An exclusive Authorlink interview with Judy Bernstein
Author of They Poured Fired On Us From the Sky
by Ellen Birkett Morris
"The name Lost Boys came to be when our village was attacked by fierce Arab horsemen. We, little boys, spewed out of the blazing village like a colony of ants disturbed in their nest. We ran in different directions not knowing where we are going. We gathered some fruits for our breakfast and lunch. We, little boys, were so messy, all chaos and cries filling the dark, fiercely lightless night".
Alephonsion Deng, They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky
"I expected them
to be withdrawn, bitter
and suspicious after going
through war, but instead they
possessed an incredible
Judy Bernstein was hard at work on a historical novel and serving as a volunteer mentor for the San Diego International Rescue Committee when she first came in contact with three Lost Boys of the SudanBenson Deng, Alephonsion Deng and Benjamin Ajak. Survivors of the Sudanese civil war of the 1980s, the boys fled their villages as their homes were destroyed and their families slaughtered. The boys endured hunger, illness, hostile soldiers, wild animals and separation as they journeyed nearly a thousand miles in search of refuge.
Their incredible journey of survival caused Bernstein to set aside her writing and help them tell their story. Their story is found in THEY POURED FIRE ON US FROM THE SKY, published by PublicAffairs in 2005. The paperback version will be available in May 2006.
"The young men were full of poise, dignity, warmth and charm. I expected them to be withdrawn, bitter and suspicious after going through war, but instead they possessed an incredible kindness," said Bernstein.
"I encouraged them
to write because it
would be good for their
Their kindness was coupled with a desire to share their story with the world. On a trip to Wal-Mart the new arrivals wanted not electronic gadgets but composition books. In Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya, where the boys lived before relocating to the United States, a sheet of paper or pencil broken in half were rare, precious items. Alepho's first English lessons were given under the trees writing the alphabet with his finger in the sand.
With pen and paper in hand, the three young men documented their painful journeys in voices that Bernstein rightly describes as "beautiful, lyrical and metaphorical."
She credits the lyrical nature of their prose to their musical and theatrical talentAlepho has a reggae band, Benson is a master thom player (an instrument made of goat skin placed over a gourd that sounds like a banjo) and Benjamin teaches children to dance.
The story is told in the voice of the three men, each taking turns, in a style that mirrors the oral tradition of African culture. The book is divided into four sections describing their village, their exodus, their experience as refugees and their journey to America.
"I encouraged them to write because it would be good for their English skills and therapeutic," said Bernstein. As their stories came together, she began to think that proceeds from the book might help the young men finish school and find better jobs.
"When we started over
we had 10 months.
The guys worked
The initial version of the book was written largely by Bernstein over the period of a year and a half. She wrote roughly eighty percent of the content with "mosaics" of the young men's stories interwoven into the material.
With a first version complete, Bernstein went to the bookstore in search of an agent. In the biography section she noticed that a movie star thanked their agent Joni Evans, vice president at the William Morris Agency, in the acknowledgments of a book.
Bernstein sent a query to Evans and got a response the next day. PublicAffairs bought the story and Bernstein, the Deng brothers and Ajak began working with Editor Clive Priddle.
Seeking to preserve the integrity of the voices of the Lost Boys, Priddle suggested the story be told in the three men's voices. He also suggested that the book be divided into four sections.
Bernstein also credits Jerry Hannah, professor at San Jose State University and founder of the Asilomar Writer's Consortium with helping her refine the voices and perspectives in the book.
"When we started over we had 10 months. The guys worked very hard. Benson read ANGELA'S ASHES and had a huge epiphany that the heart of the story was in the details," said Bernstein.
Working from a detailed outline, she cut and pasted the men's stories into relevant sections, building the story piece by piece. Because their writings were not in chronological order, she spent time asking questions and filling in details for clarity.
While structuring and organizing the story was a "nightmare," reading their accounts of illness, hunger and pain, which became more detailed, was even more difficult.
"Because of the first version of the book, I had a general idea of the story, but every time they would hand me something new I would read it and have to deal with the emotional impact," said Bernstein.
"It's hard for war
veterans to speak
are very brave."
It was also a challenge finding the story arc in a story that was so full of problems and drama. Eventually they found the story arc in the five-year separation and ultimate reconciliation of the two brothers.
Bernstein said the young men brought the same strengths to writing the book that they brought to their ordeal as refugees.
"It's hard for war veterans to speak about their experiences. They are very brave," observed Bernstein, "They never dreamed they would come here and become writers. Growing up in a refugee camp just owning a book was a big thing."
Bernstein notes that the story remains relevant as Africa's longest running war rages on with casualties greater than those in Angola, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Liberia, the Persian Gulf, Sierra Leone, Somali and Rwanda combined.
Based on her own experience as a writer, she believes that new writers should explore writing groups for their valuable insights and emphasis on the process of writing. Once a writer has a developed work that they want to market, she suggests writing a query that captures the uniqueness of the work and targeting those agents that are selling the kind of work you are writing.
With the paperback version of the book on the way in May, Bernstein is back to work on her historical novel. It is a fictionalized account of the first Spanish expedition after Ponce De Leon, from which only four people survived. The survivors, three Spaniards and a slave, walked across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.
"They walked thousands of miles just like the Lost Boys," noted Bernstein.
There may also be a book about the Lost Boys lives in America on the horizon.
Judy Bernstein is a mother, writer, Student Advisor for the Community Economic Development Department at San Diego State University, volunteer mentor and Chair of the Advisory Committee of the San Diego International Rescue Committee and co-founder of the IRC Lost Boys Education Fund.
About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.