Meeting Bosnian Author Adnan Mahmutovic

The second international event I attended this semester was also a part of the Neustadt Literature Festival. As a student in the affiliated course, I got a chance to talk with some of the authors individually, both in conversation and interviews. After the festival’s keynote address by African American poet Marylin Nelson, we got to have lunch with all the authors on the jury who come from all over the world.

I got to sit next to Adnan Mahmutovic, a Bosnian refugee who wrote the short story collection How to Fare Well and Stay Fair, which I absolutely loved. The short stories feature primarily Bosnian refugees, and some of them are autobiographical. His rich depictions of his homeland particularly resonated with me, as did his realistic portrayals of women.

The primary way that Mahmutovic describes Bosnia is through smell, particularly in the story “The Myth of the Smell.” An old woman in a refugee camp says that the rich scents of Bosnia are like “the greeting arms of a father.” When a girl returns to the refugee camp from Bosnia and brings back a handful of soil, her fellow Bosnians marvel at its heady, superior smell. Yet as the name of the story implies, the dirt smells ordinary, and the refugees are aggrandizing it in order to cling to their homeland.

Other of the stories feature very young female protagonists, most of whom are Bosnian, who are escaping the violence of war; they are victims of rape and have seen their family members murdered. Mahmutovic’s descriptions of these women’s relationships with their bodies and lovers are so strikingly intimate that it’s difficult to believe they’re written by a man.

When another female student and I complimented him on his ability to write female characters and tackle delicate women’s issues, he blushed with pride. Growing up with many sisters and a close family, he said he felt like he has always understood women better than men, and he credits the women in his family as his inspiration.

Mahmutovic was funny and honest, and meeting him in person only made me appreciate his writing more. While How to Fare Well and Stay Fair provides insight into the weighty issue of the Bosnian refugee crisis, it’s also sweet, witty and uplifting, much like the author himself.



Meeting Russian Author Alisa Ganieva

This past November, I got to attend a lecture by the Russian author Alisa Ganieva. After reading her novel The Mountain and the Wall and excerpts from The Bride and the Bridegroom, I was particularly interested in both her perspective as a writer from the little-known region of Dagestan and as a Muslim woman.

The Republic of Dagestan is a federal republic of Russia in the Northern Caucasus region. With a population of under three million people, it’s a predominantly Muslim territory. In The Mountain and the Wall, Ganieva creates a quasi-apocalyptic yet not unimaginable future in which Dagestan is cut off from the rest of Russia. As the Dagestani people in general are oppressed by the larger Russian government, the women within Dagestan seemed to be oppressed by Islam. They are simultaneously rewarded and condemned for conservative and provocative behavior, showing that the men use religion as a means to control the female characters.

In her own literary career, Ganieva struggled to write as a woman. She initially submitted her first novella into a writing competition under a male pseudonym, and, so relatable was the male protagonist, readers assumed the work was largely autobiographical. When she won the award and subsequently mounted the stage to accept it, the audience was stunned. In Ganieva’s own words, “They were expecting some brutal, unshaven guy from the mountains.” 

I really enjoyed getting to hear Ganieva speak, especially since I had just read one of her books. It was also interesting to interact with someone from Russia; given the recent political turmoil between America and Russia, it’s easy to forget that it’s a massive country with normal, productive citizens who have nothing to do with the corrupt government. Ganieva was bright and personable, and she offered me a completely new perspective on Russia.


A review for The Tower of The Antilles

This semester, I took a world literature class and got to read some really funky modern authors whom I wouldn’t have touched on my own. The short story collection The Tower of the Antilles by Achy Obejas particularly stood out to me, so I thought I’d write a review!

In the opening story of Achy Obejas’ collection The Tower of the Antilles, a tiny boat floats onto the shore of an unnamed island. A man picks it up and takes it home; when he returns to the beach the following day, a larger, more complex craft is in its place. Soon the man has accumulated dozens of boats, hundreds, so many that his yard and house are filled and he has to rent a storage locker and an airplane hangar. In the book’s final chapter, this process undergoes a transformation. Boats appear on the shore of the island, yet they are not dispersed. Rather, they are stacked with “nothing between the vessels, each one perfectly balanced on top of the other.”

As her characters curate these boats, Obejas curates her individual stories. Each can sail independently, yet she uses them artfully in concert with each other. Like the boats nesting in a swaying tower, the stories are interrelated, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Tower of Antilles initially appears to be an exploration of Cuban identity, but its scope quickly widens. Her diverse panoply of characters is not just searching for a place to call home or a background with which they can identify. They independently grapple with their sexuality, with poverty, with familial relationships, with revolution, and they all happen to be Cuban.

In “Kimberle,” the unnamed protagonist’s Cuban heritage is little more than a passing reference. A twenty-something employee at a smokehouse, she has recently acquired a suicidal roommate (for whom the story is named) who may or may not be stealing from her collection of rare books. Kimberle’s adventurous sexual predilections eventually ensnare the protagonist, and together they host a vivid series of menages à trois all while dodging their romantic feelings for each other. In the background of this personal drama, their small town waits for the inevitable strike of a serial killer who murders a young woman every fall. These seemingly disparate elements culminate in a chilling and wholly unexpected ending. Upon a second reading, I could trace how each individual thread was precisely designed to lead to the climax. Her writing is airtight.

The tenor of Obejas’ stories varies widely. Where “Kimberle” is visceral and frank, “The Sound Catalog” is lilting and joyful. Dulce, a Cuban immigrant to the United States, describes her new life in comparison to her old one, framing the tumult of Cuba against the newfound pleasure of her life as an American hairstylist. Partially deaf, she revels in subtle noises when she is able to hear them, giving Obejas great latitude to exercise her descriptive muscle. Dulce and her girlfriend, only referred to as her Cuban Ex-Lover, search for a community in Chicago, trying on and rejecting the Latina Lesbians, and eventually settling in with other Cubans, though she notes that “she didn’t recognize the Cuba they longed for.” Here, Obejas shows the multitudes that one national identity can contain.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 These stories, and the few others that also closely follow a small cast of people, are the collection’s strongest. While Obejas deftly crafts full narrative arcs and rich characters in limited pages, she falters when she strays from more focused plots. “North/South” features five short vignettes, three of which are about the same woman, Mari. Reading each one feels like walking into the middle of a conversation between old friends– the dialogue is pleasant and interesting, but seems largely meaningless without context. While the details in “Kimberle” eventually form a coherent picture, the ending of “North/South” provides no clarity.

The Tower of the Antilles is a remarkable work both for its diversity of narrative voices and its careful balance of heavy themes and playful imagery. Like the boats that bookend the collection, her stories float easily on dark water.


Sharing a Language and a Life

For the past two semesters, instead of participating in an official OU student organization, I’ve been doing something a little different to fulfill  my international activity requirement. For about two hours a week, I volunteer through the Norman Public Library as an English as a Second Language Tutor. The summer before I came to college, I co-taught ESL classes for a group of eight adults. While I felt like I had no clue what I was doing, I learned a lot alongside the more experienced teacher, and I knew we were doing valuable work. Once I got to OU, I looked for a similar opportunity.


I’ve been working with my student, Maria, since January. She’s in her early fifties, and moved to Oklahoma from Columbia about two years ago. Her story is  a perfect illustration of the immigrant experience, yet it’s also really lovely and unique. Maria and her husband divorced several years ago, when her two children were middle schoolers. She came to Norman with her son when he was seventeen, leaving behind her ex-husband and college-age daughter, and her career in fashion. While she has a college degree, her English wasn’t good enough for her to apply for a job in her field, so she’s been working as a cleaning woman at a gym.


Her son assimilated to life here very quickly. After just a year in public school, he became nearly fluent in English. Maria quickly met an American man who spent the majority of his childhood living in Mexico– he has a lilting Oklahoma accent and his Spanish is impeccable. After dating for just three weeks, they decided to get married.


Maria has relayed all this to me in our weekly lessons. I initially started by trying to teach her formal grammar and vocab. We did activities using words I thought would be most helpful for her, so she’d be able to talk about her job and family in English, and navigate some basic situations like eating out and grocery shopping. Just because I implicitly understand how to use correct grammar, however, doesn’t mean that I’m good at teaching it. I started to fully grasp how stupidly complicated English is, and how woefully unprepared I was to explain why things are the way they are.


Since our first few difficult lessons, my mode of teaching has shifted. I’ve realized that Maria’s biggest barrier to learning English (besides living with other Spanish speakers and not being able to practice) is her own expectations for herself. She wants to be completely fluent so she can once again work in fashion, so she’s not satisfied with just being understandable. But for now, I’m reminding her that she can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Rather than doing grammar worksheets and reviewing vocab flashcards, we sit and talk for two hours, making the most of what English abilities she already has. Anytime we have a coherent conversation, we call it a success.


She’s told me stories about her huge family back home, proudly listing all her sisters and their husbands and children, drawing out family trees on scratch paper so she doesn’t forget anyone. Every week she updates me about the drama at work, and I tell her about what I’m learning in my classes. She often doesn’t know the precise word she’s looking for, and we laugh a lot as she circumvents elusive vocab and just uses what she can remember. She makes the same grammar mistakes over and over again, and I gently correct her every time. Still, I’m amazed by the depth of our conversations. When her mother-in-law fell ill in October, we spent hours talking about her health and how worried Maria was. She’s talked about her frustrations that her husband prefers not to practice English with her, since he’s impatient and using Spanish is so much easier. We gossipped together when I first started dating my boyfriend, and she told me all about her whirlwind romance with her current husband.


For our last lesson of the semester, she invited me over to her house and cooked Columbian food for dinner. I met her four feisty dogs that she’s constantly talking about, and she pulled out photos from her wedding. I love the time we spend together, and I know our relationship has gone beyond that of a tutor and a student;  In two hours a week, I think I’ve shared not only the English  language with her, but my life.


Still Thinking About Summer

It might be December, but I’m still reflecting on the time I spent in France this summer. And what better way to do it than in French?

L’été dernier, je suis allée en France avec une groupe d’étudiants de l’Université d’Oklahoma. Nous avons passé par quatre semaines à Clermont-Ferrand, une petite ville en Auvergne. J’avais étudié le français pendant cinq ans, mais je n’ai jamais eu l’occasion de parler avec locuteurs natifs. Avant de partir, je me sentais nerveux mais j’avais hâte de voir l’Europe. Mon voyage n’était pas facile, mais je l’adorais.

Premier, j’ai pris l’avion de Chicago à Paris avec mon père. Il voulait visiter la France, et j’avais peur de voler seul. Quand nous sommes arrivé à Charles de Gaulle, je me suis sentie très petite. L’aéroport est assez grand et confus! Mais mon père et moi avons réussi à  trouver nos valises et aller à l’hôtel. J’étais fatigué, donc nous avons dormi un peu avant d’explorer la ville. Ce soir, nous avons marché le long de la rivière Seine jusqu’à la tour eiffel. Elle était plus belle que j’avais imaginé.

À Paris, j’ai vu tout les attractions touristiques: Notre Dame, l’Arc de Triomphe, le Louvre, et Sacré Coeur. Ma attraction favorite, cependant, était le Musée d’Orsay. J’adore l’impressionnisme, et j’ai vu quelques unes de mes peintures préférées de Renoir et Monet. J’aimais aussi regarder les gens françaises. En général, ils sont beau et élégant, et ils amènent leur chiens partout! Nous sommes restés à Paris pendant quatre jours, puis j’ai dû aller à Clermont-Ferrand.

Nous avons pris un train de grand vitesse de Paris à Clermont-Ferrand. Après mon père a quitté, j’ai rencontré les autres étudiants de l’Oklahoma. Initialement, j’étais nerveuse d’habiter et étudier avec des nouveaux gens, et j’avais peur de ne pas me faire des amis. Heureusement, tous les autres étaient très gentils. Le premier soir, après notre arrivée, nous avons rencontrés nos professeurs pour le dîner chez 1513 Crêpes, et j’ai fait des amis vite! Pour le plupart de mon voyage, j’ai traîné avec Owen, Kara, et Brittany. Je pensais que c’était amusant que nous tous attendons la même école, mais nous n’avons pas rencontrés jusqu’à nous sommes allés en France.

Avec mes nouveaux camarades, je me suis amusée beaucoup. Mais, j’étais à Clermont-Ferrand pour étudier! Ensemble, nous avons suivi deux cours: La Littérature Francophone D’Afrique et La Migration en France. J’aimais bien la cours de la sociologie. Nous  avons appris au sujet des réfugiés et les gens qui viennent d’Afrique et habitent en France. C’était très pertinent. La cours littérature, malheureusement, n’était pas bien enseigné. Mon professeur était sympa et intelligent, mais ses conférences étaient confus. J’appréciais les livres que nous avons lu, mais je n’aimais pas le cours.

Mon étudier à l’étranger était assez satisfaisant pour moi. J’ai fait des nouveaux amis et j’ai appris beaucoup, mais, plus important, j’avais du temps par moi-même pour explorer et reflecter. J’ai trouvé des cafés excellents où j’irais pour lire et écrire. Mon café favori était Café Auguste parce qu’il est ouvert tard et il sert du vin bon marché. Je passais par des journées agréables aussi dans Le Jardin Lecoq qui était près de mon résidence universitaire. J’apporterais une pique-nique et mes devoirs et ferais un somme dans le soleil.

La France me manque, mais je sais que je vais la visiter encore! Mon petit voyage l’été dernier était tellement plaisant que je voudrais y habiter pendant une semestre.



Dreaming of Summer

Without a professor requiring weekly posts, my blog has clearly languished. My life at OU, however, has not. Since last writing in November, college has taken off, and I now feel comfortable calling Oklahoma home.


I originally intended to spend my first collegiate summer relaxing back in my hometown. After months away from family, friends, and the splendors of rural Wisconsin, I figured such a respite would be welcome. Christmas break, however, caused me to reevaluate this plan. Working at the local gas station thirty hours a week and coming home to my parents every evening quickly became maddening. It turns out that the constant stimulation and stress of school is difficult to leave behind, and I knew that I couldn’t pass my summer in a similar fashion to my winter.


After returning to school in January, I began looking for both an internship and a possible study abroad program. I ended up finding both. Thanks to some maternal nagging and a last-minute email from the Honors College, I spent June studying in France and July and August interning for Paul Ryan. How ridiculous my notion of a quiet summer now seems!


Since childhood, I have struggled with transitions. I have vivid memories of signing up for summer camp with gusto, looking forward to living in cabins in the Michigan wilderness in a few months, only to be hit with crippling dread as my departure loomed closer. Looking forward to an experience often seems to provide more satisfaction than the experience itself (are you surprised that I hate surprise parties?), so I always fear that events won’t live up to the idea that I’ve built up in my head. Often, they don’t; they turn out so differently than I’d imagined that my visions are neither fulfilled nor disappointed.


Packing for France was an anxious experience. While the first two weeks of summer that I’d passed at home had been far from satisfying, there is safety in the known, safety in remaining exactly where you are. As I purchased travel-size shampoo, I worried that I would somehow manage to find Europe disappointing, that I would spend a stressful and unsatisfying month abroad when I could be home making money and wasting excessive amounts of time with friends from high school. What if I were in Paris, longing for Jefferson?


Just as my middle school worries about summer camp never came to fruition, I found all my fears about studying abroad to be ludicrous basically as soon as the program began. Transitions are indeed difficult; staying in Jefferson would have been easier (and a heck of a lot cheaper) than going to France. But the difficulties that living in a foreign country causes turned out to be invigorating and instructive, and I’m satisfied to say my month in Europe was easily the happiest month of my life.


My Digital Story

These past few weeks in my Becoming Globally Engaged Class, we’ve been working on creating digital stories. They can be about a wide range of things, as long as they’re related to some kind of international experience or cultural interaction. I’ve had the script for mine written for weeks. It’s an amalgamation of my very first blog post, “My American Story,” and some new writing, and it’s primarily about how I’ve learned to see beyond the ridiculous biases I had as a child, even as I’m just realizing how biased I really was.

I like my storyline: it’s personal but relevant, I hope, to a lot of people, and it’s just the right length. Read aloud, it comes to just about two and a half minutes. The story itself isn’t the problem, the digital component is. I’ve never been great with technology (my friends joke that I’m like an old woman, given my general abhorrence of computers and my fondness for oatmeal and phrases like “golly gee”), but the editing software we’re using, WeVideo, is fortunately easy to use. However, I’m struggling to illustrate my story.

My lovely father was so kind as to help me out by taking pictures around my hometown and emailing them to me, so I have plenty of shots to show where I come from. A large element of my story is my experience as an English a as  second language tutor, and I don’t have any pictures to go along with that. I’m hesitant to use stock photos, because the most impactful digital stories that I’ve seen have used really personal photos and videos. Using things taken off the internet just seems hollow. Currently, I’m uncertain what my project will look like, and how I’ll portray the things I’m talking about.

I’m looking at this as an opportunity to push my creativity a little bit. The digital stories are due in a week, so I’m going to have to come up with something! The fruits of my labor will be posted here as soon as I finish. Worst case scenario, I’ll just instruct people to appreciate my story with their eyes closed.


My OU Cousin

Here at OU, there’s a program called OU Cousins wherein American students pair up with students who are in Oklahoma to study abroad. The initial matching process was very stressful. Girls have to pair with girls, and apparently us OU girls were quite eager to make foreign friends, because we vastly outnumbered the international students. It felt like speed dating; we shuffled awkwardly around the room and  chatted about trivial things like our favorite TV shows and ice cream flavors. I struggled to discern who the international girls were, and even when I found one, she was swiftly whisked away by another eager American. Going into the process, I was hoping for someone from France, so I could practice my French with her. I quickly realized that I couldn’t afford to be picky– my plan to find someone with common interests and expectations for the program went out the window. I just wanted to get paired with someone.

I briefly talked to a girl who was from France, but before I could even broach the topic of becoming cousins, she flitted off to another group of girls. She cleared enjoyed being the hot commodity, and I couldn’t blame her. Eventually, however, just as the room was beginning to clear out and it appeared all hope was lost, she circled back to my friend Katy and me, and asked if we’d like to be her cousins. Of course, we said yes!

Ariane and I have only hung out a few times, but I’ve learned a lot from her. One of these realizations, to my dismay, was the reinforcement of the stereotype that French people are picky about how us foreigners butcher their language. Shocking, right? She’s not too enthusiastic about talking to me in French, and it certainly is easier to just use English. We’ve talked a lot about the differences between French and American school systems, both for high school and college. A few weeks ago we went to an event at the Union where we got dinner and painted pictures, all for free. There’s nothing like that at her university in France (though she was quick to point out that that’s one of many reasons schooling there is so much cheaper!), and we had a lot of fun.

Because of Ariane, I’ve also gotten to meet a lot of other international students. All students studying abroad here live in the same apartment complex, so they spend a lot of time together. Ariane invited me to a party hosted by one of her friends from the Netherlands, and I ended up being the only American student there. I found myself in this stranger’s kitchen at midnight, chatting with a circle of people from all over Europe about international politics. This was right before the presidential election, so they all had a lot to say about the United States. This is the beauty of the OU Cousins program: because I was connected with one international student, I became a part of a larger community, and so did she.


GEF Life Lessons

I’ve learned a lot about myself this semester, and much of that is thanks to the Global Engagement Fellowship. As I’ve briefly discussed before, I’m imagining a completely different trajectory for my career now than I was before I started college.  Rather than just wanting to travel, I’m hoping to live somewhere abroad doing long-term service, whether that be through the Peace Corps, a Fulbright program, or just as a member of the normal workforce. After that, I’m hope I’ll move back to the United States to pursue my goal of becoming a children’s advocacy lawyer. Whatever I end up doing, there are several lessons I’ve learned so far that I know I’ll incorporate:

  1. Accept that you don’t know what the future holds. I had a lot of stress during my senior year of high school because I had no idea what the next year would bring. I’m a very goal-oriented person, so it was frustrating to not have a clear path laid out in my head. I had ideas of what I wanted, but making those things happen wasn’t entirely in my control, and now, looking back, I’m grateful I didn’t get exactly what I’d hoped for. As poet Robert Burns so adroitly put, “The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew.” Though I am neither a man nor a mouse, this is overwhelmingly true. So many of the wonderful things in my life (being here at OU and joining the Global Engagement Program, for example) are result not of my careful planning, but of serendipity. Leave room in your life for chance. Work toward goals, certainly, but embrace the unknown.
  2. There are millions of ways to help people. We’ve spent a lot of class time talking about how to effectively give to charity, how to be a useful volunteer, and how to be an advocate for lesser-heard voices. Now, I can’t imagine having a career in which I don’t see myself making a tangible contribution to bettering people’s lives.
  3. Pursue things that interest you, even if you can’t see how they will immediately further your goals or tie-in to your career. While you can, give away your time and do things you enjoy. Coming to OU, I was excited to study abroad, but that seemed unrelated to my goal of becoming a lawyer. I thought the Global Engagement Fellowship was handy in that it made traveling more affordable, but I didn’t imagine it having a significant impact on my college career or life. Oh how wrong I was. Because of this program, I’ve met some of my best friends, and I’m now pursuing a dual degree in Letters and International Studies. In my career, I’m going to remember this experience. If I’m offered a job or a project that seems a bit out of left field, but sounds enticing nonetheless, I’ll seriously consider it.
  4.  Ask people out for coffee. While I didn’t learn this as a direct result of the Global Engagement Program, this is one of my favorite realizations of college. If there’s someone you want to get to know better (whether it be because they seem funky fresh and you want to befriend them, or because they could be a useful professional connection/mentor), offer to buy them some coffee. People love drinking overpriced things on someone else’s dime, so chances are, they’ll say yes. Need a killer letter of rec from a professor? Ask him out for coffee.Need to bribe someone? Ask them out for coffee. Want to woo a girl? Ask her out for coffee. Trying to connect with a new coworker? Ask them out for coffee. All the world’s problems could basically be solved if we all bought each other lattes a little more often.
  5. Most importantly, don’t be intimidated by people who are smarter and more successful than you. I’m friends with a lot of people now who, upon first meeting, I assumed wouldn’t want to hang out with me because they were so obviously cooler than I am. Many of the friends I made through this program are such talented and brilliant people, but they have no idea. Connect yourself to the people who scare you a little bit, because it’s an incredible thing to be able to genuinely look up to your best friends.