The Origins of What Birds Know

This four-minute video tells the story behind the writing of What Birds Know and the real life events that inspired its narrative, plot line and character development. A transcript of video follows. 

What is free will worth? Would you risk a life for it? 

It’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly ever since hearing an eyewitness account about a father who lost his son while escaping along the armed border that once divided Germany. 

The father made it. The son didn’t. The boy was wounded by an automatic machine gun before being shot dead by East German border guards. 

I learned about the escape from a U.S. serviceman named Ace who was my seatmate on a transatlantic flight to Germany in the summer of 1983.

Ace and another serviceman were patrolling a section of the inner-German border when they heard voices on the other side of the barrier fence. They rushed to help and were able to pull the father to safety just before the son was shot.

I wrote down the account in my travel journal so I wouldn’t forget. 

As if I could.

I’d traveled through the Soviet Bloc the year before, experiencing life under authoritarian rule. So it wasn’t hard to imagine why an East German father, wanting a better life for his child, would try and flee. 

Officially, East Germans caught fleeing the country expected prison terms, not firing squads. The father wouldn’t know the true consequences of the escape until it was too late. 

The Berlin Wall fell on my birthday, opening the way to German reunification.

I remember seeing televised images of Germans taking pick axes and hammers to the Wall and thinking about that father—wondering where he was and how he felt. 

He’d been led to believe the Wall would stand for another 50 to 100 years. Now it was gone, not ten years after his son’s death. 

I’d started my MFA and was taking a workshop from the German novelist Ursula Hegi when the father from Ace’s story showed himself in the pages of a writing prompt.

I saw him standing in a grassy field along the former borderland where his son died. It’s present day so the guard towers and the fences are gone except in his memory. Stalled in place by time and grief, he’s there to seek a way forward.

I grew up with Germans and traveled frequently to the country. I even there lived there for a time. So in some ways, the father was already familiar to me. The parts of him I didn’t know came to me in time, through research and interactions with former East Germans, including a family of escapees.

What Birds Know imagines the father from Ace’s story returned home for a family crisis 30 years after flight. It’s 2016. Germany is simmering with resentment: a million Syrian refugees have entered the country, welcomed there by its chancellor at a time when Germans in the east still feel like second-class citizens.

By forcing the father back to the place he lost his son—and where his marriage will be tested—I was able to explore what happens when we visit the traumas of our past and the healing that can be found there. 

A meditation on migration, this is a story about displacement—physical and emotional. Given the right set circumstances, it’s a narrative that could belong to anyone.

We’re all refugees from something.