I recently chatted with Helen Benedict about her latest book, MAP OF HOPE AND SORROW, co-authored with Syrian writer and refugee, Eyad Awwadawnan, an in-depth dive into the journeys of a handful of refugees told largely in their own words.
Benedict, an award-winning author of novels and nonfiction books, as well as a professor of Journalism at Columbia, has devoted much of her literary career to issues of social injustice: refugees, the effects of war on civilians and soldiers, and violence against women. Her earlier work covered Iraqi refugees in the U.S., American women soldiers, and military sexual assault. In 2021, Benedict was awarded the 2021 PEN Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History (link is external) for her work on refugees, to be published in the novel, “The Good Deed,” and published in the nonfiction book, “Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece.” (Footnote Press, 2022).
Benedict is credited with breaking the story about the epidemic of sexual assault of military women serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Her work on refugees includes articles published in 2019-2021 in The New York Times, The Nation, Slate, and Guernica; while her work on war is reflected in her novel, “Wolf Season,” (2017, Bellevue), her previous novel “Sand Queen” (2011, Soho Press) and her nonfiction book, “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq,” (2009 and 2010, Beacon Press), which won her the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism in 2013. Benedict was also named one of the “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews. In 2015, she was a finalist for the U.K. Liberty Human Rights Arts Award for her play, “The Lonely Soldier Monologues.” Her work has also won the EMMA (Exceptional Merit in Media Award) from the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Ken Book Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.
Benedict’s non-fiction book, “The Lonely Soldier,” led to a class-action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of women and men who were sexually assaulted in the military and also inspired the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary about sexual assault in the military, “The Invisible War.” Her earlier book, “Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes” is widely taught in journalism and law schools and has helped to change the way several newspapers cover sexual assault, while her book, “Recovery: How to Survive Sexual Assault” is used by rape crisis centers around the country. She has testified twice to Congress as an expert on sexual assault in the military.
Robin Hemley is the award-winning author of 15 books of fiction and nonfiction and is a Senior Editor of Panorama.
Robin Hemley: My list of literary heroes has long included writers who are also activists, such as Studs Terkel and Grace Paley. You’re in that category as well, most recently with the publication of MAP OF HOPE AND SORROW: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece, co-written with Syrian writer and refugee, Eyad Awwadawnan. Actually, there are some ways in which this book reminds me of the oral histories of Terkel, as these are essentially oral histories as told by several asylum seekers trapped on the island of Samos and elsewhere in Greece. It’s odd to think of being trapped on such a beautiful island, but the island wasn’t beautiful for them. Could you speak a bit about your choices in organizing the book in this manner and in co-writing the book with an asylum seeker? What brought you to Samos and the project? Sorry, that’s about four questions in one!
Helen Benedict: I first went to Samos in 2018 to research my novel, THE GOOD DEED (forthcoming from Red Hen press), which is set in the refugee camp there, following up on my earlier novels about the Iraq War. My second day on Samos, I met Eyad in a stationary store and invited him for coffee. We hit it off and I quickly found out that he was a gifted writer and interviewer. I went back many times over the next two years, writing journalism to expose the horrors of the place while gathering material for my novel, with Eyad acting as my translator and fixer – by this time we had become fast friends. Then Covid hit, preventing me from returning, and I realised that he could interview Arabic speakers in Greece in person, as he was there, while I could talk to English and French speakers over WhatsApp. So we became co-authors.
The plight of the people struggling to survive that camp were so moving that we both felt compelled to give their stories to the world. But we didn’t want to take the typical journalistic approach of doing quick interviews about people’s most traumatic moments and then telling their stories for them. We wanted to honor their voices and dignity by giving them the chance to tell their stories in their own words. We also wanted to acknowledge that their lives didn’t begin at the borders of Europe. Thus, instead of having a mass of people in the book, as Terkel did, we chose to only feature five people, each with three chapters of their own: the first about their lives at home before they were forced to flee; the second about their flights; the third about what happened to them once they reached the gateway to Europe, Greece.
The book is thus an unusual combination of narrative journalism and oral history. We interviewed everyone over many months, sometimes years, so we give the political and historical context of their countries and describe what was happening to them while they were talking to us. Then we get off the page so they can tell their stories in their own words.
Why did I write it with Eyad and take this approach? Because I decided that as a white westerner who has never been a refugee, it was not my place speak for other people.
RH: What is the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee? I know you go over this in the book, but I think it’s worth noting here as the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
HB: An asylum seeker is someone who has fled persecution and requested asylum from another country, which is a basic human right. A refugee is someone who has been granted that asylum, legally speaking. In everyday terms, anyone who must flee home to survive is a refugee. The word NOT to use for either asylum seekers or refugees is migrant, because a migrant is defined as someone traveling for economic betterment, not to escape death, and so cannot claim the same legal protections.
RH: Here’s something I’ve been wondering about a lot as I read the book. The book is very powerful, and necessary reading, as far as I’m concerned. But I’m sure not everyone would think so as it’s a book that might make readers feel sad and perhaps frustrated by the enormity of the problems faced by this small cross-section of refugees. We don’t approach most books with the thought, “I’m not going to read this because it will make me feel helpless and sad,” but I could imagine some readers shying away for that reason. What would you say to these potential readers?
HB: The last chapter of the book is all about solutions and how to help, both for policymakers and ordinary folk. We did this exactly because we didn’t want readers to be left feeling hopeless and despairing.
RH: I’m sure people can imagine the “sorrow” part of your title, but could you address “hope” a little. Where is hope found in such a crisis?
HB: Everyone in the book is driven by hope. Yes, they have moments of despair, but above all they have drive and determination and remarkable resilience. This should give any reader hope for human beings.
RH: It’s frowned upon for journalists to pay for interviews for many reasons, and I know that you didn’t do this, but could you talk about the tension between your desire to amplify the stories of these refugees and your desire to help in other ways?
HB: I would not say there was any tension between my work and my desire to help. As I say in the book, it seemed natural to help people who have lost everything, whom you have come to know well, and for whom even a few dollars can make the difference between eating or not, prison or freedom, shelter or homelessness, safety or danger. So when help was needed in the form of a phone call, a contact or money, help we did.
RH: This isn’t your first work of reportage or literature with a social agenda as it were. You’re also an accomplished novelist. For instance, your 2011 novel, Sand Queen, used your journalistic skills to first research the lives of female soldiers and Iraqis as the models for your protagonists. Could you speak a little about the decision to present this so-called “wicked problem” of the refugee crisis as oral history rather than in a fictional context?
HB: In fact, I’m doing both. As said, I originally went to Greece to research a novel, which is coming out in 2024. But when I was there and saw close-up how terrible and unjust the situation is, I felt it urgent to tell the world right away. I published several articles about it before the book came out. See www.helenbenedict.com
RH: As PANORAMA is a “journal of travel, place, and nature” the journal seeks in part to redefine what travel writing is. How might we consider or contextualise MAP OF HOPE AND SORROW as part of travel literature or the literature of place? I’m curious in particular about the disconnect between Samos, an island of such beauty, and the camp for refugees on its shores.
HB: Funnily enough, I published one of my earliest accounts of Samos and its refugee camp in the travel section of the New York Times. In it, I spoke of the beauty of the island and it’s poetic history, but I also described the hideous refugee camp there and how to help. The next time I went to Samos, I met several Americans who had volunteered for the local NGO because of reading that article. Thus travel writing and advocacy can work together – one can address how to give as a tourist, not just take.
RH: After we’ve put down your book, what do you hope will be the action/reaction of the reader?
HB: Mursal, the young Afghan our book, can answer your question best, for she voices what everyone in the book hopes readers will see.
“Being a refugee means you are strong. You passed through a difficult, dangerous journey and still, you are alive. You have hope. You have goals and dreams.
“Refugees are not bad people. Please stop hating us. Just put yourself in our place. How would you feel if you were insulted every day? Would you be patient? If you look, you will see we are like you.”