“The words that enlighten the soul
are more precious than jewels.”
Hazrat Inayat Khan
It was a glittering, enlightening evening at the Camden Opera House as scribes gathered to share a wealth of cross cultural experiences through storytelling, poetry and song.
A palpable energy filled the historic Opera House with anticipation as lovers of words gathered to enjoy the presentations offered at the Maine Literary Festival’s crowning event and scholarship fundraiser for the American Association of University Women.
In an intimate, living room setting, award winning writers and educators came together to begin an initial discussion on the positive influences of international cultures on the modern American literary landscape.
Judy Dinmore of the Midcoast Branch of AAUW warmed up the crowd with words of welcome in many languages. She shared with the audience about importance of this fundraiser for AAUW, highlighting the positive aspects of funding college scholarships for older women wishing to further their education. Success is the goal here. AAUW encourages scholarship recipients to succeed by actively participating in cheering them on, giving them confidence to pursue their dreams that would otherwise be difficult to find, as the recipients have jobs and families to attend to. Combining award winning authors with passionate readers and educational growth is the win-win purpose behind the Maine Literary Festival.
Ever the graceful hostess, Festival Chair Maryanne Shanahan welcomed all participants with a smile. The visible result of careful planning and mindful logistics to produce an event of this size and scope were a valuable investment of time, talent and elbow grease applied to ensuring its success. The details were apparent in all aspects of the festival. The quality of writers gathered, the panel discussion topics, the book signing and after party upstairs all reflected careful preparation on the part of Maryanne and the festival’s planning team.
Intriguing topics unfolded as authors talked informally in panel reviews about exploring the new frontiers of American Literature.
The 2009 Festival topic, “Exploring Literature of new Voices in America Reflecting Cross-Cultural Experience” shined a literary beacon on the newest American writers; those who have immigrated from lands beyond our borders to begin new chapters of their lives in Maine, “the whitest state.”
The discussion was lively as authors onstage talked informally in panel reviews about the new frontiers of American Literature: Exploring Cross Cultural Experiences of the newest Americans, those who have immigrated from lands beyond our borders to live in Maine. This topic will capture the hearts of readers for a full year, as the festival expands into a three day event in 2010.
The voices of tonight’s festival were as varied as the nations from which each award winning writer called home. India, Thailand, Iran, Mumbai, Spain, and the Netherlands; Wabenaki and Passamaquoddy, all gathered peacefully with a common desire to share their stories as newly arrived immigrants (within the last 25 years) finding their individual voices through the experience of writing literature that many others can relate to.
Each writer shared individual perspectives on the meaning of finding one’s own voice. The panel shared the consensus of recognition, that in giving life to the telling of one’s individual story comes healing, and with it, an opportunity to celebrate the differences that make us all unique. Embracing differences while pursuing a common goal are a founding concept of our nation, weaving threads of heritage into a blanket of legacy and history affecting the overall American experience.
In all cultures, literacy begins with the tradition of storytelling. From crude charcoal cave paintings in Lascaux, to the Mimmis figures of the Maori, to the chiseled tales carved into sandstone by Mayan scribes, every tribe and people preserves its heritage and traditions through storytelling.
Sign Language is the next step in this tradition, using visual cues to describe and express with the hands to augment and communicate what words cannot yet describe. As oral language develops, stories become a means to keep tribal teachings alive for future generations, thereby bridging the gap to ancient ways. As stories are told to new generations, children learn to apply their lessons to their individual lives. As a culture further advances, written language becomes the vehicle for these stories, linking hands, ears, hearts and minds to a time when only few remember the world as it once was. No matter the vehicle for communication, the solidity of the teachings always applies.
The 2009 Maine Literary festival is a celebration and continuation of these traditions, giving experience an alternative means of expression with the technology available in our new media world.
John Muthyala, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Southern Maine, opened the first panel discussion centered on The American Mosaic: Maine and Beyond. Muthyala began by listing the staggering statistics gleaned from the National Endowment of the Arts landmark study: To Read or Not to Read.(2) Citing the sobering statistics regarding literacy in America, John shared with participants a few of the chilling results of its findings.
•Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20-year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
•On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survey (2006)
•Literary readers are more likely than non-readers to engage in positive civic and individual activities – such as volunteering, attending sports or cultural events, and exercising.” National Endowment for the Arts, The Arts and Civic Engagement: Involved in Arts, Involved in Life (2006)
Muthyala affirmed what the study proved, “Reading is the necessary life blood of a democratic society, for those who actively read are more inclined to participate in its positive growth.”
Lack of education is a breeding ground for fear, stagnating growth and stifling change. It deters opportunities for new generations that go unseen by the blinders of ignorance often worn by society’s functionally illiterate.
Against the backdrop of Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest’s black and white images of Maine’s newest citizens from the book, New Mainers: Portrait of Our Immigrant Neighbors, Muthyala posed the question: “How do immigrant voices add to our understanding of what literature is now in Maine, and what could it become?”
The first panel was comprised of the collaborative team that produced the book. Kurdish, Iranian born Reza Jalali, wrote the forward for the book, and is currently in process of writing another. Based on the varied religions of Maine’s immigrants, Jalali’s book God Speaks in Many Accents available in 2011.
Pat Nyhan, former journalist for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and Maine Times, interviewed each of the immigrants, assisting them with finding their own voices and inspiring them to tell their own stories in spite of inherent fears of disapproval and/or ostracization from their cultures of origin. Nyhan currently teaches English as a second language to immigrants. Maine University instructor Judy Hakola, instructor of a course called the Writers of Maine, also joined the panel for this discussion. Her answer to the opening question originates from observations gleaned from years of teaching. Citing the quotation from centuries ago poet and philosopher Rumi, Hakola brought the audience up to speed with the newest innovations in publishing from out of the mouths of babes.
“Speak a new language
so there will be a new world.”
“Children are telling stories in new ways, using technology and new media to find their individual voice. In so doing, they find strength in their cross cultural roots.”
This new generation of immigrants builds on the foundations set by their ancestors. The panel spoke of the driving desire of first generation immigrants to survive the changes wrought by adapting to life in a new country. Second generation immigrants tend to homogenously adapt to all things American, thereby squeezing the life out of their cultural roots. The insatiable curiosity of third generation immigrants creates opportunities to finally embrace the rich teachings, customs and ways of their grandparent’s original culture. Grandparents now finished with the serious business of adapting are often are the teachers of the new generation, allowing them to reconnect with heritage lost in the survival shuffle.
This is where the threads of storytelling regenerate anew, with the desire to reconnect, to bridge unseen gaps of cultural understanding that allows immigrant families to plant one foot firmly in the heritage canoe and another in the uncertain waters of new experience while paddling steadfastly toward the shores of the American Dream.
The first panel finished up by examining the “lens” with which non-immigrants perceive their new neighbors, citing the need to become conscious of how we understand others and of the manner with which we view their experience. If we look in the smoking mirror and harshly judge others, then we are ultimately our own cruelest judges.
The panel dismissed to the Passamaquoddy drumbeat of Allen Sockabasin’s, “Song from my Fathers.” The shamanic tribal song was the perfect way to transition from the profound thoughts generated by the panel, and to connect us all with the drumbeat of the common experience of humanity.
The second panel featured poetry readings from four gifted literary voices, further celebrating the diversity of talents assembled under one roof.
Panel moderator and presenter Eugene Gloria is a teacher of creative writing and English literature at DePaw University in Greencastle, Indiana. The author of two celebrated poetry books, Hoodlum Birds and Drivers at the Short-Time Motel, Gloria he has received several literary awards including a Poetry Society of America award, a Pushcart prize and a Fulbright Research Grant. Charged with the duty to discuss and then read their poems, the panel examined the theme: Poetry: Communicating Cross-Cultural Voices.
A chorus lifts above the mundane spaces:
Silences and asterisks of dust–
My urge to write about the new disasters,
Homelands submerged, blasted
Coral reefs; a cask of dynamite
Has lent its method on the page.
Facts can melt away abstractions. New names for receptacles,
A ceremony of particulars: family portraits, a dance in fragments,
Postcards, a rusted tin of Sky Flakes.
Members of the panel included California native Francisco Aragon, a long term resident of Spain, whose immigrant parents fled war-torn Nicaragua in the early 1970’s. The author of Puerta del Sol and editor of the award-winning The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, Aragon directs the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. The editor of CANTO COSAS, a new book series featuring new Latino and Latina poets, Aragon shared his poems birthed from the questions, “How would my life have been different if my parents had stayed in Nicaragua?”
something in me fluttered
hearing those vowels, as if I started
to understand, as if those rhythms
carried, even then, the message
I’d take years to unravel
–from “What Else Will I Recall”, Francisco Aragon
Carole Willette Bachofner was next to take the podium. A native of Maine proud of her Abenaki heritage, she has returned to the state after years of living on the West Coast and in Europe. Her poems are inspired by the beauty of the landscapes of Maine. Bachofner states, “The direct link to my native heritage informs everything I do: my view of the land on which we live, my approach to being human, and most certainly my writing. I am Abenaki first, and all else flows down river from that.”
We Speak the White Man’s Language
except when dreaming, except when our fingers
braid hair, weave blankets, knot bait bags,
when we are praying in Indian. Work brings words
from the belly, the soles of the feet
that walk the woods where our relatives
burned the way forward from camp to camp,
trading stories with people along the way.
Carole Willette Bachofner
Carole revealed her love of the local landscape with a lovely reciting of two of her poems. Her words painted a glorious image of the beauty of one of Maine’s most abundant natural resources: water. Woven throughout were the Native pronounciations of rivers, lakes and tributaries: Damariscotta, Kennebec, Megunticook and Penobscot, Carole’s Water Psalm reveals the deeply connected roots of a longstanding Native heritage that is still present throughout the region. Interspersing poetry with Native language further defines and strengthens the connections between how we think, speak, live and intersect in our lives.
“Education is the jewel
casting brilliance into the future.”
Dynamic performer, children’s author and illustrator Ashley Bryan was next to command the stage. His writing career began when a kindergarten teacher assigned the class with making their own alphabet letter books. Bryan later attended art school at Cooper Union, studied philosophy at Columbia University and taught at Dartmouth College. He has compiled, written and illustrated over 30 books, many inspired by African folktales, spirituals and the writings of gifted Black poets. Bryan is the recipient of several Coretta Scott King Awards for works including The Lion and the Ostrich Chicks, and Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry.
Teaching with the example of gesture, sounds, rhythm and animated voices, Bryan stressed the importance of finding the “sound of the voice” when reading to audiences of any age. The energy-charged performance of this 86 year-old Maine island resident brought an immediate response from the audience. Bryan’s command of the stage, the material and the room was evident as he brought the house to shout, “Three Cheers for Poetry!” Yet Bryan’s poems also cover the more challenging aspects of American life with humor and grace: “Madame and the Rent Man” speaks of a conversation between a frustrated tenant and her lazy landlord, of taking pride in one’s sacred space and setting firm boundaries within it.
Bryan’s book, Beautiful Blackbird
was inspired by the Langston Hughes poem, Black Like Me
. In the tale’s telling, this Rumpelstiltskin of childrens’ literature spins words, gesture, vocal inflection and song into an intangible kind of gold: of changing perceptions about the gifts one is given, pride in one’s own skin, and the ability to revel in the uniqueness of every individual’s contribution to the whole. Stemming from the Ila-speaking people of Zambia, the tale centers on a community of birds who covet Blackbird’s shiny black feathers, when he himself is ashamed of them. The community of birds helps Blackbird to see that his beauty is valuable to the entire flock, resulting in his change of attitude, and his ability to embrace the gifts that he has been blessed with. In turn, he shares some of his shiny coloring with the community, pointing out the places on their plumage where black already resides. Using nearly every tool of human sound possible, Bryan sings, hums, taps, strums, hums, stomps, sashays and stretches his entire being with everything he’s got; delightfully engaging the audience in such a humorous manner that the entire room was captivated, enthralled, and hungry for more.
Bryan’s performance is reminiscent of the Twisted Hair, the Plains Indians tribal storytellers so named for the twisted knot in that fell in the center of the forehead. A Twisted Hair was charged with the duties of remembering tribal history, sharing it in such as way as to allow each person to use their individual gifts of observation to discern the true meaning of the story, as it applied to them, (or not.) The Twisted Hair served an important purpose in the Council of Elders. As historians, they were responsible for remembering tribal history with complete accuracy. As teachers, they were facilitators of learning through storytelling of how to live life in balance through the characters in their Medicine Stories. As entertainers, the Twisted Hair brought lessons along with laughter and tears, telling the appropriate tales to fit the needs of the listener. A child who came to the Twisted Hair was placed eye-to-eye, as an equal, allowing for freedom of thought to discern the truths hidden in the storyteller’s tale and allowing them to save face if the story were told for disciplinary reasons. As a modern day Twisted Hair, Ashley Bryan carries the mantle of the storytelling tradition forward into the future, sharing lessons and life with all who will listen.
The second portion of the show was concluded by Alan Socabasin’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” sung in both English and Passamaquoddy. Alan’s tribal heritage is rich, growing up in the village of Peter Dana Point, near Princeton, Maine. As the tenth in a line of eleven children, he left school at the age of eleven to work in a saw mill to assist his family after his mother’s death. The age of fourteen, he was gifted with the tool that would become his life’s work: his first guitar, one that had been strummed by many others before him in the village. Two years later, Allen wrote his first Passamaquoddy song. Alan tours the North American continent with the World Music organization, performing music from his six albums. Alan seeks to preserve the traditions of the Passamaquoddy culture and language through the gifts of music.
The final panel of the evening focused on Fiction: The South Asian Diaspora and New Voices in America.
Led by Shilpa Agarwal, a Mumbai born writer and academic who teaches at courses at UCLA and UCSB on South Asian Diaspora. Her first novel, Haunting
Bombay won the 2003 First Words Literary Prize for South Asian writers. In it she tells the story about a nursemaid being called away from bathing an infant, who in her haste leaves the child alone. When she returns from the errand, to her horror she discovers the child has drowned. Faced with banishment from the household, the tale echoes Agarwal’s own experiences as her family was uprooted by the Independence movement and Partition in 1947. Reflecting her experiences from the chaos ensued by rapid dislocation and colonialism, her writings explore the shaping of human interaction.
Also on the final panel were Jaed Coffin, a native of Brunswick Maine, born into a mixed heritage family. The author of A Chant to Sooth Wild Elephants, a memoir about his years spent as a Buddhist monk in his mother’s native village of Panomsarakram, Thailand. Coffin is the recipient of several fellowships and awards: An Island Institute Resident Fellowship, a Wilson Fellowship from Deerfield Academy, a William Sloan Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writer’ Conference, and a Maine Literary Award in Nonfiction. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program.
Also contributing to the last panel was Rishi Reddi, an environmental attorney for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. An award winning writer for her debut collection, Karma and Other Stories, her work has been published in Germany and India, and has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2005. She has been read on National Public Radio’s “Selected Shorts: series, and has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writer’ Conference and the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Vermont Studio Center.
The final panel discussed the grounmd breaking advances of Asian American authors such as Amy Tan, who paved the way for the voices of Asian influenced experiences to emerge. Some of these voices are still on the verge of expression, waiting to overcome the fears of cultural rejection the horrific truths of their experiences are unraveled to the world. The panel concluded, stressing the importance of communicating, connecting and maintaining quality relationships with homeland origins in an imperialist time.
Closing the formal evening’s event, Maryanne Shanahan and Allen Sockabasin delighted the crowd with a dual reading in English and Passamaquoddy, further illustrating the value of heritage to the rich fabric of the American literary landscape. The crowd adjourned to a post event party on the third floor, where glasses and plates filled with flowing wines and appetizers provided by Megunticook Market. Also available were many books penned by the presenters of the festival’s event, provided by Owl and Turtle Bookstore and ready for autographing. I fairly floated around the party, inspired by the richness of experience in being in the same room with such talented literary artists, posing the question, “What was the best part of the event?” The answers were as varied as the faces of the individuals themselves. Some referred to the previous day’s manuscript critiques, of helpful and challenging suggestions to revise and rework words poured forth from within, and how to write a memorable query letter to a publisher. Others cited the value of the discussion created by the topics of the event, looking forward to future events as the 2010 festival approaches.
As for this writer, I came away from the event filled with gratitude, a renewed sense of inspiration and encouragement. Coupled with a stronger, more tenacious drive to chain myself to the chair if need be, to finally get on with the business of writing my own healing story, the one that burns from deep within the recesses of my soul.
“You must understand the whole of life,
not just one little part of it.
That is why you must look at the skies,
that is why you must sing and dance,
and write poems, and suffer, and understand,
for all that is life.
The year of celebration of the topic, “Cross-Cultural Experiences: Literature of New Voices in America”
includes a series of satellite events between January and August 2010, and will culminate in a full three-day Maine Literary Festival weekend. For details, and to register, go to the website, http://www.maineliteraryfestival.com/
or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Links and Footnotes
Photos: (Copyright 2009, L. Jaye Bell)
1. Ashley Bryan
2. Panel #1: Seated L to R: John Muthyala, Judy Hakola, Pat Nyhan, Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest. Standing: Maryanne Shanahan.
3. Allen Sockabasin
4. Panel #2: L to R: Eugene Gloria, Francisco Aragon, Carol Willete Bachofner.
5. Carol Willete Bachofner
6. Ashley Bryan, reading from his book Beautiful Blackbird.
7. Shilpa Agarwal
Gypsy Blonde Report by L. Jaye Bell