This winter I asked an eighteen year old Burundian, who recently emigrated to the USA and is seeking political asylum, to tell me the story of how he got here. He answered this heavy-handed question in shielded fragments I can’t disclose. I had no idea what’s going on with Burundi’s political parties. Most Americans couldn’t pinpoint the country on a topographical map. But this kid abandoned everything—parents, friends, neighborhood—to seek safety halfway around the world in Portland, Maine, where he refused to commit his life’s big picture to the blank page. And for good reason. So I tried new questions. What’s your favorite sport? Swimming. Where did you swim in Burundi? Lake Tanganyika. Did you swim with friends? Yes. Can you remember a crazy time swimming with your friends?
As if I were slowly helping him turn on a faucet, a story spilled out. He raced with his schoolmates to a rock in a beautiful African lake, hoping to beat them to it and win the prize money waiting on the beach. Then he was sprinting with the same friends toward the same beach to rescue himself from a famous human-eating crocodile named Gustave, who may or may not have been chasing them. At the finish line, they were laughing and tackling each other on the golden sand—a joy-filled scene we excavated together from the unspeakables that shadow his memory of home.
The story glowed, and so did the smile on my student’s face when he saw it in an anthology of young writers, How To Climb Trees, published by The Telling Room, Portland’s nonprofit creative writing center that has been running workshops for youth ages 6 to 18 since 2004. I have given you a mere glimpse of the Telling Room's award-winning effort to unearth the stories of the Greater Portland community. “Young Writers and Leaders,” a yearlong program of twelve immigrants and refugees from which the above story emerged, is one of The Telling Room’s over 50 writing programs undertaken during the 2010-11 academic calendar. During this time, over 2,000 students (native Mainers and newcomers alike) and nearly 100 volunteers came together in an astounding array of workshops on every literary form under the sun.
Ranging from daylong book-making workshops to yearlong intensive storywriting initiatives, the programs are designed to strengthen literacy, boost young people’s confidence in creative expression, and provide real audiences for student stories through publication and live readings. In the words of Executive Director Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, “When you get kids in the writing zone, the creative zone, they will be more brilliant than they ever knew they could be.” This year alone, the Telling Room published a dozen chapbooks in addition to their annual anthology of the year’s best student work. Each edition tops the charts at Portland’s fantastic indie bookstore, Longfellow Books, which is proof that The Telling Room's verbal engine of mutual understanding is well underway. This is a community within a community— Portland’s ever-growing nucleus of storytelling and free expression. Now the nonprofit’s rapid growth spurt has garnered two major springtime recognitions.
Fast Company, the progressive business magazine, named The Telling Room 2011’s most innovative company/organization in the state of Maine. Shortly after, The Maine Arts Commission, the Maine Alliance for Arts Education, and the Maine Department of Education recently gave the Telling Room Maine’s “Imagination Intensive Community” award, citing that “The Telling Room has evolved into a community that reaches beyond its own doors to collaborate with a wide variety of local and regional partners, including schools, Portland Public Library, Portland Ovations, and others.” This was the first time the honor went to a community other than a regional school district.
These statewide and national rounds of applause for The Telling Room are much-deserved. But there’s nothing like the rewarding sound of a student reading his or her story in front of a live crowd. Or the news of a former Telling Room rockstar traveling back to his home in Sudan, where he narrowly escaped death, to reunite with childhood friends and help improve education conditions there. A couple months ago that student who is still seeking asylum from Burundi told me he got accepted to the honors program of a top American university. We cherished our high-five's sweet sting of victory.
If you’re a writer in town, you should visit The Telling Room’s energetic Commercial Street space filled with desks, futons, bean bags, and computers at the ready for young writers’ fingertips. I'm forever thankful to have entered this room's constant flow of creative community members sharing in the explosion of Portland’s literary imagination—a whole story of stories.
To experience The Telling Room in action, watch this video.