Yesterday was an interesting (though mostly unphotographed) day. I had lunch with Karen Hoyle, whom I had as a professor many moons ago for a children’s lit class. She’s curator of the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, and took a brief tour of the tunnels where there are rows and rows of tall shelves packed with boxes, kind of like that last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the shelves are packed with manuscripts and drafts and correspondence of authors. She said she was “happy to see me succeed.” I was touched that she remembered me as a student.
Being a social butterfly, I had dinner with Kerry Madden, author of a new biography of Harper Lee, and very cool person, and some local authors and children’s book people. It was hosted by the Children’s Literature Network, and featuring as party favors bags with RC cola and moonpies, the perfect snack to enjoy while reading the chapters in Madden’s book about the remarkable friendship of Nelle (as Harper Lee is really called) and Tru (as in Truman Capote), lugging a 25 pound typewriter into their treehouse to hammer out stories together.
However, the main thing I’ve been meaning to write about is seeing the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, speak at the University yesterday. She is the first democratically elected woman leader in Africa, and has become a global figure on that account, but is far more than a symbolic first in the history books.
It’s really hard to explain in a sentence or two just how dire Liberia’s situation was when Johnson Sirleaf took the reins: ravaged by war, without running water or power in the capital city for over a decade, saddled with incomprehensible debt and destruction, and with a generation of children who only knew war and poverty.
Not many people volunteer to be captain of ships that have already sunk, but Johnson Sirleaf operates on the absolute confidence that her country can succeed, and has the benefit of a brilliant mind for economics and negotiation. Her speech was rich in details and pragmatics, though laden with a few poetic lines (“every stumbling block is a stepping stone,” was my favorite) it was the speech of a problem solver, not a politician. Moreover, though she has a compelling personal story, there was nary a word about her, and during the Q&A she seemed baffled by personal questions. Where does she get the courage, she was asked, to do all she has done? She shrugged. Somebody shouted from the audience “because you’re a woman!” “There you are,” she responded, to deafening applause. What is your dream? Somebody else asked. “I just want to see my country succeed,” she said. For her, it’s clearly not about her. It’s all about Liberia.
Yet the most stirring moment was the Liberian national anthem, which is a complicated piece of music that requires counterpoint and harmony. There are 25,000 Liberians in Minnesota, and I think at least a fifth of them were there, and they sang with passion and volume, lifting the roof on the place. What’s more, it sounded fantastic. It was like the whole multitude of singers had rehearsed it. Jaws dropped and eyes moistened. It was the most memorable moment on an interesting day.