In More Than Conquerors (FSG), Megan Hustad revisits a childhood spent with her evangelical Christian family as they try to spread their message from the Caribbean to Amsterdam, only to return back to the United States where Hustad and her sister start seeing cracks in their church and family. Never getting close to scandalous tell-all memoir that leaves the reader feeling like Hustad is throwing her loved ones underneath a bus, More Than Conquerors relies on Hustad’s matter-of-fact storytelling and an eye for detail that makes her story of slouching away from Bethlehem hard to put down.
Flavorwire: What struck me about More Than Conquerors was that it may have been harder adjusting to living in America after spending time with your missionary family in other countries. Do you think you had a harder time adjusting to drifting away from the evangelical world or settling back down in the country you were born in?
Megan Hustad: They were equally difficult but for different reasons. What made settling back down in the USA so awkward was that we were naively unprepared for reverse culture shock. It was supposed to be a homecoming. We were American, after all.
But not only had the culture shifted in some nauseating ways while we were away — 1978 to 1987 — and everything appeared glossier, more commercial, but we longer had the ex-pat’s luxury of living out of time. By that I mean that I’ve met many ex-pats over the years and whether they be American-born or British or Ghanian, if the impulse for their moving wasn’t strictly economic, i.e. they emigrated in order to make more money, then their reasons often have to do with escaping an era, or their generation’s prevailing mores. Thousands of miles from home they can defy the pressure to stay “up-to-date” more easily; in fact, they can disregard it altogether. It’s the opposite of FOMO. Ex-pats want to miss out. They find missing out positively thrilling.
I feel like there’s always a good amount of behind-the-scenes sort of secrecy that goes on behind any religious institution, but you seem pretty interested and knowledgeable on the subject of Trans World Radio. I’m curious how much of TWR’s history did you find out researching, and how much was taught to you growing up?
Most everything came from research. Paul E. Freed, TWR’s founder, wrote a couple of books about how the organization grew from some dinky ten-watt station in Tangier to be this global initiative. Those texts were hugely helpful. I was also lucky in that one gentleman who’d been present at the creation of TWR, or very nearly so, was willing to field my questions. For a few months I was intrigued by the possibility that TWR had received funding from the CIA, as did many Cold War cultural institutions. The former TWR exec told me “No,” in no uncertain terms, a denial later reinforced by the fact that my digging for State Dept. records of any such arrangement yielded nada. Now as any real journalist — and I’m not one — knows, the Freedom of Information Act is tricky, and it’s possible I didn’t phrase the question in a way that opened the magic door. (The information is ostensibly free but you have to “guess right” in order to gain access to it.) So given more time and money, I’d love to research not just TWR but related organizations much more deeply.
You talk about some of the books you read growing up. How much of an impact did literature have on you growing up and reaching your own conclusions about what you believe in?
Well the remarkable thing is that my parents did not censor secular books as many other missionary parents did. We read as broadly as any kids that grew up in the ’80s and we read a lot. Many Dell Yearling paperbacks. Toys and Barbies we’d have to beg for, wait until Christmas, etc. but books — those my parents somehow always found money for.
As to how that affected my faith… good question. Exposing kids to great books is not a foolproof technique for fostering the habits of thoughtfulness and empathy, but pretty close. And to a great extent thoughtfulness and empathy are central to the Christian project, at least as I understand it, at least in its ideal forms. So in that sense my parents knew what they were doing. They weren’t endangering our souls, as some missionary friends alleged, by letting my sister and me read pretty much whatever we pleased. They were enlarging them.
“Rejection is hard to process when our worldview presumes nothing just happens.” That’s such a great quote. You grew up believing in a similar worldview. Assuming you have, when do you think you started understanding this wasn’t the case?
You know, I’m not sure I can provide a coherent answer at this point in my thinking on the subject. There’s a passage in G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy — essentially a work of Christian apologetics — that’s tangential to the point but seems somehow apropos: “The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.”
He adds later, re. questions of kids and literary imaginations and formation:
[Robinson] Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.
“Everything has been saved from a wreck.” It’s an interesting thought to carry with you throughout the day.