A Conversation with Warren St. John
Random House Reader’s Circle: What is Outcasts United about?
Warren St. John: In the most literal sense, it’s the story of a soccer team for young refugees, of the remarkable woman who founded that team, and of the town where these people came together. But more broadly I think the book is about dealing with change— large- scale social change—as well as the problem of creating a sense of community in an environment in which people, at least on the surface, don’t seem to have a lot in common. I think the changes that occurred in Clarkston are a hyperspeed version of the sorts of changes that are happening all around the world. So I went to Clarkston to see what lessons there were to be learned.
RHRC: Can you explain?
WSJ: Well, Clarkston, Georgia, where the Fugees are based, was once a simple southern town. And now between a third and a half of the town are foreign- born, and the high school has students from over fi fty countries. Even the Fugees comprise kids from over a dozen countries, and the coach is from Jordan. And then of course there are people who’ve spent their entire lives in Clarkston. So the question then is, how do you make all this work? It seems like a fairly pressing question because this sort of change is happening all over the United States and Europe as well, though perhaps a bit more slowly than in Clarkston. That’s what attracted me to this story.
RHRC: How did you hear about the Fugees?
WSJ: I was in Atlanta giving a talk about my fi rst book at a conference of educators, and a reader of the book invited me to join him and his wife for dinner. He worked in refugee resettlement, so over a hamburger, I suppose my reporter’s instinct kicked in and I started grilling him, asking, “Refugees from where? How did they get here? Where do they live and how do they build new lives here? Who helps them?” That sort of thing. He very patiently answered my questions and then casually mentioned that there was a soccer team of young refugees on the eastern side of town, and he encouraged me to check them out. So I called the coach and went to a game. It was a surprisingly powerful experience. Luma was this mysterious, intense presence. The kids themselves were quiet and focused, and they played beautifully. And there was one player in particular who had survived an apartment fi re a few months before that had killed a number of his family members. Luma was tough with him—he didn’t get a break at all. And without giving too much away, his response was remarkable. I came away from that afternoon truly moved, and I knew that day that I’d found my next book.
In the meantime, I learned more about Clarkston, and I realized that so much of the tension over refugee resettlement was just coming to a head. There had recently been a case of police brutality against a Nigerian immigrant. That summer the mayor had banned soccer from the town park. So it wasn’t only a story about a team—there was this momentous kind of reckoning going on in the community as well. And that’s what made it clear to me that I needed to get there quickly and to start reporting.
RHRC: Did being from the South infl uence your interest in the story or how you saw Clarkston in general?
WSJ: Absolutely. I grew up in Birmingham, just two and a half hours from Atlanta. My mother is from Savannah, and I went to Atlanta countless times when I was younger, so I was familiar with the city. But mainly I think I knew enough about the southern psyche, and life in a small town—my father was from a town in northern Alabama called Cullman, where I spent a lot of time as a kid—to know that the infl ux of a large number of refugees, including many from Africa and the Middle East, a decent number of them Muslim, was going to produce some interesting fall out.
RHRC: You did a series of articles about Clarkston and the Fugees for The New York Times—did the book come out of that work? WSJ: It was actually the other way around—the book gave rise to the articles. I knew from the outset that this was a subject I wanted to immerse myself in, and that the scope of it could easily support a book- length treatment, demanded it even. I talked to my editor at Random House, told him what I planned to do, and he was enthusiastic. So I was on my way. When I went to ask for a leave from the Times, my editors there asked what I was writing about, and when I told them, they asked if I’d write pieces along the way, during the process of reporting and writing the book. It seemed like a great way to test and formulate my thoughts about the material. But by then I was already fl ying down to see games in Atlanta on weekends and getting absorbed completely by the story. So I was working on the book a full six months before the fi rst feature ran in the Times.
RHRC: How were you received by the refugee families in Clarkston?
WSJ: There is very understandable reticence among many of the refugee families I met. Their experiences make it diffi cult for them to trust strangers, particularly anyone seen as part of an apparatus—the government, the army, the media, even the relief bureaucracy. Refugees have often faced a great deal of betrayal. That said, I had an introduction in most cases from Luma, someone the families knew and trusted, and that was invaluable. And among the refugees, there is also a natural curiosity about locals—they want to meet Americans and get to know them. They live in apartment complexes full of other refugees, many from other countries—people whose language they may not speak. So refugees in Clarkston don’t actually have many opportunities to just sit down and talk to an American. And when they do, they have lots of questions. They want things explained.
RHRC: Can you give an example?
WSJ: When I was reporting, I’d frequently show up—to soccer practice or games, to people’s apartments—in a rental car. One afternoon one of players on the Fugees said, “You must be a very wealthy man.” I asked, “Why do you say that?” And he said, “Because you have so many cars—you’re always showing up in a new one.” So that became an occasion to explain the mundane but not entirely obvious practice of rental cars, and why one week you might have a mini van and the next week a PT Cruiser. Most refugees are coming from places where owning a car is exceptionally rare, so the notion that you could essentially borrow one for a few days was almost unfathomable.
RHRC: Tell me about Coach Luma.
WSJ: Luma is a force of nature. She’s a doer. She offers an example of stability in an otherwise fairly chaotic environment. And perhaps more than anything, she does what she says she’s going to do. If Luma tells her players to show up at 8 a.m. to meet the team bus, she’s there by 7:55 a.m. Likewise, when she says the bus is leaving at 8:10, the bus leaves at 8:10. So, yes, by spending time with the Fugees—at practice, at games, at tutoring—that’s less time for boys to get into trouble or to get drawn in by the wrong crowd. But there’s also a powerful learning component to the entire program. The boys learn what it means to be consistent and to follow through, to take responsibility. And while some may fi nd Luma’s rules rigid, they also come to appreciate their predictability.
RHRC: Like a lot of people in the book, Luma is searching for a home in a way as well, isn’t she?
WSJ: I think that gets back to what the book is really about. So many of the people I met in Clarkston—refugees, Luma, even the long- term residents, and especially a lot of the people who work in refugee resettlement—are looking for something: stability and safety, a sense of belonging to a larger community. And in a way that becomes the one thing that many people—even from very different backgrounds— have in common. The trick is opening enough of a conversation that strangers learn that about each other. And in Clarkston, there are these pockets where that conversation happens—among the Fugees players, at the International Bible Church, at Thriftown, the local grocery store. But it’s hard to realize that you and a neighbor may actually have the same interests if you don’t ever speak to one another.
RHRC: And what about the distance between the Fugees and the teams they are playing? Do they ever have an opportunity to connect?
WSJ: Yes and no. Fundamentally, when the Fugees take the fi eld against a rival team, both teams want to win. It’s a competition, not an afternoon of group singing and camaraderie. That said, there are many members of the Fugees who have never been outside of Clarkston except to go to away games. Their parents don’t have cars. They take the bus to school each morning. So the simple act of traveling to a game—riding on the interstate past downtown Atlanta or past some of those big beautiful houses in the suburbs with swimming pools and lush green lawns—becomes an act of exploration into another world. And even the competitive banter and ribbing that goes on between kids—while not always entirely polite—is a form of communication and connecting.
RHRC: There’s a scene early in the book in which the father of a rival player is watching his son select the proper cleats for his soccer shoes and he says something like, “I paid $200 for those shoes, so you better pick the right ones.” What did you learn from watching the economic disparity between the Fugees and their competitors?
WSJ: I think the example of the Fugees might come as a relief to overspent soccer parents everywhere—you don’t have to have $200 cleats or matching team duffel bags with your jersey number embroidered on them to play the game well or to enjoy it. A passion for the game will trump having the best gear every time. I think that’s a shortcoming of the American approach to the game—we tend to emphasize gear and the consumer stuff, and to restrict play to a formal setting like practice and games, whereas most of the world plays the game all the time, more the way Americans play basketball. Watching the Fugees play defi nitely taught me about the value of cultivating that approach to the game and making room for it and encouraging it in a child’s life.
RHRC: You seem to avoid making judgments about the people you write about.
WSJ: I generally go into most situations assuming that people are doing the best they can, and I challenge myself to try to understand the motivations behind actions that I disagree with or that strike me as wrong or wrongheaded. In the case of Clarkston, I think it’s important not to get caught up in the game of issuing simplistic moral judgments— saying this person is “good” or “bad”—but to acknowledge the complexity of a place and of the people there, and to acknowledge the incredible challenge that resettlement has posed. So that’s what I’ve tried to do in my book. There are no simple answers in Clarkston, which is what makes it so interesting.