Ted Neill shares about his experiences at a Kenyan orphanage
Ted Neill and I are talking about his memoir, Two Years of Wonder today.
A little introduction to Ted:
Globetrotter and writer Ted Neill has worked on five continents as an educator, health professional, and journalist. He is the founder and executive editor of Tenebray Press. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Recovery Today, and he has published a number of novels exploring issues related to science, religion, class, and social justice.
His 2017 novel, The Selah Branch*, attempts to confront issues of racism and the divided political environment of the US today and the 1950s.
His debut novel, City on a Hill*, examines the fault lines of religious conflict in the Middle East. His five book series, Elk Riders*, wrestles with issues of ethics, morality, and belief against an epic fantasy backdrop.
He wrote his most recent young adult novel Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies* after living and working at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS in Kenya. His memoir about those years, Two Years of Wonder, is a number one new release on Amazon.
Welcome, Ted. Please tell us a little bit about your memoir.
Two Years of Wonder* covers my time in Kenya while working and living at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS. It explores some of their stories as well as my own journey of recovery after a period of deep depression that hit me as a result of experiencing some of the events depicted in the memoir.
What inspired you to write this book?
The children whose stories are featured in its pages. The kids are like siblings to me now. All the proceeds from the book will go to help them build lives for themselves—now that they have access to anti-retroviral medication—many are growing into young adults. I’m hoping royalties will help me pay for some of them to go to university.
What do you hope people take away from reading these stories?
That the best way to “help” often doesn’t look like how we first imagined it. I hope people are able to “see” these kids, understand them, and honor the resilience of their stories. Despite the horrible realities I depict in the book that some of the children experienced, many of the kids have endured, survived, and thrived. Their grit gives me hope and my wish is that it can inspire others.
Excerpt from Two Years of Wonder:
Alexis has just started school at one of the public schools. These were the schools that rejected the kids from Rainbow Children’s Home because of their HIV status. It took a supreme court case to get them to allow our children in, but discrimination remains.
Alexis is fourteen. She is pugnacious and forthright. The boys of the orphanage will testify to her being a tomboy and very competitive in soccer. Bottom line: Alexis is tough. She is from Cottage Yellow and many volunteers assume she is the one who taught Miriam her strictness (I’m not so sure, I think Miriam is a tough disciplinarian at heart, but I digress). Alexis is one of the big-girls of the house and she is often put in charge of the younger children, however, at times her tough mask slips. On a retreat with the teenage girls, I remember my sense of shock when she came up to me at the breakfast table holding her antiretrovirals in one hand, a glass of water in the other, her brow furrowed, her eyes wide with worry.
“I can’t take them with water so early,” she said.
She twisted her mouth into a frown, darted her eyes side to side and said in a soft voice, “I’ll throw up.”
It’s a rare show of vulnerability from her and I can read in her reluctance that the admission is against her nature. But stuck with me for the duration of the retreat, her hand is forced.
“No problem,” I say, making as little show of it as possible. I was eager to be her co-conspirator, preserving the tough exterior she prided herself on. I realized it protected her from the world, a world that—she later tells me—she felt rejected her from birth and really never stopped.
Alexis is a total orphan. No one knows where she came from or who her extended family might be. As the orphanage begins to focus more on re-integration, sending the children to stay with family on the holidays, Alexis and a handful of others have nowhere to go and often go home with staff members.
It’s Alexis who at her new school feels the full brunt of discrimination. When she goes to join the boys in a soccer game at lunch, they stop the game and pull the ball away from her. They tell Alexis that girls can’t play. As if she were at the orphanage, she argues with these boys, insisting that she can and that she is likely better than their best player. Then the real reason comes out.
“We don’t want to play with someone who has AIDS,” one boy says, his words hitting her like a fist. The taunting snowballs from there, the most painful of many phrases hurled at her: “You won’t even be alive. You won’t even be here in a few weeks.”
That’s the barb that cuts the deepest and stings the most. Alexis, so fierce in other circumstances, is defeated.
She is quiet around the cottage for days after that. Stubborn and independent, she does not disclose what happened or how she feels about it to anyone, although from the way she is short with the younger kids, hitting and punching them when she loses her temper, it’s clear she is not herself.
She does not seek out any grownups for guidance and instead counsels herself. Days, weeks pass. She prays, at first for the boys to be punished, then for strength. Time does not make the hurt less but time provides another revelation that she would share with me later.
“I realized I was still here. I wasn’t dead. I was taking my medicine and I was fine.”
The revelation reignites the fight in her. She seeks out the same cadre of boys at school, stands among them in the middle of their soccer game and says, “By the way, I am still here.” It becomes her mantra. Getting off the school bus each morning she bounds over to the boys to greet them with the same phrase.
“I am still here.” Whether she sees them passing on the stairs, “I am still here,” the hallway, “I am still here,” the classroom, “I am still here,” the library, “I am still here,” the head mistress’ office, the school clinic, the bathrooms, she repeats, “I am still here.”
Over time Alexis is herself again. I find it a shame that sometimes the children have to take it upon themselves to change hearts and minds, to counter discrimination and stigma, but unfortunately it’s the unfair burden of an unjust disease.
But in the end Alexis wins. (She always does.) She is one of the few girls that now plays soccer with the boys.
And she is better than most.
What’s your next writing project? Or what can we expect to see from you next?
I have two new releases. Finding St. Lo* is a collection of memoirs from my grandfather, Robert L. Fowler and one of the medics, Gordon E. Cross, who served alongside him in his infantry regiment, the 134th, in WWII. This June is the 75thanniversary of the D-Day Invasion.
The second new release, set for spring 2019, will be a post-apocalyptic novel called Reaper Moon. The premise is that a virus has decimated the world’s population. Immunity to the virus is carried on the same gene that carries the sickle cell trait. As a result, the ethnic profile of the survivors in what is left of the US has been inverted. People of color are the majority and everything associated with health, wealth, and survival, is linked to blackness, while crime, the collapse of families, and violence are associated with whiteness. Many white survivors are fine with this, but those who are not are members of white supremacist groups, who declare war on people of color and white allies. It takes forward many of the conflicts riling our country right now into a “what-if” scenario that serves as a stage to examine these divisions, their history, and the prejudice/irrationality that underlies them.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve been writing stories since I was in third grade but the internal struggle to accept myself as a “writer” took a long time. I considered myself an “artist” from early on. I knew my temperament set me apart as early as high school. But even though I was always “writing” I didn’t know if I could call myself a writer until I had made my living that way. It wasn’t until a girlfriend sort of shook me out of it (in my thirties no less and still before I had made a single dollar as a writer). She just said, “Ted, you ARE a writer. You write! You can’t not write! Face it, you are a writer.” I ended up dedicating a book to her.
Please share a little bit about your process for developing/organizing this/any book.
Two Years of Wonder was unlike any other book I had written because it was my first non-fiction piece and writing about myself, and the stories of the kids, was fraught with difficulties. It took me 15 years, really, to grow, reflect, (not to mention have a breakdown) to process the material in the story. Plus it took time to circle back to the kids whose stories I shared, to make sure they were comfortable with how they were represented.
What’s a bit of writing advice you wish you’d had before publishing your first book, that you now share with others?
Explore independent publishing! It’s changing the landscape of publishing!
What do you enjoy most about the writing process?
Hard to say. I enjoy the effort, the challenge, the fun, and the finished product. I think the hardest part, for me, as a recovering control freak, is the early part of the process, when I’m still brainstorming. Brainstorming is SUCH an unstructured, iterative, and free flowing process. It’s letting the muse take over and putting my ego in the passenger seat. As you can imagine, surrendering to that, “going with the flow,” and letting ideas and characters develop on their own time represents an exercise in patience and trust that is not necessary easy for me. But I’m learning! I don’t have a choice really! My muse is my business partner and I can’t force her to show up to work. I just have to trust she will and she usually does, especially if I’m feeding her ideas from other books, films, and tempt her to our breakfast meetings with good coffee.
Can you share any particular website or resource you find helpful when you’re writing?
Thesarus.com & The Emotion Thesaurus* by Ackerman and Puglisi.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Please take time to write book reviews and click the star ratings when you are on Amazon and Goodreads. It really helps indie authors like me!
Thank you for sharing more about your writing, Ted.
Readers, feel free to read my interview with Ted about the young adult novel Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies, inspired by his experiences at the Kenyan orphanage.