Interview with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project

War, Women, and Writing: The Story of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project

by Shilpa Kameswaran

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP) was founded by journalist and author Masha Hamilton in 2009 between Afghanistan and the United States. Dedicated to Zarmeena, a mother of seven who was executed by the Taliban in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium on November 16, 1999, the AWWP’s mission, as Masha states, is “to support the voices of women with the belief that to tell one’s story is a human right, more so in a country where women have been told their stories do not matter, and are urged to be silent, and warned against honesty.” Recognized by The Women’s National Book Association and the New York State Division of Human Rights, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, by facilitating a platform for poetry and prose by women in warring Afghanistan is creating an essential dialogue on gendered issues in the realms of polity, society, and economy.

Roya, a participant of the workshop writes “AWWP gave me the power to feel I am not only a woman; it gave me a title, an Afghan woman “writer.” … I took the pen and I wrote and everything changed. I learned if I stand, everyone will stand, other women in my country will stand.” To read about the emotional and literary depths of the experiences of the Afghan women, visit http://awwproject.org

lori-noackLori Noack is Associate Director at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. She has over twenty years of non-profit leadership, along with independent writing, editing, consulting, and arts management expertise. In addition to serving on governing and cultural boards from local to state levels, her professional positions have included executive director of nationally recognized music festivals in Oregon and San Francisco, newspaper editor, founder of an arts management agency, university lecturer, and writing instructor. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing in 2009. Today, Lori applies her expertise in building AWWP’s North American team to ensure program excellence and enhance public awareness for the benefit of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

susan-postlewaite

Susan Postlewaite is Editing Director at AWWP. A journalist who has covered Cambodia and the Middle East for Business Week, the Asian Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and others, she has also taught journalism at universities in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and in India as a Knight International Press Fellow. She began her career with AP, then moved to the Miami Daily Business Review. She was an editor and writer at the Phnom Penh Post and later an AP correspondent on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. She co-authored “Losing Ground: Forced Evictions and Intimidation in Cambodia.”

Shilpa Kameswaran: Tell us about the unique structure of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, the complex literary supply chain that stretches from the undisclosed writing salons and cyber-cafes in war-torn Afghanistan to North-America.

Lori Noack: That’s a great phrase to describe AWWP, “a complex literary supply chain.” We might borrow those words! They capture the layered process that begins with women in Afghanistan who come to us through a referral or by word of mouth. Once vetted, registered, and accepted, writers are placed in secure online workshops where they work with international educators to create and refine their poems, essays, and true stories. The written pieces are then sent to our editing director, Susan, who makes any final editsbefore posting on the blog. In general, she posts 2 new sets each week. We run a special series every few weeks, often in partnership with other organizations. For example, in August we ran a series as part of a worldwide campaign to end early marriage in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries where girls are forced by their parents to marry when they are as young as ten years old. To date, nearly 800 pieces have been published on our blog and we are working on our second anthology of the women’s writings.

SK: What cities in Afghanistan does the workshop operate from? And are there specific reasons for choosing these locations?

Susan Postlewaite: Besides Kabul, we have five regional salons in east and west Afghanistan. We do not typically disclose the locations but they are in the big cities where there are many women interested in writing in English.

SK: I’m sure our readers are curious to know where the 90 authors that AWWP has nurtured have their roots?

SP: The writers are from all over Afghanistan. Most of them have migrated with their families from many places in Afghanistan, including Kandahar, Bamiyan province Farah province, Mazar al Sharif, Jalalabad, the northern provinces, and many other provinces, cites and villages across Afghanistan. Many of them grew up in villages across the country – their families left during one of the extended wars with Russia, the Mujahideen in the 80s, or with the U.S. in 2001.  They returned to Kabul or another city after the Taliban.  Some migrated back to their original homes in the south, but then moved to Kabul for work, so although many writers are in Kabul, they are from other parts of the country and lived in Pakistan or Iran during the Taliban years – or earlier. Here is a link to the page on our website with the profiles of nearly 117 of our authors http://awwproject.org/our-writers/

SK: What kind of stories are they writing? What depth of emotionality and experience are they bringing to these writings?

LN: The stories our authors are writing about pretty much makes up all of our website. Most striking about the work by AWWP’s writers is the way they transform pain into an enviable strength. Like Seeta’s poem that ends with hope in the future, Nasima begins with her “crime” of being a girl, yet ends with this great vision:

Writing-on-the-Grass-1

Photo Credit: Afghan Women’s Writing Workshop

They say, I am ill-minded; beat me
and throw stones at me.
But they forget
 
that in my embrace will grow
 
great people in the universe:
I am daughter.
I am a sister.
 
I am a mother
 
and wife.
I am a girl in my family. 
 

SK: Poetry and prose present on the AWWP website/publications/performances are all edited and translated to English and always mostly presented to an English-speaking audience in the West. Can you discuss the nuances of editing and how specifically does the project deal with issues of translation and transliteration?

SP: Very carefully. We encourage writers to write in English but some write their drafts in Persian and then they translate their own writing to English.  In the workshops there is a robust back and forth between writers and mentors to determine whether the vocabulary used is accurate. “Drags” means drugs.  “Has bent” means husband. If you read the story out loud you figure out the meaning of some words from context.

SK: What exactly is a Dari workshop?

SP: It is a workshop conducted in Dari language for writers who do not know English. The participants write in Dari.

SK: The AWWP team, advisory board and its literary mentors are mostly ‘white’ and/or North American women whose life and literary experiences are presumably very different from the ‘anonymous’ destitute Afghan women. How does the writing project create a cultural and social equilibrium between these two sets of women who may have very little in common politically/socially and otherwise?

SP: Our workshops are characterized by kindness and caring.  Our literary experiences are very different and we are not destitute. But many of us know what it means to experience loss. Mentors work slowly through the process of revision to clarify the story line and come up with the right words to convey what the writer wants to say. In editing, the pieces that go on the blog are polished for readers, but the “voice” of the writer is maintained. We are patient; at the AWWP it does not matter if it takes a few days or a month or two to finish a poem or a story.

SK: What are AWWP’s smaller literary ventures such as the Oral Stories Project, The Teenage Writers Workshop and The Out of Silence readings about? And how do they tie in with the ambitions of the primary writing projects itself?

SP: The oral story project was envisioned early on as a way of sharing the stories of non-literate women.  Teenage writing came about accidentally when we discovered we had enrolled several teenagers.

SK: What are your thoughts on the economies of conducting gender based writing/creative workshops in war torn regions?

LN: Until the fall of 2012, AWWP had no outside funding and operated on minimal donations with almost all-volunteer labor. By early 2012 the program had grown to such an extent that the organization began seeking outside funding sources. It was successful and in the fall of 2012 these funding sources kicked in. Per the actual program costs our numbers have significantly increased this year and we are now able to give actual versus projected numbers. In addition to opening the internet cafe in December, running the cafe/office and the recording studio (for recordings that are run on national radio—this keeps our women from having to go to the radio stations and be subject to identification and possible harassment), and running workshops in 5 provinces outside of Kabul, we provide, as Susan mentioned, computers and internet where needed. These prove to be ridiculously expensive there. We also, if we didn’t mention before, provide transportation for every woman to and from every workshop, purely for security. We do not want to be responsible for any harm coming to any of our writers who want to attend a workshop. It’s the seemingly small hurdles that make a venture like this impossible without significant support.

SP: It’s expensive but dedicated volunteers make the project work.  Internet is $50 a month per woman. Kabul is not an inexpensive city.  The funds pay for Internet, laptops, an Internet café for women and our Kabul office, monthly workshops in Afghanistan, and a small part time staff in Afghanistan and the U.S.

SK: Can you tell us a little about the invisible “volunteers” who are helping with the project in Afghanistan? What do you think motivates and inspires them?

Kabul-Writing-3

Photo Credit: Afghan Women’s Writing Workshop

LN: As to the volunteers, it’s quite amazing how a cause will attract quality people. Our volunteers, and I have only met one out of 200+ from around the world who do various bits here and there, tend to be intelligent, educated women who range from young people who want to develop a practice of making a difference in the world, through professional people and retired executive and scientists and educators who now have the time to follow their passions. The defining feature is their compassion for these women who do not enjoy basic human rights and their belief in the power of one person playing their small part, in concert with others, to have a big impact.

SK: The AWWP is fundamentally different from any other mainstream writing project in the sense that it creates a virtual salon, bringing the Afghan women and their work to your living room and inventing an urgent dialogue around sexual abuse, early marriage, domestic violence, child trafficking and other gendered issues in the middle-east. How has the “craft” of writing been used to create this humane and political consciousness?

LN: As you know, Masha Hamilton founded AWWP in 2009 after days and weeks of talking with Afghan women in their homes, their villages, wherever she could sit with them and hear what they had to say. Their stories profoundly moved her with their candor and with the depth of strength she heard in their voices, despite the suffering they had and were experiencing. A journalist and novelist herself, Masha already believed in the (sometimes mysterious) power of telling one’s story. She knew that the simple act of setting thoughts on the page makes a difference in the heart, and that the raising of many voices brings change that cannot be stopped. In a nation of muzzled women, hearts bursting with repressed truths and opinions, it’s no wonder that writing became the instrument of healing and inspiration.

SK: Masha Hamilton in her mission statement says – ‘‘The voices of women tend to be moderating influences, and this makes it more important than ever that they become part of the national dialogue and eventually perhaps part of a movement that will speak out on issues important to women, issues of job and educational equality, healthcare, and more.’What do you and your team envision for the future of AWWP? Besides forming a figment of protest literature, besides nurturing Afghan Contemporary Writing in English and contributing to Third Wave Feminism? Have you ever considered replicating the writing project in another similar geography? What lessons can writers and activists in Sub-Saharan Africa or South-Asia take away from the phenomenal success of AWWP?

AWWP Reading by Shevy Smith copy

Photo Credit : Shevy Smith

LN: We are concerned for 2014 and the coming changes for Afghanistan. Women’s rights are tenuous, at best. The first goal is to strengthen our current program and expand our reach within the country. That means more women writing in our English language workshops. It also means including learning and publication opportunities for writers who don’t speak English. You can imagine the hurdles inherent in mentoring and publishing in Dari. Not impossible, just a new challenge. Talk about a complex literary supply chain! And yes, there is talk about expanding to another country—Afghanistan may be the worst country for women to live in, but there are millions of women who struggle with many of the same repressions and who would benefit from a similar program. At the right time, our hope is to find a like-minded group to partner with and share our resources to bring workshops and a world platform to more women who have not yet had a chance to speak their mind.

AWWP’s efforts overlap with several of the United Nation’s recommendations for strengthening the educational system for girls. One recent effort is a formal collaboration with the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), in developing a curriculum and providing mentors for SOLA’s young students in Kabul.

On October 17 2013, we are producing a fundraising event, our first major event, at Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC. There will be a lot of excitement between the Afghan Dance (Attan), readings of the women’s work by Theater J performers, and a panel discussion by Afghan and government officials. We’re hoping for a great turnout! Here is a link for further details http://awwproject.org/uploads/2013-10-17_the_bravestgirls.jpg.

Read a selection of AWWP poetry here on our site.

For more, please see the Afghan Women’s Writing Project website.

Read stories and poems from their celebration of the International Day of the Girl, Oct 11, here.

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