To me, writing is me.
It is me listening
To what I have to say,
To what I want to say,
To what my heart says.
– Gugu, age 16
I was not your typical Fulbrighter. I came to the program at the age of 40, after building a career in nonprofit communications, which had taken me to Africa for the first time in 2002 on a three-week trip that flew by. I fell in love with the places I visited, especially with South Africa. Years earlier, the country had played a pivotal role in educating me about social justice and activism through South Africa’s struggle against apartheid (its state-sanctioned racial segregation). While working, I also attended graduate school part-time, earning a master of fine arts in nonfiction writing. As I finished my degree, I wanted a new challenge, time to devote to writing in my own voice, maybe a chance to live abroad. A friend had just received a Fulbright Study/Research grant to translate poetry in Lithuania. I began to explore the program’s options.
It dawned on me then: Bold moves are not limited to one’s twenties.
This undertaking was not easy from the start. On my first attempt, I was named a Finalist and then turned down for the grant—crushing news to any applicant. But Dr. Deirdre Moloney, the Fulbright Program Adviser at my grad school, George Mason University, encouraged me to try again, a lesson in persistence that continues to serve me. This application round gave me the chance to really figure out what I wanted to do with this gift of time and the opportunity to immerse myself in a new culture, as well as what I had to offer a community in return. On my second try, I discovered my passion: I would establish and lead a weekly creative writing club for teenage girls in Gugulethu, a black township outside Cape Town, South Africa where schools offer few opportunities for artistic pursuits. As they were writing about their lives, I would write about them growing up as the first post-apartheid generation: the Born Frees, as South Africans call them.
Every Saturday, we gathered in a classroom at a community center. I offered the girls a writing prompt—a word or phrase, a question, a poem or song lyrics—to get them going. Then everyone would write for a set amount of time whatever came to mind. Our time together was not a class. I didn’t teach grammar and sentence structure. This forum was for the girls to discover what they had to say, what they thought and believed. It was a chance for them to hear their own voices. At our first gathering, we wrote for three minutes, a low-pressure amount of time. By the end of my time in country, the girls insisted on 30 minutes, at least.
Beyond our time together in the writing club, I came to know the girls better than I could have imagined. I attended support classes with one who is HIV positive, as she learned the medication regimen she would be taking. I walked beside another through a dark period of depression, and got to see her come out the other side, sure and strong. I celebrated with girls who gained admittance to university to continue their education—in some cases, to universities they would never have been allowed to attend under apartheid.
As the girls found their voices, I found my own as a writer. My first book, The Born Frees: Writing with the Girls of Gugulethu, was published by W. W. Norton on August 4. I can’t wait for readers to meet the amazing young women these girls have become.
Nearly five years after my Fulbright, the experience continues to change my life. I’ve stayed in touch with most of the girls—many now women—and have returned multiple times to South Africa. I know I will always have a second home there, with people who welcomed and embraced me.
For more information on The Born Frees, visit kimberlyburge.com