Book Chat: How Fast Can You Run

By Hannah Lee

Starting this weekend, Philadelphia’s Independence Mall will feature an exhibit about refugees, sponsored by Doctors Without Borders.  There are currently 65 million people dislocated from their home place worldwide.  I moderated a discussion with one such refugee, the protagonist of How Fast Can You Run, last night at Main Point Books.  (The author will be speaking at other venues across Philadelphia.) 

How Fast Can You Run is a fictionalized account of Michael Majok Kuch’s 600-km (372-mile) flight, by foot, from his home in the current nation of South Sudan.  Separated from his mother at age five, and after languishing for 10 years in five refugee camps, Kuch won admission to the United States and earned degrees in a local high school, college, and graduate school.  Upon earning his master’s, he chose to return and help build a new nation.  He is now an advisor in Research and Policy in the Office of the President.

Kuch met the author, Harriet Levin Millan, when she interviewed 10 Sudanese refugees for an oral history project at Drexel, where she directs the program in writing and publishing.  Kuch had been seeking a format to tell his story.  A poet at heart— and with a MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers Workshop— Millan and Kuch decided on a fictionalized account, because of the difficulty of seeking permission from many people dispersed across the world.  Also, a novel allows Millan to enter the mind of Kuch and portray the perspective from his eyes.  Poetry would not have allowed her the scope to tell the life journey with so many harrowing incidents, including running away from wild animals and running away from Al-Shabaab, a jihadist terrorist group in East Africa.  

What was Kuch’s biggest life lesson?  Optimism.  After all the trauma and dangers of his childhood, he managed to survive.  Those survival skills give him lots of hope for a better world.  Kuch reunited with his mother in Australia 22 years after their harrowing separation.

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