Sojourner House, Fall 2018

Our first session was September 20th. The women had a great energy and excitement for our creative writing class. We read “self-portrait with dirty hair” from Safia Elhillo’s The January Children. We talked about the chapbook that will be created at the end of the term. Some women wanted to have pseudonyms rather than publish under their own name. The next week we did a humor class. We read  “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard and listened to a selection from Tig Notaro’s “Live” album. The subject was the intersection of tragedy and humor. Usually, for comedy, the formula is Tragedy + Time = Humor. But in life, we find that this formula is reductive to the way people experience trauma. In some cases, no amount of time will make something more or less funny. Therefore, we wanted to teach the women techniques for writing about issues that could be perceived as funny when given the attention.

On October 4th we had two guests at Sojourner House: M. Evalina Galang and Safia Elhillo, who also read at Chatham that evening. Sheryl St. Germain had provided books for the women at Sojourner the week before the visit. We suggested to the women that they try to read at least some selections of the books so that they would have questions ready for Galang and Elhillo. It turned out that most of them had read the books from cover to cover, could not put them down. When our guests arrived, the excitement was evident. Each of the writers told the class something about how her book came into being, what she was influenced by and wanted to accomplish. Each writer read excerpts from her book, and then opened the class up for questions.

There was a discussion about The January Children, in which the subject of using Arabic in the poems was brought up. Some of the women wished they could have looked up words, but they don’t have internet access. Others said it was okay not to understand everything. Many of them wanted to know how long it took Galang to write Lola’s House, and how she learned another language. Both writers are “bi-cultural,” and have roots in other countries. Therefore, the subject of understanding and not understanding language was an important one for both writers, and for the class at Sojourner to investigate. Everyone in the class felt privileged to be in the company of two such accomplished women, and all were inspired by their presence and by their work. Sheryl was there to introduce the two women, and Dmitra Inteuse-Gideon came along to observe. It was standing room only! We again want to thank Evalina Galang and Safia Elhillo for being so generous with their time and sharing their work with us, and thanks to Sheryl St. Germain for providing books for everyone. There was a book-signing at the end of class. New incoming students are now asking for copies of the book, because the women who have read these books are passionate about them.

By Shawna Kent & Sam Smith, Chatham University MFA candidates & Words Without Walls co-teachers.