Writer-in-residence and best-selling author Jonathan Harr attracted a sizable crowd on Tuesday to a talk in which he discussed portions of his upcoming article about the central African country Chad, to be published in The New Yorker.
Harr spent time at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in search of inspiration for a new piece after several book projects had fallen through.
“I spent six weeks there, and I was unable to find anything that resonated with me,” Harr said.
But after attending a press conference at the Security Council, Harr was moved to cover the emerging events in Sudan, which shares borders with Chad.
Harr’s decision to cover the well publicized Sudanese human rights violations led him to report on an unexplored aspect of the human rights crisis.
“Millions of words have been written about Darfur,” Harr said. He focused his reporting on the daily operations, logistics, and organization of Chadian refugee camps that bordered Darfur.
Harr shared three detailed vignettes of life in the Chadian refugee camps along the Darfur border.
Harr’s planned four-week visit to the camps turned into a six-week stay when an outbreak of violence occurred outside of his compound. Rebels stormed the market and started to loot.
“We were in lockdown. There was no airport to get us out; the battle happened on the main road,” he said.
Harr said he plans to gather more information about the attack and has yet to incorporate the scene into the piece.
Two other episodes detailed World Food Program trucks and a meeting with an old woman whose story reflected the collective camp experience, he said.
As a writer, Harr was challenged less by roughshod camp living than by writing the piece in the limited first person, which he saw as the only way to assemble the diverse aspects of his topic.
“This proves to be a difficult story because it is not what I like to do,” Harr said. “I never liked when writers, other than when they write memoirs, write about themselves. The story is not about me, nor is it about how I figured out the story of all the hoops I jumped through.”
At the speech’s end, the writer was eager to leave the podium.
“I hate talking. The words on the page are what count,” Harr said.