Memoir revisits Red Cross work in Cambodia

Victoria resident Elaine Harvey published her first book of creative nonfiction with the North Saanich firm, Promontory Press , for Encounters on the Front Line. The press describes itself as “a traditional book publisher that doesn’t like the way the traditional industry has gone when it comes to being accessible to new authors.” Harvey describes herself as a “neophyte in the daunting world of publishing.” In looking for a publisher, she “considered everything from DIY to Smashwords to a call for new writers from Penguin Australia.”  The process kept her busy – and waiting — for two years. After hearing repeatedly that the publishing world was in crisis, she chose the collaborative model offered by Promontory because “it was important for me to be involved in the format and cover design of my book.” Harvey recently spoke with Lynne Van Luven about the challenge of wresting a narrative from her own journals and historical events.

Elaine, Encounters on the Front Line, your first book, has been almost half a lifetime in the making. Can you tell me a little about what motivated the young woman who, in 1980, undertook her “quest of the heart” to use her nursing skills for the International Red Cross on the war-wracked border of Cambodia?

My childhood dream was to work in Asia or Africa, having a sense of the world at an early age from my father. Later, nursing became a path that led to Cambodia. I am frequently asked why I was drawn to danger. I’m not particularly brave, but I was drawn to a desire to make a difference, to do something in the world, beyond my own backyard. Something that mattered and it did matter to the Cambodian refugees that we, the front line aid workers, were there. The paradox of this quest is that one gives a great deal in terribly difficult conditions but at the same time receives extraordinary gifts. One gift is a deeper understanding of our shared humanity. It keeps me curious, concerned and I hope humble.

I adjusted quickly to the realities of the refugee camp, having already travelled in the “third world,” but the dramatic death of a teenage girl on my third day at work catapulted me into front-line work. Decades later in writing Encounters on the Front Line I understood better the impact of this kind of work– the witnessing and the vicarious trauma that led to a continuing quest to find my own path, be it a worldly or a spiritual one. Front lines test how far we will go, how much we will give and how deep we will travel.     

Your book is divided into three parts – The Border (1980), Pilgrimage (2007-08) and A Greater Mystery (2009);  to write it you had to assimilate and amalgamate experiences and notes from a 30-year span of time. That must have been a daunting undertaking. What process or techniques did you use to help you organize your material and find a sustaining narrative spine?

Yes, it was daunting. My techniques, if any, or at best learnt along the way, were simple. I transcribed journals to the computer. I didn’t wander from the present tense. I didn’t wander from my lived experience. With writing The Border, memories surfaced that led to the return to Cambodia, which I envisioned as a pilgrimage.

Cambodia was a front line that slipped away into the cluttered sidelines of my life. Years later, years changed, I read from my worn blue and gold journal, a faded Red Cross on its cover: “Do not forget us. Come back.” That was a half a lifetime ago: a haunting call, a subliminal message, and an unresolved question of my heart.

There was the call of the refugee, as well as a deep curiosity about the new Cambodia. I travelled, I volunteered, I met exceptional people and I wrote. The book emerged. The narrative arc may have been as simple (or as complex) as the need to find a thread from my past and bring it into the present. The reveries give glimpses into some existential doubts, conflicts and resolutions that move the story forward.  The transition between 1980 and 2007 was unwieldy. I attempted to fill the gap with ‘the rest of my life’ but the more I tried the less it worked. Only three months after my six months in Cambodia, I went to Africa with the Red Cross, another human and environmental disaster. The narrative arc needed focus so I chose to keep Encounters on the Front Line in Cambodia.

Your subtitle is Cambodia: A Memoir and you have given your readers a timeline, maps and a bibliography to help them understand the importance of the people you are writing about. Your book is a memoir of both your own development and the changes in the country itself. Feelings of both hope and sadness pervade your writing. What is your hope today as you look back on the place that both captured your heart and (to quote one of your co-workers) “punched you in the face”?

My hope for Cambodia, as it would be for any country, is that it will find its place as an equal in the global community. With all the challenges of an emerging economy – poverty, inadequate health care and education, political oppression and corruption – this requires a radical shift in global consciousness. Global disparities aside, I encourage people young or old, to travel, to volunteer, to understand ‘the other’ as more similar than different. I would wish Cambodians the same opportunities.

Cambodia has a pervasive sorrow (mental health data is alarming) though its people can be as gracious as the lotus blooming in muddy waters. The country has a dark history but there is a new generation, educated and concerned about the future. There is hope. My life has its losses and sorrow, yet hope . . . provides the connection to our common humanity.

Can you describe how negotiated the challenging meld of fact, event, emotional experiences and memory in Encounters on the Front Line, with respect to the creative nonfiction credo of telling true stories in a dramatic fashion without straying into fiction? 

Straying into fiction never seemed an option; in fact it didn’t cross my mind. I was not a writer of fiction and was just learning the art of nonfiction. On the other hand, I was perhaps doggedly determined to tell the truth such as I experienced it. I recorded the subjective accounts of those experiences in my journals, not knowing that later in life I would write a book. My responses to the traumatic events I witnessed in a refugee camp were through the lens of direct experience, at times raw, terse or emotional. I was not doing historical research or investigative journalism; facts were difficult to glean in the midst of a disaster zone.

When I returned to Cambodia (2007 to 2009), I read extensively, but more important were my encounters and connections with the people. Cambodians shared their stories with or without an interpreter, on matters light or serious, in a straightforward manner.

“This is the way I hear the Khmer talk, the truth of their lives too hard to bear. Their stories are not embellished. The bare facts are enough.”

To soften the dilemma of nonfiction (do no harm versus telling the truth) was challenging. For the most part, I didn’t construct composite characters but wrote the stories that people willingly told me. I also knew that certain stories associated with past trauma in the Khmer Rouge era had to be told with care.

 You seem to me to be someone torn between activism and authorhood. Do you think of both roles as part of a continuum, two separate impulses or just stages in your own maturation process? 

One role of the writer, particularly in nonfiction, is to inform or educate or inspire a greater understanding of a subject. I’ve tried to understand the paradoxes within my own life and in Encounters on the Front Line, some of the paradoxes within Cambodia:

“I bridge two worlds, as travellers often do. I see both sides, living on this beautiful broken planet, its oceans and earth in danger, its global citizens living lives as scattered as the stars. My anger is under cover, like watching the news with a glassy-eyed stare, my selective filter screening out what I don’t want to hear. I care; I’m indifferent. I’m concerned; I turn a blind eye. I give generously; I hardly give a dol­lar.”

Today it is unlikely that I would work in a high conflict zone, but there are many paths to engagement in a complex world. I aspire to some sort of “activism and author hood.’’ The quest for voice becomes an evolving voice, a journey of reaching out and reaching in, not as separate but as interwoven threads of my life.