Tag Archives: Creative Writing

Reading Greece

Written by Steven Tagle, Fulbright US Student to Greece 2016-17

At Mytikas, the highest peak of Mount Olympus, with Josh Arnold, an American friend I made on the way up

When I describe my year in Greece, I often feel like I’m describing a place I imagined rather than a place that actually exists. It is a place where golden light strikes marble columns and sparkles over the wine-dark sea; where rowdy, curious, and clever characters drink and dance; where tradition and innovation, creativity, and chaos brew in a social and economic cauldron. As a fiction writer with an admittedly tenuous grip on reality, I’ve inhabited Greece the way a reader inhabits a book. “Reading” Greece this year has reawakened my senses and bound me to Greek and Syrian people whose mythic stories have challenged what I thought I knew about the crises, and what I thought I knew about myself. I may be the newest reader of a book that spans millennia, but like Byron, Fermor, and Merrill, I’ve found a home in this country and hope to contribute to its pages.

The Vikos Gorge from the Beloi Lookout in Vradeto, supposedly the deepest gorge in Europe.

I came to Greece through its mythology, intrigued by a people whose gods were as raucous, petty, and vindictive as they were noble and just. The landscapes of Greece retain the mystery and power of mythology. Thanks to Fulbright, I’ve visited many of these places, where our world still seems to touch the world of the gods. I’ve walked along the Acheron River –  the “River of Woe” – whose spectral blue waters seem colored by the spirits of the dead. I’ve listened for prophecy in the rustling oak leaves at Dodona and felt stalactites drip onto the back of my neck as a silent boatman ferried me through the caves at Diros. I’ve retraced Odysseus’s homeward path through the Ionian Islands and paid tribute to monsters Hercules had slain in the Peloponnese. Some days, traveling alone and outside my comfort zone, I walked on the edge of fear, knowing that beyond fear is awe, or δέος, the proper attitude for approaching the gods.

I saw δέος on a Naoussan boy’s face during Carnival when he put on the wax mask of the γενίτσαρος for the very first time. I learned to play Trex in UNHCR hotels and befriended an amorous Iraqi who had lost his legs as a child. My students at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki shared their yiayias’ spoon sweets and their own stories of first love, of coming out, of overcoming anxiety, of living with HIV. I visited their hometowns, stations of my Syrian friends’ wayward journeys. I know which cheeses each island produces and for which dessert each village is famous. Everyone I’ve met breathes a bit of Greece into me, and their life stories take root in my imagination. Now initiated into Greek culture, I’m eager to soak up every bit of history and myth, new local food, new tradition.

At Kallimarmaro Stadium with the Solidarity Now team, the first refugee team to run in the Athens Marathon.

A monk on Mount Athos gave me this advice: To write distinctly, live distinctly. In Greece I learned a different way to live. I’ve always held myself apart from people, but here, I was expected to spill into other people’s lives, to reach over them for food, to let myself need and be needed by them. Friends who have visited me in Greece say that I speak louder in Greek, that I’m more willing to talk to strangers, more willing to ask for help. They notice how Greek people open up to me when I speak the language. When a Greek asks me if I’m part Greek, I respond, Ναι, η καρδιά μου είναι ελληνική, “Yes, my heart is Greek.” Completing my Fulbright year is a bittersweet accomplishment, like coming to the of a beloved book. But as Greece has become part of me, so has my experience become part of the story of Greece.

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Searching for Gold: Rescuing Memories in Rural Nicaragua

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Alex Mercado, an English teacher, interviewed his grandfather, Rodolfo Aguilar, about fighting in the Nicaraguan civil war.

As a child growing up in California, I loved hearing my mother talk about Siuna, the small town in Nicaragua where she grew up. Chickens ran around in her family’s yard, and they drank milk fresh from the cow. And when it rained, she said, the streets glittered with gold pebbles.

Almost twenty years later, I found myself on a run-down porch in Siuna with an 82-year-old man. As a rooster crowed, he told me the same story.

I was on my Fulbright year, doing research for a novel about Siuna. Not only was it the fairy-tale place of my mother’s stories; from about 1900 until 1979, it was home to an important gold mine owned by Americans and Canadians—hence the legend about gold in the streets. Siuna was essentially a company town; the North American staff lived in a luxurious, fenced-in zone on a hill, and most of the locals were miners, mechanics, and office workers. Today, all that remains are a few ruins, the green-and-white company bungalows, and a polluted lagoon—the former open-pit mine—where prospectors still pan for gold.

From town elders I heard happy recollections of bygone days—a well-stocked commissary, company parties—as well as tragic stories of mining accidents and economic depression after the company left. In order to share my findings, I worked with Professor Luis Gonzalo Herrera Siles at the local university, URACCAN, on a course combining history, narrative, and English learning. Each student—nine English teachers, ranging from age 20 to 38, and two college students—was to research and produce a podcast in Spanish, then translate into English. One pair talked to former miners about life underground; another student interviewed his father, a farmer who’d been caught in the 1980s Contra war. Another spoke with his wheelchair-bound friend about the incident that had paralyzed him.

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Good Karma: Volunteering While on a Fulbright Grant in Nepal, By Franz Knupfer, 2008-2009, Nepal

When I visited the Naxal School for the Deaf on my first day in Kathmandu, the students crowded around me asking questions. “What’s your name?” they asked. “Where are you from? Are you Deaf?” I touched my index finger to my ear and then my mouth, the sign for Deaf in both Nepali and American Sign Language. I was Deaf, too, and I knew immediately that I had found a community that was willing to accept me as one of its own. In fact, I was beginning to realize that I am part of a much larger community of more than one billion people with disabilities worldwide.

The focus of my Fulbright research in Nepal was creative—I was there to work on a collection of short stories. Just as importantly, though, I knew that I wanted volunteering to be a big part of my project. In my Fulbright application, I had mentioned that I planned to teach at the Naxal School in order to find inspiration and material for my stories.

Of course, that was only part of the reason I wanted to volunteer. As a former AmeriCorps volunteer who spent two years working on environmental projects in Portland, Oregon, I knew that volunteering would help empower both the community I was working with and myself. Also, it felt good to volunteer. Volunteering gave my Fulbright experience a deeper, more fulfilling meaning that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It gave me the opportunity to make new friends and to give back to the community that was so generously hosting me for ten months.

I volunteered to teach art and American Sign Language at the Naxal School. Soon, I discovered that my students were used to learning drawing through copying and rote memorization, just like their hearing peers in most of Asia. My goal was to teach my students to think creatively, so I taught them art techniques like shading, perspective and drawing three-dimensional objects. Eventually, I showed them how to combine all of these techniques to make a landscape, and I was rewarded one afternoon when I came into the classroom and discovered that my students had drawn a landscape on the board for me.

After school, I taught students American Sign Language and learned more Nepali Sign Language in return. During lunch breaks, I sometimes played soccer and cricket with the students. Through my experiences, I made many close friends and I also got to know a Deaf Sherpa who eventually became my guide for a month spent in the Everest region of the Himalaya. Near the end of my time in Nepal, I helped arrange an overnight camping trip around the Kathmandu Valley with ten of the older students.

While volunteering is not a requirement for a Fulbright grant, I highly recommend it. Citizen diplomacy is an important part of the Fulbright experience, and in my mind, volunteering is citizen diplomacy at its best. Fulbright grantees, with or without disabilities, may find it particularly rewarding to volunteer within the disabled community of their host country. There are many opportunities to work with people who have disabilities, especially in developing countries. Disability-related organizations and people with disabilities are helping to lead a new worldwide human rights revolution that is working towards full inclusion and participation in all aspects of society for people who have disabilities. Volunteering has the potential to leave a high impact and allows Fulbright grantees to see disability in a new context.

In Nepal, being disabled has traditionally been considered a karmic curse and people with disabilities often weren’t allowed to marry. That is gradually changing, as more people with disabilities are being included in society and are working, marrying and speaking out for their rights. While I was in Nepal, I felt anything but cursed—instead, I felt blessed to be there on a Fulbright, and by volunteering, I wanted to spread some of that good karma around.

Photo: Franz Knupfer teaches students at the Naxal School for the Deaf in Kathmandu how to draw a three-dimensional landscape.

Franz Knupfer now works as the Project Coordinator of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, a project administered by Mobility International USA and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Specific resources for people with disabilities interested in applying for a Fulbright grant can be found at: http://www.miusa.org/ncde/fulbright/.

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The Diplomacy of Mutual Inspiration: Combining Service and Creativity in a Fulbright Grant, By Franz Knupfer, 2008-2009, Nepal

As the Fourmile Fire rages in the canyons west of Boulder and smoke covers the city, the autumnal light has taken on a hazy, golden quality, like the lighting in a painting by one of the Old Masters. I’m reminded of autumn afternoons in Kathmandu, where the lighting was almost exactly like this. I’m reminded, too, of how much I miss Kathmandu and my friends there, and how much my experience as a Fulbright grantee in Nepal changed me. As I write this, it’s been almost two years to the day since I left the States for a Fulbright grant in Creative Writing in Nepal. Though I’ve been home almost a full year, I still remember the route I took from my apartment in the neighborhood of Hadigaun to the deaf school where I volunteered in Naxal. When I close my eyes, I can still walk through the rooms of the school and see my students in their classrooms.

In my Fulbright proposal, I wrote about how I planned to volunteer with the deaf community and write a collection of short stories. Though I wanted to learn and write about Nepal’s deaf community, I hadn’t realized how much I’d learn on a deeper level, on the level of the body; the body’s knowledge, in many ways, is far more ineffable and profound than the mind’s. It’s what we mean when we say, “you had to be there.” It’s exactly the kind of experience that writers and artists need for their work, but it’s also the kind of experience that can be of tremendous benefit to anyone.

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Searching for A Thread of Sky, By Deanna Fei, 2003-2004, China

As I now prepare for the launch of my debut novel, A Thread of Sky, it’s a bit unnerving to remember that if I hadn’t received a Fulbright grant, my novel might not exist today.

Seven years ago, I was facing my last months as an MFA student and struggling to write a story set in China from my sunlit desk in Iowa. When a friend suggested that I apply for a Fulbright, it seemed a far-fetched notion. As much as I was absorbed in my novel-in-progress, the story of a family of six fiercely independent women who reunite for a tour of mainland China, I knew that I was only beginning to sense its outlines. It was, of necessity, still embryonic, constantly shape-shifting; it did not seem to merit anything so official and distinguished as a Fulbright.

I threw myself into the application process partly out of desperation. I knew of no other opportunity that would enable me to live in China simply to research and write my novel. Also, I was not unmindful of the joke that my MFA diploma might as well be an application for unemployment benefits.

Even after I learned that I had been awarded a grant, and all through my post-MFA summer, which I spent back home in Queens waitressing at a sports bar, the prospect of my Fulbright year still seemed notional. It was only when I landed in Shanghai that September, with nothing to guide me but the study plan I had laid out in my grant proposal, that it all became very real: the story unfolding in my head, the characters that had taken hold over me, the day-to-day discipline of a writing life.

Of course, there were many steps—and seven years—between that study plan and the book that I now hold in my hands: hundreds of pages written and discarded and revised, a grant extension, signing with a literary agent, another arts fellowship, a move back to New York, a variety of jobs, more pages written and discarded and revised, signing with a different agent, submissions to publishers, finding the perfect editors, and more pages written and discarded and revised.

Still, the truth remains that my novel might not exist today not only because I might not have received my Fulbright, but because I might never have applied for it. In light of that, here is some advice for applicants and prospective applicants, particularly my comrades in the arts.

Seize this opportunity.

Funding for the arts is rare enough. An academic year-long grant that not only allows but requires you to do your work while engaging with another culture is unique. Don’t let this one slip past you.

Apply with conviction.

What makes your project vital? Why are you the one to do it? Why do you need to live in your proposed host country to complete it? These questions may be more difficult for applicants in the arts than for those in, say, public health or urban planning, but that’s precisely why you must answer them. This does not necessitate reducing your creative process to a thesis. What are you driven to explore? What moves you? Aim to beguile those reviewing your application the way you would a reader, a viewer, a listener of your art. After all, your application will be reviewed by selection panelists in the arts.

Make a detailed plan.

Make it real to others; make it concrete to yourself. Since the nature of what we do is more nebulous, this is even more crucial for applicants in the arts. Do not allow yourself the possibility of drifting through your Fulbright year.

In my grant proposal, I outlined my intention to make periodic trips to the cities on my characters’ itinerary, viewing the sights through their eyes, experiencing how the mood of each city might correspond or contrast with their conflicts, tackling the problems and possibilities of translation in relation to their linguistic duality, recording the parables and proverbs attached to each tourist attraction—including one that became the title of my book. I also planned to conduct formal research on contemporary Chinese history at Nanjing University and consult with members of the Chinese Writers’ Association.

As it turned out, I never carried out the latter parts of the plan. The first part, along with writing every day, comprised most of my year. I hadn’t anticipated how fully my daily life in China would become my daily inspiration; how even mundane activities such as buying breakfast, doing laundry, riding the bus, might transform themselves into scenes in my novel. Similarly, a casual observation about the strikingly forceful personalities of many Chinese women, in stark contrast to the Western stereotype of docile, dainty objects, led me to research the Chinese feminist movement. This eventually became a major storyline in the novel and brought several characters into focus as never before.

When you’re fully engaged in the creative process, you will diverge from your plan. A Fulbright grant gives you that time and space and freedom to wander. But first, you need a plan, as specific and directed as possible; otherwise, you might find yourself lost.

Brace for feeling alone—better, embrace it.

On top of the outsider status of any American in a foreign country (and, in my case, the double outsider status of being Chinese American in China), I didn’t have a single friend, relative, or co-worker when I arrived in Shanghai. I was affiliated with Fudan University, but I wasn’t taking classes and knew no one there. Among the entrepreneurial types that dominated the expat and local scenes, I was what the Chinese call linglei: a different species. I had met a few other Shanghai-based Fulbrighters at orientation, but we were scattered far apart; besides, their projects seemed utterly pragmatic and clear-cut compared to mine, and I didn’t feel like I had much to contribute to the conversation.

This was the ideal training ground for a novice writer—and, I imagine, for any aspirant in the arts. To be an outsider is to be an observer, to challenge easy assumptions, to take careful note. Perhaps most importantly, a solitary existence allows the creatures of our imaginations to assume central place. While I eventually struck up some close friendships, my only constant companions were my characters. They dictated my schedule, my writing, my research.

Set your sights on Fulbright—and far beyond it.

In my application, I wrote of my intention, upon returning to the U.S., of turning “this personal pursuit into a public work.” At the time, I had no idea whether I would garner any interest from publishers, whether the few chapters I’d written would ever appear in a book. That line was an important signal not only to those reviewing my application, but to myself.

Seize this opportunity to win a Fulbright—and know that whatever happens, it’s not an end. Make this moment the beginning of the rest of your life in the arts.

For more information on Deanna Fei and her debut novel, A Thread of Sky (The Penguin Press, April 2010), please visit http://www.deannafei.com.

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