I was recently contacted by Ming Holden to review a copy of a novella she had recently written, The Survival Girls. Ming and I attended the same college, and I had heard a bit about her path as a writer through friends, but did not know she had also spent time doing development work in Africa. I enthusiastically signed on to write a review, partially because I was excited to join in on the literary process (a new experience for me) and also because I was curious to find out what about her experience in Kenya had inspired her to write about it at length. Ming sent me a copy of the text by email and I opened it on my laptop in Senegal, not really knowing what to expect. Turns out, I couldn’t put it down.
I hope this review does some justice to the content of the story, and inspires others to read The Survival Girls. The story is an important one, the effort behind the story is genuine, and it contains some incredibly beautiful, thoughtful passages of text. Plus, the artwork from Jody Joldersma is gorgeous. I sincerely hope that the diffusion of The Survival Girls will assist Ming in continuing to offer support to the theatre group and to other development projects that employ the creative arts as a vehicle for healthy empowerment. My review is as follows:
The Survival Girls is the story of a theatre group formed by Ming Holden, a young American writer, and a group of young Congolese women. Ming meets the Congolese women in Nairobi, Kenya, where they are living as refugees, having fled violence in their home country. These women work together to surmount their shared commonalities of boundary violations, familial destruction, and the painful silence accompanying those experiences, through the use of unexpected alliances, creative expression, and sheer grit.
Ming courageously gives space to these young women’s stories in the novella, and honestly offers stories of her own that were inspired by reflections she had while in Nairobi. In doing so, she creates a safe space for the book’s audience, much as how she created a safe space for the Survival Girls during their theatre rehearsals. Ming’s literary rawness allows the reader to reflect upon their own lived pains and struggles. It is the creation of this safe space that allows the reader to empathize, slowly and surely over the course of the novella, with the experience of these resilient young women. The power of a story to bridge differences and humanize suffering and the deliberate efforts required to surmount it, is one of the greatest successes of this work. The Survival Girls is a testament to the universal struggle of preserving one’s own humanity in the face of difficulty. Ming explains that one of the Survival Girls, “Dianne, through honest storytelling, showed her strength and her wound,” and it is clear that she, as the author, also drew upon this example when she sat down to write (p. 72).
The Survival Girls reminds us that development is an imperfect process, and, thankfully, Ming does not attempt to sugarcoat it as such. She is refreshingly critical of her own privilege and how it determines the parameters of her work in Nairobi, but at the same time is never apologetic for her lived experience. The message that is highlighted throughout the text is that whatever the development process may be, and at whatever scale it operates, it must be genuine. False promises or false identity claims do no one any favors. Ming’s willingness to open up about herself shows that she is ready to adhere to that philosophy.
The Survival Girls encourages the reader to consider the importance of interpersonal connection and creative expression in foreign aid, and inspires reflection on how small-scale interventions may be inserted into large-scale bureaucracies to re-humanize what it means to “help.” Ming has penned an important book, particularly in a day and age where so many young Westerners go abroad to assist less fortunate populations, but too often without sufficient reflection on what that work actually means. The Survival Girls presents a kind of story that is emotionally accessible to many, but too often, remains silent. Kudos to Ming and the Survival Girls for willingly sharing their vulnerabilities, their hopes, and their dreams. I was impressed and moved and I think you will be too.
To learn more, please visit The Survival Girls website here.