Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Samantha Libby, “Chinko” (nonfiction) from New England Review #39.3

Igor Molochevski: “Invisible Beast”

Igor Molochevski: “Invisible Beast”

The word “Chinko” means nothing. It is the name given to a river in a place where the river gets lost in thick brush and fields of termite mounds. Chinko Park, established to protect what little is left, is called a national park, but there is nothing national in a place without the rule of law. Chinko’s only defense is a handful of well-trained rangers who spend weeks at a time in the wild, waiting for poachers or armed groups to emerge from the thick bush and attack. This is a dangerous part of the world—everyone knows at least that much.
In war-torn Africa, outsiders often feel an obligation to dissect old clichés and invent new ones. But I show up empty-handed. After ten years working in human rights and humanitarian aid around the world, I can no longer be deluded as to my own relevance. I come for a reason startlingly few want to admit: I need to work and there is often work to be had in places where nobody wants to be.

Complete story available online at New England Review

Libby has had a remarkable decade working on the front lines of global justice: from Hanoi to Ethiopia to the US, from art to children to anti-violence to returning soldiers, her resume
glows with good works and challenges Twitter SJWs everywhere. As she outlines the dangers of this particular place and time in this essay – “Ambush, torture, helicopter crashes, black mambas, road accidents, strange and familiar diseases, overdoses, and friendly fire” – I lose track of the exact nature of her mission. Something about connecting remote communities by radio in the hopes of reducing violence.

But the project doesn’t matter. That’s not what the story is about. It’s background.

As we read, we find sandwiched in between the Chinko material some of the horror Libby endured as a child who became the target of an entire cohort of bullies.

The form the bullying took was varied but relentless. Sometimes it was simple and predictable. I was not to be sat next to, invited to birthday parties, or included in activities. Other times, it was violent. I was chased, pinned down, and abused. Sometimes, it defied logic. I was pushed into a self-described jury of ten-year-old children where I was judged to be ugly, stupid, and weird. When I asked why, I was beaten with sticks and driven away….
I hold on to these scattered vignettes of my childhood. I bury them, but I do not discard them. Over the years, they have coalesced and grown into a single living beast. I cannot see it, but it can speak to me and it calls me horrible names. I have acquired some strength with time. I locked the thing up in chains and threw it into my deepest dungeon. I go about my life, but as time goes on, I can feel it stretching against its bonds. I know that one day I will not be able to hold it back. What will happen when we finally meet? I am curious about this in the same way I am curious about the viciousness of war. Over the years, both have become constants to me. My Invisible Beast is deadly, but in its own way it is also precious to me.

No explanation for this abuse is given, perhaps because there is nothing that would explain, much less justify, it, even in the slightest degree. Typically, children react to some perceived difference when they choose a target for mass bullying: a physical trait, a new arrival in town, an unfamiliar cultural background, family history, something. In Libby’s case, we have no idea, and of course, as a child, neither did she. She only knew everyone else saw something terribly wrong with her, and she had no idea what it was.

The abuse isn’t really what the story is about, either. More background.

I remembered the story from BASS 2019, “Wrong Object” by Mona Simpson, and the inspiration for her fictional story: a team of domestic violence therapists believed that most abused people “spent their lives containing the trauma they had endured, working not to pass it on.” Simpson’s story was all about keeping powerful destructive impulses contained.

And that, I think, is what the essay is about: Libby struggling to keep her Invisible Beast, the pain and rage of an entire childhood, from bursting loose. Still convinced she does not deserve the kind of life others might think of in their dreams, she understands what the people of Chinko are dealing with.

Love stories and passion—not lust, but ideas of growing old in a place—are wild ideas in this place. Their evenings are twisted with dreams of women who are gentle in a way that is foreign to this land. This is not the kind of talk I have heard before, from men on remote bases in Afghanistan or Iraq, engaged in wars their leaders have determined for them. The wishes and hopes of the men of Chinko are not wrapped around the axle of desire but around a need for the kind of company that will alleviate the constant injury of life in this place. The names of the dead are never spoken. At Chinko, there is no need to acknowledge the daily constant of pain. It is one of the reasons I feel at home here.

Imagine a childhood with threats equal to the poachers, armed militias, animals, and diseases of Chinko.

It would be easy to hold Libby as an example of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” but I don’t believe that, either. Yet there is a connection between her childhood experience and her presence in humanitarian projects: by keeping her Invisible Beast contained, her energy is pouring into the negative places and making them, if not positive, at least a little less negative. Makes me feel like I’ve wasted every minute of my own life. Except I grew up with a different experience, leading to a different conviction: that the most generous, caring thing I could do for anyone was to keep far away from them.

Libby is the sort of person I could have been, the sort of person many of us could have been. Maybe someone reading her experience will realize that soon enough to do something about it.