As told to Dana Calvo and Elizabeth Mendez Berry
Actress Mia Kirshner has a very personal connection to the subject of her first book, a “paper documentary” that tells the stories of displaced people around the world.
It’s a funny thing as an actor to do a project like the paper documentary I’ve just published. I was hesitant, because I’m aware of a perception out there that it may not be sincere. But the reality is that the human rights issue of displacement has always been embedded in my life because of my family. You see the bigger picture when you know what people have lived through and survived.
My grandparents on both sides were forced out of their homes during the Holocaust—my father’s parents were in Germany, my mother’s parents in Bulgaria. They lost everything. My father’s mother lost her first husband and her son during the war. My father was born in a displaced person’s camp in Germany in 1946, and my mother’s family moved to Israel. The aftereffects of having to leave against their will have always been something my own family has dealt with, so the subject of displacement is nothing new to me.
Yet, even knowing what I did, I never imagined the process of making this book would be so complicated that it would take seven years to complete it. I went through every major non-governmental organization that deals with displaced refugees and tried to seek out places that had fallen off the radar of the news media. I chose Burma, Chechnya, Mexico and Malawi.
I included the story of Juárez, Mexico, where many women who work in factories run by multinational corporations have been murdered, because those women were displaced from their rural homes by globalization. They are its casualties. Juárez was the most draining trip I undertook for this book. The mothers have been besieged by journalists, and they’re sick of answering questions. There didn’t seem to be a lot of cohesiveness between various groups helping the women. Because it’s so close to the United States one might assume—naively—that there would be more justice, but Mexican officials have chosen to ignore the killings.
It was unexpected, but the trip to Malawi was the happiest trip. I thought it was going to be the heaviest because of the extreme level of poverty, and that’s why I waited until the end to visit. But the people I met there seemed better- adjusted and inspired to get on with their lives. In Malawi, I met people who have very little or have had things taken away from them quite suddenly, yet they are part of a community where everyone helps one another. That kindness was very moving and inspiring.
I knew the paper documentary format would be unorthodox, because I like reading intimate writing, and I love comics. I wanted to do a book about the subject that I myself would want to read.
I’m very lucky to have had the good fortune to meet so many amazing people because of this project. The whole experience moved me to start the I Live Here Foundation, along with author Chris Abani and Adbusters staffers Paul Shoebridge, Michael Simons and JB Mackinnon, all of whom worked on the book with me.
When we worked on the book, we gathered people’s stories, sometimes retelling them in our own words or illustrating and other times using them as is. That inspired me, so in each region I visited, we started creative writing programs. I saw how much people want to be heard, how much they want to tell their stories.
I Live Here is available at www.amnestyusa. org/store or via catalogue on page 31.