I imagine that in the grand scheme of things, it takes an entire lifetime to discover one’s unique blueprint. I learn this lesson every day. At various stages of life, I have hunted down purpose and calling, my raison d’être, each time finding something new or inventive to wrap my arms around, embrace, grab time and attention, inviting me to grow, stretch and see the world through a new lens. Often the journey feels solo and solitary, but in fact, when I open my eyes, there are always a handful of people nearby. Leaning in.
Not long ago I heard the saying: “If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re probably in the wrong room.” Well, I was definitely in the right room – my living room, surrounded by four accomplished writers, our pens scribbling faster than we could talk, ideas spewing from lips, a lively albeit at times intimidating conversation on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon.
Strangers, we were not. Our paths had crossed five years earlier on a sweltering summer day at Fresno State – each of us wandering through hallways looking for a classroom soon to change our lives. Samina, the scholar of our group, confessed the two-week course “taught her to see.” It was a writing class whose instructor, Doug Rice, insisted his students stare into the flame, write without apology, dig deep.
By summer’s end, we had gone separate ways but with forged unbreakable bonds cementing friendships for life. The idea to write and collaborate now, submit a proposal to the largest and most prestigious writer’s conference in the nation was terrifying and exhilarating, but a catalyst for our renewed alliance. This is what we wrote:
“Fresno serves as the center of gravity for five writers whose work articulates the global within the local. A marginalized space in California – seen as conservative, Christian, and agricultural – the San Joaquin Valley is also a place of intersections where immigration, assimilation, and hybridity are intensely personal, lived experiences. Armenia, Iran, Pakistan, Japan, and Lesotho pulse in these works, demonstrating that the breadbasket of America is also fertile ground for creative nonfiction.”
We began writing.
Week after week, over hummus and chardonnay, we noted our commonality as women who had lived, traveled the world, stumbled through darkness and endured. Stretching brains and imaginations, we conjured a theme we hoped capable of striking a chord, standing out above hundreds of other submissions, drawing focus and attention to Fresno and gaining us a spot at “the premiere event for literary writers,” as it is called.
And it did.
At the end of March, we will take our prose to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Los Angeles and share the stage with many of the nation’s finest writers and authors. We will remind our audience that Fresno is more than the butt of a tired Jay Leno joke. Rather, we are a city of extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity, a microcosm of the world, a place where lives and languages converge. We are also a hotbed for creative writers.
Sally Vogl, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, has composed a breathtaking essay about working with visually impaired students in Africa. At the end of her career, she returned to Fresno State to earn a master’s degree in creative writing. It was there she discovered that the interior journey is as rewarding as physical travel.
Jacqueline Williams writes about parenting in a blended, multiracial family. A 1943 newspaper article announcing the relocation of Japanese Americans during the panic of World War II inspires her essay. She also received her master’s in creative nonfiction from Fresno State.
Shocked earlier this year when there were rumors of a threat against Muslim students at Fresno State, Samina Najmi, who grew up in Pakistan and now teaches multiethnic literature at Fresno State, writes about violence in our everyday lives, probing the extent to which we hold ourselves accountable for them.
Phyllis Brotherton’s essay, actually a meditation or prayer of sorts, is a beautiful mix of motherhood, identity, sexuality and aging through changing landscapes, including the years she lived in Iran. She received her master’s in creative nonfiction from Fresno State at the age of 66 and also serves as executive vice president and chief financial officer of ValleyPBS.
Here is a brief excerpt from my essay, titled “Breaking a grandmother’s silence.” I write about being an Armenian American woman and growing up with a grandmother who survived the 1915 genocide, an atrocity of which she never spoke. My essay contrasts her silence with my need to chronicle the grief journey, create a language for loss and grieve out loud following the death of my son in 2004.
“Where is Alex? I hunt everywhere. Inside his closet, underneath the bed, inside his sock drawer – wherever there is remote possibility. Searching for the space between one breath and another, I turn the door handle hoping to salvage something on the other side. There, waiting for me, I am greeted by an inheritance of loss – handed down through generations, a grief layered with genocide, the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians whose faces I do not recognize and cannot see. But inside the door a photograph of a small boy wearing a cape stares back at me. Where is my Ellis Island?”
As each of us delivers carefully crafted words, we long to capture the global within the local, adding shape and form to this place called “home.” Our writings will reveal “worlds within the other California” and a diversity not only represented by color of skin, but in the lives we have lived. Influenced by history and heritage, time and memory, we will proudly represent Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley.