I've been simmering with the news for awhile now, and it's finally time to share (though in fact, the University of Michigan spilled the beans earlier this month): I received a Fulbright fellowship in creative writing. In the heart of a Detroit winter, I'll travel to Nairobi, Kenya. I'll stay for six months, then return to Detroit. While in Kenya, I have the terribly generous opportunity to spend time working on my own writing (both fiction and journalism), while also facilitating writing workshops with young people. Particularly, I'll be doing three different writing workshops. Here's how it breaks down:
One workshop is with college students through the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi. I expect this will meet weekly, and we'll focus on fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. We'll also share experiences with literature from Africa, and especially from Kenya, including Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Binyavanga Wainaina, Grace Ogot, and others.
The second workshop will be with teens through Kwani Trust, the literary organization founded by Wainaina for Nairobi youth, and which hosts one of the continent's most prominent journals. This multi-genre workshop will be especially connected with current events. Participants will look critically at what is being said about them--that is, young people in Kenya--in local and global media, popular culture, and literature. As Kenya nears its fiftieth anniversary of independence in 2013, young people deserve a place to speak for themselves.
Finally, the third workshop will be with youth through The Imagine Company, a nonprofit that marries social entrepreneurship and media. I've done a bit of editing work with these good people from a distance, and I'm looking forward to an in-person connection. We've discussed a workshop that will be designed for LGBT adolescents. Emmo Opoti, editorial director of The Imagine Company, told me that in a country of 40 million people, he estimates that only five blogs are hosted by openly queer Kenyans. This workshop might generate thoughtful writing for the organization's network of websites, creating space for a particularly unheard group of young people.
Beyond this, I'm open to other literary activities that may emerge--print and online anthologies; open mics; public readings; maybe a one-day workshop for girls that explicitly acknowledge the different experience they have in carving out a place in an emerging literary culture. There might be a series of zine-making workshops, or community readings by established African writers (who might also guest-facilitate one or more workshops). I hope to try my hand at some international journalism, while also leveraging the experience to explore new places in fiction, as well as in person.
In short, I'm brimming with ideas and excitement, but I admit to also negotiating a fair bit of overwhelm. This is going to be my first big international experience, folks, and I've got about six months to ready my spirit and mind for it. What will it be like to be a constant, consistent outsider? Will I get a chance to travel as much as I'd like? How will I manage having so many of my assumptions about my identity and the broader world disassembled? Will "Teach Yourself Swahili" be of any use? What will it be like to come home? Will my student loans be safely deferred? Can I connect to people over so many cultural divides? What will people assume of me, and how will they be right, and how will they be wrong? What if I get sick? How do I balance my desire to stay connected with the people I love in the U.S. with my desire to be immersed in life in Nairobi?
I don't know. It's a risk. It's time to step forward, and see.
One big way I can use your help: I want to spend the rest of the year doing some serious immersion in books and film and media from and about Africa (especially East Africa, especially Kenya, but anything that's great will have my interest). I've been building a sort of "syllabus" to help me make my way. I want your ideas! All of them! Any of them! Of course, if you know specific people I should be talking to personally, I'd love to be pointed that way too. Please pass them onto me in the comments or at annaleighclark-at-yahoo-dot-com; when I get the list strong and sturdy, I'll be sure to share it in this space.
And I thank you.
UPDATE: Speaking of gratitude, a owe a whole heaping lot of it to the folks who have made this possible. A good set offered your feedback on my application essays, including Robin Black, Rebecca Stahl, Christine Cupaiuolo, Melissa Palma, Nicole Gauvin, and Erin Stalcup. Erin and Rebecca were also especially supportive as I processed the news, and the questions it presented. (Ms. Stahl, incidentally, is doing her own amazing Fulbright in New Zealand, focusing on family law.) Dr. Peter Wasamba at the University of Nairobi; Billy Kahora at Kwani Trust; and Emmo Opoti at The Imagine Company were my prime contacts in helping me to arrange partnerships with them (all over email!); they are remarkably generous. Debra Spark, Buzz Alexander, and Jaclyn Friedman were kind enough to put together letters of recommendation (on rather short notice!). And the International Institute at the University of Michigan (my alma mater) was invaluable in helping me put together a decent application, sans typos, and in imagining what this project may be like.
About the Images: All of Nairobi. Last two photos of the University of Nairobi and the Kenyan Parliament by Brian J. McMorrow.