Monday, February 27, 2012

Guest Post: The Ghost's Dilemma


The central challenge for every ghostwriter is to graft her own ability to use words onto someone else’s memories in order to speak in her voice. It’s never easy, but what happens when the voice belongs to someone of a different age, race, and nationality, who lives on the other side of the globe, and whose experiences are so different they might as well have happened in another universe?
Leymah Gbowee, photo by Jon Styer/EMU

I met Liberian peace activist and 2011 Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee in 2009. Filmmaker Abigail Disney had featured Leymah’s stunning work organizing women to demand peace during her country’s brutal fourteen-year civil war in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The women became good friends, and Abby thought Leymah’s whole story needed to be told. A colleague recommended me to her; in 2010, Tina Brown’s Beast Books bought the book.

Leymah’s life story—her movement from sheltered child to shattered war refugee to  defeated, battered wife to a triumphant reemergence as the bringer of peace to her land—was as dramatic as any novel, which made the project thrilling. Logistically, however, it was a nightmare: Leymah and I lived 7,500 miles and eight time zones apart, we both had families and responsibilities, and Leymah’s diplomatic work kept her on the move almost every day. The only solution was to meet for extended sessions in New York, halfway between her home in Ghana and mine in LA, whenever she was in the United States or had time. Emails and phone calls helped clear up small questions. The infrequence and pressure of meetings was always frustrating.

Other hurdles were even more intense. A great memoir reads like a great novel, with dialogue, scenes, and vivid details. But not everyone recalls the past so specifically or knows what would be interesting to an outsider, and if the events in question were traumatic, someone may have spent many years trying not to remember them. At the beginning of our working relationship, I didn’t even know what to ask Leymah to elicit those buried memories; like most Americans, I knew shamefully little about Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves and which modeled itself on the United States, or about the nightmarish conflict that so completely shaped Leymah’s life. (To top it off, I loved Leymah’s gorgeous, lilting accent, but sometimes I struggled to understand her.)

The solution was unpretty, unglamorous grunt work. I always record interviews and often transcribe them myself (I’m a really fast typist). Getting through all the hours Leymah and I spent together was something beyond horrendous, but it also acclimated my ear to her inflections, then moved the rhythm inside me so thoroughly that when I wrote in her voice I could “hear” when it sounded right. Between interview sessions, I read every speech and interview Leymah had ever given and did compulsive amounts of research on Liberia and the civil war, reading newspaper reports in both U.S. and African publications, as well as magazine features and academic books and papers, with a special concentration on events that I knew had affected Leymah.

Without this work, I simply couldn’t have asked the right questions. In 1991, for instance, Leymah returned to Liberia after a year in a refugee camp. If I hadn’t learned that the capital’s plumbing had been destroyed by then, I wouldn’t have known to ask “How did you get water?” and she, for whom this lack was too much a given to mention, wouldn’t have brought it up. In 1996, Leymah and her family again fled Liberia, this time on the freighter Bulk Challenge, a journey so horrific that she would speak of it only in generalities. I used what I’d learned of the voyage from American newspapers to ask the kind of specific questions that eventually brought out the whole story.

Research also helped me put Leymah’s experiences in a wider context. Someone in the midst of a historical event like a war knows what’s happening to her, but not necessarily what’s going on with others, not to mention the outside forces that are fueling the conflict. Those facts were crucial to a global audience that didn’t know Liberian history, and details that weren’t part of Leymah’s personal story deepened the overall tragedy of the war, making Leymah’s work to end it even more remarkable. Watching YouTube videos that included wartime footage and chilling interviews with young soldiers, and seeing photographs, notably those taken by Carolyn Cole of the LA Times, helped me feel the reality of life during that time. And, of course, visiting Liberia to meet Leymah’s family and see where she’d lived and worked helped in a big way, though I didn’t get to go until I was well into writing.

Praise for Mighty Be Our Powers from people as diverse as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, as well as from magazines as varied as Newsweek, Oprah, and Forbes, told me that my effort to tell Leymah’s story had succeeded. An even more important cheer came from Leymah herself: “It’s almost frightening, “ she said, “how deeply you’ve gotten into my head.”

Carol Mithers is a Los Angeles–based book author, feature writer, and collaborator known for her storytelling skills and ability to explore social and womens issues in a human, compelling way. She has written for the Los Angeles and New York Times, the Village Voice, and L.A. Weekly, O the Oprah Magazine, Town & Country, Architectural Digest, Parenting, Glamour, Self, and Ladies Home Journal. 

1 comment:

Karl Weber said...

Great discussion of the challenges of ghost writing, especially in a cross-cultural context! I'm currently working on a project with a distinguished Saudi business leader, which means I have to immerse myself in the world of the Middle East--from my home here in the Hudson Valley. Fascinating, challenging, fun.