Susan Minot: "Thirty Girls"

Transcript for: 
Susan Minot: "Thirty Girls"

MR. TOM GJELTEN

11:06:54
Thanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Your life is your own one moment. Then suddenly it changes and belongs to someone else, so says Esther, one of 30 girls abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army from a Catholic boarding school in rural Uganda.

MR. TOM GJELTEN

11:07:14
Esther is a principle character in a new novel, a fictional account of children held captive for years by this rebel army led by one Joseph Kony. The book is titled "Thirty Girls." Susan Minot is the author, and she joins me here in the studio. This is an extraordinary story, fiction but based on all-too-real events. And I'm sure you'll all want to get in on our conversation. Our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. Our email is drshow@wamu.org. And, of course, you can join us via Facebook or Twitter. Susan, very good to have you here. Congratulations on this impressive novel.

MR. TOM GJELTEN

11:07:58
You were an accomplished short story writer, poet, novelist. Before this, your last novel was a worldwide bestseller, but you wrote a lot about family issues, relationships, domestic themes. Here, you move deeply into a foreign story and true events. There really is -- or was -- a Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. They really did abduct children and brutalize them. There really were 30 girls taken away. Tell us how and why you took hold of this story and decided to fashion a novel around it.

MS. SUSAN MINOT

11:08:37
I would say the story took hold of me, actually.

GJELTEN

11:08:41
Um-hum.

MINOT

11:08:43
Sixteen years ago, I, for a number of different reasons, went to report on the story of these girls' abductions. I actually...

GJELTEN

11:08:58
As a journalist, in other words.

MINOT

11:08:59
As a journalist but, you know, not the kind of journalism that I usually do. I had done, you know, sort of travel stories. That would be my usual nonfiction writing. But one night in New York, I met a -- I went to a dinner party that I easily could have not gone to.

MINOT

11:09:22
And there were a number of -- small dinner party, some human rights people there, and there was a woman visitor from Uganda who, at the end of dinner, this dimpled woman in her early 40s who told this story about bandits kidnapping a group of girls from a boarding school in north of Uganda run by Italian nuns and that they were taken off into the bush. And one of the nuns went after these -- the rebels, as they call themselves, and talked to one of the commanders and said, give me my girls back.

MINOT

11:10:04
And he said, sit and have tea with me, and let's -- I have rosaries, too, and sort of this slipshod kind of cult-like group with various religious associations. And at the end of their afternoon of tea -- I think he wanted to impress this nun -- he wrote down in the dirt -- he said, I have 139 girls, and he wrote down 109. I'll give you 109 back, but I'm going to keep -- and he wrote 30. And she said, no, no, no, these are my girls. You keep me instead. And he said, deal or no deal.

MINOT

11:10:49
So she had to accept these terms. And this woman is telling this story, and at the end of the dinner, someone says, well, what is your involvement here with this? And the woman, whose name was Angelina Atyam, said, my daughter Charlotte is one of those 30 girls. And someone at the dinner also said, do we know about this?

GJELTEN

11:11:15
At that point, was she still abducted?

MINOT

11:11:17
She was. That was a year and a half after her abduction. And I had been spending some time in East Africa for going on safari.

GJELTEN

11:11:28
Um-hum.

MINOT

11:11:28
And I had reasons to travel there. And I was going back in a couple months, and I thought -- it so struck me, this story. It was so horrific. I thought, maybe I'll write something about it. Because do we know about this? The general feeling at the table was, well, no, we haven't heard about this guy, Joseph Kony, and we don't know about the Lord's Resistance Army. And this had been going on for years at that point.

GJELTEN

11:11:52
Um-hum.

MINOT

11:11:55
So I thought I would try to write about it, since I'm not a, you know, polished journalist, from my sort of own way. And I did in fact go there. I traveled. I met the Sister Rachele. I talked to the girls. I visited the rehabilitation camps where they were and was, needless to say, very moved by the situation there. And I wrote a story about it. It was published, and there was silence.

GJELTEN

11:12:30
Hmm.

MINOT

11:12:32
And it was the first time I had written something where I wanted some response. You know, when you write a novel, you sort of send it out in the same spirit that you read other novels, a sort of anonymous putting out. So that bothered me. But I thought, well, this is how it goes. There -- nothing happens. And so cut to 10 years later when I was starting to work on another book, those girls were still hovering in front of my face. And I thought, maybe I'll try to write about it the way I was thinking about, from the inside out.

GJELTEN

11:13:18
Now, you just described what the mother of this girl told you at that dinner party and the abduction and the nun following them into the jungle and the meeting with the captain of the rebels that led it. And that -- those events, as you heard them at the time, correspond very, very closely to the story as you put it in your novel. So this is one of the places where, except for a couple of name changes, you're basically telling exactly what happened.

MINOT

11:13:50
I'm telling exactly what happened based on what I heard from a couple of sources and from imagining what it must have looked and felt like.

GJELTEN

11:14:03
And I'm going to ask you to read a little bit from this first section of the book that, as I say, does correspond so closely. This is now where Sister Julia is the name that you give to the nun who followed them into the jungle. And she has now met with the rebel leader.

MINOT

11:14:20
Yes. And he's told her she can take the children back and -- but she has to leave the 30 girls. So he says to her -- she's horrified. She doesn't know what to do. She can't believe she has to make this choice. "But he says to her, 'You may go greet them before you leave.' Sister Julia once again went over to the 30 girls, her 30 girls who would not be coming with her.

MINOT

11:14:46
"She gave her rosary to Judith and said, 'Look after them.' She handed Jessica her own sweater out of the backpack. 'When we go, you must not look at us,' she said. 'No, sister, we won't.' Sister Julia couldn't believe she was having to do this. She had to make herself turn away. Helen called after her, 'Sister, you are coming back for us?' Sister Julia left with a large group of girls. They walked away into the new freedom of the same low trees and scruffy grasses which now had a new appearance and left the 30 others behind.

MINOT

11:15:28
"Some girls walked beside her and held her hand for a while. They bowed their heads when she passed near them. Arriving at a road, they turned on to it. The rebels stayed off the roads. It grew dark, and they kept walking till they came to a village that was familiar to some of them and stopped at two houses to spend the night. There were more than 50 girls to each house, so many lay outside, sleeping close in one another's arms.

MINOT

11:15:55
"Sister Julia felt she was awake all night. But then somehow her eyes were opening, and it was dawn. At 5:00 a.m., they fetched water and continued footing it home. The birds started up as they were closer to the school. And Sister Julia felt some happiness in the welcome when they passed little areas and people clapped. But inside, there was distress. They finally came to their own road and at last to the school drive.

MINOT

11:16:25
"Across the field, Sister Julia caught side of the crowd of people near the gate. The parents were all there waiting. She saw the chapel blackened with soot behind the purple bougainvillea with the tower above still standing. Many girls ran out to embrace their mothers who were hurrying to them. As she got close, Sister Julia saw the parents' faces, watching, the parents still looking for their daughters.

MINOT

11:16:52
"They searched the crowd. There was Jessica's mother with her hand holding her throat. She saw Louisa's mother Grace ducking side to side studying the faces of the girls. The closer they got to the gate, the more the girls were engulfed by their families, and the more separated became the adults whose children were not there. These families held each other and kept their attention away from the parents whose girls had been left behind. They would not meet their gaze. In this way, those parents learned their children had not made it back.

MINOT

11:17:27
"When they came near Sister Julia in all the commotion, she turned away from them. She was answering other questions. Some mothers were kneeling in front of her. Some kissed her hand. She was thinking, though, only of the other parents, and she would talk to them eventually. But just now it seemed impossible to face them. Then she wondered if she'd ever be able to face anyone again, ever."

GJELTEN

11:17:53
And what's the answer to that, Susan? Was Sister -- actually, Sister Julia in your story, Sister Rachele...

MINOT

11:18:01
Rachele.

GJELTEN

11:18:02
...Rachele, what affect did this have on her?

MINOT

11:18:06
She was able to face people again, but I think I just wanted to convey the horror that she felt of being put in this position. She continued to call out for help for these girls who eventually, 12 years later, they had all returned.

GJELTEN

11:18:33
The novel is "Thirty Girls." The author is Susan Minot. She's with me, and we're going to be talking about this novel and about her writing throughout the hour. We're going to take a short break right now. Stay with us.

GJELTEN

11:20:01
And welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about an extraordinary new novel called "Thirty Girls." The author is Susan Minot. It's the story of 30 girls who were abducted 18 years ago in rural Uganda by a very bizarre group of rebels that call themselves the Lord's Resistance Army. Susan Minot's novel is based on those real events, although it is fictional.

GJELTEN

11:20:30
And one of the things, Susan, that we're talking about just before the break is how close the parallels are in your novel between real characters and fictional characters. We talked about the mother and who -- the mother of the girl who was abducted. We talked about this Italian nun who, in your novel, is Sister Julia. In real life, her name was Sister Rachele. The other character, principal character is Jane, the journalist who goes to tell this story.

GJELTEN

11:21:02
And the obvious question is, what comparison is there between your own experience of going to Uganda to explore this story and the story of Jane.

MINOT

11:21:13
She actually isn't really a proper journalist. So, in that way...

GJELTEN

11:21:20
Well, you said you weren't either.

MINOT

11:21:20
So I share that -- yeah. I'm saying, in that way, I definitely share those credentials or a lack of them. It is, I want to say, closely based but it's certainly based on -- not on research. My sort of evoking of Uganda is based on my travels there. So, in that way, it's close. In terms of the events of the book, not necessarily.

GJELTEN

11:22:01
But your description of the life that Jane puts herself into, first in Kenya, then Uganda, this expatriate life. That just really had a ring of authenticity to it and I'm assuming that you are familiar with that expatriate life in Kenya and Uganda or you couldn't have write so realistically and authentically about what it was like.

MINOT

11:22:25
I do have some knowledge of that, yes.

GJELTEN

11:22:31
You know, one of the things that I think struck me as a reader, and I'm sure you intended for this to be the case, is the juxtaposition of Jane's world, her life. On the one hand, she was very interested in pursuing the story and yet she brought with her sort of the kind of the bourgeois shallowness of a woman from the West. She gets involved with a young man there. She has a crush on him.

GJELTEN

11:23:03
She spends almost as much time worrying about whether he likes her as much as she likes him as she does thinking about these girls that she she's going to be writing about. That's a kind of a jarring juxtaposition in terms of...

MINOT

11:23:16
Or at least initially that's -- yeah.

GJELTEN

11:23:18
Yeah. Okay, fair enough.

MINOT

11:23:21
Yes. I -- she is, I would say, not so much bourgeois concerns, but certainly concerns of a privileged person from the West. And I wanted to really insist on her retaining those because Esther's story, the Ugandan girl who spent time with the rebels and is in the process of trying to be rehabilitated, recover from her trauma, is clearly so much more profound. I mean, the stakes are much higher.

MINOT

11:24:07
She spent, you know, at times she doesn't know whether she's going to live or die each day. And she's struggling to keep her head above water. But I would say by the same token, Jane is -- she's in the life she's in and her struggles are -- even if they look in comparison minor and small, they are just as important to her. And it's not her doing that she comes from where she comes from.

MINOT

11:24:44
And so I did want to, instead of point out -- because it's something easily understood -- that someone's extreme struggle is more important than someone else's that seems less extreme. We accept that so easily so maybe it's good to remind that we're maybe closer in our anxieties then.

GJELTEN

11:25:13
You know, I'm sure you're familiar with what the New York Times wrote about your book. One of the things that the reviewer said is that you're particularly good at writing about the anatomy of desire. And that certainly comes through here both in writing about Jane's feelings about Harry, this young man that she falls in love with, but also her thinking back to her husband Jake who died of an overdose.

GJELTEN

11:25:38
And she is thinking now, what, years later she's still thinking, you know, very poignantly about her relationship with her former husband. What was the purpose of sort of delving so deeply into Jane's feelings about these men as part of your larger story?

MINOT

11:25:56
Well, I think, you know, again, it evolved as the story went on. I would -- I was looking for parallels in Jane's concerns that would not -- that would be juxtaposed to Esther's. And, you know, Esther is very obviously enslaved. She doesn't have choices about a lot of things. But Jane, who in theory is free and able to choose a lot of things, has a kind of enslavement also. And I was exploring that in the realm of attachment to people, to people who one can't be attached to and the enslavement of that.

GJELTEN

11:26:56
You know, in writing about Esther, and you write -- and you were in the first person when you write about Esther. Talking about attachment, you write very clearly about how she lost attachment as a result of what she was going through. There's a very poignant scene where her -- after she has been -- after she escapes and she's reunited with what remains of her family, she is so clearly removed from the sort of what you would think would be the emotional impact of that scene.

GJELTEN

11:27:27
You write that she says nothing was interesting to me. Later she says, I was relieved when my family left. I wanted them gone, then I miss them too. Two feelings come at once and you feel neither of them. So, I mean, that's an extraordinary thought. And I think it's very revealing of what it must have been like for one of these girls to go through this and sort of lose even the feeling that she had for her own family.

MINOT

11:27:55
Well, I think it's -- you know, it's what happens when someone's traumatized or, you know, everyone has their different modes that they process trauma. But one of feeling frozen off from your feelings is definitely a state.

GJELTEN

11:28:17
As I say, you write about Esther in the first person and her sentences in your writing are very terse, they're very short, they're very spare, as if it's almost an effort for her to articulate, to express herself.

MINOT

11:28:32
Well, she says at the beginning we're here in the rehabilitation, they encourage us to tell our story, which is of course the sort of psychological recommendation when you've been traumatized, tell what happened. And she isn't ready to. She thinks, I am too ashamed of what happened.

GJELTEN

11:28:57
I'm going to ask you to read one more section of the book, and this is -- it's a graphic scene but you write it in a very sensitive. And this is where Esther is raped, the first time that she is raped. And please read this section for us because I think it communicates how she tries to remove herself from what's happening to her.

MINOT

11:29:20
"He stood and undid his pants and pulled them down. One foot got caught and he hopped around almost falling over. He sat back on the flatbed with his round, white underpants showing in the gloom. Come, he said, and grasped my arm. He pulled me over and I vacated my body. My body is not weak and has always taken me about well. My arms carry water buckets, my fingers pull stems off fruit.

MINOT

11:29:48
I like to eat and feel satisfied. I like to hold animals to my chest and feel their fur and nerves. My legs run me from place to place and my heart hits inside me when my feet hit the red earth running. But this body only carries me. It is not me. When that body is hurt, I will go from it. My brother like to whip us with a switch when we played. He was not so mean, just being a boy.

MINOT

11:30:16
But it would hurt and I could not always fight him off. I learned to concentrate so it would not hurt so much. I made my body not belong to me. So now, I watched from a hollow place apart when this man lifted my shirt off my head and pushed me onto the mattress. His hands would touch me there and there. I did not think of where he was touching. I thought of other things. Even so, his body was heavy.

MINOT

11:30:45
Maybe it was hard for me to breathe, but I had risen up close to the corner of the thatched roof where it's slanted and was turned away from what was happening below. I did not see the eyes of this man close to me and the pressure behind them as he looked downward, making them swollen. I did not hear the mattress thumping against the cot or hear him tell me to put my finger in a certain place, but kept myself tucked close to the straw.

MINOT

11:31:09
It occurred to me the girl under him was not pushing him off or laughing at how stupid he was but was only doing what she was told. I did not like this, so I let it go. It does no good to keep with thoughts that make you feel bad. I did not smell his breath or the smell which came off his body or from his arms. I did not watch apart in the air. I did not think how I would not be suitable to marry now.

MINOT

11:31:36
I thought that later. I thought other things later. But now, I stayed facing a small window with leaves and white spaces beyond. The window was edged with dry mud, not square or round, but in between. I did worry it might hurt. I closed my eyes."

GJELTEN

11:31:55
Susan Minot reading from her new novel, "Thirty Girls." Now, Susan, you did go back to Uganda and interview some of the girls that had been abducted. Was interviewing -- did you interview girls who had been raped? I assume you did. And how difficult was that for you to talk to them about those events?

MINOT

11:32:18
I would say all of the girls who were abducted were raped. They were -- it was -- the phrase was they were kept as wives. And there was even a, this was sort of horrifying for some of the girls, they would differentiate between the rebels that they were wives to and others that had raped them. In other words, there was sort of a set up. But if it was someone not their designated husband, then it was considered rape.

GJELTEN

11:32:48
And did you find that it was -- how difficult was it for the girls that you talked to talk about these experiences?

MINOT

11:32:55
Very hard. In fact, when I was asking them about it, they were not very willing to talk about it. It was still considered sort of a shameful thing. And even in the rehabilitation centers, they would say, we don't really want to get into that too much.

GJELTEN

11:33:18
Susan Minot, her novel is "Thirty Girls." I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And remember, our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. I'm sure a lot of you just want to listen and don't even want to take the time to call. But we would like to have you in our conversation, 1-800-433-8850. Now, Susan, so all these girls were raped and many of them had children.

GJELTEN

11:33:47
And sometimes women who have been raped and have children understandably have mixed, as we'd say, about the children that are the product of those rapes. What you found is that these girls actually loved the kids that they had, the children that they had even though the circumstances under which they were conceived were so horrible, were so brutal.

MINOT

11:34:10
Yeah. I didn't explore that too much, but I definitely saw that happen. I think the difficulty seemed to be with the families of the girls, like when they came back. The families had a little bit of a harder time embracing those children.

GJELTEN

11:34:35
Now, they Lord's Resistance Army, we heard about it, as you say, when you first heard about it in a dinner party, very few people around the table knew who they were. There was a video that went basically viral a few years ago that really raised the profile of this group. But they haven't gotten the attention that a lot of the rebel groups in Sub-Saharan Africa have gotten. Why is that? And what can you tell us about them, the Lord's Resistance Army?

MINOT

11:35:07
Well, I think for a couple of reasons. Yes, they call themselves rebels bit they -- I think they would better be characterized as bandits. They're not really trying to overthrow the government. They are just, you know, looting and raiding the areas that they're in. The Lord's Resistance Army and Joseph Kony are not as active now at all as they were for some 16 years. They moved out of Uganda and no one even knows where Kony is right now.

MINOT

11:35:46
They're not sure. But he doesn't have 2,000 people sort of in his group like he did at his sort of most strong. So one of the reasons you don't hear about them is because he's not trying to overthrow a government. Unfortunately, it's the fact that it's just -- I say just, meaning not a politically important group. It's children who are being victimized here. It didn't have a -- it didn't get the attention because it wasn't sort of politically important.

GJELTEN

11:36:24
You know, we have this phenomenon of child soldiers, the term that we throw around rather loosely. Children have been pulled into fighting throughout Africa. But it seems the way you write about it that these children are sort of in a unique situation onto themselves.

MINOT

11:36:40
That's right. In fact, child soldiers are technically children who are conscripted into the army of a country. There's actually another term that no one really uses called CAFAG, which stands for Children Associated with Armed Forces. And that's the situation with these children. They are -- it's much more of a cult-like group. You know, Kony, the head, you know, had sort of 60 wives and 40 children and, you know, there is a lot of strange, you know, you can't eat chickens on Friday.

MINOT

11:37:25
And if you smear your body with oil, the bullets won't penetrate. And, you know...

GJELTEN

11:37:33
Susan Minot talking about her new novel, "Thirty Girls." We're going to take a short break here. When we come back, we'll go to the phones. Stay listening.

GJELTEN

11:40:00
And welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And my guest is Susan Minot. She's the author of "Thirty Girls," a new novel about the abduction of 30 girls by the so-called Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. And, Susan, I want to read to you an email we just got from Kimberly.

GJELTEN

11:40:24
And she raises a question that I'm sure you've encountered before. She says, "I've nearly finished reading 'Thirty Girls.' I think it's a beautiful and powerful story. But you spend a lot of time in the book on the journalist Jane's story and her white African and ex-pat friends. It seems to overtake the story. Did you think you had to have these characters and tell these stories in order to make it feel more relatable, that maybe Esther's story wouldn't be sufficient to capture an American audience?"

MINOT

11:40:57
That definitely crossed my mind. Though I was thinking not so much -- I mean, there is the foreignness of Esther, but I was thinking more in terms of the kind of horrific aspects of her story. And initially it was only going to be Esther's story that I told. But I sort of measured it a little bit with my own ability to stay with the story for so long because it is horrific to be in that world for a long time.

MINOT

11:41:40
And I thought maybe it would be a kind of relief to have something else going on besides just this relentless sort of evil. And when I made that choice and started exploring another person's experience in it, a Westerner's, I realized that the juxtaposition started to do two things at once. One was maybe show how they were related to each other and also in a way show up even more the difficulty of Esther's situation.

GJELTEN

11:42:25
Let's go now to Todd who's on the line from Cleveland, Ohio. And, Todd, you have a question for Susan Minot. Thanks for calling.

TODD

11:42:32
Hi, Susan. Can you hear me OK?

MINOT

11:42:34
Yeah, I can.

TODD

11:42:35
I have two questions. Was it very difficult for you to wrestle with your conscience to prepare this book when you knew that you were mixing truth with fiction and you actually had a clear understanding of the truth? And, in addition to that, are you using some of the profits from your book to help repair these girls and/or contribute to the capture of these evil people that did this to them?

MINOT

11:43:01
Those are good questions. Clear understanding of the truth, that's a philosophical question that we could maybe talk about further. But...

TODD

11:43:13
Well, you knew this really happened.

MINOT

11:43:15
Yes. And I knew the facts of it. But as a nonfiction and fiction writer, I also recognized that it's the choice of, you know, it's the choice of the facts you decide to tell and the way that you tell it. You can tell one story in many, many different ways. So that's the sort of -- in the hands of the writer. I did want to tell a story that was based on something true because it was so striking to me.

MINOT

11:43:57
What I tried to do as a fiction writer is, for instance, the part that I read about Sister Julia bringing the girls back, I did not have that as a -- I had that scene, that she returned the girls and that there were the parents waiting for her. But what I added to it, as a fiction writer, was the struggle and -- that was going on inside her and what it must have looked like to her. That was not fact.

MINOT

11:44:31
That was something I made up within the realm of the fact I knew. There were a group of parents waiting for her to return. As far as the profits of the book are concerned, I think as soon as I repay my debts that I piled up -- working on this book, it took more than twice as long as I had expected it to do, so that I can support my daughter. I will definitely look into helping children, yeah.

GJELTEN

11:45:08
It's a rare novel that makes a lot of lot of money, isn't it, Susan?

MINOT

11:45:13
There's always the movies.

GJELTEN

11:45:13
Let's -- yeah, that's true. And you've had some luck there. Your previous novel "Evening" was made into a film starring Vanessa Redgrave. That must have been thrilling.

MINOT

11:45:25
That was very thrilling. Yep.

GJELTEN

11:45:27
Let's go now to Ellen who's on the line from Ann Arbor, Mich. Ellen, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show." Your question for Susan Minot.

ELLEN

11:45:36
Thanks for taking my call. I want to know more about the sister from Italy, what made her think that following the soldiers would, you know, be helpful to release the girls and how she chose the 109 girls to leave with her. I know that's a sensitive question.

MINOT

11:45:56
Well, I can't speak for what made her go. I can only say that she was -- this is Sister Rachele -- determined. It was something she didn't even stop to think about. Her girls had been taken, and she thought...

GJELTEN

11:46:15
It was just instinctive.

MINOT

11:46:16
Yeah. I'm going to go after them. I don't think she thought, can I really do it? Or, you know, she just couldn't sit back at the school while they were gone. And it -- and this is -- I have this scene in the book. As it happened, she was told to go wash her hands in a certain area.

MINOT

11:46:40
And when she came back, the 139 girls that had been joined together by rope and were sitting in a certain area together, there was a smaller group that had been separated from them that the rebels had chosen. And I think they picked out probably the stronger more attractive-looking ones. And so she didn't make the choice of which ones stayed.

GJELTEN

11:47:08
Do we think that if she had not gone after them that all 139 girls would have gone on? I mean...

MINOT

11:47:17
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

GJELTEN

11:47:21
Um-hum. So this was really quite a remarkable turn in that little story that she was able to sit down with that rebel leader face-to-face and work out this agreement.

MINOT

11:47:35
Yeah. And that he let it happen.

GJELTEN

11:47:39
Um-hum.

MINOT

11:47:40
He says at one point, "Only Kony can make this decision because he's our leader, and he tells us what to do." But for some reason, he decided to negotiate with her.

GJELTEN

11:47:57
Let's go now to Condon who's on the phone from Texarkana, Ark. Hello, Condon. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

CONDON

11:48:06
Thank you for taking my call. And I really admire the gal for writing this. I couldn't help but notice that this is the same country -- that this is set in the same country that just passed the staunchest anti-gay laws that I think that we've ever seen, at least in modern times. And I guess -- and I live in a very fundamentalist type reason -- region. Sorry. And I notice, say, on Twitter and so forth that even our elected officials frequently parade Uganda as being a model.

CONDON

11:48:48
And I was just curious as to what the author thought -- what the author thinks about how much American fundamentalism in the form of missionaries and policy indoctrination has shaped that country in its view of women and how it would be possible for that culture of these men to take these girls and it just be acceptable to the lot of them, that they are just able to do this. I wonder if it doesn't relate back to what we have done in this country as far as sending people there with these views that are, frankly, I think, are misogynistic.

GJELTEN

11:49:36
Susan, let's break that question, which is a really important one, into two parts. First of all, you write that Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army were very anti-gay and actually executed any of their rebels who were found to have engaged in sex with other men. So clearly there is this culture, this kind of anti-gay culture there, and then Condon raises the...

MINOT

11:49:58
Yes. Though I would say with Kony, you know, I don't think you can look for cultural roots for a lot of his insanity, you know.

GJELTEN

11:50:05
OK.

MINOT

11:50:07
You weren't also supposed to have sex before you went into battle.

GJELTEN

11:50:10
OK.

MINOT

11:50:10
Or, you know, there were rocks that, if you looked at them a -- you could throw them, and they would turn into bombs.

GJELTEN

11:50:16
Um-hum.

MINOT

11:50:17
You know, I mean, it was nuttiness. He just grabbed nuttiness out of the air, I think.

GJELTEN

11:50:23
But did you, in your visiting Uganda, in doing these research, did you come across this movement that Condon quite accurately describes as horrifically anti-gay?

MINOT

11:50:35
Yes. No, not when I was there. I was there a long time ago. But I do think that it is an outside import, and I think there, whatever group it is that, you know, some fundamentalist type inspired organization, I think, has really made this an issue there that's not so much connected to the culture as...

GJELTEN

11:51:11
So you think there is something to what Condon says, that...

MINOT

11:51:13
I do. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GJELTEN

11:51:14
Um-hum.

MINOT

11:51:14
I think it's making -- it's made it a big issue there, and people have responded to it. You know, it's not like their -- it doesn't make sense to them in some way. But as far as the women, certainly women in Africa are second-class citizens. As far as the LRA goes, they were kidnapping boys and girls. In fact, more boys are kidnapped than girls by sort of three-quarters to -- or maybe two-thirds to a third. But I was focusing on the girls because girls don't always get the focus.

GJELTEN

11:51:59
Um-hum.

MINOT

11:52:00
It was very much intentional to talk about the girls. We've heard of -- you know, there are stories of a lot of male soldiers or male disaffected, you know, the boys of Sudan, and I could go -- but not focus on girls.

GJELTEN

11:52:18
Susan Minot is the author of "Thirty Girls." She's also a screenwriter. Her most recent novel "Evening" was made into a film starring Vanessa Redgrave. She also teaches creative writing at New York University. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now those boys who were taken, I'm presuming that they were forced into -- forced to fight as part of this army. But even the girls were forced to do some killing, something you write about in this book as well, including Esther, your character.

MINOT

11:52:50
Yes. And this also did happen to the 30 girls of St. Mary's of Aboke, which is the name of the school. They went to almost a process for the abducted children that they went through would be to be -- very soon after their capture be forced to kill another child so that they would -- the rebels could say to them, now you have killed, and your family doesn't want you back. And the sort of guilt and trauma of that would, you know, definitely weaken them in their desire to -- not desire to escape, but their ability to sort of keep a handle on themselves.

GJELTEN

11:53:49
You had this terrible scene in the beginning of the book where the girls, just a few days after they were taken, were forced to kill one of their own after she was found trying to escape. Is that something that actually happened?

MINOT

11:53:59
Yes. It actually wasn't one of their own. It wasn't...

GJELTEN

11:54:02
Oh.

MINOT

11:54:03
I mean, it was another girl, so it was a sister. It was not someone that they knew. Yes, that did happen.

GJELTEN

11:54:11
Let's go now to Oren (sic) who's on the line from here in Washington, D.C. Hello, Oren. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

OWEN

11:54:18
Yes. Thanks for taking my call. My name is Owen Kibenge. I am Ugandan just in Washington, D.C. And I covered the insurgency for a local radio station at the peak of it in the late '90s, early 2000. I'm interested about knowing -- first of all, let me qualify a statement here. We -- all Ugandans -- I am one of those who are appalled about the recent passage of the anti-homosexuality bill and the (word?) bill. It's such a bad law, and I hope the politicians who have passed it for political reasons can be able to repeal it sooner rather than later.

OWEN

11:54:53
My question is about the Aboke girls. How did Joseph calling on the commanders come to choose which of the 30 girls should stay with him? You mentioned the strong ones who were selected and the beautiful ones. What was beauty in Joseph Kony's eyes? And what was strength? How was that expressed in his selection of the 30 girls? My other...

MINOT

11:55:21
Well -- yeah.

OWEN

11:55:22
My other question is what has since happened? You mention that you spoke to some of the girls at the rehabilitation centers. Did all the 30 come back now that Joseph Kony is roaming around Central Africa with very few fighters? Or I couldn't gather your saying what has become to the other -- what has happened to the other girls?

MINOT

11:55:44
Um-hum. As far as -- I mean, it wasn't Kony himself who selected the girls. He was, you know, far away at the time. And what is beauty? What is strength? That's just my interpretation that the choice was made, stronger-looking girls. I think they were also -- they were asked if they were of the Acholi tribe, which is Kony's tribe. And they only chose Acholi girls also. So they wanted to make sure he was -- they were part of his tribe.

MINOT

11:56:22
So I can't -- I don't know what made them choose them exactly. And as far as the St. Mary's girls, there were 30 of them. Four died in captivity. And the remaining 24 over the last, you know, over 12 years since their capture, slowly but surely would escape because this was such a sort of slipshod operation.

MINOT

11:56:47
You know, they didn't really have camps. They'd go from place to place that children, if they dared, could, you know, in a skirmish happening or when they went off to go to the bathroom, they could just run. And they would escape that way. Of course, it was an incredible risk to do that because, if they were caught, they would die.

GJELTEN

11:57:07
Susan Minot is the author of "Thirty Girls," the amazing story of the abduction of 30 girls in Uganda in 1996. She's also a screenwriter, and she teaches creative writing at New York University. And her students are fortunate, I think it's fair to say, to have her as a teacher. Susan, thanks so much for coming in.

MINOT

11:57:28
You're very welcome. Thank you.

GJELTEN

11:57:31
I'm Tom Gjelten. Thanks for listening.
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