Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Pen World Voices: Witness: A Special Program for High School Students

I thought that the Crisis Darfur event was moving, interesting, and ideal. Nonetheless, as I hovered, famished, near the food table, scarfing down puff-pastry cheese straws (from Murray’s!), I could see why the whole scene reminded Levi to ask me if I’d yet read the new Keith Gessen (I have not; he liked it; it’s All the Sad Young Literary Men): as amazing as it was, it would be possible, without a lot of effort, to turn it into satire. (The Brit showing off by pronouncing Lévy as they do in the UK [BER-nerd HEN-ry LEAVE-ee], the girls worrying about whether or not MediaBistro ads for CondéNast jobs are going to lead to anything, the gray-haired German in his red-framed specs, the 80ish former actress at the reception noting that, really, Dianne Wiest was better in “Hannah and Her Sisters”…)

The Witness Event this morning, however, was moving and funny and inspiring in a different way and it’d take a more skilled satirist and a more cynical writer than I satirize it.

Again, the house was packed at a lush downstairs auditorium, this one smaller and further East, at the Instituto Cervantes on East 49th. About 150 people were there, mostly high school students and their teachers. The students were about 70% black, I’d guess and came from the Manhattan (especially the High School of Hospitality Management), Queens, and West Orange, NJ.

The event was primarily to publicize a new venture from the nonprofit organization Witness: The Hub. It’s a video-sharing site and online community for human rights and the goal of this PEN event was to get high school students informed about the site and empowered to watch, share, and make videos documenting the injustice and human rights issues touching their own lives.

What was so genius about this event is that everything about it was designed to emphasize that Witness really is interested in young people’s participation. It wasn’t just friendly, it was actually engaging and almost all the students were engaged for the full two hours (!). The organizer started by asking two or three students to share what mattered to them in the area of human rights. (One student talked about her ongoing project to make country report cards, another mentioned a civil rights book she’d read last year in 9th grade, a third mentioned his distress at the current oppression in Tibet).

From there, she turned to the panel: five writers who write for young adults. Each had been invited to share a video from the Hub, speak about it, and then read a very brief selection from her work.
  1. Kashmira Sheth chose a really moving but, I expect, strange to NYC high school students Bollywood-style video of a woman who escapes an abusive marriage. I loved it and, as it ended I heard a few “Oh! I get it. Wow!”s from the audience. She read from her novel about a child widow in search of an education—based on her great aunt’s life in India.
  2. Patty McCormick spoke about her sister adopting a Haitian boy and showed a video on indentured servitude in Haiti before reading from Sold, a novel about child prostitutes in South Asia.
  3. Jutta Richter, who writes in German, explained that she did not choose a video because she wanted to focus on the things we need to do right in our own neighborhood and then she read an amazingly funny and brilliant passage about a girl so enraged by a rumor-mongering “friend” that she pokes her in the face with an ice cream cone. I loved it!
  4. Then, the moderator opened it up to some more comments and questions. Students asked about the prevalence of spousal abuse in India today, about the inspiration for Richter’s fiction, about the centrality of education, about how McCormick became interested in Haiti through her sister and nephew.
  5. Amanda Michalopoulou spoke movingly about the importance of knowing about the past, of thinking about past suffering, before showing a video about comfort women. She writes adult fiction and children’s books and read from I’d Like (which I bought and started reading on the train: it’s amazingly great!), a book of interconnected short stories.
  6. Finally, the only man on the panel and by far the youngest writer, Uzodinma Iweala spoke. He totally held the day for the students. He really seemed to know how to treat them with respect and connect with them.

He is the most famous of the group: certainly the only writer I’d heard of among them; his Beasts of No Nation, the other book I bought, was a big title last year. Uzo, as everyone called him, was also the only one not to read from his own works. Instead, he worked the crowd, asking students to raise their hands if they were seniors, juniors, sophomores… He then quizzed them on ages--to drink, to enlist, to vote, to be tried as an adult (typically 16 but sometimes 13).

His video was about youth in prison in the US, from, and, like Kashmira Seth’s music video, it was catchy, professional, and youth-oriented in ways that inspired. He then gave them a big homework assignment: go to this web address (he made them write it down, amidst much jocularity):, read the report from the Department of Justice on how our government treats young people, and write a report. The first person to email him their paper would get a prize.
No, guys. Something like a book.
You got to tell us the prize, man.
How long?
Can we write on really tiny paper?
Big font?
Do we have to read the whole report?

Uzo laughed but stood firm: If it’s cool with your parents and your teacher, I’ll take you out to lunch with a friend of mine who’s a human rights lawyer. 5 pages, double-spaced, 12 point type, Times New Roman. Ok?

He went on to ask if any of the students had been harassed by the police. More than half had and we heard three sad stories of misunderstandings (we were waiting for a friend from another neighborhood on the corner and the cops told us to move on; we stayed there waiting and we all got tickets) that blemished these kids’ records. “I think the police just need to RE-LAX!” concluded one young woman.

At last, it was time for some final thoughts. A couple students mentioned other books that had meant a lot to them. A couple panelists urged students to keep wishing, pushing, fighting. And then there was time for one last question. A young black man from the back raised his hand and said that he was from Queens and he felt that it was really important that we all pay attention to this project, speak out, and work in our communities because he was from Queens and he was thinking about Sean Bell and the police department and if we didn’t speak up, one of us could be the next Sean Bell.

And that was the end. We clapped, I bought some books, got Amanda to sign mine, didn’t dare interrupt the circle of adulation around Uzo, and headed back to the office.

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