Newly published authors dream of walking into a room full of people who are reading and discussing their books.
For Caroline Kautsire, the dream became a reality after her second memoir, “Some Kind of Girl: An African Girl Looking for America,” published in December of 2022, was chosen for Bunker Hill Community College’s One Book Program for the 2023-24 school year. The fact that Kautsire is an English and writing professor at Bunker Hill made the selection even more of an honor.
The college’s One Book Program began in 2007 and provides a means for students, faculty, and staff to share the experience of reading and discussing a common text. Expanding on the decades-old concept of the national “One City, One Book” movement, in which public libraries choose a work to promote community-wide discussion, Bunker Hill’s program encourages professors to incorporate the book into their curriculum. Programming throughout the school year includes author talks, book signings, and discussion groups.
Past selections have included “White Space: Essays on Culture, Race, and Writing” by Jennifer De Leon; “The Other Wes Moore” by Maryland Governor Wes Moore; and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.
“This year marks the 50th anniversary of Bunker Hill Community College,” said English professor Naoko Akai-Dennis, coordinator of the One Book Program. “It was a good year to choose someone local and related to community colleges. Students find Caroline approachable and engaging.”
Kautsire, who earned her bachelor’s degree at UMass Boston, then completed a master’s degree in English at Brown and a master’s of fine arts in creative writing at Emerson, was 17 when she emigrated from Malawi to Boston. Her first memoir, “What Kind of Girl?,” depicts her childhood in Africa; the second book picks up with her arrival in the United States and explores not only culture shock but issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, and the complications of navigating the immigration system.
The idea that her experiences as an immigrant might be worthy of a memoir began to take shape when Kautsire started teaching at Bunker Hill as an adjunct English instructor more than a decade ago.
“I was teaching contemporary African-American literature, so I found myself talking a lot about race and identity,” she said. “And then I had to ask myself, if I’m teaching students how to understand narratives of Black women in literature, where is my story?”
Bunker Hill student John Massaquoi found numerous commonalities between the feelings Kautsire depicted in her memoir and those he has had since he emigrated from Sierra Leone in early 2022.
“As immigrants, we are out of our comfort zone much of the time,” Massaquoi reflected. “We may be self-conscious or feel insecure.” During a recent class discussion about Kautsire’s memoir, Massaquoi found it comforting to learn that many of his classmates felt the same way.
Bunker Hill’s main campus is in Charlestown, with a satellite campus in Chelsea and several learning centers throughout Greater Boston. At Massachusetts’ largest community college, 65 percent of students are people of color and more than half are women, according to statistics provided by the school. There are nearly 600 international students who come from 94 countries and speak more than 75 languages.
“My story is meant to be an invitation,” Kautsire said. “This is a conversation, not a monologue. I want to hear my students’ stories; I want people to hear each other. I hope that what I share can help make immigrants feel more confident about navigating American culture.”
Ilsi Hernandez, a student in one of Kautsire’s writing classes, said “I felt a connection to Caroline from the very first chapter, where she talks about arriving in this beautiful country. I came here from Guatemala three years ago. The students in my class come from a range of different countries. We all had some kind of experience like what she describes when we first arrived, anxious to learn English, afraid we would not be understood.”
Kautsire hopes that nonimmigrants will draw insights from her story as well. In the talks she has given on campus so far, she has emphasized that Americans play their own role in this story.
“What does it mean to be an American living in a community with so many people from other countries?” she asked. “We need to hear their stories also, and understand how they feel about their identities as they interact with people who have left their home countries. What do you lose when you leave your home country, what do you gain when you live here, and what can an American learn from the experience of an immigrant?”
Moreover, she pointed out, themes such as financial insecurity and tensions between conformity and nonconformity feel relevant to nearly every college student, regardless of background.
As she takes part in discussions across campus and in the wider community, Kautsire is gaining new insights from what her readers see in her work.
“Knowing Bunker Hill chose my book to discuss is a sign that stories like mine are needed in communities that really want to bring about social and cultural change,” she said. “Not only does it validate the hard work I put into creating positive impact through my art, but it is also confirmation that my voice as a Malawian is relevant in America.
“I always tell my students that one of the responsibilities of a writer is to provide insight that helps us to cure ignorance. The One Book Program allows us to open a space for conversations that will enable us to connect, that will help us to realize that we are one.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.