Yesterday a friend forwarded me a photo of a boy, a Syrian refugee, who was found wandering in the desert with a plastic bag in his hand.
Before I continue it’s important to clarify that while it doesn’t diminish the suffering in Syria, this photo was out of context. You can read more about the story behind the photo.
My first reaction to the photo of dramatic and swift. My heart went out to the boy and I wanted to know what might be in his bag.
It was a very similar feeling to the imaginative spark I felt just before starting to write The Bear.
I was on an airplane reading The Economist when a particular article caught my eye. It mentioned the Kotjebi, a term for homeless children in North Korea.
The literal translation for Kotjebi or ‘flowering [sometimes fluttering] swallows’ because of their constant search for food and shelter. They became more visible as a group after the famine of the mid-90s, but aren’t officially recognized by the government.
I ripped out the article and tucked it into my notebook. Later, I searched for more and read of how these children can often be seen with a tube of toothpaste in hand.
There is a belief among the Kotjebi that toothpaste can cure stomach troubles, which are frequent given their diet of “raw corn, dead dogs, rotten food, stolen potatoes, grass, grass soup, old rice, and crushed corn bark” [source].
I already had a child’s voice in my head, the voice that became Anna the main character in The Bear. Reading about the diet of these children and their attempts to come up with solutions really struck me.
Heartbreaking, yes. But it also shows a kind of resourcefulness that is the opposite of helpless. I was interested by how, in the absence of adult guidance, these kids were forming a culture that helped them cope on their own.
This was my first inkling about the relationship between Anna and her little brother, Stick, in The Bear.
Thank you to Cathy Richards for sending the link about Marwan.