I love attending industry events like National Religious Broadcasters Convention and International Christian Retail Show because of the great connections we make. Michelle Layer Rahal is one of those connections. Michelle is a former radio news reporter and published educator. She and her husband make beautiful music together as long-time members of a Christian band called Work in Progress. Michelle also recently released her first book, Straining Forward, a memoir of Minh Phuong Towner.
My name is Michelle Layer Rahal, first time book author, but life-long writer. With a master’s degree in education, I’ve mostly authored educational articles and reports for various agencies and institutions. Prior to this, I worked as a radio news reporter and anchor in Buffalo and Dallas, TX. So, I’ve been writing and reporting in the non-fiction/research vein for more than 30 years.
You have quite an interesting background as an educator, editor, author, and radio news reporter. Which came first?
How do they all connect?What came first? Waitressing. I did that for a long time—even after I graduated with a degree from Hofstra University in theater performance. I love words—written and performed.
I always thought I would be a children’s writer or actress. Instead, I discovered that I had a knack for research. When you add that to my theater training, news casting seemed like a perfect fit! It was for a while. But eventually I grew disenchanted with the politics of the news business and went back to school to become an elementary school teacher.
My favorite subject to teach was writing. Go figure! But my teaching career didn’t last long once I was identified as the girl who could write publishable lesson plans and assessment reports! I basically wrote my way out of the local school district and into the national education scene.
You recently debuted as an author with Straining Forward. Tell us about the book.
It’s a memoir, but it’s not mine. Straining Forward is the true story of Minh Phuong Towner’s journey from oppression to redemption in the wake of the Vietnam War. We travel with Minh as she moves from Vietnam to France to Australia and finally to America. We experience her trials of abuse, prison, torture, rape, and betrayal as we walk into the dark with her in search of the light. Straining Forward is a spiritual journey of hope and healing that reminds us that even in our most desolate moments, we are never truly alone.
God. I did not set out to write this book. God told me to. One Sunday morning, in broken English, Minh Phuong Towner gave a stirring testimony at my church that began with the execution of her beloved father and ended with God’s grace. Her witness left the congregation stunned and teary. I didn’t know her; she didn’t know me; but as I wrote in the introduction to Straining Forward, the first words I ever spoke to Minh were, “I want to write your story.” I didn’t select those words. God put them in my mouth. I couldn’t say anything else.
It took a long time for Minh to grant me permission to write about her life. She knew her experiences were spiritually inspiring and book worthy, which is why she was cautious to select a writer she could trust with her sacred story. About 7 years after Minh had given her testimony at church, she approached me and simply said, “God told me he wants you to write my story.”
What’s the greatest challenge of writing a memoir about someone else’s story?
The greatest challenge was making sure I didn’t replace Minh’s voice with my own. Minh speaks three languages, but English is her weakest, and she has an Australian accent! She also has a clip to her vocal cadence and generally speaks in an abundance of short sentences. Then there’s her witty sense of humor, which I discovered is her protective reflex. But above all, Minh is a deep thinker who carefully ponders everything she says. I strove to infuse all these attributes into the text.
The greatest challenge of writing Minh’s memoir was getting her to fully open up and share the darkest routes of her journey. The first year was the hardest when Minh had her protective wall up—both consciously and unconsciously. Consciously, her greatest fear was that people would not like her once they learned the whole truth about her life. Unconsciously, she had buried some of her memories so deep she had difficulty retrieving them. I interviewed her like a good reporter would, but I tried to do it in love like God commands. In time, and through much prayer, I became Minh’s confidant. It took us five years to uncover her past, expose the truth, and complete her story. In the process, Minh and I became closer than friends—we became sisters.
What can we learn from Minh’s story?
First, Minh’s story teaches us that God is always with us. Though He may not be visible in the midst of suffering, that doesn’t mean He isn’t present. He may show up in the stars or in a stranger. Whatever the approach, God has a plan for our lives, and if we keep our eyes open, we will begin to recognize his abiding presence and trust in His promises. (Jeremiah 29:11)
Second, Minh’s story teaches us to reach out to the refugee in their distress. We privileged Americans have no idea what it is like to live in true fear. Instead of embracing and caring for the refugee in our midst, we often shun them or simply look the other way, never taking the opportunity to understand their plight. But every refugee carries a sacred story that has the potential to foster compassion and transform listeners into the best versions of themselves. (James 1:27)
Third, Minh’s story teaches us to persevere, to never give up hope. Life is messy, and for some it appears hopeless. But the valley of the shadow of death is only so long—it does not go on forever. Instead of quitting, Minh’s story inspires us to take one more step towards the goal. Press on by relying on God’s strength.(Philippians 3:13-14)
What’s been the response to the book so far?
Overwhelmingly positive. According to the reviews on Amazon, readers call Minh’s life story horrific, shocking, tragic, and traumatic, but they also say it is powerful, courageous, captivating, and full of hope. (Xulon Press, my publisher, selected it as one of its top books of 2018 and highlighted it at last year’s International Christian Retail Show, which is how I first became familiar with your blog!) Vietnam veterans have sought Minh out at our various book signings to apologize for not being able to save her, and Minh graciously reminds them that the war (which the Vietnamese call “The American War”) was not their fault.
What I find most interesting is that men and women react quite differently to Minh’s story. Though both genders are visibly moved, the women tend to express empathy and the men tend to express remorse. More men have cried at our book signings than women, even though more women are buying this book. I am no psychologist, but if I had to explain the difference in gender responses, I would say that women have an innate understanding of what it means to suffer at the hands of power-driven men, whereas men are shocked to learn how evil and controlling their race can act toward women.
I have a couple of ideas—in the non-fiction category, of course, which I am still bouncing around in my head. Now that I’ve written one book, I see no reason not to write another. Hopefully, it won’t take as long!
I would like to say that Minh continues to amaze. No one knows better than she does that life is short, so she makes the most of every moment. She works hard, plays hard, and gives 100 percent of herself to every endeavor. When life hands her lemons, she makes lemonade. At age 56, Minh received her Masters of Divinity Degree, making her the 3rd Asian woman in America to be ordained a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA). While working as a chaplain for the last five years, Minh has embarked on a number of mission trips, ranging from a sports camp with high school students to overseas mission work with Syrian refugees in Bulgaria. Currently, she is working on a Doctorate of Divinity Degree through Gordon Conwell Seminary. I can’t wait to see what God will accomplish through Minh over the next 10 years! And beyond!