Mitch Albom Interview: In "Finding Chika," a Dying Little Girl Shows Us How to Live
Image attributed to Mitch Albom
Mitch Albom is a bestselling author, screenwriter, playwright and nationally syndicated columnist. He founded nine charities in Detroit and operates the Have Faith Haiti Mission & Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which he visits monthly. The author of seven #1 New York Times bestsellers, his books have collectively sold more than 40 million copies in 47 languages worldwide.
Tuesdays with Morrie, which spent four straight years atop the New York Times list, is now the bestselling memoir of all time. Four of Albom’s books, including Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, For One More Day and Have a Little Faith, have been made into highly acclaimed TV movies. Oprah Winfrey produced Tuesdays with Morrie, which claimed four Emmy awards including a best actor nod for Jack Lemmon in the lead role.
“She was only three. After a while, she was staring at me and making faces at me. So I kind of stuck my tongue out, and then she stuck her tongue out. Then I laughed, and then she laughed.”
Albom’s most personal memoir to date, Finding Chika: A Little Girl, an Earthquake, and the Making of a Family, celebrates Chika, a young Haitian orphan whose short life would forever change his heart. It is a devastatingly beautiful portrait of what it means to be a family, regardless of how it is made.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Mitch, was this book difficult to write after Chika’s death?
Mitch Albom: It was very difficult to write because I had to relive everything. It was hard. I knew it was going to be hard, but I also got to watch a lot of videos of Chika and see photos, and that was joyous. So in a way, it was very much like our time with her. It was joyous and funny and heartbreaking at the same time, and in that way, it was really reliving the whole experience.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you decide to write the book in dialogue format as if Chika were really there talking to you?
Mitch Albom: Because I felt that people can get scared about a book they perceive to be about a dying child. I know that. So I thought that one way around that is to just say right off the bat that she died, which I do on the very first page. So there was no more of the “Careful, careful, careful, it’s really close.” There’s no more of that horror of, “I don’t want to turn another page; she’s going to get sicker” or “What if she dies?” That kind of thing.
Then I thought that Chika was so conversational. Everything about her was verbal and to not display that would really not explain who she was. It would’ve been, like in Tuesdays with Morrie, never having the conversations between us just my remembrances. So I thought that the best way to bring her to life would be through dialogue. Many of those conversations are in my head as I sit there at my desk with my eyes closed. Many of them are real conversations that we had that are just sort of placed in the context of the story. But all of them are exactly how she sounded.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was so special about this little girl that led you and your wife to decide to raise her?
Mitch Albom: Well, Melissa, it really wasn’t like we wanted to take her because she was special. We took her because there was no choice, and we didn’t even give a second thought to it. She was sick, and we needed to. Everything we discovered about Chika was to our delight, but if she was the toughest kid in the world to deal with, we still would’ve taken her. She needed help, and that is all that we thought about. She needed medical help.
Now I knew when Chika came to the mission for the first time that she was a special kid. Her godmother brought her in. I go through this process quite a bit. I interview all the kids who come and all the kids we have to say “no” to. So every year, it’s probably 20 or 30 kids, and we take maybe three. So I’ve gone through a lot of these conversations, and it’s usually with the guardian, godparent or friend or whoever found them.
Usually, the child keeps his or her head down and never looks at me because they don’t know where they are, they don’t know what’s happening. Chika was quite the opposite. She sat in her godmother’s lap, and she just crossed her arms and looked at me, like, “How long is this going to take?” (laughs) She was only three. After a while, she was staring at me and making faces at me. So I kind of stuck my tongue out, and then she stuck her tongue out. Then I laughed, and then she laughed. I’ve never had a kid do that before. She was tougher than most and brave, and I didn’t know at that time how much she would need that. But she was unique from the minute she got in.
For those two years when she was healthy, and the tumor wasn’t displaying any effect, Chika was like the boss of the place. She was three and telling all the older kids where and when they could go, when they could go to the bathroom, who was first in line for food, who could go to sleep. Then we got that diagnosis, and it changed.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was there ever a time during the worst days of her illness that you questioned your faith in God?
Mitch Albom: Sure. I try to be honest about that in the book because Chika never did. Never did. But I couldn’t understand it. There are moments today where I still don’t understand it. There’s not any justification for it because she’s never done anything wrong. She had nothing but a hard life from the day she was born. Literally three days after she was born, the house collapsed around her. I don’t know how she survived that.
Maybe she was put on earth to inspire people, and maybe by her dying so young, she’s more of an inspiration. Perhaps in telling her story, she’ll become an inspiration that way, but I still think that’s a lot of hindsight on my part. There are still moments where I ask God, “I don’t understand. I can’t understand.” I tried. I guess that’s another one of those things that there’s a plan that I don’t know quite yet. But, yes, it made me angry and frustrated.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But you never lost faith?
Mitch Albom: I never lost my faith because I remember once asking the same thing to a rabbi for a book I wrote about 10 years ago. He had lost a daughter ironically. He was a man of the cloth, and he was furious. I said to him, “Why didn’t you just say, that’s it. Done. There is no God?” And he said it was because he still felt more comforted by having something to go to and to ask why even if the answer was unsatisfactory than if there was nothing at all to go to. I think I feel the same way.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In your faith, do you believe that we will truly be reunited in heaven with all of our loved ones?
Mitch Albom: I do. I do. I wrote a book called The Five People You Meet in Heaven years ago, and it was based on a story that my uncle told me when I was a little boy. He told me every year at Thanksgiving that he had a near-death experience on an operating table, and he rolled out of his body and saw all his dead relatives waiting for him at the edge of his bed, He ended up living through that, and he went back into his body and lived another 10 years, but he told me that story and how vivid it was.
Since he was my relative and not a stranger trying to sell a program or book, I believed him and have believed ever since that’s what happens. So I take a little but of comfort that if he saw all his relatives waiting for him, then there will be people waiting for me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is The Five People You Meet in Heaven being developed into a TV series?
Mitch Albom: It is, yeah. That one and the sequel to it, The Next Person You Meet in Heaven. I’m working with the people on that. It’s Fox TV, and I’m writing the opening episode, the pilot episode. Then I’m not going to write any more of them because it’s too much work, and I have other writing to do. But I’m enjoying writing the opening one. I’m going back to that story all over again in a different world. But, yeah, so far, they’ve been great to work with.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tuesdays with Morrie is one of the bestselling memoirs of all time. Did you ever imagine it would be that successful?
Mitch Albom: No. I didn’t, and neither did anyone else, no matter what some people may tell you now. Tuesdays with Morrie was just a labor of love. I started writing because Morrie was so in debt over his medical bills, and he didn’t have a way to pay for them. It was the only thing I could think of to try and raise that kind of money in a short period of time.
I went around to a bunch of publishers in New York telling them what I was doing and that there was something special there and that it could be good. Almost every one of them said, “No. Not interested. Boring. You’re a sports writer.” There were a million different reasons, but they were all “No.” It was only a few weeks before Morrie died that we found a publisher willing to do it, and they gave me just enough money to pay his bills. I gave it all to him.
It was a nice moment between us, and he got to know that his bills were going to be paid. He died a few weeks later. He never read a word of the book. I wrote it because, like I said, it was a labor of love. Twenty thousand copies were printed. Now I don’t even know how many copies were sold. It just took off. No, I couldn’t have imagined it. There are still things happening today that are beyond my imagination.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you working on another book?
Mitch Albom: Oh, no. I’ve got lots of ideas, but I deliberately said that after I finished this book about Chika, I’m going to spend time talking about Haiti and the children we have. Whatever money this book earns, it’s going right back to the orphanage. I’m not taking anything. My hope is that we find a large audience, and we can use that money to build a new orphanage because we’re in a 40-year-old building. It’s still not even earthquake proof.
It’s a wonderful place and a loving place, but all the love in the world doesn’t fix holes and leaks in the roof, bugs, animals and all that kind of stuff. So my hope is to build something that is aspirational for our kids, not something that I want them to get away from, but something that they’ll be happy coming to. My dedication will be for that the next couple of years, and I will be taking a little break from writing books anyhow because this is the second one I’ve written in two years. It feels like I’ve been running a back-to-back marathon because I usually wait about two years between books. So this has been a lot. I just want to spend the time on the kids.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will you and your wife be guardians to or foster another child in your home?
Mitch Albom: We don’t really foster them. I’m there at the orphanage every month. I just kissed one goodbye two minutes ago from my house. He comes up every two months for therapy and stays for a month with us because he was left to die when he was four weeks old in Haiti under a tree, so he suffered a lot of injuries. He can’t walk right or use his arm right, so we had him get therapy. So every three months, we have a child living with us anyhow.
We’ve had two other ones since Chika who have had to come up for extended stretches of time for medical care. We house 52 kids, so with the 52 kids, chances are one of them, at any given time, may need care. Then my goal is to get them all college educated. My oldest two are already in college here in Detroit, so we see them all the time. They spend weekends, holidays and summers with us. In a year, six more are coming, so there will be eight of them here.
I kind of feel like I don’t need to make a decision, you know? It’s kind of already happening (laughs). But I would never hesitate to take any of our kids for as long as they needed if they needed to be cared for. I wish I could go more. Even going every month is not enough for me.
My wife says we should buy the house next door to us and make it like a weigh station for all the kids when they come up for college and everything. But I reminded her that our goal is not to have our kids come to live in America. Our goal is to have our kids take advantage of America for education and things like that as long as they earn the grades for scholarships, but then to go back to Haiti to make their country better and put an end to a need for places like ours. That’s what they’ve all promised to do. They all know they’re not immigrating to America. They’re coming to learn. They love their country and want to make it better.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: On that note, I’m reminded of an article you wrote in June of 2018 for the Detroit Free Press called “Don’t judge us for President Donald Trump’s Words.”
Mitch Albom: Oh, yeah, about the shithole country remark, and I’m pretty sure he’s never been there. Well, I understand politics is a hot button topic for everybody. I can stay away from it. It’s kind of a no-win situation. But in that particular case, I knew something about Haiti. I’m not smart enough to be president or even know what it takes to be president. But I do know that Haiti is not a shithole country, and the people aren’t shithole country people.
They’re wonderful people who have been socked in the jaw by history over and over again and by corrupt administrations. The children especially have, and I don’t care where in the world they are, children don’t deserve bad fates. They did nothing. Why a child can be born an hour and a half south of Miami and have an entirely different existence than children living an hour and a half north doesn’t make sense to me. That’s the imbalance I feel I must try to rectify a little bit.
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