Jessica Alexander’s Chasing Chaos is a personal memoir of the author’s time spent working as a humanitarian aid worker in Sub-Saharan Africa and in Haiti. It can be taken to be a strictly autobiographical narrative which tells the story of person’s particular development, however it also contains several elements that are traditionally associated with the novel and the bildungsroman genre. This summary will discuss both of these aspects of the book, while also considering the its key moments intersect personal and political situations.
The arc of the book involves Alexander’s own personal growth and intellectual development as she conducts work for international aid agencies over a period of ten years. Although autobiographical, this arc can be seen to be essentially novelistic as it portrays an individual in the process of a transition from state of relative innocence and naivety to a state of worldliness and, in some cases, cynicism. The primary concern of Alexander’s structuring of her book is to ensure that she is able to draw attention to this arc while at the same giving space and attention to the particular experiences she recalls.
The book opens with Alexander working in Darfur in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. She recalls the particular conditions of the toilets and washing facilities in the camp within which she works, alongside offering portraits of her fellow aid workers. At this point, she has been performing aid work for several years, and is clearly aware of the fact the odds that she, and other engaged in the same enterprise, face are often hopeless. Indeed, this opening section of the books both a humorous and moving attention to the sheer scale of humanitarian disaster that aid workers regularly face, and the seemingly impossible nature of their task to provide relief to those in need.
From here, the book returns to an initial state of naivety in which Alexander recalls her mother’s death from terminal illness and her resulting desire to ensure that she was able to find a meaningful career. After this, Alexander recalls her sixteen year old reading about the genocide in Rwanda in which hundreds of thousand of people lost their lives. It is reading about this event from the safety of her own home which provoked Alexander to become and aid worker, and it was by working against the suffering endured by victims of the genocide that she first encountered the world of which she wanted to be a part. In the sections of the book which recall this, Alexander remembers her own shock at what she sees, and her disbelief that humans could act in the way that they had during the massacres that took place. The rest of the memoir moves between various points in the life of an aid worker, drawing consistent attention to particular areas of the world, while also focusing on seemingly frivolous, and often seemingly absurd, romances and parties which would occasionally take place in the areas in which she was working. In this way, it focuses simultaneously on Alexander’s own personal development and on the network of global politics within which she lives and works.
As such, Chasing Chaos can be understood as simultaneously an autobiographical story of becoming, and also as a study of particular social crises throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Alexander’s strategy throughout the book is to present key stages of her own personal emotional and political development against the back drop of events such as the Hatian earthquake and the Darfur genocide in such a way as to give her own story political content and to give what often seems like abstract political situations an intensely human quality.