What AWWP Means: Our Mentors Speak

What a privilege it has been for me to work with these writers.  I am moved and inspired by their bravery, strength, and persistence.

A month ago, they and I didn’t know each other’s names.  And now we are connected.  I will never again read an article about Afghanistan without putting faces on it.   Their faces.   And their stories.  That is the power of writing.

This is the way the world changes.  Thank you for AWWP. — Gabrielle Burton

From Louder Than Words: a blog entry by Julie Gray:

It is odd, swinging back and forth between working with and for writers trying to break into Hollywood and giving feedback to young Afghan women for whom expressing is not a means to an end but is a means to survive intellectually and emotionally. I’m not sure that we are that different, to be honest.  Read more …

To the Women of Writing 103:

It is a Sunday morning.  My AWWP rotation has ended. I sit and feel bereft. I am momentarily silenced by the intrinsic power of the word. This is not the word of the poet who craves accolades and fame. It is the pure word.  It is the epiphanic word. The word that saves each of you from the horrors of watching body parts float by in the street. It is the word that makes possible your refusal to suffer the atrocities of an evil regime. It is the word that slowly permeates your souls until you can write of the fragrance of pomegranates, the colorful flames in the graveyard, the hope after self-immolation, the hands that are your garden, a daughter’s small lips mumbling for you. Yours is the word of hope and the word of inexorable power.

I marvel at the desperate longing and gritty realism that empower you to put lips upon words sweet enough to reveal your souls, capture your landscapes, and reform your world. Grasping the true word, you find your voices. Surely, because of you, the maiming, the hatred, the senseless abuse will be deprived of its power over your voice and the voices of your mothers and daughters.

My first message from you read, “Welcome to our world, a world of poems, pains and love.” Yes, I was welcomed. I was loved. I was brought into your world, as you were brought into mine. Now, there are no geographic divisions between us. We are one. Out of the chaos comes the whole. This whole springs from the power of the pure word. From this word our hopes will be realized. Thank you for your words. Your subtle, yet piercing language has transformed my heart into a more glorious space. Thank you. — Susanne Scarfone is a widely published poet and a scholar of English Romantic Poetry and Virginia Woolf, as well as Education Director and writer-in-residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit.

Working with AWWP writers has reminded me again of the power of the written word to connect minds and hearts across thousands of miles.  It was an honor to be part of the project. — Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Their voices are strong, passionate, and immediate. In the face of enormous social oppression, these women are writing from their hearts. Their voices are powerful instruments in creating global awareness of the situation. Beneath all the darkness of the Taliban regime, they persist in hope. While chronicling chaotic and often horrifying conditions, they are still able to enjoy the fragrance of flowers, the softness of sunrise, a child’s tender grip. I felt so privileged in being able to work with these incredibly brave women, and I hope to do so again. — Maria Espinosa

The following things happened when I turned 40: a) I caught the mother of all colds; b) an earthquake and tsunami devastated my home country of Japan; and c) I began my first rotation as a mentor for AWWP. You could say c) rescued me from events a) and b). The Afghan women in the workshop taught me many things. Among them, I carry closest to my heart this wisdom: that writing is a privilege. I get to engage in that privilege every day — and even, on good days, get paid for it — because of the privilege of my birth. I was born free. Thus, I write. I must write.

The women I worked with have no such privilege. And yet, through the dedication and hard work of the administrators of AWWP, they are getting a taste. It fills me with joy to think of these women in a dusty country around the world sitting down at a laptop to express their thoughts and dreams. It was my great privilege to work as a mentor for AWWP. The experience will feed this writer’s soul for many months to come. — Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is a longtime writer for TIME magazine and the author of Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death.


A little over a year ago, I fell in love with the AWWP’s work when Masha came to the community college I was teaching at; by the time Masha’s talk was done, I wanted to sign on as a mentor as fast as I could. I’ve just completed my third rotation, and I’m still thrilled to be a part of the AWWP and a part of our writers’ lives, even though I play a really small role. I know that by helping our writers find a platform to share their voices, we help them believe that their voices DO matter. While some rotations have more active participation than others, every word written and published on the weblog is another boost to our writers’ confidence who want to achieve and build so much with their lives, and being a part of that fabric is humbling. Over the past year, our writers and their stories have helped me more than I have helped them, and even from this distance, I continue to derive my strength to keep moving forward from them and their spirit. I hope they know how thankful I am to have had my life cross paths with theirs. Neha Bawa is a poet, writer, and AWWP’s Creative Outreach Coordinator.

I tend to have at least 16 projects going at once, and almost no free time, but when Masha mentioned she was starting a program about teaching writing to Afghan women, how could I not want to do this? The women, she explained, sometimes had to have male relatives take their work to the Internet cafes. They sometimes might not want their names mentioned or details kept private. I kept wondering: what could I possibly teach these women?

When I first saw the topics they were writing about—being married at 14, deciding not to marry but to continue to teach— I began to realize that my assignments (simple descriptions, character studies) had to be much more focused. It astonished me when women apologized for their grammar or their writing. (Yes, the grammar needed work, but these women would go over and over it until they got it right. They asked a million questions.) One woman wrote me privately to ask that I not post her work because she was afraid the others might laugh at her work. The women all apologized for being late with assignments. Dumbfounded, I assured all of them that there was nothing to apologize for, that I felt it was an act of bravery every time they wrote a single word, and it was my honor to teach them.

Recently, I posted to one of the women, “I wish we could all meet at a café for coffee and pie.” I meant it. The stories these women have to tell are remarkable, but even more remarkable, are the women themselves.  — Caroline Leavitt is the author of eight acclaimed novels. Her ninth, Breathe, is forthcoming in 2010. In 2004, she was named one of the UCLA Writing Program’s Outstanding Instructors of the year.

It’s been too easy to feel disconnected from what’s happening in the Middle East, and this is especially true regarding women. Our lives are so different here, and of course news and literature from Americans only get to certain truths, not at all the whole truths, and pretty much never the truths that come straight from Afghan women. This is why I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this project.

What I’ve found thus far is that these women are simply trying to live their lives—just like anywhere else—but the difference is that many have been witness to violence and suppression we can’t imagine here in America. I’m so proud of these amazing women for sharing their sometimes shocking, sometimes ordinary stories. — Kerry Cohen is the author of a young adult novel and received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Oregon and an MA in counseling psychology from Pacific University.

This has been a sheer delight. I was anxious as to how I would be able to encourage and help these women with their writing but soon realized that the act of just making contact was already moving forward. Every message from them was so endearing and sincere and intelligent that I was completely bowled over. And they were so open to my comments and truly used them to improve the work.

Three weeks is not such a long time, I have realized, but giving the women two themes worked well. I asked them to work with one or both of two ideas: “Narrow Escapes” and “Taking Chances,” which are very broad and could go anywhere and they took them up and ran!  It was a fun way to start off.

As with any good teaching experience, I learned as much as I taught and will always feel a connection to these women and all women struggling to improve their lot… sisters all. Many thanks to everyone involved. Louisa Ermelino is the author of three novels that celebrate the power of women. She is also Reviews Director at PW Magazine and Chief of Reporters at InStyle Magazine. She’s worked at Time and People magazines and for the television show Top Cops.

Since beginning my work with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, I have struggled with various manifestations of disconnection.

As I read the emails, essays, and poems penned by these wonderful and brave women, news feeds from Afghanistan flash across my computer screen. The offensive in Helmand is the first step in what has become America’s second Afghan war . . . A 24-year-old Illinois soldier was killed by a roadside bomb Sunday fighting the war in Afghanistan . . . The line between life and death has become dangerously thin in Afghanistan’s bloody war zone.

I get these feeds because I requested them; I had to search them out. Unless you have a loved one deployed there, the situation in Afghanistan is not a part of the American consciousness. It’s not a Twitter trending topic. I rarely see the subject roll by in my Facebook live feed (but tons about Michael Jackson). Lately, TV pundits have been spending their time yukking it up over a quitter named Sarah Palin; they’ve reduced Afghanistan to a sidebar.

Then I read the women’s words. And I am struck with the complexity of their lives, at how disconnected Americans are from the realities of our fellow humans on whose soil we wage—rightly or wrongly—war.

In their words, I spy a gentleness of spirit that I do not believe I would possess if I walked in their shoes. I spy courage and determination; hope and sadness; wisdom and fear; and perhaps most important, a wily insistence on maintaining—against huge odds—a relevant voice in their society. Americans, by and large, tend to think of Afghan women as victims who need to be saved by the West. When I read their words, I know that they are survivors whose circumstances must change and that they will be and must be the ones who define that change.

These are women have lived through unspeakable trauma yet they—in ways great and small, in moments hidden and revealed—insist on soaring. Read their words and you will spy, as I do, a beautiful thing: ascension amid the rubble. — Connie May Fowler is the author of five acclaimed novels, as well as a memoirist and screenwriter. She performed The Vagina Monologues alongside Jane Fonda and Rosie Perez, raising over $100,000 for charities in 2003. Her lauded work has been translated into 15 languages.

Magical. How else to describe sitting at my computer in Harlem, USA, and connecting with young women in Afghanistan, women who want to better themselves as communicators so that they can be heard at home and all over the world? I cannot thank Masha Hamilton and her partners enough for creating this cyberspace classroom. At times, it feels like we’re meeting in our dreams.

When I taught creative writing in inner-city Detroit, I knew as writers-in-residence we could not expect to solve our students’ problems at home and in the city. However, we could listen. We could witness. And most importantly, we could share with them the tools to help them better their own lives and circumstances.

Students make their dreams real when they share them on the page. Students grow their burgeoning ideas in this way, too. This is true for all writers. What starts off as a spark in the mind becomes a full fire the more we write it down. Our visions come to life. The better we articulate these visions, the more likely we are to see them come to fruition. Because of AWWP, I am witnessing talented, inspiring young women hone their God-given gifts. With these gifts, they will make change.

We can make change, too. Because we fight a war in their country, it is imperative that all of us stay informed, and speak out and act up when it is clear that we are creating more suffering than hope. Let us keep everyone on the ground in our thoughts and prayers. And let us seek out the best ways to bring more justice, and more peace, into their lives and ours. — Stacy Parker Aab chronicles stories for The Katrina Experience: an Oral History Project, and is the author of the upcoming memoir Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House (Ecco/ HarperCollins).

It is a privilege to work with these young, courageous Afghan women, who are willing to circumvent Taliban rebels, often at great risk to themselves and their families, to give voice to their hopes and dreams and disappointments. Just finding safe access to a computer is an act of bravery. Their essays and poetry offer a rare glimpse into the hearts and minds (and secrets) of women whose determination to get an education reflects a deep passion for life and uncommon resilience. I get up each morning eager to help them learn because these young women are working to create a new Afghanistan. — Ann Blackman has spent three decades reporting from Washington for TIME magazine and The Associated Press, and is the author of three biographies, most recently Wild Rose, Civil War Spy.

Whenever I teach I assume I’ll learn something from my students—about writing in new and unique ways, about topics I’ve never considered— about life. I thought this would be especially true of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project so I readily agreed to participate.  I was not disappointed.

These young women wrote heartfelt essays, articles and poems that taught me more than I could have imagined.  I learned about life for women under the Taliban—the secret schools, the attacks on girls. I learned about the growing threat of kidnapping for ransom and about children feeling the obligations of adults—to work to support themselves and their families.

What I did not expect to feel from reading their words was hope. These strong, brave women are the face and future of change in Afghanistan. They give me hope because they have not given up.  When a dream is lost they create another one—like Freshta deciding that she could find power in being a writer when she couldn’t become a doctor. Or Seeta who has become a journalist even though she encountered resistance and distrust at first. Or Meena who dared to openly protest a law allowing marital rape. I was expecting to encourage these women but instead they did that for me.

And they have taught me to pay attention. For me, Afghanistan is no longer some vaguely distant place where US soldiers are fighting and dying. I know these young women and something about their families now. My hope is that more and more people in the US can read their words and know them too. — Nancy Antle is the author of many notable and award-winning works for young adults and children and a teacher for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.


I came into my first week of teaching this group with a sense of duty and excitement of what I could give back to other writers. I ended my last week of teaching moved by the honor of having been entrusted with their words. Sometimes the best critique you can give a work has to do with word choice, and style, and imagery; other times you can say all that, too, but what matters more is to say “I will not be able to forget this.” These women are writers who will break your heart with the stories of what they’ve seen and endured; but they will also make you soar with their hopefulness. Either way, their work will change you, unfailingly move you. — Violeta Garcia-Mendoza writes both poetry and prose in the Spanish and the American literary tradition. Over the last few years, her work has appeared in more than 30 literary venues.


When I was in the fifth grade or so in a small school in North Florida, I was told to choose a country to study for a special project. I chose Afghanistan. I vaguely remember flipping through the “World Book Encyclopedia,” looking for information about the country: population, elevation, holidays; the sort of non-information that appeases some teachers. I vaguely remember drawing a map with a blue pencil, dotting in the capital of Kabul with a speck of red; I vaguely remember pasting images of men riding horses onto a page. I’m sure my mother helped me. She always did, as if she were reliving her own school years: she would draw birds and flowers with colored pencils; she’d order brochures and cut out images of alligators and palm trees. I joked that she got good grades. When I signed on to help with the writers’ project—despite reading about our ongoing war and keeping up with the news that has filtered out, despite watching films like Siddiq Barmak’s Osama and the more recent Afghan Star—the name “Afghanistan” still called up the pale blue outline of a child’s map.

The young women I have had the privilege of working with have filled in the map. One wrote a poem recalling an autumn day when her family slaughtered a sheep to make landi; another young woman wrote a touching sketch of man unable to buy new clothes for his son at Eid; another wrote a poem about a scene that erupted when the Dari teacher was late: the young women had a chalk fight that made them feel free “like fishes swimming deep in the ocean.” I admire these young women’s fearlessness, not just for educating themselves, but for their willingness to write in a language not their own, to express not just fears, but joys universal to us all. As Fattema wrote: “The smell of fresh grass made me think of you.” — Lu Vickers is the author of Breathing Underwater, a novel; and Weeki Wachee: City of Mermaids. She has been awarded three individual artists fellowships from the state of Florida. Her new book, Cypress Gardens: America’s Tropical Wonderland, will be out in 2010.

Their stories pop into my email at all hours. I open them and they begin: “Hello dear Susan” and immediately I’m smiling. Although many of the essays are about dark topics—loss of loved ones, hunger, fear—the women writing these stories are bright and amazingly joyful. They’re also angry and courageous, but what touches me is how open they are to sharing their work. I expected these Afghan women to have more of a protective shell, but instead they’re willing to be vulnerable and write down their honest thoughts.

In the first exercise I posted, I asked the women to write about their hopes. To help them shape their writing I posted a lovely paragraph from Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club. In that, a woman recalls her mother’s dreams about the city of Kweilin. The response to the exercise was beautiful, and one of my favorite essays was by a woman who described a peaceful scene of Afghanistan in the snow. At the end of her essay she imagined a “Snow Partridge sitting on the dry branches of an olive tree covered with pure white snow singing sola, sola and sola (peace, peace and peace.)”  This has been a very inspiring experience. — Susan Breen’s award-winning first novel was published in 2008. Her short stories have been published widely, most recently by the anthology 2009 Best American Non-Required Reading. She teaches fiction writing for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

The news coming from Afghanistan is so dark these days. I think it’s hard for many Americans to figure out the best macro approach—the military, financial, political and so on formulas that will make this terrible “situation” better. That’s one of the reasons that I enjoyed working with these writers from Afghanistan; I’m sure it’s one of the pleasures for readers, too. Here are the voices of real women with a gift for language and story, and they personalize a country and a people that most Americans just associate with the “situation.” Their voices delight, inspire, and put a human heart on the headlines. — Kris Ohlson is the author of the award-winning memoir, Stalking the Divine, and she co-authored Kabul Beauty School. She is also a freelance journalist and essay writer whose work has been published in the New York Times newspaper and magazine, Salon, Ms, Oprah, More, and many other publications.

I spring from a long line of hardy women warriors—Southern church women who were never slow in the face of need, and quick to champion a worthy cause. They spent their lives baking pound cakes for missionaries, finding coats for the homeless, and ladling out love to neighborhood children. My dear friend Cassandra King is of the same ilk, and when we heard the details of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, our Southern hearts leapt in our chests. Here was a golden opportunity to reach across culture and half a globe to help give an Afghan sister a voice in this world; an authentic, woman’s voice, from a culture where women’s voices are not so often heard. I happened to have a signing at a dear friend’s house in the tiny town of Newberry, Florida, and turned it into a fundraiser for AWWP. The same friends who’d raised their children in village with mine—nurses, teachers, and a farmer’s wife—bought my books in support of this laptop. We laughed while we did it—there was a great sense of joy and destiny. We all have daughters ourselves, and in helping a woman find a voice, we help all our daughters find theirs. Cassandra and I went in on a “group gift” and send our blessing with it: that the recipient will be strong and prolific and brave; that her voice will sing across the broadband. — Janis Owens is the author of three acclaimed novels set in West Florida and, most recently, a much-loved cookbook memoir, The Cracker Kitchen.

When Masha Hamilton agreed to let me work with these amazing women, it never once occurred to me that I might find myself sitting at the computer, staring at the screen with a hard lump at the back of my throat and my eyes stinging, from the sheer power of what I was reading. A poignant little poem about preparing meat for the winter, and how the smell of turnips evokes warmth and security. An impassioned cry of love for music, and incomprehension that anyone could ban it. A father’s regret at the loss of ancient stone idols, destroyed by the Taliban. A call to arms to the government of Afghanistan to serve its people, instead of itself. Every essay, every poem, every article has been a WHAMMO! moment: pure gut-clench.

I’ve been hesitant to write about the experience of working with these women, because I feel as if I ought to be largely invisible. This is about a life that few of us will ever see or understand, about a world so far removed from our comfort and relative safety that it might as well be a different galaxy. And working with these women, this world, this distant galaxy, has been, not a job, but a privilege beyond words. — Deborah Grabien is a Bay Area musician and an author of thirteen novels, most recently of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, published this year.

As my stint with the writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project draws to a close, the news of president Obama’s decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to that country fills me with emotion. It is not just a distant “policy decision” but something that will deeply affect these women whose lives opened up to me so poignantly this month. I wish I could have another month (and I hope the next teacher will prompt them in this direction) so that I could ask them their thoughts and feelings about this enormous decision. WIll some of them be relieved? Others terrified? What will this mean for them, their loved ones, their country? It was fascinating to read the diverse responses to their recent elections, and I know that their thoughts regarding this issue will be equally layered and complex. It has been such a privilege to read these words and to work with these women who shared the same desires that we do: to live and love our families. To write. To tell our stories. I hope that I will be with them again before too long. — Susan Ito is the editor of the anthology A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. Her writing has been featured in many anthologies including Growing Up Asian American, Making More Waves, and CHOICE. She is a creative nonfiction editor and columnist at literarymama.com.

When I began my teaching rotation, I had just returned from a trip to the Middle East. While there are many things about this trip and my travels during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that are similar, the most important, within the context of my teaching rotation, is this: there exists at a core level, an inexorable place of understanding between women, and their stories, that transcends a common language or place of origin. In working within this four-week module, there was never a sense of there not being enough time to develop the work or to get to know each other. Rather, the immediacy of both the writing and the exchanges between “student” and “teacher” produced work and “conversations” between us that bypassed the intellect and went straight to the authentic voice. Though the time in the rotation is transitory, the experience with the women you are working with is not. I credit not just these women but Masha, who with an almost invisible hand asked the question periodically, “Is it blog ready?” This gave a critical anchor and momentum to the work. It is also a good way to transition an experience focused on one individual’s voice, and opening it up to the larger AWWP community. As the work is shared on the blog another level of exchange happens between the women. It’s a good structural framework for building strength and reliance from within. I think that is really pretty fantastic. It has been a great privilege to work with you –Yagana, Fatima, Masha and Ted. Thank you. — Maxinne Rhea Leighton is the author of the award-winning An Ellis Island Christmas. She recently completed her masters at New York University.

I do not own a Blackberry, an iPod or even a plasma screen TV and I will text a message on my phone only if I am really pressed to do so. An electronic Luddite at heart, I bought up all the classic movies on video cassette when my local video store was going out of business. Yes, I still watch movies on my VCR. So when an opportunity came along to teach “on-line” for the AWWP, I was a little skittish. I asked myself, “Do I have the techno skills?” As a result of participating, I have a developed a new and profound gratitude for the internet and for its attendant technology and I have never been more convinced of the importance of the phrase: “Keeping lines of communication open.”

I am stunned by the immediacy and power of writing to one another some 6,731.43 miles away. Given the stumbling blocks of distance, politics, and culture, in what other fashion could I read the intimate thoughts and feelings of my sister writers in Afghanistan?  In a matter of minutes, our messages reach around the planet and weave bonds of recognition and sameness. If isolation is a soul-killer then this internet-based program is most assuredly a savior. My life has been softened and enlarged by this (albeit electronic) experience, and as corny as this may sound, I now look up at the moon, think about moonlight over Kabul and feel a personal connection to the women writers there. How is this anything but a blessing? Thank you for this. — Susannah W. Simpson is a teacher and poet who spent her formative years in Kabul. Her poems about Afghanistan have been published by Nimrod International and Weber: Contemporary West.

I’ve never been to Afghanistan but my friend Esther Hyneman flew there as soon as she retired and hates to return. I have lived in Sudan and know how material hardship can change one’s role as a female into pure donkey. That these women manage to steal away to a computer—always accompanied by a male—and write so beautifully is astounding. Perhaps it is an advantage to have only a very short time at the keyboard! — Terese Svoboda is an award-winning novelist, poet, and memoirist, whose newest novel is forthcoming from Dzanc Press this fall.

To the Women of Writing 102:

It is a Sunday morning.  My AWWP rotation has ended. I sit and feel bereft. I am momentarily silenced by the intrinsic power of the word. This is not the word of the poet who craves accolades and fame. It is the pure word.  It is the epiphanic word. The word that saves each of you from the horrors of watching body parts float by in the street. It is the word that makes possible your refusal to suffer the atrocities of an evil regime. It is the word that slowly permeates your souls until you can write of the fragrance of pomegranates, the smell of a loved one’s skin when the burqa deprives him of the sense of sight, the comfort of sleeping with a dead father’s yellow shirt under a pillow. Yours is the word of hope and the word of inexorable power.

In a poem about the pain of growing up under the Taliban’s watch, one of you wrote: “In the museum of memos/ still I paint the birds / with blue wings.” I marvel at the desperate longing and gritty realism that empower you to put lips upon words sweet enough to reveal your souls, capture your landscapes, and reform your world. Grasping the true word, you find your voices. Surely, because of you, the maiming, the hatred, the senseless abuse will be deprived of its power over your voice and the voices of your mothers and daughters.

My first message from you read, “Welcome to our world, a world of poems, pains and love.” Yes, I was welcomed. I was loved. I was brought into your world, as you were brought into mine. Now, there are no geographic divisions between us. We are one. Out of the chaos comes the whole. This whole springs from the power of the pure word. From this word our hopes will be realized. Thank you for your words. Your subtle, yet piercing language has transformed my heart into a more glorious space. Thank you. — Susanne Scarfone is a widely published poet and a scholar of English Romantic Poetry and Virginia Woolf, as well as Education Director and writer-in-residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit.

I had been listening to the reports about my country’s decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan for several weeks when I decided that being a passive bystander to the war was no longer an option for me. I thought, maybe I need to find a group and travel to Afghanistan. Or, perhaps, I need to get out and protest. I searched Google and discovered AWWP and was instantly reminded that through story, shared words and new friendships it is possible to make a difference—even if only in a seemingly small way.

Working with the AWWP writers the last few weeks has made Afghanistan more real to me. No longer can I listen to or watch the news without thinking of lines from some of the women’s poems or scenes from their essays. I question the context in which the news here in the US delivered, and am grateful for the opportunity AWWP affords me to hear real stories from real women living in a country they both love and fear.

Roya’s poem My Burqa and the photo she sent of herself wearing one brought home to me the struggle of our women writers. Yet, in every piece of writing there was strength, and even hope. Telling stories can save lives. Being heard can help heal wounds. And meeting women in places far removed from my own home, even if only virtually, has made me wiser, humbled me and brought me great joy. — Erika Sanders recently completed her MFA in fiction, writes short stories, and is currently at work on a novel. She works with inmate writers at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State and blogs about her work here.

In my three weeks of working with the talented women in Writing 101, I read, among other things, a powerful poem about schools being burned, a brilliant essay about the emotional roller-coaster of living in Afghanistan when you care about women’s rights, and a thoroughly reported, important story on the new women members of a provincial council. The common thread of all of these pieces was passionate concern for Afghanistan, and this courageous commitment, combined with the intellectual capacity of the writers, gave me more hope for the future of the country than I’ve ever had before. — Kathy Ellison is a Pulitzer-prize winning former foreign correspondent and author of four books. Her memoir, Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, is due out from Hyperion Voice in October.

I was thrilled to begin working with the AWWP because I could combine two of my greatest loves—women’s rights and literacy. When I first approached Masha about volunteering as a teacher, I was really excited that I could help the organization and be a tiny, tiny part of the change that needs to happen with women’s lives in Afghanistan. And I’m very happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Going into the rotation, I knew I was inheriting a class with low participation, but I’m glad I didn’t let that dissuade me. The two or three students who did make the effort to participate and send in their pieces were very eager for feedback, which made working with them very rewarding. I hope that I’ve been able to broaden their horizons when they consider writing about their lives. I’ve also exposed my current group of on-ground students to the AWWP writers and, based on the women’s writings, we’ve had quite a few in-depth conversations about women in Afghanistan and the Afghan culture as a whole. So, thank you very much for giving me the chance to help you however I could. — Neha Bawa is a poet and an educator at Tunxis Community College.

When Masha Hamilton asked me to mentor in The Afghan Women’s Writing Project, I didn’t even stop to think it over. I simply said, “Yes.” I had no idea how this experience would affect me, but reading these women’s writings, learning about their lives and the injustices they face based on gender—and  because they happen to be born into a particular culture—changed me.

During a recent weekly visit at my parents’, my brother brought up my involvement with this project. It hadn’t occurred to me that my entire world view had already buckled, upheaved, transformed. Not till I began to explain it to my mother, and my voice caught and my eyes filled with tears. I stopped in mid-sentence, surprised.

I told a friend I’d never thought of myself as political. For years, I avoided watching the news, reading the papers, and any reports of bombings or rapes or the nonexistence of women’s rights seemed vague and distant. I thought back to being a child of the ’70s with newsreels of the Vietnam war playing on the black-and-white TV while my family ate dinner. Somewhere along the way—with CNN and regular reports of violence throughout the world—I grew numb to it all, perhaps as a way of shielding myself from the pain.

“But this isn’t politics,” I said to my friend. “This is people. This is personal. It’s women and their experiences and daily lives.” All at once, it became real. These women’s heartaches and hopes and fears came sharply into focus. It was impossible to remain oblivious.

In the U.S. and many other countries, we take our rights for granted. So many of us don’t understand how fortunate we are to speak the words we want to speak, to freely write our views, to know that our lives aren’t endangered because we express our own opinions.

In the midst of all their hardships, these women strive to be heard. They possess a courage and grace and strength that is phenomenal.

To the women of Afghanistan who participate in this writing project: You capture my heart with your words. I cannot think of anyone else I admire more. Keep writing. Keep creating. You inspire people throughout the world. You have given me so much more than I could ever hope to give back.

With heartfelt admiration, Season. —Season Harper-Fox has published fiction, poetry, and book reviews in Cream City Review, Rocky Mountain Review of Modern Language and Literature, OnTheBus, and Primavera. She has taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

My experience mentoring for the AWWP last month was profound. I’ve taught creative writing for fifteen years, yet this was some of the scariest teaching I’ve ever done. As I began my rotation, I wondered how I could bridge our language differences, how I could honor and encourage their efforts yet still challenge and teach them. Our cultures are so different. What if I said something to offend, or to shut down their writing process?  Yes, these are concerns I have with all students, but they felt particularly acute because of the circumstances these women overcome every day just to write.

When the work began coming in, I was deeply and consistently moved. Not just by the content and style, but by the sweet and trusting approach these writers took to me. They unfailingly worked hard to revise, to “stretch and squish” in response to my queries. They improved. And in the end, I was reminded of the universal nature of the writing process. All writers struggle to tell their stories. As these Afghan women bravely write—and rewrite—they are like young women writers everywhere telling their truths.  Just here, the stakes are higher, because these women are writing for their lives. — Ericka Lutz‘s award-winning short stories and personal essays have appeared in many books, anthologies, and journals, magazines, newspapers, and on the web. She is the author of seven commercial nonfiction books. She was a founding editor and writes a popular monthly column, Red Diaper Dharma, at the online literary magazine Literary Mama.

The word that first comes to my mind when I think of my experience teaching Writing 103 is “embraced.” The eagerness, affection and strength of will of these women shines in their words. The level of talent and the dedication to writing—as well as the love of it—came through in every exchange. Now, seeing pieces that I helped guide into readiness up on the blog, I feel like a mother hen puffed up with pride. I miss these women already. I can’t wait for my next rotation. — Naomi Benaron is an award-winning short story writer and the author of Love Letters From a Fat Man. Her work has also appeared in CALYX, Red Rock Review, PRISM International Review, Green Mountains Review, and other journals. She is the winner of the 2010 Bellwether Prize for a Novel of Social Change.

When I signed up with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, I had never taught an on-line class before, much less an on-line class to students in Afghanistan.

In the beginning, it felt a bit like fishing. I cast my writing prompt into the waters, and waited for a response, checking my in-box every so often to see if any of the women of Writing 102 had sent me their work. I’d sent the students Dust of Snow, a Robert Frost poem about how a crow shaking snow from a tree changes the poet’s state of mind. I’d asked them to reflect on something that had changed their moods from sad to happy, or vice versa. What I got back stunned me. One of my students wrote about her love of ice cream, and how the Taliban banned women from going to ice cream shops. Her father had taken her to one anyway, and she still remembered the sweet, wet taste of the ice cream mixed with the taste of her burqa.

Very quickly, the live interchange in a real classroom didn’t matter anymore, as these deeply significant stories, poems and essays glittered on my computer screen, describing life in another world. But despite the differences, many of the subjects were so familiar–the difficulty of enduring a critical mother-in-law’s hostile comments, romantic yearning, the pain of losing aged grandparents, the poignancy of separating from one’s family. Other pieces described the different Farsi dialects in Afghanistan spoken by returning refugees from Iran and Pakistan, the effects of thirty years of war and their imaginings of America. What struck me at every turn was the power of these narratives, the women’s willingness to share their lives with me, and their ability to think and feel so profoundly in a language that was, for many of them, their third language. I was humbled over and over again by realizing that these courageous souls were making themselves heard despite all the restrictions on their freedoms, despite power outages, despite war.

The other day, when I heard of a suicide bomb blast in Kabul on the radio, I stopped in my tracks, suddenly fearing for my students’ lives, and the lives of their families, their friends and their neighbors, feeling a very personal investment in peace. — Anne Landsman is the award-winning author of The Devil’s Chimney and The Rowing Lesson.


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