What music are you listening to as we start this interview?

Frightened Rabbit. A friend gave me the CD a few weeks ago. I’ve been listening ever since. The music is beautifully ragged. Like Mumford & Sons, but with more alcohol and electricity. I’m not saying anything about the alcohol consumption in either of these bands. Just the sound. I like art that’s a little ragged around the edges—and a little ragged in the center too.

 

So how does that “ragged-ness” guide how you write?

Writing my new book, After Shock, was visceral. It was in the midst of responding to the January 2011 earthquake in Haiti, where I’ve worked since 2003. (First living there, now back and forth from Florida.) The earthquake was devastating; more than 230,000 people died. This book was written in the midst of it. It’s naked, honest wrestling with faith and doubt and suffering, with God. The temptation was often to smooth things out in the writing or the rewriting or editing. But I consciously tried to keep it ragged. I distrust art or ideas that aren’t a bit messy, like reality, so I don’t want to create art like that either.

 

What right do you have to take on these biggest of questions about God and life and meaning and suffering and hope?

None. Or as much as any of us. Depends how you look at it.

 

So your book is about suffering and the people you’re with are in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and just went through a horrific natural disaster. You’re just going to make us feel like whiners, right?

No. I promise. I was overwhelmed by how much people were and are suffering in Haiti. But there is something fundamentally human in this book too. Because wherever we are, whatever our income, whatever our passport, life can crash down quickly or slowly, existentially or with a cancer diagnosis, with a child’s accident, with watching a friend gripped by depression, with seeing the aftermath of tornados on TV. We’re so vulnerable, even if life is going well. How can we be honest—and maybe find faith—in the mix of so much pain and beauty, suffering and hope?

 

What is the right time/mood to read “After Shock”?

I was talking with my brother recently and mentioned that my wife and I had the Netflix sleeve for the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us” sitting on our kitchen counter for several weeks. It’s about the “lost boys” of Sudan. He laughed and said, “Really, when is the right time to watch a movie with that title?” It’s a heavy title. When you’re happy? Not really. When you’re already way down? No way. Is mildly depressed but on the upswing the sweet spot? I don’t know. Maybe there’s something like that with my book. But I hope it’s also compelling enough, honest enough, humorous enough (my friend Owen’s dating life, for example), and hopeful enough…

 

So the right answer is…

Now! The right answer is that now is the perfect time for you to read it…maybe, hopefully, surely.

 

So the billion dollar question: Where is God in all this?

I don’t know exactly. God is distant. God is near. That’s my experience. I want a God who prevents disasters. We don’t get that, and it’s crushing and baffling. But then somehow, at the same time, it seems the same God who doesn’t prevent the awfulness is, well, sometimes we experience God right in the midst of it.

 

For example?

For me one powerful experience that I write about in the book is a few weeks after the earthquake. I went to a church that my wife and I had attended while living in Haiti. Close to the epicenter. Now it was a pile of rubble. A teacher had died in the school right beside it. I went to the church on a Sunday morning. A lot of people were there. A full congregation. The words of communion, of Jesus, “This is my body broken for you,” sounded different than ever before right next to the rubble. I felt my faith, which was on life-support, resurrect a little through the faith of the people around me who had lost everything, everything. I don’t know if God was there. It seemed like maybe so. But if God wasn’t there, if God doesn’t show up in these conditions, then I’m not interested in finding God anywhere else.

 

Lessons learned?

No. Well, the seven easy steps to… No, that’s too simplistic. But I found strength in being connected with others, with being engaged with helping instead of just being a distant observer. And I found strength in being completely honest about both the faith and the doubt.

 

What’s the band singing now?

Swim until you can’t see land,

Swim until you can’t see land,

Swim until you can’t see land,

Are you a man or are you a bag of sand.

 

Meaning?

I don’t know what they mean to say, but I like it as a picture of both the search for God and the grace of being found. So there’s my interpretation, knowing only the chorus. Swim out there. Let’s search as hard and as far—and giving every bit of ourselves to help and to find meaning and to grasp for God. And there’s grace out there, whether we get to keep swimming or whether we sink down into grace like a bag of sand.

 

What do you find?

To this point, I keep finding God and faith. But I only want that to keep coming up as the answer if it’s true. Life is an incredible search.



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KENT ANNAN's writing has been published in literary journals including Utne Reader, Subtropics, Geez, Adbusters, The Sun, Natural Bridge, Pilgrimage, Puerto Del Sol, and Orion. One of his essays was cited as a “Notable Essay” in the Best American Essays series. He has been featured on national TV and radio shows including “The Hour,”  “100 Huntley Street,” and NPR’s “The Story.” Author of After Shock and Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle, he lived in Haiti for more than two years and now travels there regularly from South Florida, where he lives with his wife and two young children. He is co-director of Haiti Partners, and all proceeds of After Shock go to Haiti.

2 responses to “Kent Annan: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. The thing about “God Grew Tired of Us” is that as “heavy” as the title is, I found the film itself very uplifting. It’s real, it’s painful, it’s human. Sort of like “Waste Land,” about recycle workers in a Brazilian dump. Or like these two books I read by a man named Kent….

  2. M.J. Fievre says:

    “I want a God who prevents disasters. We don’t get that, and it’s crushing and baffling. But then somehow, at the same time, it seems the same God who doesn’t prevent the awfulness is, well, sometimes we experience God right in the midst of it.”

    Very powerful, Kent. Great to find you on TNT.

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