One Mission Accomplished

January 3, 2012

This morning, I received an email update from a sociology professor at my alma mater, Bridgewater College. The message from Dr. Mwizenge S. Tembo began with this headline: “Mission Accomplished: Books Delivered to Nkhanga Library Dec. 20, 2011 at 5:15PM.”

In my graduate studies, I have read and written a great deal about the power and politics of reading and writing. Sometimes I forget to give equal space to the personal and positive sides.

The Nkhanga library project is part of a larger initiative called ZANOBA: the Zambian Knowledge Bank. Co-founded by Dr. Tembo in 1995, its mission is to “to encourage all Zambians in the Southern African country to document, preserve, and enjoy their traditional and modern Zambian culture and technology among people who live in the rural villages and Provinces to the towns and cities of the African country.”

Fundraising for this particular branch of the Zambia Knowledge Libraries began in 2006, while I was a junior in college. I have been following its progress since that time: watching, through photos, as trees were cleared and the foundation laid (May 2007); the walls were completed (September 2008); the roof was installed (August 2009); and the interior took shape (May 2011).

Setbacks were a regular feature of the progress updates, but also prominent were the determination and dedication of many individuals who did their part, however small, to make this vision take shape.

The main collection of donated books arrived a few days before Christmas. Dr. Tembo writes this:

I just returned from Zambia. I am thrilled to report to you that all the publicly donated total of 3,092 used books packed in 65 carton boxes were successfully delivered to the new Nkhanga Village Library in Lundazi in Eastern Zambia in Southern Africa on December 20, 2011 at 5:15PM local time and 10:15AM Eastern American Standard time. …

What the shipment of the books and the entire Nkhanga library project has shown is that there are so many selfless people both in the United States and Zambia who are genuinely dedicated to the success of this very truly unique grassroots project. On behalf of the project I would like to thank everyone in the community here and in Zambia for their contribution.

You can read more about the Nkhanga library project in the Fall 2011 issue of Bridgewater Magazine (beginning on page 21). Visit to find out more about the broader aims and goals of the Zambian Knowledge Bank.


Reading and Return

October 6, 2011

When a conversation turns to politics, or religion, or any of the other taboo subjects known to produce ire and dispel good humor, the tone in a room changes perceptibly. Longer pauses precede speech for some; others begin to flush. Air passageways constrict, and feet shuffle on the floor. Without needing to be told, everyone present knows that the stakes have risen.

I found myself thinking of this scenario when I was reading a passage from Virginia Woolf’s essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” Take a look:

Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticise at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite. (CR2 259, emphasis mine)

I love Woolf’s advice in the middle of this passage. In her vision, to read is to open yourself to the mind of another. The subject matter may be just as sensitive and controversial as the conversation I described, but something about the form of a book differentiates the two scenarios.

In a conversation, you have one chance at a particular encounter, a particular moment in the conversation — one chance, as it were, to say the right thing. You can cycle back to the same topic again, but the encounter is not the same. (Thus, the air of hesitancy or of reckless abandon: the first response is crucial and irrevocable.)

In contrast, the beauty of a book is the ability to return and revisit an idea exactly as it was. You will have changed, your response to the ideas having been modified by what you have read and seen since your first encounter, but the text of the book remains the same.

The implication is that a book provides a safe venue in which to encounter ideas wholly outside your comfortable paradigm. It is safe to open yourself to an author in the manner Woolf describes, because you can read the book a second time, with a critical eye. You can accept the author’s preconceptions and presumptions on their own terms, then return to question their merits.

As a result, you can identify the pathos in Shakespeare’s greatest villains. You can appreciate Machiavelli’s subtlety and pragmatism. You can read Kipling and Orwell alongside Coetzee and Rushdie. You can suspend judgment long enough to see, as Woolf writes, “signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, [which] bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other.”

However, if this type of encounter remains possible only with a book or a fictionalized narrator, then the promise of literature is a weak one.

Rather, my hope is that our practices of reading could begin to translate to our practices of encountering others and other ideas. Although I have made the claim that a one-to-one comparison is impossible, I believe we gain something when we train ourselves to read for “signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness.” Literary encounters could serve as “training wheels” for the encounters in which we must meld critical thinking and openness, wisdom and empathy.


Poetics of Grief

September 23, 2011

Today, Palestine seeks recognition of statehood at the United Nations.

Two days ago, President Obama told Palestinians, “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”

Last week, I was reading a book I found on clearance at a Borders going-out-of-business sale. The author, Mahmoud Darwish, was a celebrated Palestinian poet who died in 2008. His lyrical essay collection Journal of an Ordinary Grief (trans. Ibrahim Muhawi) deals with home, exile, belonging, borders, and injustice, but also with the role — and impotence — of the poet in navigating these difficult and politically charged concepts.

Rather than attempt to dissect and analyze the relationship between Darwish’s writing and the current political situation, I want to set out one passage that drew my attention and made me pause before I had even begun the book proper.

The battles do not end, and the language remains on edge. These pages do not tell the whole story. They only set down the beginnings of a small voice that shook the rock a little. The homeland is distant and near, and in this everyday grief and everyday death the writing gets written, or tries to get written, so that this ordinary grief may stop accepting being acceptable.

There is something safe and unsatisfying about reading a poem instead of dealing with media representations, historical grievances, and political maneuvering. As Darwish writes, “Justice is a hope that resembles an illusion if it is not supported by power.”

However, it seems to me that the narratives spoken at the U.N. this week and the stories written in history books and newspapers and passed from parent to child all represent attempts to give voice to everyday griefs like those Darwish extrapolates in his poetry. To me, the exchange of stories through poetry and literature — even if it is a safe, low-stakes medium for me as an American reader — does matter.

What does it mean for an ordinary grief to “stop accepting being acceptable”? The language is poetic and muted, but its use of repetition and degrees of removal resembles the long, convoluted search for peace. In this context, making statements may not bring immediate change, but it creates the possibility of an encounter with another human who is struggling to write his or her story, despite the limitations of language, vulnerability, and an imperfect world. That kind of encounter is most deeply felt when it takes place face-to-face, but writing it is, at the very least, a beginning.

The Why Question

June 27, 2011

I came across this quote this morning and thought it was worth passing along.

“The sciences teach us how. The humanities teach us why…You can’t continue to do the how without the why. If we ignore history, philosophy, and all of the other attempts to deal with the why, the how can become very dangerous.”

-George Lucas, on behalf of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ national Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. (Read more…)

What do you think?

Our American Story

May 12, 2011

Yesterday, the White House played host not only to politicians, but also to poets.

The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities hosted a two part event: an afternoon poetry-writing workshop led by the First Lady for students nationwide, and an evening of performances from notable American poets. Among those present were Elizabeth Alexander, who presented a poem at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and former U.S. poets laureate Billy Collins and Rita Dove.

Most of the ceremony is now available online. Learn more about the Live Poetry event from the White House blog. Read President Obama’s opening remarks at the evening session, and the First Lady’s opening remarks at the workshop.

The whole event was broadcast live on, so you can watch videos of the poetry workshop and the evening event.

One of President Obama’s comments I found most interesting was,

…as a nation built on freedom of expression, poets have always played an important role in telling our American story. It was after the bombing of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 that a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key penned the poem that would become our National Anthem.  The Statue of Liberty has always welcomed the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Soldiers going off to fight in World War II were giving — given books of poetry for comfort and inspiration.  And whenever our nation has faced a great tragedy … we have turned to poetry when we can’t find quite the right words to express what we’re feeling.

It strikes me that poetry is said to stand in the gaps where “normal” words fail to express deep emotion.

In her remarks at the student workshop, the First Lady quoted Robert Frost: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat,” a physical, metaphysical reaction that the poet then puts into a different form. But while poetry uses imagery, metaphor, meter, rhyme, alliteration, and dozens of other formal features, it still uses words.

I think that’s an important caveat to remember because it keeps us from imagining poetry as entirely separate from other forms of expression. If poetry is a way of sharing emotion and inviting others to experience a basic vulnerability, joy, grief, or fear, then I think it’s worthwhile to imagine that other forms of speech could become more “poetic,” in this particular sense.

Does that mean poetry ceases to exist? Absolutely not! Does it mean everyday speech needs to be in iambic pentameter? Well, as much fun as that would be … no.

Instead, perhaps we need to keep asking why poetic forms give us a unique way to tell our American story, and why, when we can’t quite find the right words to express what we’re feeling, we turn to literature.

Perhaps those questions aren’t simply esoteric or whitewash for an ivory tower.

Perhaps they do matter after all.

Imagination and the Impossible

April 26, 2011

A few weeks ago, international bestselling author Salman Rushdie spoke at Duke University on “Public Events, Private Lives: Literature and Politics in the Modern World.” Read a review here. Here’s a snippet:

Human beings are unique among the world’s creatures in telling stories, he said, and writers willing to tell those stories can change their world just as the works of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe prompted reform in their worlds.

“That’s what all great literature tries to do,” [Rushdie] said. “It tries to open the universe a little more. In order to push out the boundaries of the universe … you have to go to the frontiers and push … when writers do that, they find very powerful forces pushing back and the consequences can be significant … but you can bet that art will outlast tyranny.” (Read More…)

Pushing out the boundaries of the universe is akin to what Czech former president and playwright Václav Havel calls “the art of the impossible“: recognizing that ideals like freedom, democracy, and human rights can be realized only imperfectly, yet in the face of that knowledge, continuing to seek better ways to approach those ideals.

To do so is to combine pragmatism and idealism.

What is more, to do so demands an act of imagination.

(See also Rushdie speaks on role of the novelist).

Get Lit by Poetic Fire

January 15, 2011

“Words transform lives. … Books provide a valuable resource and refuge for the human soul.”

Photo courtesy of Kelly Dymon

One Los Angeles-based organization is attempting to make that resource and refuge a reality for California high school students.

Get Lit: Words Ignite is non-profit organization that provides in-school and after-school programs that combine classic literature/poetry with contemporary Spoken Word performance techniques. Its goal is to “fill the gaps where public schools have failed students,” and providing “tools to access all that books have to offer.”

Get Lit was founded in 2005 by Diane Luby Lane, a longtime teacher, mentor, and literacy coach. Lane writes of her experience teaching poetry to a group of high school students:

“I wondered, would something beautiful happen for Victor? Would he graduate from a school with a 75% drop out rate? Would he go to college when less then 50% of graduates from his school did? Would he survive the violence of his streets where gang bangs and drug deals were constant? I wanted to show Victor a world he’d never seen, so I left him with a taste of what had saved my life…books.”

Lane’s organization now sponsors programs like the Get Lit Players, a troupe of students who memorize classic poetry and recite it to middle schools, high schools, universities, and community events across the nation. This award-winning troupe also teaches workshops on the weekends.

According to Carol Muske-Dukes, the California Poet Laureate and one of Lane’s collaborators,

“There are no other young poets like the Get Lit Players. They take the Great Poems of the past and commit them to heart, then give them back to us – along with their own powerful original responses. The result is a conversation that can change the world.”

I can only hope that this conversation ignites a rush of others like it.

Check out the Words Ignite Blog for information about upcoming performances in your area.