The Telling Room gives young immigrant writers a voice
PORTLAND, Maine — “I killed a dog once.”
So begins a powerful story titled “I Started to Explain” by a young writer from Maine — by way of Uganda — named Richard Akera.
The tale describes how Akera, then 13, angrily stoned a dog to death after it attacked his 5-year old brother and how his mother slapped him for not protecting his brother. It recounts the cascade of tears Akera later shed for his brother’s wounds, the family’s poverty in the African nation, and the sense that all had been abandoned by God.
“I Started to Explain” appears in a 2014 anthology issued by The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center headquartered near the Portland waterfront. Akera joined a program there called Young Writers & Leaders after his family, which moved to the United States in 2011, settled in southern Maine.
The Telling Room has become something of a civic treasure and rich community resource since its founding in 2004. It uses storytelling, in all forms, to foster personal and artistic growth in youths ages 6 to 18. Currently serving more than 2,500 young people annually, it offers an array of workshops, outreach programs, camps, public readings, and fellowships. All but a handful are free.
Many of the young people served by it, like a group of teens visiting from nearby Auburn on a recent April morning, come from refugee and immigrant families with African or Middle Eastern roots. Their struggles with cultural assimilation, and the often heroic stories of personal and familial survival they have to tell, are central to the program’s mission.
“Historically, Maine has not been very diverse,” notes executive director Heather Davis. Now, with the local immigrant population having grown dramatically in recent years, “there’s a real hunger to hear stories of these new neighbors, especially the younger members” she says. “It becomes an accessible way [for these families] to interact with the community.”
Not all served by the program fit the immigrant profile, Davis points out. Many others are home-schooled or having difficulty succeeding in mainstream classrooms, for a variety of reasons. Some are in juvenile detention. Virtually all exposed to The Telling Room experience find it eye-opening on many levels, say those associated with the center.
“Noticing what happens around you is a big part of what we do here,” staffer Molly McGrath told the visiting students from Auburn’s Edward Little High School as their field trip began with an orientation session. “We think you have interesting things to say, maybe even whole worlds in your heads.”
The group included Nadifo Nur and Lauren Slaughter, both 16, and Ali Mohamed, 17. Slaughter, whose parents are Congolese and South African, said her family had been forced to flee their homelands under death threats, but that she was adjusting well to America and enjoys singing and songwriting. Nur, who hails from Kenya, said the poetry class she’s currently taking was inspired by her visit to The Telling Room last year, when she realized that “potential stories are everywhere you look.”
Mohamed, born in the United States but with roots in Somalia and Kenya, said he, too, is taking a poetry class and hopes to attend medical school. Why poetry? Because through it, he said, he’s begun “exploring the differences between the US and Africa, the freedoms you have here.”
The students headed outdoors to take photos then returned to write brief pieces about what they’d shot: The more creative the better, they were instructed. As they wrote, McGrath explained why personal storytelling is so important to the program’s approach — and how it can break down all sorts of barriers, internal and external.
“It’s a self-confidence thing,” McGrath said. “We’re constantly recognizing that these kids have powerful stories to tell, then helping get them out. The sharing component is huge, too.”
The Telling Room was founded by a trio of Portland-based writers, Susan Conley, Sara Corbett, and Mike Paterniti, Corbett’s husband, who came up with the center’s name, which oddly would end up doing double duty as the title for his unrelated 2013 book, “The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese.’’
The three shared a vision of a grass-roots program that would help middle- and high-schoolers become better writers, Conley recalls. By design, it would supplement, not supersede, their regular school classes.
“The key was turning the notion of ‘build it and they will come’ on its head,” Conley says. “We wanted a guerrilla space that honored storytelling in different ways.”
The program began modestly, with after-school workshops held in coffee shops and living rooms. A small grant funded the hiring of trained instructors and a traveling exhibit of students’ work. By year two, The Telling Room had leased office space and published its first collection of student writing. More than 70 others have followed
Almost immediately, says Conley, “We could see how powerful these kids’ stories were, how they can change lives and bring down language barriers.”
As word of the program spread, other prominent writers volunteered their time, including Richard Russo, Elizabeth Gilbert, Ann Beattie, Lily King, and Richard Blanco. Many of them created works for the 2014 anthology to accompany the students’ work.
Russo’s companion piece recasted Akera’s story as a movie scene. It appears alongside the young writer’s in the anthology “The Story I Want to Tell’’ and was titled “Drinking Water.”
“His piece really spoke to me,” says the best-selling author, who lives in the Portland area and has become one of the center’s more prominent supporters. “I got to know [Akera] and had this wild notion of commenting on the piece in screenplay form.”
“These kids have such astonishing stories to tell,” says Russo admiringly, “stories that nobody seemed to care about” until The Telling Room opened its doors.
The program has grown steadily, if slowly, over the past decade. It currently employs five staffers, including a full-time grant writer; 15 to 20 teaching artists; and more than 200 volunteers.
With an operating budget exceeding $400,000 annually, it has managed to secure the financial backing of several major foundations and government agencies, along with a host of corporate and private donors. This month, The Telling Room was named a finalist for a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.
Meanwhile, many communities around the state have expressed interest in using the program’s resources, according to Davis.
“We’re at the point where we’re out of our adolescent growing pains and maturing as an organization,” Davis said during an interview at headquarters. “There are things we can now replicate, and teach others to do.”
The program’s basic mission won’t change, though, she said. No matter their background, language facility, or literary aptitude, “We treat them as hard-working writers, as peers. Treat them that way, and kids rise to meet the bar.”