D.L. Mayfield is a writer who works with refugees in Portland, Oregon, and in this interview Stina Kielsmeier-Cook talks with Mayfield about her recently published book, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith. During their conversation, Mayfield discusses how writing intersects with her daily life, her calling as both writer and activist, and the complexities of writing about vulnerable populations.
You write about refugees during a time when many people are displaced around the world. What do you hope that your readers learn from your story?
I’d love to put a personal spin on the ethical conundrum so many of us face: how are we supposed to live in the face of such suffering? How can we take the big, hazy “global refugee crisis” and take it down to the level where each of us asks: How can I be a good neighbor in this situation? I would hope that people with a bent towards social justice would be compelled and empowered to seek out surprising relationships that are not based in hierarchy or colonialism, but rather friendship.
You live in close proximity to refugees by choosing to rent in large, low-income apartment complexes. How does writing interact with your actual day-to-day life?
My neighbors have changed everything. It is because of my relationships with refugees that I started to feel compelled to write–both to process my emotions and to share with others what I was experiencing on the margins of America. Now, through many hard years, I have achieved a delicate balance where my imagination is stirred by my neighbors, while at the same time I’m conscious that I have an ethical obligation to not exploit their stories in my writing. In the current phase of my life, writing is down the list of priorities behind mothering, being a wife and friend, and being a good neighbor. Living out the messiness of life is a form of writing, even though it takes place mostly in our heads, so I keep mental and physical notes and look forward to these experiences bearing fruit in my future work.
Tell us about your choice to focus your book on your personal experiences versus telling the stories of the refugees you befriended.
I started off writing more about my refugee friends and neighbors, but over time I have begun to focus on myself and interrogating my own do-gooder impulses. In the beginning, I wanted to explain how wild and wonderful these refugee communities were, but as the years went on it became clear that in many ways I could never convey what it’s like to be a refugee in America. I am the only person whose thoughts and motives I could know with some degree of confidence. It became apparent to me, then, that I should be the principal subject of my book. While their stories and lives affect me, I have had to work hard not to make my refugee friends and neighbors into mere props in the story of my life.
In 2014, you attended the Writing to Change the World workshop led by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at the Collegeville Institute. Tell us about your calling as writer/activist.
First off, that workshop was wonderful because it affirmed our connections not only to writing well, but also to living and loving well in our actual lives. Meeting the other participants was inspiring, and it gave a fresh sense of urgency for us to prayerfully consider what message we might have to share with others. The workshop helped me understand that both my life choices (living and working with refugee communities) and my writing practice can and should work in harmony with each other. Before the workshop I sensed that in both the activist and the Christian writing communities there is a tendency towards one-dimensional approaches in order to get specific “messages” across. But, true, thoughtful writing is concerned with asking questions and muddying up waters that are all too clear for many people. Both Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and my fellow participants encouraged this holy mischief, this embrace of authentic questioning as a form of prophetic imagination, and it was incredibly encouraging.
What do Christians need to learn about interacting with their Muslim neighbors?
To me, learning a posture of listening has been vital for establishing long-term relationships with my Muslim friends and neighbors. In the beginning, when I was trying to convert them to my American Christian ways, they could sense that and of course it was a hindrance for real friendship. When I finally gave up and started to approach them with curiosity, goodwill, and a desire to learn, we started to become a part of each other’s communities. And long-term relational engagement with anyone who is different from you will bring about radical transformation.
Now is a tumultuous time for Muslims in America, and seeing first hand small slices of the religious and ethnic discrimination they experience here in the U.S. is eye-opening. Now is the time for radical hospitality, for opening up our lives and homes and schools and businesses to be on the lookout for surprising friendships. Many of my Muslim friends and neighbors are used to living communally and in close relationship with others, and they are hungry for more in their new context.
Now that your book has been released into the world, what do you hope to write next?
That’s a hard question! The themes of motherhood, inequality in America, gentrification, and public schooling are all swirling around in my head. For now, though, I find myself in a season of not having much time to write. I trust that this will change at some point!
What resources or recommendations do you offer people who are interested in engaging with refugees or people on the margins of life in America?
Let me sort out this question in terms of some categories.
Books to read:
- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Girl, her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Ann Fadiman (FSG Classics, 2012)
- Refugee Hotel (Voice of the Witness) by Juliet Linderman and Gabriele Stabile (McSweeney’s, 2012)
- What is the What by Dave Eggers (Vintage, 2007)
- Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smear (Moody Publishers, 2016)
- When I Get Older: The Story Behind Wavin’ Flag by K’NAAN, Sol Sol, and Rudy Guitierrez (Tundra Books, 2012)
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2012)