be shared widely.
Hoppe, Kelsey: Chasing Misery. An Anthology of Essays by Women in Humanitarian Responses. ISBN 978-1495961465, 318 pages, USD 12.99, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.