When I talk to young writers and when I have conversations with MFA students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts program, I like to imagine I can take a bit of the mystery out of words like “inspiration” and “imagination” by pointing to ways that details and scenes in my books have grown out of observation.
An Icelandic proverb says, “Keen is the eye of the visitor.” Isn’t that one reason travel writing is so vivid and compelling?
When everything is off-balance, our senses go on high alert. When we can’t understand the language, we start relying on other ways of taking in information. I learned these things growing up in Ethiopia.
I experienced the Icelandic truth all over again recently traveling in Guatemala and doing an author visit in Russia.
Embarrassing as it is to admit, Guatemala was only part of a blur of Central American countries until we visited Brian and Sandi, Presbyterian social workers living there and working on issues of women’s human rights to things like safety and education and jobs.
I listened. I learned. I saw connections to my books…
Boy with pigeons in the park
The biggest thrilldom in Russia was getting two days of talking to readers and writers there–Russian, American, Canadian, Australian, Jamacian, Czech…so many word people from all over the world. So much to soak up. So much to share.
And oh the stories! Who knows how these images and feelings will seep into my writing.
Early in 2016, my sister Caroline Kurtz and I took a group of artists to Maji, Ethiopia, the place where she and I spent long, magical days making up and acting out stories–and where I learned to read.
When we returned to Addis Ababa, we tried our hand at a bookmaking workshop–the first time I truly faced the challenges of actually creating books rather than being the person who writes the words.
Luckily for me, one of the artists from the trip–Troy Zaushny–took the individual pictures children had created after listening to Yacob and Nahosenay read the stories aloud and used digital design to create a digital version of a first book.
My dream was to have playful, appealing, colorful, culturally appropriate and easy-to-read books in local languages. Back in Portland, Caroline and I found ready volunteers to help with writing and illustration…we had to hunt much harder and follow many dead-end paths with translation and design. In the end, under the guidance of East Side Printing here in Portland, we did a lot of the layout ourselves, discovering why book publishers have to hire people to handle design, fonts, copy editing, etc. What an education!
But a year later, WEEMA, an NGO that works in the rural area of Kembata-Tembaro where they have built a public library and started some kindergartens, got a donation for 600 books. Caroline will also carry some books for an Ethiopia Reads school in Oromia when she travels to Ethiopia next month. What an accomplishment of volunteers using their talents to share book love!
Can’t wait to start on the next ten!
I’ve written a few blog posts to share the new bookmaking project with Ethiopia Reads supporters. The second one just went up today: http://www.ethiopiareads.org/blog-date/2016/3/7/stories
Meanwhile, as I describe where the inspiration came from for these new stories, I am blown away by the powerful example of how Stephanie Schlatter as a painter gets similar flashes of inspiration from the world she sees:
The road between Tum and Maji as we returned one evening last month…
And one of Stephanie’s paintings.
I also was awash with warm memories of the Ethiopia Heritage and Culture Camp near DC as I looked through pictures of the time my son and his wife and their kids joined me.
Awwwww. So glad they worked with me on creating these new stories for Ethiopia Reads.
A team, I mean.
Too many things go wrong on the road. People get sick or turn out to have needs or expectations that we were barely able to articulate ahead of time. Obstacles wave their tentacles until you can hardly think. Even unexpected opportunities–like waterfalls–knock the day’s plans askew–let alone the day in Maji we suddenly got the chance to jump in the car and galumpf down the road that our family used every time we needed to meet or catch a plane when I was young.
Ato Marcos, one of our hosts in Maji, told Caroline that he hardly notices the flowers around him, and he was surprised to see the artists taking pictures of them. “I thought, if they think this little flower is beautiful, what will they think of nifas bir?” he said to her. Nifas bir. Gate of the wind. A spot of childhood nightmares for me.
It’s hard to capture vast landscapes…how narrow the road is in this spot…how far it drops on both sides. Far in the distance, you can see a mountain beyond which is Kenya. You can see down, down into the lands where the Surma roam and where Odyssey I unfolded.
We were willing to set aside our plans that day–a carful of artists–and just go. I got to see what it was like in the artists’ vehicle and how their driver was part of the team, too, used to stopping and having them all leap out and snap photos.
Just like in my childhood, the car got hung up on a rock and couldn’t move, at one point, so Stephanie Schlatter and I walked ahead. I got to see nifas bir through the eyes of a painter for a few minutes.
Sometimes a team is hard because everyone’s priorities have to be taken into consideration. Sometimes, though, the team spurs you on and helps you see things through new eyes and gives you courage to carpe the diem and not miss something precious.
One of the most delightful parts of being on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts is the chance to hang around with fellow writers for 10 days every residency. And in Maji, I got to hang around with painters. I wish everyone the joy of being on a team with artists.
I know to my bones how important it is to be humble and playful as we dance up to the cultural divide and stare over. Respectful curiosity goes a long way. Calmness goes a long way. Hubris is a good thing to leave behind.
The community of third culture kids is deep and wide with many things to separate us from each other–but I’ve never met another third culture kid who didn’t seem a lot like me. And when we talk about respect for other cultures…well…I think that’s really important, of course. But I also think there is a culture of women around the globe. There is a culture of readers and writers and artists. We have lots of common ground.
This is an Ethiopia Reads school being built. It’s a great image for how I feel as I set out for Odyssey II. Precarious. Hanging on the edge. But aware of those holding my hand.
Three writers (one who is pretty good in Amharic), two American painters, an amateur photographer who wants to help document the trip, two Ethiopian painters…we’re going to see what we can do to create our own art together but also to start creating a body of simple, playful, culturally appropriate, local language books that can go into the schools and libraries where Ethiopian kids are just learning to read.
Stephanie Schlatter, the American artist here, has done a lot of art work with kids in Ethiopia. As she and I have discussed, visual art dodges the language question that is so hard as we struggle with sharing books. I believe we will find the shared language of art on this trip and we will come back changed…if nothing else from a week lived off the electric grid.
Tough team. Watch this space for more!
http://www.ethiopiareads.org/ethiopian-odyssey-ii I’m super jazzed to talk with my Vermont College of the Fine Arts students about how to think about the progression of a tale. I’m also super jazzed to see what this artistic collaboration can bring to some very simple, easy-to-read stories that can be used by Ethiopian educators, especially after they’re translated into various local languages. I created this one from a story that’s told in Ethiopia and around the world…and Noh and Ellemae and I tried to teach ourselves a tiny bit about how illustrators work with perspective. See what you think.
She talked about flowers.