In her first novel in 12 years, Susan Minot explores the darkness and wonder of human experience. Thirty Girls, published this year, follows the stories of two women from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. Esther Akello, a Ugandan teenager, has escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army, a violent band of rebels, and is struggling to confront the horror she experienced as a captive. Jane Wood is an American writer encountering love and beauty in Africa, and learning to understand her own emotional world.
Ms. Minot spoke to the Gazette last week in Vineyard Haven, where she gave a talk at Midnight Farm recounting the real-world events that led her to write the novel.
Between 1989 and 2012, the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, abducted an estimated 30,000 children, leaving behind broken families and permanent scars on its victims. Ms. Minot learned of the crisis at a dinner party in New York city in 1998, when one of the guests — the mother of an abductee — told her story.
“It shocked me,” said Ms. Minot, who had recently been to Africa. “Not only the story, but because I hadn’t heard anything about this.”
The mother, Angelina, described the nighttime abduction of 139 girls from St. Mary’s College in Uganda. Sister Rachele Fassera, a nun at the school, along with one of the teachers, tracked down the rebels and managed to negotiate the release of all but 30 of the girls. Angelina’s daughter, who became the basis for Esther, was one of the 30.
When Ms. Minot returned to Africa that year, she interviewed some of the girls who had escaped (most of them did eventually escape), and met Sister Rachele.
“It was all incredibly affecting,” she said. “It was — I won’t say unimaginable that it was happening because I was there to see it — but it was hard to fathom.”
Despite being an outsider, she believed she could tell the story in a way that Westerners could relate to. An article she wrote ended up in McSweeney’s and in The Best American Travel Writing 2001. But publishers didn’t respond, she said, not even to tell her they had read the article. “It was, needless to say, discouraging.”
“The story haunted me,” Ms. Minot added. Eight years later, when she sat down to write a novel, what she saw was the girls. “And I thought, maybe I could try to write this story from the inside out, and try to really fathom what they were going through.”
The emotional nature of fiction offered a new approach to the story, she said, allowing her to narrow the gap between reader and subject. “I try to conjure it up so you feel the experience, which is the difference between fiction and nonfiction.”
She knew that writing about the abductions and emotional aftermath would expose her to criticism that as an outsider she could never understand Esther’s struggle. “I was particularly scrupulous to make sure that she came alive as a character,” she said.
Ms. Minot wanted people to know about the violence the young girls experienced — that they were raped, beaten and even made to kill other girls — but she said the violence is just one small part of the story, and can reveal only so much.
“Terrible things happen,” she said. “You can describe it, you can hit people over the head with it. [But] no one wants to be immersed in it for too long.”
Ms. Minot’s original idea was to follow the stories of three of the girls who had escaped as a way to explore the subject of trauma and why some people are able to recover and others are not. The extensive research required for that approach was one reason the novel took seven years to complete.
But realizing the challenge for readers of enduring “one horrendous thing after another,” Ms. Minot changed direction, introducing Jane, whose brighter but still troubled story takes place alongside Esther’s. Alternating chapters provide relief from the heavier struggle that Esther faces, while adding another layer to the novel.
Reflecting the author’s own experience, Jane seeks to alert the world to the crisis that was occurring in Africa. Jane’s own personal struggles, which deal with her ambivalence about a romantic relationship with a younger man, may seem banal compared to Esther’s, Ms. Minot said. “But I wanted to explore that also.
“Certainly, people who endure war and kidnapping and terrible violence have bigger hurdles than others,” she said. “But I think people’s struggles, they are more alike than we acknowledge. And I wanted to show them side by side so that you start to think about that.”
She wrote most of Thirty Girls on the island of North Haven in Maine, where she will spend this summer. In the process of writing the novel she moved back to New York city, where she now spends most of her time.
Some of Ms. Minot’s previous books, including a book of poetry and the bestselling novels Evening and Monkeys, were written in kitchens and guest houses of friends around Martha’s Vineyard, including Midnight Farm owner Tamara Weiss, who arranged last week’s talk.
Making the book-signing rounds for the first time in 12 years, Ms. Minot said, “I definitely liked being out away from the solitude of the desk with my work . . . though I think now I’m ready to be back at the desk. It’s the two parts of one’s experience. One is mixing with people, and the one of isolation, solitude.”
As with many writers, Ms. Minot often finds herself using writing as a way to process her personal struggles.
“The way I describe it is, when I’m writing something, whether it’s fiction or whether it’s just something in a journal, it’s because I’m disturbed,” she said. “But ‘disturbed’ is one of those words that works both ways. You don’t usually use it this way, but you can be happily disturbed by something. It means that you are full of wonder and perplexity about it. And certainly that’s a motivation.”