LEWISTON – Joseph Little discovered Vietnam Friendship Village in Hanoi a few years ago while backpacking with his wife, Samantha. The orphanage serves as a home, school and clinic for 120 children and young adults living with moderate to severe disabilities due to Agent Orange, a legacy of the Vietnam War.
Little, an associate English professor at Niagara University, was so touched by the work being done by American veteran George Mizo, who founded Friendship Village, that he soon began serving on the eight–person board of directors.
He recently completed a memoir of his travels, “Letters from the Other Side of Silence,” and has decided to donate all of his author royalties from the first 10 years of sales to Vietnam Friendship Village.
“As an English professor, I find it hard to contribute to the needs of folks in developing countries in concrete ways,” Little said. “Offering the royalties of my book to the Village is the most direct way I can contribute.”
Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, when the last American military personnel fled Saigon. But those who remained behind continue to suffer the effects of Agent Orange from generation to generation.
The path that led Little to discover Vietnam Friendship Village is the subject of his memoir. It is about a journey of discovery, a spiritual reawakening that started five years ago on a mountaintop, actually the edge of an active volcano named Picaya in Guatemala.
Little, 43, who teaches travel writing at Niagara, said his story is told through a series of travelogues and letters.
He said the spiritual story is not a denominational approach to religion or God.
“It starts with me hiking up Picaya in Guatemala and having what some people would call a transcendental or mystical experience,” said Little. “Having this experience sent me a different life trajectory. The book is about that journey and (trying to explain) those experiences.”
He said the encounter in Picaya was beyond thinking, beyond everything he had known, adding, “It was so grand that, to this day, it still slops over the clean edges of my words and runs down the sides when I think about it.”
He said his search led him to seek out more mountain experiences, which led him from Guatemala to the Himalayas. In the Himalayas he met a reclusive Russian mystic. He stayed in a cabin in Nepal owned by a mustard farmer who was in the process of bringing his family home after learning he only had a few weeks left to live.
“Volrom rented out cabins near his goats and had rented one room to me and another to Uri (the Russian mystic), who had just completed 45 days of silent meditation,” Little said. “Meanwhile, I’m there around the campfire, mostly listening and learning.”
He said the men had very different outlooks on life – the farmer who was embracing the life he had left and the mystic who had gone to great lengths to escape from it.
“I saw them as an example of very different ways of living and as a way to think throughout my own life,” he said.
He said he began to idolize mountains, but living in Western New York he struggled and fell into a serious panic and depression, which he also writes about. He contacted a wilderness theologian in St. Louis and chronicles his 800–mile road trip to meet with him and have coffee, which includes travels through his home state of Minnesota.
The five-year memoir closes in Friendship Village, where he turns his energies outward to help others.
“I saw the last puzzle piece for the book, which is realizing there is more to life than meditating on a mountaintop in silence. There’s also being a contributing member of humanity,” Little said.
He said he feels connected to Vietnam and its people and has a purpose.
“There’s a role for the contemplative in your life, the quiet spaces or the divine. For me that also led to the active side of life and being a positive force in other people’s lives,” he said.
Little learned his book would be published by Homebound Publications, a Connecticut-based independent press that specializes in contemplative literature, while he was leading Niagara students on an eight-day backpacking trip in the highlands of Guatemala. “Letters from the Other Side of Silence” will be released in paperback form and on the Nook and Kindle and as an audiobook in March 2017. It will be distributed in about 10 countries.
Little has been touched by seeing the effects of Agent Orange–caused disease on the people in Vietnam as well as injuries from remaining land mines, both devastating side effects of the Vietnam War that continue to haunt its people.
He said he already has begun writing notes for a follow-up writing project on the legacies of war, both in the United States and in places like Vietnam and Rwanda.
Little, who has been with Niagara University for the past 10 years, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and earned his doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
He said “Letters from the Other Side of Silence” is very personal and very introspective, but the last thing he wants people to do it read it, then put it down and go on with their life. He said he hopes reading it will encourage people to travel to some of these sites.
“I would love for someone to book a flight to the desert, to the mountains, maybe Picaya itself – somewhere that tears them down beyond all familiarity and encourages them to rebuild themselves anew,” he said.
He said readers who purchase the book also will have the satisfaction of knowing they are financially contributing to the welfare of a group of kids in Vietnam who really need help.
Anyone who would like to donate to Friendship Village can do so at crowdrise.com/thefriendshipfund.
And they can read more about the Village at: vietnamfriendship.org.