How did your experiences or the lectures and advisors at VCFA help you understand the importance of creative writing from a larger perspective — for example, how creative writing could benefit refugees?
Where do I count the ways? First off, we are fortunate to have the luxury to embrace creative writing as “our thing.” We can and should talk about how important our work is to the universe (which I believe), but when you stop to honestly assess where we fall on the 21st century humanity spectrum, we VCFA’ers are blessed to have the privilege of a supportive community, time, and the mental space to devote to our writing. I feel the need to share that blessing.
What I specifically learned at VCFA, and continue to work on, is the value of placing raw emotion, word-by-word, on the page (thank you Jane, Uma, Sarah Ellis). Way better than therapy, in my opinion!
For the refugees, that process is empowering and allows them the opportunity to tell their own stories and to take back what has been taken away: their dignity, their power, their humanity.
Bonnie Christensen, my first advisor, also pushed me to use my humor in my writing. Bonnie taught me that it’s OK to add levity, even in unleavened situations! To me, it is monumentally empowering to help someone put his or herself on the page, especially with a dollop of fun thrown in. As I write this, I see the smiling face of one of my favorite gentlemen, who hailed from Iraq. On my last day at Mosaik I attended a poetry reading and afterwards, Hamidula told me that I had given him life. That sounds corny when I write it, but this guy went back to the Moria camp where 8,000 people live squashed in a space designed for 2,500, and started a poetry group. To me, that snippet of poetry effort constitutes life, even if for a short while.
Were there any pieces of writing you shared with them during your workshop?
This is from a VCFA moment! After leaving Lesbos, I received a prompt from VCFA’s Poetry Friday and the image was of a pelican. A few days before, at the poetry reading, I had met a refugee from Jamaica. YO! Jamaica! How the heck did that happen? I knew not to ask questions, but that meeting plus the prompt ended up in a piece of flash poetry that I shared via email:
There is a pelican at the poetry reading
They’re rare on the island
so it must have flown in on a raft
or Afghanistan via Turkey
Or how about those birds
that make it all the way from the Congo?
I don’t know how they do that
Huge hearts and wings, I suppose
They come to the reading
to translate and digest Rumi
and Brecht and Descartes and Angelou
To breathe for a moment in rhythm
But this, the pelican
has different words to share
Far beyond Neruda
It folds its wings and settles in to rest
to read of universal truth
Family, home and heartbreak
Tales escape on waves of war
and drip from tears of trauma
But the pelican persists, up tempo
And the birds listen
From Iraq or Afghanistan via Turkey
and all the way from the Congo
They listen. No translation needed
What would you say to other writers who are interested in incorporating writing opportunities like this into their writing life? How has this experience changed the way you write?
My experience with refugees on Lesbos left me with a very personal internal thread that I often tug on for inspiration. The people I worked alongside are facing statistically grueling odds for success, yet they haul themselves when possible by city bus from a squalid camp to Mosaik, where they can read and write poetry. Poetry! These people don’t have consistent access to toilets and they want to write poetry. Now, there isn’t an excuse on Earth that would keep my butt out of my cushy writing chair! And when I sit, I am inspired to go there and not to hold back.
Also, this was not a “one and done” experience for me, so I continue to volunteer for Mosaik by reviewing/editing their external communications and by steering them to sources of funds. (Contact me if you know of supporters who are looking to support the arts, integration, and refugee empowerment)!
To all writers, I would say grab any opportunity you can to put yourself as a writer or teacher in a group of “the other;” any “other!” You don’t need to visit a refugee island to walk in someone else’s shoes. I just finished a month of teaching essay writing to DC’s Upward Bound students. While of course not as dramatic an experience, I probably took more away from these kids, whose life experiences are extremely different than mine, than they did from me.
Compassion for yourself and for “the other” comes with practice and exposure.
When working with any at risk group, whether within or outside of the US, I would also suggest two things: if white, beware the White Savior Syndrome and DON’T DO IT. Work with and not on people. If American working overseas, beware the American Savior Syndrome and DON’T DO IT. Rather, do your homework and be sensitive and respectful of the work that has already been laid. Regardless, do work on putting yourself in the other’s shoes, bring your talents to the table, be humble, and spread the writing love. DO IT!
The New York Times covered the Lesbos crisis in a March 2018 article.