How Carol Off balanced fact and emotion in writing All We Leave Behind
Carol Off is a journalist and host of the CBC Radio program As It Happens. She is also the author of All We Leave Behind, a memoir that outlines her efforts to help bring an Afghan man and his family to Canada. In 2002, Off and a television crew encountered Asad Aryubwal, who risked his life to talk to her about the local warlords. She spent years helping protect him and his family and trying to bring them to freedom in Canada.
All We Leave Behind is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction and is on the shortlist for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. In her own words, Off discusses the creative process in writing All We Leave Behind.
Sharing the story
"I knew that I had to write a book when Asad told me he had gone to the UN, as he had diligently done every week, to see if the Pakistan refugee office in Peshawar had any news about his case. After a year of doing this, someone told him that he was going about it all wrong, and that he would have to pay $50,000 to somebody in Moscow to expedite his case. At that point, I knew I had to expose this."
"As a professional writer I knew I had to control my own emotions and try and control the emotions of the story. But often I had to stop writing — there were times of writing and trying to relive the memories that would just overwhelm me. When I got to the last parts of the book, I was trying to keep my fingers on the keyboard while I wept. Every time I would go back to work on it, I would cry. I had kept it together while writing most of the book, but at the end I had to let the emotions go."
Just the facts
"I knew that I had to breathe life into these facts, otherwise it's just a document. I'm an old-fashioned, 'Just the facts, ma'am' kind of journalist. So the hardest part was finding that line between what factually happened — what is accurate in this story — and what I have to do to craft around that. How do I breathe life into this and create a narrative without betraying the facts?
"There's a larger truth that you have to pursue. If you are faithful to that truth, then you can allow the facts to breathe a bit and wrap them in a bit of emotion and context."
Setting the stage
"I had binders full of emails — filled with email exchanges with Asad's family, along with correspondence with the government and refugee aid agencies — along with research and information on the entire crisis. I wanted the book to have, as a backdrop, all the things that were happening in the world at the time. It seemed that every time that Asad and his family turned around they were caught up in the machinations of world events. I had to have the research down, a large canvas about the world and how the world is treating refugees — and what it took to get this one family through that whole labyrinth and get them here to Canada."
Carol Off's comments have been edited and condensed.