Back in October 2012, I posted a review of the book Neighbors and Wise Men by Tony Kriz, on this blog. Honestly, the book is hard to put down and felt like one of those conversations with friends that flies by because storytelling done well gives us permission to lose track of time. Tony Kriz lives in Portland and recently we connected and Tony graciously allowed me to post this interview. This is shared with you for two reasons: first, to encourage you to consider picking up Tony’s book and secondly, to remind you that stories are waiting to be discovered and told. I am grateful to Tony for taking the time to do this and grateful for his insights. Enjoy.
1. Great work on the book, Neighbors and Wise Men, by the way. Immediately, I was struck with this thought: “Pay attention to another person’s story or you may miss Jesus today.” From Albania to Reed College, how did you develop the discipline to truly pay attention to another person’s uniqueness, their story?
Bo, Thank you so much for your interest in and support of Neighbors and Wise Men. The beauty of the others’ story is one of the key elements of the book. I am still recovering from the beauty of two stories I heard in just the last few days, one from a terminally ill woman who lives in a van and the other from a forty-nine year old Nation of Islam ex-gangster. No joke. These two stories were windows into heaven for me.
Where did I learn to pay attention? Oh, geez. I was raised in a very driven and self-reliant home, so I didn’t come by it naturally. When I was twenty-one years old, I moved to Albania, right after her particularly strict communist government had just been ousted. I moved in with a Muslim family to live. They quickly became my family. Though I spoke zero Albanian (at least at first) and they spoke almost no English, we would still enjoy three meals a day together. In the Mediterranean/Turkic world a meal is lingering time, full of story telling. There is nothing as transformative as hundreds of hours spent telling stories without shared backgrounds or shared language. It takes creativity and an adventurous face. It also leads to a patient spirit (sometimes a simple story takes half an hour)… you can’t help but fall in love with the other.
2. The vividness of the characters is a strength of your book. Does any one person you mention in the book still haunt you or stick with you longer than you thought?
There are so many. There is no one that I feel as much affection for as I do my Albanian grandmother and I will never forget Harry, the homeless man who mentored me in New York City and…and…and. Haha.
The person who really haunts me though is Katarina, the elderly, mystical Jewish woman who met me in a bar and spoke violently into my pain. I had kept that story to myself for years until I finally wrote it into Neighbors. I will never forget how I wept and then tangibly shook as I wrote the words; it all came back to me so vividly and viscerally. It is hard to explain. When my agent read it, he said he had never in all his years been so soulfully punched by a story and I think that is because it came from such a powerful place inside me.
3. Ok, if you were training me to prepare for missions work or cross cultural work, what would you focus on?
Interesting question. First of all, when I moved overseas as a very young man, I did so with no intention of ever moving back to the States. I believed that I was a missionary for life: “Pack my stuff in a coffin so you have something to ship me home in.” It ends up, my missionary story only lasted eight years (for more on that, you will have to read the book.)
I worked in several intense spots around the world and every place is different. Values systems, pace of life, availability of resources, human receptivity, social norms; they are all different. The biggest hurdle for Americans, in my opinion and after watching the drama inside my own soul, is how freaking arrogant we are. There may be no other culture that has a harder time getting out of their own way than Americans… Power will do that.
So here are my few humble suggestions before you go:
- Risk. Make a habit of doing stupid things and regularly failing at them. If you are a college student or living in a neighborhood, take some risks. A habit of risking-taking will certainly make the first months/years on the mission field scarier but it will help you conform more quickly.
- Listen. Practice listening all the time. You have to build your listening endurance. Find people who are very different than you, preferably people for whom English is not their primary language and dedicate time, two to three hours at a time, to hearing their stories. Don’t be afraid of long pauses and don’t clutter the air with your opinions or counter-points.
- Integrate. Find a group that is not like you/your culture and spend some regular time with them. It can be cultural difference, racial difference, economic/class difference or even just social norms, but find a way to “join them.” Six months of true integration will do more to transform you than any missions class or curriculum.
4. What advice or counsel do you have for aspiring storytellers, who claim to be Christian?
Be encouraged. I have never studied writing, nor have I made writing of any kind a regular part of my life-routine. What I have embraced are stories. Just yesterday, I listened to a pierced skateboarder on the metro train, chatted with dudes on the basketball court and spent three hours listening to my friend in the little known basement of Kell’s Irish Pub.
If you are a Christian, that should provide numerous ways to embrace story. Learn to ask great open-ended questions that allow the other person to share creatively and freely. “Do you believe in God?” for instance is a terrible question. “What is god like?” is much more interesting. Learn to teach in narrative (this can happen in small groups, one-on-one or preaching in front of a crowd.) Narrative teaching is really misunderstood. Jesus often told stories with few or no prose of explanation. Often the explanation extended to “The Kingdom of God is like…” and nothing more.
All Jesus did that day was tell stories—a long storytelling afternoon. His storytelling fulfilled the prophecy:
I will open my mouth and tell stories; I will bring out into the open things hidden since the world’s first day.
Matthew 13:34-35 (The Message)
You can check out the work of Tony Kriz at his website, where you can also invite him to speak and tell more stories.