Mac McClelland discovered the subject of her first book, a travelogue–cum–history text called For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question (Soft Skull Press, $15.95), more casually than you’d expect from a human rights reporter who has written for The Nation and Mother Jones: by stumbling around on the Internet. “That is honestly what happened,” McClelland says, relating the first time she learned about the struggles of the Karen people, an ethnic minority group locked in a struggle for independence from Burma since 1949. Tens of thousands of Karen have fled decades of violence across the border into Thailand, where they suffer together in refugee camps, subject to discrimination, police abuse, and economic hardship. “I consider myself to be well informed,” says McClelland, “but I had never heard about this conflict.”
Years later, between graduate school and steady employment and still “haunted” by what little she’d read about the Karen, McClelland flew to western Thailand to live with and teach English to a group of refugees, arriving with barely more knowledge than she had gleaned from that first Internet search. What she discovered ranges from the relatively minor inconveniences of Third World life to the fact that her Karen friends risk arrest and deportation every time they go to the market for food they can rarely afford. She gives them entrée to both MySpace and bisexuality. “I was shocked,” she says of the realization that she was the first LGBT person they had ever met. While it “ended up being something we had some arguments about,” she says, friendship made ideological disagreements moot.
Surrender is a tough story, albeit one the author tells in a breezy, self-effacing style—“It was the only thing that would get me through it,” she says of the strong personal voice that drives the book. Hers is a clear-eyed honesty that makes Surrender an important introduction to one of the great horrors of contemporary global life that’s also an accessible and pleasurable read.