Friday, May 2, 2008

PEN World Voices Festival: Small World, Big Changes, a program for high school students

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Friday, May 2, 2008:

PEN World Voices Festival: Small World, Big Changes, a program for HS students

Small World, Big Changes: A Program for High School Students began a bit later than its scheduled 10 a.m. start time due to problems in the subway system which caused various participants and audience members to be delayed. (I was grateful for this, since I'd never experienced a half-hour ride on the L train from Williamsburg to Union Square before this morning and was late myself.)

This event was co-sponsored by the Consulate of Spain and held in the Manhattan branch of Instituto Cervantes, the amazing organization started by the Spanish government in 1991 to promote the study and the teaching of Spanish language and culture. The Instituto's basement auditorium where the panel took place is below Amster Yard, that rare public Manhattan courtyard garden tucked into the middle of a block. I hadn't been there since 1974, when I discovered as a haven for a Brooklyn College MFA student working six hours a day as a midtown messenger for The Village Voice.

With students from the High School for Public Service, Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies and High School for Social Justice making up most of the audience, I sat with Laban Carrick Hill and a couple of other people of a certain age in a front corner as Stacy Leigh, Director of PEN Readers & Writers, our literary arts enrichment program for underserved students and schools, went to the podium onstage.

Stacy noted the empty chair at the table for the panelists, representing one of the persecuted writers of the world, was for scholar Lin Jinhua, Executive Director of the China Development Strategy, arrested in April 2005 on charges of "leaking State secrets" to a Hong Kong based-reporter. After a secret trial lasting only 90 minutes, Lu was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison and is reportedly being held incommunicado in Beijing City jail.

Then Stacy introduced the panelists:

Marina Budhos, author of Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers and several novels, including the recent Ask Me No Questions, named one of ALA's Best Books for Young Adults 2007;

Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls: A Family Story from Southie and Easter Rising: A Memoir of Roots and Rebellion, awarded the American Book Award;

Patricia McCormick, author of My Brother's Keeper, Cut, and Sold, winner of the Quill Award for Young Adult/Teen literature in 2007;

Pam Munoz Ryan, the 2007 Author Recipient of the National Education Association's Human and Civil Rights Award, whose more thirty books include the bestselling Esperanza Rising and Becoming Naomi Leon; and

Jutta Richter, award-winning German author of more than twenty books, including two books translated into English, The Cat: Or, How I Lost Eternity and The Summer of the Pike.

Marina, the panel's ringleader, then had each author go to the podium and discuss their work and read a short excerpt from one of their books.

Michael discussed being one of eleven kids in a family in the South Boston housing project growing up – or not, as several of his siblings died from poverty-related illness, suicide or violent crime – in a culture controlled by the Irish Mafia in a neighborhood culture of welfare, drugs and dysfunction that I'm sure some of the kids in the audience could relate to, although they might not have expected that white kids like Michael had experienced.

He talked about how, in writing his memoirs, he broke the neighborhood's code of silence surrounding conditions in Southie and how death threats necessitated his leaving the area that he still loved because the flip side of the area's insularity was a solidarity and sense that everyone there was connected.

Michael read a section of Easter Rising about his first, grudging visit to a Beacon Hill psychotherapist, to whom he'd been sent by the doctors tired of his coming to the ER with symptoms that had no physical cause; this was immediately after the violent deaths of two of his brothers. It was a beautifully-wrought passage as the young Michael struggles to tell the therapist about his siblings' deaths, telling her he'd "gotten over it" when clearly he hadn't.

Patricia then got up to talk about Sold, her novel about child trafficking, an issue she discussed in some detail, telling how destitute rural families in developing nations unwittingly sell their kids into sex slavery thinking that they are making a better life for them in the big city.

She discussed her experiences talking to girls in Indian brothels who are locked in rooms, drugged, beaten and raped several times a day. As became clear in the Q&A session later, a number of the students had read Patricia's book. I could tell some were really affected by some of what they'd read and heard by their comments after the event.

Patricia closed by reading a passage from the novel in which her 13-year-old Nepalese protagonist Lakshmi, sold and forced to work in a brothel, envies an 8-year-old "David Beckham boy" (he wears a T-shirt with the soccer star's picture on it) who goes to school and can actually read the books she so desperately wants to.

Next up, Jutta said she started writing at 15, when she was a German exchange student in the very unfamiliar culture of Detroit, where the family she stayed with would not let her read or listen to German and the only way she could access her native language was by writing it herself.

The students were impressed that Jutta managed to get this early book published when she returned to Germany. She read a passage from The Cat, or How I Lost Eternity, featuring a young narrator always yelled at for being a lollygagger and late for school. Each day she gets waylaid by encounters with a cat who is as willful as she is and who seems to have a clever retort to all of her comments.

Pam, at her turn at the podium, discussed Esperanza Rising as a fictional retelling of her grandmother's childhood riches-to-rags story as she immigrates to California with her brother and their mother, a Mexican patrician fallen on hard times. She also discussed some of the reaction to her book that she didn't expect: because Esperanza's family doesn't take part in the strikes among migrant agricultural workers, union members were upset with her.

The passage she read was one in which Esperanza boards a train, not in the first-class cars she's used to, but in one filled with "peasants" she doesn't want to associate with. On a train ride in which the girl experiences a world of poverty she'd never seen up close before, Esperanza begins to understand by the end that she and her family are no longer rich but are themselves "peasants." When she sees rich people ignore a crippled Indian woman beggar but a poor woman who has befriended her mother give the beggar something, Esperanza learns that "the rich take care of the rich and the poor take care of those who have less than they do."

Finally, Marina got up to discuss Ask Me No Questions, the story of two sisters from Bangladesh growing up in post-9/11 Queens as undocumented immigrants whose father is arrested and detained in the anti-Muslim hysteria after the World Trade Center bombing.

Marina read a passage in which her protagonist Nadira learns how to "forget that you don't really exist here." At Flushing High, with a large population of immigrant students from Bangladesh, China, Korea, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, the policy is "Ask me no questions" (still true today, according to my friend who teaches English there who has repeated what Marina said the teachers in her novel say: "We're not the INS") – but it's also clear that sometimes young girls want to ask questions.

After Marina put a couple of questions to the panelists – about balancing their desire to teach the world about young people's experience with injustice and their need to create art; about doing research and whether it can ever hamper a novelist or memoirist – the kids in the audience and a teacher or two got to ask their questions.

They asked the writers how they handle a bad day when they don't find writing easy; how they react to criticism of their books; how they balance feeling hope and feeling despair; whether they feel differently about their books when they read them after publication; what they like to read when they're writing their own books; what they do to keep readers interested; and what motivated them to start writing in the first place. The answers from various panelists were honest and insightful.

As someone who's taught urban high school kids (one year in Phoenix was all I could manage) and community college students, I know that two hours can be a long time for teenagers, especially some boys, to sit quietly and listen passively. But the audience members were exceedingly polite and quiet and for the most part seemed interested (although I noticed several had fallen asleep at various points and the boy behind me muttered, "Boring!" during one of the more convoluted answers to the discussions).

This was a worthwhile event although as a teacher, I guess I would have liked more audience involvement a bit earlier. In some ways the focus was a bit too much on the authors and not enough on the kids – many of whom, I'm sure, have their own stories to tell.

Also, some things can't be taken for granted when you talk to young people. For example, Pam offhandedly mentioned her book "about Marian Anderson" (it's When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson) without explaining who Anderson was. I would be very surprised if many students – who probably have a hard time saying exactly when the Civil War happened – had ever heard of Marian Anderson or knew her story.

But then, I am pretty sure none of the twentysomething hipster novelists in New York whose readings I attend have heard of Marian Anderson either. Maybe they need to read a few more books?

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