Exploring the world, one page at a time

15 Mar

A few weeks ago a representative from FHI360 called me at my partner organization with an interesting proposition. He was working with the State Department to bring a group of five female Iraqi playwrights to America. They had a 3-stop tour planned, DC was their first destination, and he wanted to know if we were interested in organizing a visit with a teacher in a public high school.

I e-mailed Sarah Elwell, head librarian at Bell Multicultural High School right away. She got back to me and within hours the visit was set for March 7th with students from her lunchtime book club.

We had hosted several visits with the book club before. Ms. Elwell is a complete expert: always setting the visiting author at ease, thoroughly preparing her students (who consistently ask incisive, interesting questions), and providing ever-important snacks. But, in most cases, students are prepared in advance of every visit. They have read work by the author, discussed it extensively, and, in the case of Ms. Elwell’s students, usually prepared beautiful art projects expressing the central themes of the book. This visit was different. Because the writers write in their native Arabic or Farsi, the students did not have material to read in advance.

The playwrights answer student questions

But from the first moment, it was clear that the students and writers connected. As each writer shared her personal struggle as a woman writing in a male-dominated industry and living in a male-dominated society (to put it delicately), the students sat riveted, nodding their heads with understanding, commiseration, and sympathy. I don’t think that I can state it better than Reyna Rios, a senior at Bell, did in a blog entry on my partner organization’s website: “They constantly had to fight to live a life they loved. They were inspirational women and they didn’t deserve my disrespect.”

The playwrights pose with students in Ms. Elwell's book club

Personally, the visit hit home for a different reason. After one of the students asked for advice on how to become a better writer, one of the playwrights responded by encouraging the students to not only read, but to also read a diverse range of books. “You have to learn about the world,” she said via a translator. “I walked les Champe-Elysées in the pages of a book, without ever going to Paris. I want you to walk our streets, learn about our country.”

I read a lot. Like, multiple-books-per-week a lot, but I don’t usually step outside of my comfort zone and read literature that is not Western (i.e. from a “developed” nation in North America or Western Europe). As a New Year’s resolution, I resolved to read from different genres — it used to be all fiction, all the time — but I still gravitate towards the familiar. There are so many corners of the world to explore, and even more great books  by fantastic writers. It’s hard to know where to begin, but I do know that I will be taking recommendations!

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