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.
If you’re a writer or an artist, whether you’re a musician, a dancer, a photographer, a painter, or a filmmaker, this kind of ineffable experience is an invaluable kind of inspiration. I’d even say it’s essential to the process of making art. And if you’re applying for a Fulbright grant, regardless of whether you’re an artist or applying in another field, I’d highly recommend incorporating some kind of volunteer or service work into your project. Though volunteering isn’t a required component of a Fulbright project, it can be an excellent way to give your project structure and meaning. It can help give your research fullness and depth, along with the deeper, ineffable knowledge that the body experiences.
It’s a well-known fact that the Fulbright Program isn’t just about research but also soft diplomacy. I’d like to call it the diplomacy of mutual inspiration. Because I volunteered at the Naxal School for the Deaf in Kathmandu, I made many friends and gained the trust of the deaf community. My friends told me their stories and I began to see and even have a direct experience of their lives because I spent so much time with them. Volunteering gave me both inspiration and material for my work, while teaching sign language and art inspired my students. We were practicing the diplomacy of mutual inspiration. Gradually, my body began to learn the little details, and to know: the taste of Rojini’s samosas, the feeling of the brittle grass underfoot when I played soccer with the boys in the afternoons, the smell of jasmine entwined with that of the heavy smoke that fouled the air. I can still see the faces of my students as their hands shaped a new sign language word or learned to draw landscapes. As I was shaped by these experiences, I began to know and form a new, deeper understanding of Nepal and the deaf community there, and this newfound knowledge gave my writing a depth it didn’t have before. I just had to be there, and I was, and it was a Fulbright grant that made it possible.
A few things for writers (and other artists) to consider in their Fulbright research proposal:
Why do you have to go there? You can write (or make art) anywhere. In your proposal, make it clear why you need to go to a specific country to complete your project.
Spell it out. Once you arrive in your host country, your project may end up changing in ways you didn’t anticipate, but having a detailed plan will help you and the selection committees visualize your project.
Get in touch. Finding an affiliation isn’t just about getting a letter of support. It’s about finding organizations that are willing to work with you. Your proposal will help you articulate what you plan to do with the affiliation in question, how they can help you, and quite possibly, how you can help them.
Volunteer. Adding a service element can give your project proposal (and your grant experience) structure, and also shows the application committee that you’re serious about getting involved. Organizations may also be more invested in becoming affiliations if you’re offering something in return.
It’s about mutual inspiration. Your project proposal isn’t just about you and your research, but hopefully something bigger than just you. How can you make your project relevant to your host country and the community you’re working with?
Photo: Fulbright Alumni Ambassador Franz Knupfer, 2008-2009, Nepal (left), with a Deaf Nepali student.
Franz Knupfer’s article in the September/October 2010 issue of Poets & Writers provides in-depth information for writers applying for a Fulbright grant.