Chernobyl: also a great place to make use of the Geiger counter and hazard suit in the back of your closet.

Andrew Boden discusses Issue XVII‘s “The Half-Life of Salvador Barbary.”

In “Salvador Barbary,” a young, Eastern European couple gives birth to a grossly deformed child who, without the aid of machines, lives. It’s a story, among other things, about our will to “keep on keeping on” in the face of overwhelming obstacles. My idea grew up from an article I read in Harper’s Magazine, in which journalist Steve Featherstone travels into the Zone of Alienation, a large region in northern Ukraine, which was contaminated by fallout in 1986 when Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. Featherstone and two biologists explore the landscape, which isn’t so much a blighted and blackened wasteland as he (and we) expect, as a strangely lush anywhere. Earlier in Featherstone’s account, one of the biologists plucks up a blue wildflower from the ground. “Mutant?” asks Featherstone. “Mysotis Stricta,” replies one of the scientists. “The straight forget-me-not.”

If beauty can flourish in an irradiated forest, can virtue thrive at the ground zero of our selves? The English author Robert Twigger wrote in a recent blog post that one key self-improvement skill is to find humour in situations that seem devoid of it. “Salvador Barbary” is also a weirdly comic story. Keeping on keeping on can’t be without humour, or what’s the point? If we survive an immense tragedy, but the event blasts our humour to pieces, hasn’t part of us—perhaps the most essential part—perished? Another insightful anecdote I read long ago comes to mind. A man and his friends are trapped in deep, dark cave. The man says to the terrified group, “After we’re rescued, we’ll be telling funny stories about this. Why can’t we do that now?” When we have distance on our selves and our predicaments, that’s when we get the most astute jokes, the kind of jokes that hold a mirror to our minds and say, “Look.”

Andrew Boden is the co-editor of Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness, a groundbreaking anthology of evocative personal essays by writers who either suffer from or have close family members who have been diagnosed with a serious mental health or developmental disorder. His stories and essays have appeared in The Journey Prize Stories: 22, Prairie Fire, Descant, Vancouver Review, and the anthology Nobody’s Father: Life Without Kids. Andrew is vice-president and director of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Exchange, a Canadian children’s literacy charity, and has helped build homes in San Quintin, Mexico. He enjoys cave exploration, especially on Vancouver Island and in the Chilliwack region. He currently resides in Burnaby, BC.

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