Story Untold: “Climbing Is in Such a Different Place Now”

Story Untold with Shelma Jun

Shelma Jun is changing the sport of climbing. Photo by Irene Yee.

Shelma Jun is, by most metrics, an unlikely face for the sport of climbing. A late arrival to the scene — she didn’t begin until her mid-twenties — she lives in New York City, about as far-removed a place from Yosemite and Joshua Tree as they come. Which is kind of the point. A Korean-American born in Seoul, the Brooklyn-based climber is leading the way as an advocate for changing the way we view the outdoors: making sure, among other things, women and people of colour are given a greater voice.

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The creator of Flash Foxy — an online platform to “celebrate women climbing with women” — Jun co-founded the Women’s Climbing Festival in 2016 and was listed by Outside magazine as one of the 40 women who have made the biggest impact in the outdoor industry.

A remarkable feat, given climbing was a backup plan.

A longtime Californian, Jun’s family arrived in Fullerton when she was five. A middle child, she grew up involved in competitive swimming and water polo.

“My family was always really into the outdoors, and if you’ve ever seen photos of Korea, it’s an incredibly lush, mountainous region … so that was kind of already seeded into my childhood,” she says.

As she grew older, she learned surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding — the latter of which led to her switch into climbing. At UCLA, she arranged her class schedules to run Tuesday through Thursday so she could make trips to Mammoth Mountain.

“The climbing community in New York City is incredibly specialI think you get a diversity that you might not find in other places.” – Shelma Jun

“The very first day of snowboarding season, I broke my arm in half … and I was told not to do anything where I could fall onto my shoulder for at least two years,” Jun says. “A girlfriend of mine invited me to go to the climbing gym. She was like, ‘Hey, if you want to do top-rope at the climbing gym, if you do fall, you only fall one or two inches of rope stretch.’”

When Jun made the move to New York in 2011, she decided to get into the sport.

“It seemed like a perfect time to explore something,” she says. “The climbing community in New York City is incredibly specialI think you get a diversity that you might not find in other places.”

In time, Jun made a group of women climbing friends and began planning weekend trips to The Gunks (short for Shawangunk Ridge), or afternoon sessions at Brooklyn Boulders. She started documenting the trips on Instagram, and the attention grew. Flash Foxy was born.

“Women kept writing us and asking if I knew ways for them to meet other women … wanting to connect, wanting to get out, wanting to learn a new way of climbing … and I kind of looked around and tried to see if there was anything I could direct them to, and there wasn’t really anything like that at that time,” she says.

“I think we can change [the sport] to be a better reflection of all of us that now exist in climbing.” – Shelma Jun

Two years after creating Flash Foxy, Jun planned the first Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop, California.

“I thought it was going to be maybe 20 or 30 of us hanging out in the desert, and we got a huge response from it,” she says. “And it became really clear that it was going to be something much larger than I had anticipated.”

The event sold out. The following year, tickets sold out in less than a minute — a response that speaks to what Jun continues to advocate for.

“The demographic of climbing is changing rapidly, and I don’t think we as women, or as people of colour, or as queer folks… if we want to be climbers but don’t feel like that identity that exists now fits us, that we have to just make it fit,” she says. “I think we can change that to be a better reflection of all of us that now exist in climbing.


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Flakes

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Johnson Street in winter. Photo: Martin Bauman.

“Could be snow, could be dandruff.”

She looked at me from the corner of her eye, a wry smile forming at her lips. I was on the #7 bus headed downtown for my first glimpse of winter in Victoria — never mind if the season started in December for the rest of the country.

She shuffled in her seat. A heavy breath; a long life. In truth, she wasn’t my first choice of seatmate. She smelled the way socks do when you’ve been out walking in the rain. But I knew she’d sit next to me. Sometimes you can just tell.

The bus rumbled past Oak Bay Village, down Foul Bay Road and the cluster of apartment buildings advertising vacancies — a sight even rarer than snowfall in this city. FOR RENT: BACHELOR read one sign.

“Look there. A bachelor’s putting himself up for rent,” she wisecracked.

“A bold strategy,” I replied.

She chuckled. A wintry day; a new friend.

“Last time we got snow like this, it was barely enough to fill the cracks in the sidewalk,” she told me. I didn’t mention that I’d moved here in part to escape from winter, to leave the dreary chill of dark February days behind. Funny, now, that I was glad for the snow. Only so far you can go before the things you’ve left catch up with you.

We passed by a schoolyard where kids played in the snow. Plastic sleds, snow forts, half-finished snowmen. Seemed like everyone was caught up in the excitement. A blur of activity on a cold afternoon.

“When was the last time you made a snowman?” I asked her. She must’ve been in her early seventies.

She thought for a moment and smiled, eyes creasing at the corners.

“I remember teaching my daughter how to make a snow angel,” she said. “I told her to fall back and let the snowbank catch her, but she didn’t believe me. She had this big look on her face when she finally tried.”

I tried to remember my own first snow angel and drew a blank. The memories blend together after a while.

When I was young, I remember toboggan trips to Westmount Golf Course and Waterloo Park. The hills look hardly thrilling now but seemed much bigger then. I remember GT Snow Racers and jumps fashioned from parking lot snowbanks down the street. A few nasty falls led to tears — though if they were my brother’s or my own, I forget.

I remember snow soccer games at Empire Public School. Some recesses, we swapped the ball for an ice chunk, and goal posts for winter boots. Looking back, I don’t know why, or how we managed to keep track of the thing. Some games are best left unquestioned, I suppose.

I remember snowballs tossed on long walks home from middle school. Each hydro pole became a target, and when that grew boring, I’d aim for my friends. They got pretty tired of that, as I recall. A few still don’t trust me near a snowbank. The others don’t know me well enough.

I remember winter wars in high school, when we’d head to Westmount Public School to tackle each other in the snow. T-MAX hoodies. Teenage boys. Testosterone. I remember the fear of God being caught behind enemy lines without an escape path or the flag. I still hold a grudge from being tackled too hard into the playground. That was over twelve years ago now.

I remember stolen dinner trays from the Medway-Sydenham cafeteria. First year at Western University. Makeshift sleds flung down UC Hill. I remember the bonfire we held back at the dorm: hand sanitizer poured on a night stand and lit with a cigarette lighter. I forget whose idea it was.

So many memories, I forget too easily. A heavy breath; a life well-lived. I looked back at my friend on the bus.

“How did she like the snow?”

“She loved it. Then I told her to push her brother in.”

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Story Untold: “Accept the Struggle”

Story Untold with Simon Whitfield

A four-time Olympian and member of the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, Simon Whitfield won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in the triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Games. Photo from simonwhitfield.com.

Simon Whitfield is in a good place. It’s a Tuesday night, and the four-time Olympian has finished his weekly soccer outing in Victoria, British Columbia — a men’s league where the competition is a far cry from the rigours of racing against the world’s best triathletes.

“I can’t just run the entire time; I get sore now,” Whitfield jokes. “I’m out there making truces [with the opposing team].”

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At the end of the night, he unwinds with a beer at a host’s apartment and reflects on what has led him to this point: a spot in the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, a pair of Olympic medals, a budding rivalry with the Gorge boys of the Vancouver Island Soccer League.

Make no mistake: at 43, the Kingston, Ontario native is still an athlete. 19 years after winning the first-ever Olympic gold in the triathlon at the Sydney Games, and seven years after his last hurrah at the London Olympics, Whitfield still swims, still cycles, still runs. Add paddleboarding into the mix, and one gets the impression he could still outperform athletes twenty years his junior. But these days, the drive is different.

For as long as Whitfield has lived, there has been sport. Growing up down the road from Queen’s University, he’d head to nearby Tindall Field, or — more often the case — around the corner to Couper Street for makeshift games of road hockey, where centre ice was marked by a pothole and he and his friends took turns pretending to be Wayne Gretzky.

“It was one block long,” Whitfield jokes. “C-o-p-p-e-r at one end, and C-o-u-p-e-r at the other end. It’s like the French Canadians and English Canadians couldn’t decide.”

At twelve, he competed in his first triathlon, a Kids of Steel event organized at Sharbot Lake. (“I did it in a pair of boxer shorts,” Whitfield recalls.) By the race’s end, he was hooked.

“I just loved the outdoor atmosphere of it,” he says. “It was a festival of sport where you did this thing, this excursion.”

“I was itching to push ahead with this thing I loved to do, and there was no containing me then.” – Simon Whitfield

Before long, Whitfield was in the pool at 5:15 a.m. on training days. At 16, he moved across the world to attend Knox Grammar School in Australia and continue his training.

“I was itching to push ahead with this thing I loved to do, and there was no containing me then,” he says.

A year after his arrival in Wahroonga, on the northern fringes of Sydney, Whitfield learned that Australia would be hosting the 2000 Summer Olympics, and the triathlon would make its debut as an Olympic sport. The stars had begun to align. Flash forward to 2000, and the triathlon would begin and end at the Sydney Opera House, the very same place he had once graduated from boarding school. Was there any doubt of what would happen?

“It was magic. A fairytale,” says Whitfield.

At 25 years old, he won the race and became a Canadian hero. When the Games ended, he carried the country’s flag into the closing ceremonies.

“I will say, the only thing I wondered at the time was, ‘will I get goosebumps again?’ Because I had this pinnacle experience … like, ‘wow, that just happened.’ And then I wondered, like, ‘how do you recreate all that circumstance?’”

“I had this pinnacle experience … like, ‘wow, that just happened.’ And then I wondered, like, ‘how do you recreate all that circumstance?’” – Simon Whitfield

It would take eight years to reach the Olympic podium again, this time earning a silver medal in Beijing. Finally, he was asked to carry the flag once more, this time at the opening ceremonies in London. After his fourth Olympics, Whitfield retired from competition.

“I just wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices required. Plain as that,” he says. “There was a time in my life when I thrived on sacrifice. Truly. I thought everything I did was based around … was I sacrificing and giving more than other people were, to fortify myself for the next moment I had to compete.”

“I paid for it with relationships,” says Whitfield. “When I look back, in the end, it’s the people.”

Nowadays, the father of two has a different focus: namely, those closest to him. There’s still the love for sport, but the temptation to relive past glory? Not in the slightest.

“I work towards contentment,” he says. “I accept the struggle as part of it. And it’s actually where the good stuff is.”


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Story Untold: “Antarctica Is Harder Than You Can Possibly Imagine”

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Mere days into his quest to become the first person to reach the South Pole entirely by bicycle, Daniel Burton realized he had a problem. Facing gale-force winds and whiteout conditions on the southern continent, he realized it was taking far too long to cover the distance needed to reach the finish line. The plan had been to cycle over 750 miles in less than two months, climbing over 9,000 feet to reach the South Pole. The reality was different.

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“I was getting, some days, as little as three or four miles a day,” Burton recalls. At that pace, he would never make it.

A bicycle shop owner from Eagle Mountain, Utah, Burton was just two days shy of his fiftieth birthday when he set out from Antarctica’s Hercules Inlet in search of achieving a world first. His story to get there is a remarkable one itself: a former computer programmer, he took up cycling in his forties after a routine blood test led to a health scare.

“They test my blood pressure, and it’s like, ‘Hold it, that can’t be right. Sit here and relax for a minute, and we’ll try it again.’ And then, ‘No, that still can’t be right.’ And then finally, ‘Nope, you’ve got high blood pressure,’” says Burton. “I panicked, and I thought I was going to die.”

“[Mountain biking] basically saved my life: it fixed my cholesterol numbers; it fixed my blood pressure and weight issues.” – Daniel Burton

A group of colleagues were into mountain biking, so Burton decided he’d join them. Soon enough, he was riding every day — eventually competing in the LoToJa Classic, a gruelling 200-mile race through the mountains from Logan, Utah to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

“My wife says I’m like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows: I get things, and I just get obsessed and kind of overdo it,” Burton laughs. “For me, it wasn’t about trying to win a race or anything … it’s about trying to see, can I actually do this? Is this something I can overcome and accomplish?”

That he ended up in Antarctica is perhaps the fault of Eric Larsen. A polar adventurer from Wisconsin — and the first to complete expeditions to the North Pole, South Pole, and Mount Everest in a single year — Larsen tried in 2012 to become the first person to bike to the South Pole, too. It caught Burton’s attention.

“Before [Eric] did it, there really wasn’t a bike that was capable of doing it. There was another guy who had tried to build a bike to do Antarctic stuff, but I don’t think it really worked that well. But just about the time that Eric did it, fatbikes really started taking off, and they started to have bikes that had five-inch wide tires,” says Burton. “As I started looking into it more and more, it just became an obsession. It overwhelmed me, and there was just no way I couldn’t do it.”

Before long, he started planning an attempt for the following year. In December of 2013, Burton started his 51-day trek.

“I had a lot of people tell me I shouldn’t do it,” says Burton, “a lot of people thinking that when they said goodbye to me in November when I left, that that would be the last time they would see me.”

“I had a lot of people tell me I shouldn’t do it, a lot of people thinking that when they said goodbye to me in November when I left, that that would be the last time they would see me.” – Daniel Burton

The plan was for Burton to make the journey solo. Along the way, he would have three stashes of food stowed ahead of him to refuel. The rest was up to him: minus 20-degree weather, snowstorms, and crevasses that could swallow him in a blink.

After the early wake-up call, Burton was able to boost his pace up to 15 miles a day — enough to complete the trek. First, though, he would have to deal with the winds.

“The problem with any expedition to the South Pole is that the South Pole is at 9,300 feet of elevation, so it’s pretty high,” Burton says. “And obviously, it’s very cold at the South Pole, and cold air is much heavier than warm air. And so what happens is that cold air at the South Pole falls from the South Pole down towards the coast. It’s called katabatic winds. So that means, basically, you have this katabatic wind that you’re fighting against almost all the time. The only time that you’d get relief from that was if you had a good storm out at the ocean that would push its way in.”

Along the way, Burton battled with sastrugi — wave-like ridges formed by the Antarctic wind. When the winds weren’t a problem, the whiteout conditions were.

“You can’t see anything,” says Burton. “It’s been described as like being on the inside of a ping pong ball.”

To reach the South Pole, Burton would put in 13-hour days on the bicycle — sometimes starting as early as midnight. With the amount he was sweating, he couldn’t afford to stop for long, or else he would risk hypothermia.

“You have this katabatic wind that you’re fighting against almost all the time. The only time that you’d get relief from that was if you had a good storm out at the ocean that would push its way in.” – Daniel Burton

“In order to keep from freezing to death, I basically had to keep that effort up all day long,” he says.

Eventually, on January 21, 2014, Burton saw the end drawing near.

“I saw three dots on the horizon. And at first, it was like, ‘are these just more sastrugi out there, or is that the South Pole?” he says. “When I saw that, I knew I was almost done. And that is probably the most awesome, wonderful thing I have seen in my whole life.”

Five years after completing the record-setting trek, Burton can look back and laugh about it.

“Antarctica is just harder than you can possibly imagine,” he says.

“Ranulph Fiennes, he said, ‘those that ask the question [of why to do such an expedition] will never understand the answer, and those that understand the answer will never ask the question,’” Burton laughs. “That’s probably the greatest answer for why.”


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Story Untold: “It’s Not Easy to Survive on Passion”

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Brittany Mumma has a thirst for adventure. A photographer, associate producer, and professional skier based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the Alaska native has travelled across the world in search of stories to tell, from the slopes of Nepal to the couloirs of Greenland. Along the way, she has worked with some of the most prominent names in the outdoors, including Kit DesLauriers and Jimmy Chin.

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A self-professed skier since her earliest years, Mumma grew up in Eagle River, a “quaint little town” on the outskirts of Anchorage.

“I was out there every weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, as long as I can ever remember being on the hill,” the 30-year-old producer says. Winters were reserved for skiing; summers were spent running–a sport she was good enough at to earn a track and field scholarship at Boston College.

For someone who makes her living behind the lens, though, Mumma’s beginning was anything but conventional. While at Boston College, she double-majored in finance and marketing, intent on a career in professional sports marketing–a path that led to an internship with the Boston Red Sox. As her graduation approached, however, her thoughts began to wander far away from the Eastern seaboard.

“I started having all this internal struggle and turmoil, and I couldn’t really figure it out,” she says, “but I knew I missed skiing, and I knew I missed the mountains.”

“I started having all this internal struggle and turmoil, and I couldn’t really figure it out.” – Brittany Mumma

Four days later, Mumma made the move to Wyoming without knowing a soul in her adopted hometown.

That she ended up behind a camera at all is a more remarkable story. Thanks to her Alaskan roots and a chance discovery on Twitter, she was given an offer by the veteran filmmaker Dirk Collins, a fellow Alaska native himself: would she want to intern with him?

“I realized that I had an opportunity to not only ski every day, but also work in a world that would open the doors to travel and trying to make the world a better place through media,” says Mumma. “But I didn’t know anything about production, or cameras, or photographs, and I had to completely start from the beginning.”

Collins handed her a crop-sensor camera with a 50mm lens and told her to practise. In time, she began coordinating shoots and rose from intern to partner and producer.

“I didn’t know anything about production, or cameras, or photographs, and I had to completely start from the beginning.” – Brittany Mumma

“Working in this industry is a hustle. It’s a daily hustle,” says Mumma. “We work a lot of times in really remote locations, and so everybody [ends up] doing ten people’s jobs. You often have all sorts of different tasks, and everybody is helping each other out. Those are my favourite kinds of productions and shoots.”

Last fall, Mumma visited Nepal for a month-long shoot that took her to 18,000 feet, and later into the depths of the jungle.

“Every time you’d pick up your camera, there’d be so many flies that you’d put the camera up to your face, and there’d be flies crawling in my ears, and up my nose, and trying to get in my mouth,” she laughs. “You’d have millions on you in seconds.”

On another trip, she flew to Greenland with Chin and DesLauriers to put together the mini-film Avani Nuna.

“It’s kind of like the eighth continent,” she says. “The landscape is so dramatic — just huge couloirs and mountains jetting out of the ocean.”

It’s not always easy work, says Mumma. In 2016, she flew to Nairobi to document the country’s ivory burn, a demonstration against poaching.

“Being on the road a lot is really hard. It’s hard on your body; it’s hard on your relationships; it’s hard on your mind; it’s hard on everything.” – Brittany Mumma

“They burned 105 tonnes of elephant ivory and something like 1.35 tonnes of rhino horn,” she says. “It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel and started looking through my photos that I realized what I had just been a part of, and I cried my eyes out.”

Still, for the Alaska-raised photographer and athlete, it’s the chance to give a voice to the causes she’s passionate about that keeps her going:

“You’ll get those messages every now and then that make you realize, ‘okay, it’s worth it.’ Even if one person is like, ‘hey, that changed my outlook,’ or ‘that helped me in some way,’ it definitely means something.”


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Story Untold: “Mental Illness Is Just a Part of Who You Are”

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When Ryan Martin set off to cycle 8,000 kilometres across Canada to raise funds for mental health initiatives, he couldn’t have imagined how his life would change. The Guelph, Ontario native had only recently gone public with his story of living with bipolar disorder, and he was still working on the path to wellness. Today, he’s the National Lead for Youth Advocacy at the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“It takes time to find the tools that will help you,” says Martin. “You just have to be patient.”

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For Martin, a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University, his story with mental health began while away at university for the first time.

“I got into the university of my dreams, the program of my dreams, [was] living with my best friends… but when I got to university, I noticed that I was starting to experience these really bad lows,” he says. “I’d do therapy, and I’d learn new tools. They would work for a while, and then it wouldn’t work. Then I’d read books, learn some things; they’d work for awhile, and then wouldn’t work.”

At first, Martin chalked his difficulties up to social anxiety, but the challenges persisted.

“So many years of just huge optimism, followed by huge disappointment,” he says. “You can kinda get caught up in, ‘I am depressed, I have anxiety,’ and that’s the biggest way you define yourself. But that’s just not a good way to think … because mental illness is just a part of who you are.

Eventually, Martin was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder — a label he resisted at first, but eventually came to terms with. He discovered that through talking with others, he found acceptance.

“The more you talk about it, the more you see that other people are there to support you. The more you talk about it, the more you learn from other people’s experiences. The more you talk about it, the more comfortable you get,” he says. “Like, it’s only good to talk about it.”

With a newfound enthusiasm, Martin wanted to make a difference where he could. Eventually, the idea of a bike ride came to him. A backcountry skiing trip in British Columbia solidified the plan, after a few words of advice from the owner of the ski tour company: “Life is too short to not do what makes you happy.”

“That just struck a huge chord within me,” says Martin, “and I said, ‘what am I doing?’”

On the flight home, he sketched out a plan that became MindCycle. Months later, he was dipping his tire in the Pacific Ocean near Tofino to begin the ride.

Along the way, the 23-year-old amassed a following across the country. His story spread to CTV National News, and donations poured in. By the time the ride had ended, Martin had raised over $120,000 for the Canadian Mental Health Association. He had struck a nerve with countless Canadians, too.

“People would open up in the middle of Tim Horton’s, McDonald’s, side of the road, hotel lobby, whatever. It was incredible,” he says.

These days, Martin’s passion for mental health has become a career. After the ride ended, he started work in Toronto at the Canadian Mental Health Association. The goal is to empower more youth in their advocacy efforts.

“It’s all about creating a community of mental health champions,” he says.

Some days are still harder than others, but Martin is unfazed.

“No matter how you’re feeling, if you have the right tools in place, you can be good enough,” he says. “It’s just a matter of using those tools.


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Story Untold: “What Can Gather Us Is Love”

erwan larher

Few know what it’s like to survive a mass shooting. Erwan Larher knows all too well.

On November 13th, 2015, Larher was one of 1,500 concert-goers at the Bataclan theatre in Paris who came to watch the Eagles of Death Metal perform. 90 people were killed when three gunmen opened fire that night, a tragedy that spread throughout France and sent shockwaves around the world.

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The day started as normally as any.

“It was a very ordinary day,” says Larher, a native of Ballans, France. “I’ve seen maybe twenty or thirty gigs at the Bataclan before.”

He arrived late to the concert venue and found his favourite spot, right next to the sound booth.

“One or two times, I wondered if I should go closer to the stage, but I said to myself, ‘Just wait. Wait for the best songs.’ So I wait, and then suddenly, I hear those ‘pops,’ you know? And I think it’s part of the show. I think everyone did,” he says. “But it’s weird, because I see some plaster falling from the ceiling on my left. And then at the same time, I hear someone yelling, ‘Lay down! Lay down!’”

That night in Paris, 137 people died; an additional 413 were injured. Within moments of the attack beginning, Larher was shot.

For many, it sparked renewed fears around terrorism and the rise of global violence. For Larher, a writer, it’s the basis of his latest book, The Book I Didn’t Want to Write (originally released in French as Le livre que je ne voulais pas écrire).

“It never came to my mind to make a book out of it. But then, a few months later, I started to think and discuss with friends of mine — writers — and they told me, ‘You have to write this book. You’re a writer. You have to find the words to tell us what it was and what you felt.’ And I understood that maybe literature has something to say about it, a perspective to bring,” he says.

For weeks, Larher recalls, he would be flooded with requests for comment from news organizations who were reporting on the shootings. Initially, he says, the subject was too emotional to put to words.

“We have to think, and thinking takes time. And emotion is the contrary of thinking,” he says. “Some things are too important to be abandoned to emotion.”

“To me, those three guys, they are symptoms. It maybe could have been me, if I was not born in the right place,” Larher adds. “They are monsters. No doubt about that. But they were not born monsters; they became monsters. And the purpose of my book is maybe to question that: how did this happen?”

In The Book I Didn’t Want to Write, Larher recreates the events of November 13th, both from his perspective, along with the imagined perspectives of the terrorists. He also provides space for his family and friends to share perspective around what it was like to witness the news unfold and wonder about his fate. Ultimately, it’s an affirmation of the importance of love.

“What can gather us is love. It’s such a strong link,” he says. “And the world today, I think, is suffering from a lack of humanity and love.”


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