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Personal narratives vs. a colonial reality: Inside the Palestine Writing Workshop

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Nancy Kricorian meets with the Palestine Writing Workshop

We settle into our chairs, our small talk introductions, as we wait for the table to fill up. The workshop, titled “Family Stories: Writing Fiction and Nonfiction Narrative from Life” with Nancy Kricorian, is being offered by the Palestine Writing Workshop and draws us for different reasons. Some of us want practice in a writing workshop, some are striving to break away from the dryness of academic writing with the wish to return to the creativity of a younger time (before university killed said creativity), some come for lessons from a published author, and some for a budding interest in this thing called “writing”.

Nancy Kricorian (Photo: Palestine Writing Workshop)

The class begins, and Nancy asks us to introduce ourselves formally and give some biographical background. At the table there is an economist, a runner, a development worker, a mother, a few college students, a grandmother who writes about Palestinian embroidery. We relay details about what brought all of us together at this particular moment, for this week of writing classes. After we’ve gone around, Nancy introduces herself as an author and activist, a mother and an Armenian. She points out how each one of us picked out one particular facet, of the thousands that make up our identity, to describe ourselves. What is it about each of these individual, unique facets that we cling to in order to identify ourselves, she wonders.

Then she sets a task for us, to write about one of the family photos we had been asked to bring with us. As we all put on intense writing faces for fifteen minutes, and dip into the memories, the room becomes silent. History sits in the center of the table, as we scratch away with our pens, putting into words these images before us, their meaning to us, these stories we carry inside our chest, stories of Ramallah, of Jaffa, of the Mount of Olives and the old city of Jerusalem, of rural Pennsylvania, of India, of Gainesville, Florida, of Portugal – some of us were born and raised here, some of us are expats.

When we break for tea, our heads remain in this swirl of history, and that’s where our conversations turn to now. Where is the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah? Who lives there now? What happened there during the first Intifada? Those families that used to live on the hills where the settlements now sit – what happened to them? The children of that time must have families of their own now – where are they?

As we return to the second half of this first class, our new assignment is to now write for fifteen minutes on a different photo that belongs to one of our classmates. This time, the writing feels more challenging – more of us have furrowed brows, we struggle with making up stories about people we don’t know who are somehow related to someone else at the table, someone we only just met. We worry about creating fiction about real people, we worry about getting facts wrong, or making up facts. Eventually, we just write what we see.

The next day, we begin by talking about writers whose work we really admire. The list is an impressive one – Mahmoud Darwish, Naguib Mahfouz, John Berger, Elias Khoury, Mourid Barghouti, Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz, John Edgar Wideman, Sherman Alexie, Ian McEwan. “This is quite an esteemed group of authors we’ve put together here,” Nancy notes, pointing out that many of them are highly politically engaged in terms of what they write. “No wonder,” someone says, “being here.” And it’s true. In a place like Palestine, where we eat, breathe, drink and sweat politics, even being able to get the proper medicine is a political act, so it should come as no surprise that the writers we are drawn to are political. Or that in the writing of our family stories, our earliest memories, even the dialogue of two characters who want different things, the words we choose, how we tell the tale, all this is deeply infused with an urgency, a demand to be heard, a thirsting for justice. At some point, Nancy mentions that it is these strong, powerful personal narratives that can burn through the colonial narrative that Israel, the US, and establishment media in the West present.

Over the course of the week, as we work our way through drafts, workshop feedback, revisions, more drafts, one-on-one meetings with Nancy, and further revisions, we hone the voice and the message of each of the pieces that we’re working on individually. An exciting aspect of a workshop setting like this is that we each bring our own thoughts, passions, and writing obsessions to the table, and through sharing them out loud with each other, a transformation occurs. Not only do we have an appreciative audience for our own work, listening to our fellow writers enriches us as well. We hear stories that otherwise we might never have encountered. More than that, we learn ways of storytelling that may differ from our own. This weeklong workshop allows, or rather, creates, a space for each of us to engage in one of the most essential and important functions of being human – making sense of our lives from the whirl of information we receive on a daily basis.

Under occupation, where it is often said that ‘existence is resistance’, we get great value from articulating the truths of our existence to another’s ears. Expressing this through the written word solidifies that truth, and sharing our writing adds a layer of solidarity with our audience. That is, through writing our stories, we become the validation that we seek, and through listening to other’s stories, we join together, we gain empathy. In this process, we place our narratives side by side, so that they stand in the face of a colonizing force that does not tolerate resistance.

About Ian Rhodewalt

Ian Rhodewalt is a writer and educator from Pennsylvania, USA. He has been living in Ramallah for a year, and is a graduate of Oberlin College. Currently he is working on a book.

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One Response

  1. Nancy Kricorian
    December 1, 2011, 12:25 pm

    Ian — Thanks so much for this beautifully written (and flattering) description of the October workshop. It was an intense and productive week.

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