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Here are some numbers about Afghan refugees:
- 2 million Afghan citizens were displaced by violence in 2015.
- 5 million are awaiting repatriation or citizenship in Pakistan, but the government there is starting to force the refugees back to Afghanistan.
- 1 million wait in Iran and are enduring increasingly rough treatment and deportation.
And here’s why we can read those sentences and glaze over: because our brains can’t comprehend the millions of stories in the refugee crisis.
That’s why one photograph, of one drowned toddler and his two tiny shoes sparked more outrage than the daily tally of refugees. That photo told a story that had been incomprehensible.
Novelist Nadia Hashimi, who is of Afghan descent but grew up in New York and New Jersey, wanted to tell one family’s story, to show the humanity in the humanitarian crisis that is the migrant emergency.
Hashimi centered her 2015 novel, When the Moon is Low, around a schoolteacher, Fereiba, who lives with her family in Kabul until the Taliban imprison and kill her husband. She and her children escape the violence of Afghan’s capital and endure boat trips in the dead of night, border crossings, predatory smugglers, hunger, cold and exhaustion in their quest to reach family in London.
In the prologue, Hashimi writes in the voice of Fereiba, who is lying in a hotel bed with her children: “One day, we will not look over our shoulders in fear or sleep on borrowed land with one eye open or shudder at the sight of a uniform. One day we will have a place to call home. I will carry these children — my husband’s children — as far as I can and pray that we will reach that place where, in the quiet of their slumber, I, too, will rest.”
Hashimi will read from that novel June 26 as part of a program HoCoPoLitSo is producing with the Columbia Festival of the Arts’ summer festival. The Toronto Star wrote of When the Moon is Low: “A heartfelt story of courage amidst a world short on compassion.”
Hashimi’s own story is compelling. Her mother grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in a modern Kabul, going to college, wearing mini skirts, listening to music with her friends. When the Soviet invasion was imminent, her mother migrated to the Europe, then got her master’s degree in engineering. Her father emigrated to the U.S. to seek his own education. Afghanistan, under the influence of the Taliban and extremist warlords, forced women to cover, divided families, reinstituted child marriage and outlawed women’s education.
Now a pediatrician from Potomac with four children, Hashimi has written three novels in four years. When she traveled to Afghanistan after the publication of her first two novels, she found it much changed from her parents’ stories. The years have not been kind to her parents’ home country, she told an audience at the Miller Library earlier in April. Since 1970, life in Afghanistan has become especially hard for women — who were for years forbidden to work, go to school or walk unaccompanied — and she wanted to tell those stories.
When the Moon is Low is particularly topical now, in the midst of the ongoing wave of migrants seeking a better life than in their turbulent, violent native land.
Foreign Policy, in a fascinating piece about the responsibility of America in the twisted history of Afghanistan, wrote, “The case of the Afghans, one of the world’s largest refugee communities and the second-largest group – behind Syrians – to arrive in Europe recently, should serve as a reminder that the origins of today’s predicament are neither recent nor confined to the refugees’ home countries.” (Full article.)
America and its policies bear responsibility for the refugees struggling to reach a peaceful place. We should not ignore the crisis, neither its numbers, its images nor its stories. Join HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Festival of the Arts on June 26 to hear Hashimi read from When the Moon is Low, and a sneak peek at her upcoming book about the stories in a women’s prison in Afghanistan, House Without Windows (August 2016).
— Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo board member
and recording secretary
Columbia, Maryland, is almost fifty. At forty years (young) itself, HoCoPoLitSo has watched what was once America’s New City grow up. Way back when, there seemed hardly a thing to do in a place that had only just magically appeared out of the vision of James Rouse and onto the landscape, a new type of community curiously growing out of the farmland of Howard County.
Today, Columbia boasts ever more things to do and the schedule can be oh so cluttered. Back in the day, that wasn’t so true, not true at all. That lack of things to do was the impetus behind a bunch of Columbia pioneers forming the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in order to bring their favorite writers to town to read to them and their friends. They wanted something to do. Something special to do. They made it happen and it has been happening every year since.
It’s been a great forty years and the organization continues to “enlarge the audience for contemporary poetry and literature and celebrate culturally diverse literary heritages,” as its mission states. The list of writers HoCoPoLitSo has brought to Columbia dazzles many from afar who — drop-jawed — wonder how a suburban town that didn’t exist all that long ago is a now a treasure on the literary landmark map and regarded around the world. At last count, the list of visitors includes 5 Nobel prize winners, 17 US Poets Laureate, 11 National Book Award winners, 22 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 7 Maryland Poets Laureate.
This weekend, another name will join the list: recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, Ethiopian American novelist, and book club favorite Dinaw Mengestu.
On Saturday, Mr. Mengestu will read from his work as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts’ “American Routes” program, a weekend festival of exploring the visual and performing arts. Mengestu’s route to America began when his family fled war-torn Ethiopia and immigrated to the United States when he was two years old. His novels and nonfiction pieces open a window into the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America. “This is not an immigrant story we already know quite well,” writes The Washington Post. He is expected to read from his latest novel, How To Read The Air, as well as a selection of his beloved The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, set in Washington DC.
Please join us and become a part of the history of HoCoPoLitSo, the Columbia Festival of the Arts, and the wonderful, unique place that is Columbia, Maryland.
For tickets, event details, a video preview, and directions, visit this Columbia Festival of the Arts event webpage.
Presented in partnership with the Columbia Festival of the Arts, another of the wonderful reasons there are so many things to do in Columbia, Maryland, these days.
An artist works alone in a garret, her solitary room the site of revelation. Or not.
The five of them collaborated on a performance that brought tears to the eyes of the audience. Smith even wrote extra lines – just a few moments before the performance – to make her poem better fit the musical score.
In four hours, having never met before, the poet and the musicians meshed their work into a tightly woven performance for HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Festival of the Arts called “The Sound and Fury of New Orleans.”
Audience member Mike Clark said he emerged from the reading feeling “flayed,” he had been so moved by the show.
First performed in October 2012, the synthesis of music and poetry was the brainchild of Martin Farawell, director of the Geraldine R, Dodge Poetry Festival, and had not been performed since. Board member Tim Singleton saw Smith at Dodge, and decided HoCoPoLitSo just had to host her.
Violinists Arminé Graham and Laura Chang reached deep into the heart of the poems, Maggie Hummel on cello drew out the voice of Katrina during “Blue Lights on the Bayou,” and Sarah Hart and her viola flirted with the ragtime. Each note, whether quavering or raucous, seemed to speak intimately with Smith’s poems about New Orleans as lascivious flirt and nursing home residents left to drown in their beds, about a dog howling at the looming sky, about a woman with three babies and two arms, who drops her littlest one with a tiny splash.
But before it became art, there was the devil in the details. The musicians knew the music, the poet knew the poems, but in one short rehearsal on the afternoon of the performance, they had to make those two types of art speak as one.
The rehearsal started on a good note. Smith walked into the Monteabaro Recital Hall, saw the four musicians warming up onstage and chortled: “Girl party!”
The quartet laughed, the tension broken. Then, in their shorts and sundresses, the five women settled into the rehearsal.
Smith began by explaining each poem, and reading it, as the musicians looked at the score. They talked about the silences that punctuated the piece, the times when the musicians would play “Hellbound Highball” and would have to tone down the frenzy so Smith’s words about running just ahead of Katrina’s winds could be heard.
The cellist, Maggie Hummel, took on the voice of Katrina, as Smith read poems in the hurricane’s hungry voice: “Every woman begins as weather.” Hummel’s fingers plucked insistently at the beginning of every poem in Katrina’s voice, lending an urgency to the hurricane’s approach.
Just at the end, when everyone was tired and the snacks of nuts and cherries had run out, Smith said she needed to say something about the ending.
“I’m hearing something,” she said. “Katrina’s voice.”
So Smith read the last few lines, and Hummel plucked those strings again.
“That’s it,” Smith said.
Throughout the rehearsal, if they weren’t sure how the piece would go, they just tried it.
“Let’s just do it and see what happens,” Smith said more than once. They did, then tried again. And art happened.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Thursday, June 27, 7:30 p.m. Monteabaro Recital Hall, The Horowitz Center
at Howard Community College
A look at Katrina New Orleans through a selection of Smith’s Blood Dazzler poems set to the music of Wynton Marsalis’ Octoroon Balls.
“Reading poems like these, overflowing with life but
contained by art, makes us all feel a little bit helpless.
These poems are blessings that will move like white
light through your veins.” – American Book Review
Straight from its world premiere at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, this powerful blend of poetry and music is “breath-taking” and “not-to-be-missed.” Patricia Smith recites poems from her collection Blood Dazzler in the voices of the people lost in the floods and fury of Hurricane Katrinia accompanied by the rich, spicy music of Wynton Marsalis played by Washington D.C.’s Sage String Quartet. Marsalis’ At the Octoroon Balls is a dramatic gumbo of jazz, blues, Americana and European classical music. This performance was conceived and premiered at the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival and has never been performed elsewhere.
Tickets available through the Columbia Festival of the Arts website.
On June 27th, HoCoPoLitSo will host the renowned short story writer Edith Pearlman. The event, part of this year’s Columbia Festival of the Arts will be held at the lovely Oakland Manor. In preparation for Ms. Pearlman’s visit, we offer these resources.
(Note: Edith Pearlman’s books, available online through the normal outlets, will be for sale at the reading. Edith Pearlman will be recording an episode of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life on her visit where she will be in conversation with author Carrie Brown. Look for information about airing dates on this website in the coming months.)
- The Millions Interview, “Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction.” As The Rumpus says, “The interview includes ambling thoughts on Pearlman’s work and interests, and includes mention of Hermes typewriters, polar expeditions, gun collecting, Pearlman’s stylistic influences, and the task of literature.”
- Biblio Buffet’s Talking Across the Table: “Edith Pearlman: An Interview.“
- The Practice of Creativity: “Women Writers form the Present Who Inspire – Edith Pearlman.“
- Boston Globe, “With ‘Binocular Vision,’ Brookline’s Edith Pearlman catches the eye of the literary establishment Short Stories, Long Career.“
- Wall Street Journal, “Butterflies and Pariahs.”
- Edith Pearlman reads from Binocular Vision at the 2011 NBA Finalists Reading
- Reading “Lineage” from Binocular Vision, Center for Fiction, 2011.
And, of course, there is Pearlman’s own website: www.edithpearlman.com.
Now that Edith Pearlman has won the National Book Critics Award for fiction, what is she going to do? She’s going to visit Columbia and read from her acclaimed work, that’s what. Mark your calendars for Wednesday, June 27, 2012 and get yourself reading a copy of her Binocular Vision, wonderful stories often exploring the theme of accommodations people make in life. You’ll be glad you did.
Who is Edith Pearlman? some find themselves asking… like, um, even The New York Times, “Why in the world had I never heard of Edith Pearlman? And why, if you hadn’t, hadn’t you? It certainly isn’t the fault of her writing, which is intelligent, funny and quite beautiful.”
Pearlman’s website touts:
Edith Pearlman has published more than 250 works of short fiction and short non-fiction in national magazines, literary journals, anthologies, and on-line publications. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Collection, New Stories from the South, and The Pushcart Prize Collection – Best of the Small Presses.
And yet it is just now, in her seventies, she is finding the greater fame and public attention she deserves. The National Book Critics Circle board, a group of 600 reviewers selecting Binocular Vision for the award, stated the recognition “a triumph for Pearlman’s distinctive storytelling, bringing it to a larger audience.” We are all glad for that — this is work that deserves to be read. And we at HoCoPoLitSo, working with the Columbia Festival of the Arts and the Town Center Community Association,* are ecstatic to be bringing Pearlman in person to Columbia so soon after this accolade.
We’ll keep you abreast of details, like ticket sales, here and on our Facebook page (you are following us, aren’t you?) as they develop. In the meantime, share this wonderful news with friends in email, on Facebook, with your book clubs, everywhere. And get yourself a copy of her work to enjoy! It won’t be long till you are listening to her in person, getting a chance to ask her questions you have and to sign a copy of your new favorite book.
* Guess what intimate venue the reading is going to be held in….