Friday, June 15, 2012

16. Under the Afghan Sun by Mellissa Fung

In October 2008, Mellissa Fung, a reporter for CBC’s The National, was leaving a refugee camp outside of Kabul when she was kidnapped by armed men. She was forced to hike for several hours through the mountains until they reached a village; there, the kidnappers pushed her towards a hole in the ground. “No,” she said. “I am not going down there.”
For more than a month, Fung lived in that hole, which was barely tall enough to stand up in, nursing her injuries, praying and writing in a notebook. Under an Afghan Sky is the gripping tale of Fung’s days in captivity, surviving on cookies and juice, from the “grab” to her eventual release.

I read this book without having any background on the story or the author.   I am glad I did, as I was able to  - as much as a book will allow -take this journey with her.

I understood why she would be writing to specific people in her journal as well as keeping a diary during her detainment but was surprised to find I was eager to read more of the notes Paul was writing to her as well.   It was a great detail to have those brief glimpses into what was happening to him and her friends and family as they waited for news and for the negotiations to continue.  For  me, it punctuated her isolation from all that she knew.  As a reader I was grabbing fast to Paul's updates and worry for Melissa and at the same time realizing how hungry she was for that same contact.

I found the beginning and end of this memoir riveting and tense.  The middle was long, sometimes boring and I quickly grew impatient with it.  For this story, I think that worked wonderfully as it brought the reader into the experience of Melissa and the long, long wait she experienced.  I think she did a good job of describing the events , the feeling that time had stalled, and her constant attempts to connect with her captors.  That connection is so important as it was the only thing she really had any amount of control over and it was the one thing she could do to humanize herself to her captors.  It reminded me of my criminology classes and the strategy of making captors see their victims as humans, individuals and not as symbols of what they hate as it is much more difficult to harm or kill someone whom you see as a person.  Her  journaling of Canadian experiences such as the Canuks games, the Terry Fox run and the election achieved a similar effect for me as a reader.  These topics and others allowed me to connect with her as the protagonist and care more about her story.

Melissa's descriptions of her captors followed her emotional journey...factual and straightforward at the beginning, then empathetic and inquisitive as she gently manoeuvred herself into their daily lives, and finally reflective and understanding of their world.

I am not sure if it is Melissa's personality, reporter training  or her specific experience, but I found her approach in the book of providing relevant details and conveying the fear, stress and frustrations she felt to be very matter of fact.  I think I expected a bit more intensity of emotion in the story, but then again, that could also have been a survival tactic.  Don't break down - don't appear weak - don't give them any reason to hurt you.  Overall, I was impressed with her handling of the ordeal.  I would have liked a paragraph or two about how her friends and family fared and about her return to Canada after she was released.  How did the experience affect her shortly after gaining freedom?  How is she now?  The lack of that distanced her again from me.  Perhaps it has more to do with maintaining her standing as an objective journalist or want for privacy...but she did choose to write this memoir and it felt unfinished to me.

Here is a interview with author Melissa Fung.

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