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Ella Harvey’s memoir highlights challenges of service work in less developed countries

Author Ella Harvey

In her new memoir, A Time of Light and Shadow, Ella Harvey highlights her years of travel and adventure, including living on the front lines of 1970s conflict zones. She worked as a nurse in Lebanon, an area devastated by war. In 1980, she worked for the International Red Cross in a Cambodian refugee camp. These are only some examples of the service work she did, which took her to less developed areas of the world, showing her the harsh realities of poverty and suffering.

Disclosure: This sponsored post highlights one woman’s travel quest and the unsettling realities she encountered in Asia and Africa, as documented in her latest memoir.

I had the opportunity to ask Ella about her experiences included in the new book, A Time of Light and Shadow: To Asia, Africa, and the Long Way Home. In her fascinating answers, Ella includes passages from her memoir (in italics). Our full interview is below.

Interview with author Ella Harvey

Thank you for being here today, Ella. Let’s get straight to talking about the memoir.

What inspired you to write A Time of Light and Shadow?

I have always been a writer, from teenage diaries and long letters to travel journals. Writing a memoir was a natural extension of my life. Traveling, often off the beaten path, gave me all the experiences and challenges I needed to write.

In 1980 my work as a nurse in a Cambodian refugee camp led to my first memoir, Encounters on the Front Line. My second memoir, A Time of Light and Shadow covers a wider terrain of youthful longings – chasing adventure, stumbling into love, and working in dire circumstances in Asia and Africa to my solo return trip to India three years ago. These experiences inspired me to write both my memoirs. And whenever I returned from my travels, friends would say: “You should write a book.”

Your career in service is inspiring. Can you please tell us about your service work?

My career as a Registered Nurse was under the broad umbrella of service. My nursing work in Canada was challenging and rewarding, but it was my work in International Aid in Asia and Africa that significantly impacted my worldview. I worked briefly with Doctors without Borders and longer missions with the International Red Cross. These assignments were tough, and my experiences ranged from inspiring to heart-wrenching. These two excerpts from A Time of Light and Shadow touch on the immense challenges of service work in the less developed world.

The experience of Djibouti left me all at odds: the stark, unforgiving desert, the impoverished lives, and my own battle with hopelessness or hope for the nomads. Our work seemed like a small Band-Aid in the political-economic-environmental mess on the Horn of Africa. Every night I went home to La Gîte and cried.

Three months were over, with three months to go. I could work for three years in Djibouti and wondered if it would make a difference. Our work was not developmental aid; it was disaster relief and there hadn’t been enough of anything – money, supplies, resources, energy, or time. Guilt and shame were emotions I did not know where to put or how to handle. This was how I felt, but still, I had to find the courage to believe. To believe that every child I fed was a meaningful act and that every mother needed care. To believe that our work mattered, that every person’s life mattered, even for those living lives of profound poverty. Especially for them. They were not expendable commodities. They were not collateral damage.

Why did you travel solo? What did you learn about yourself in solitude?

Not all my travels were solo. I love solo travel as it allows me the choice to go where I want and to travel at my own pace. I also love the company of others, so I appreciate a balance of being alone or being with a good companion. Solo travel for older women, despite the lonely, uncertain, or fearful moments, rekindles a sense of adventure and teaches one self-reliance – “I can do this!”   Age is no reason to say no to new adventures. You don’t have to be fearless but it’s exciting to stretch your comfort zone. It’s liberating and empowering.

Solitude is a way of being that I seek whether I am traveling alone or with others. In solitude, I have quiet time for reflection, which can be pleasurable and restorative. In solitude, I can retreat with a good book or with my journal. It is sometimes the perfect antidote to the intensity of a day in a foreign country.

I would challenge women to embrace the opportunity for solo travel, once in a lifetime let go as much as you dare of comforts and security and scripted itineraries. You have a completely different travel experience when you explore on your own, and it often opens doors to unexpected, delightful encounters.

How did the people you met in your travels change you, Ella Harvey?

I have met people from all over the world, from radically diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles.  I have witnessed extreme poverty and suffering and have also met those with great privilege – the rich and the poor. I believe that all my encounters and experiences have given me a multicultural perspective, a less ethnocentric point of view. I have been amazed by the kindness of strangers, humbled by the resilience of the poor, and inspired by the people who try to make a difference in our complex and precarious world.

An old couple, as old and rugged as the hillside they lived on, invited me into their home. They humbly served their ‘daal bhat’ with one small potato thinly sliced on top. The simplicity of being among people with little choice but to live simply, their homes cradled in the majesty of the mountains, was good for my heart and soul. I had walked into the beauty and sorrow of an extremely poor world and was honored to share a meal with them.

How did your trip to India in 2019 compare with your travels in the ’70s?

Had India changed? Yes, immensely.  I did not return to the India I once knew, with overloaded bullock carts creaking along dusty roads. Urban India was fast, intense, and cosmopolitan. And I had changed too. As an older traveler, I faced new perspectives and vulnerabilities It was a conflation of time, two lives, old and new colliding with their hopes and dreams, expectations, and fears. The stories from my youth were from a life I hardly recognized was once mine – passion and adventure in Asia and heart-wrenching work in Africa. The question I asked on my return to India was “Would I dare do now what I readily did then?  The short answer was ‘No,’ though within that ‘No’ there were worlds of possibility, hopes and dreams still to pursue.     .

For this trip, I researched transportation, accommodation, and destinations – not off the beaten path but on the well-traveled path. I won’t be hiking in the Himalayas, riding second-class trains with a fraudulent pass, seeking enlightenment on the banks of the Ganges, or signing up to work on a dangerous front line. I’m not as clear-sighted or as sure-footed as I once was, walking cautiously on uneven streets with my arthritic hip and unsteady gait. I am more cushioned, safe, medically insured, and digitally connected than in 1977. On this trip, I carry my return ticket with me.

A Time of Light and Shadow book cover
A Time of Light and Shadow Book Cover. A memoir by Ella Harvey.

Complicity in privilege is one theme in A Time of Light and Shadow. Please share a bit about this

My travels have always brought me face to face with stark global disparities, the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ We, the privileged, have opportunities, choices, and freedoms that we usually take for granted and that [is] far greater than most people in the countries of our destination. I am intrigued by paradoxes that I have either lived or witnessed: poverty and privilege, suffering and resilience, courage and fear, reaching out and walking away, hope and despair, longing and belonging.

I like the concept of seeing myself as a guest in a country other than my own. This is a vision of traveling mindfully, to lessen the gap, and to reach out to our common humanity.

There was always a chasm to jump between what I assimilated and what seemed impossible to assimilate. Memories fragment like a broken mirror, reflecting pieces of my resilience and my compassion, as well as my impatience and privilege. I try to understand my complicity in privilege, and all that comes with it – education, opportunities, comforts, and, most importantly, choice. It may have been unintended, or it may have been in that glance described by V.S. Naipaul: “It is your gaze that violates them, your sense of outrage that outrages them…it is your anger that denies them their humanity.” I am vaguely ashamed, but I need more than shame, maybe courage to live more consciously and compassionately.

What does the title of the book refer to?

Finding the right title for a book is elusive and slippery – at least it was for me. I had seven titles over the seven years of writing a book. My favorites Somewhere in Between and Almost There, alluded to the journey, never quite reaching the destination. They somehow got nixed, and the title became A Time of Light and Shadow, which speaks to paradox, as life itself is a paradox:  joy and sorrow, love and loss, youth and aging.

The subtitle was as difficult as the title. Asia and Africa were concrete images, while the long way home refers to the push and pull of my travels, the longing for the far away, and the longing for home, be it a geographical or spiritual home.

A younger woman is walking toward me, shimmering in and out of light and shadow. I think I’d like to say hello. I have met her before, somewhere along the way, then she moves aside and disappears in the crowd. I know she’s there watching me.

Besides deciding on the title, were there other challenges in writing a memoir?

There were many challenges. The novelist may start with a blank page, but the memoirist must distill the stories of a lifetime. What to include or exclude shapes the story. I excluded many stories, even entire countries I had visited, as they did not fit with the narrative arc of the book. I wrestled with these choices.

I wanted to weave the inner and outer journeys of my life. I was writing a personal story but also trying to capture universal themes that resonate with the reader, such as love and loneliness. I also needed to explore the social and cultural context of the countries I traveled in and define my emotional truths within those cultures.

When traveling I would turn to my journal whenever I was alone, which was often.  Having an imperfect memory, I relied on the stories in these journals to write a memoir. They kept me true to the story.

I sat at a table for one and wrote in my journal, pages of introspective ramblings about belonging or not belonging, trying to understand myself in the clash of cultures, not with India but with my own.

Writing a memoir sometimes felt like an anchor in my life, a way to validate my life experiences, and at other times, it felt like being adrift on a wild sea.

Get your copy of A Time of Light and Shadow by Ella Harvey

A Time of Light and Shadow is available at bookstores, Amazon, Indigo, Kindle, and Kobo. It can also be ordered through the publisher, Rocky Mountain Books.

Connect with Ella Harvey at her self-titled website, as well. She is on Facebook too.


Top photo: Meet Ella Harvey. Photo used with permission of Rocky Mountain Books.

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