BY ZÉLIE POLLON ZéliePollon(firstname.lastname@example.org) uses the power of her words to inspire families who want to travel.
Santa Fe New Mexican
Who’s Who...who’s Here
There is a famous, if controversial, experiment by Masaru Emoto, who researched the impact of words on a body of water. After exposing water to prayer, or taping both positive and negative words onto the liquid’s outer container, he alleged that, over time, words and intentions have the power to change water’s molecular structure. Beautiful words led to clear, crystalline structures, he said. Harsh words created a darkened mass. Writers understand this power. It is the power not only to tell important stories but also to choose the words that make those stories come alive. We tell stories so others can hear them. We tell stories so others will be moved. Writers Valeria Luiselli, Asma Khan and Sandra Cisneros have important stories to tell. In Luiselli’s new work, Tell Me How It Ends, her storytelling is multilayered. She writes about interviewing migrant children as they reach the U.S. border in the hope of being allowed to stay. Yet she realizes that in these interviews, the children must tell the “correct” story. They must first develop trust with a total stranger and then articulate their experiences— preferably their most traumatic moments— in language that can be understood. If they can’t, or if their stories don’t have the right trauma ingredients to earn them asylum status, they are deported without a trial. Luiselli writes, “I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear. I have to transform them into written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms. The children’s stories are always shufffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.” Luiselli is writing about having one’s experiences “seen.” In many ways it is about having our own stories mean something; it is about seeing ourselves in a new, more gentle light that we hadn’t known how to articulate before. “That’s when I feel seen,” she says, “when I’m gifted a narrative and a way of explaining things that I couldn’t before. The narrative is about others, but it’s in that integration between minds, or another’s experience and our lack of experience, that we are gifted and enriched by that narrative.” Luiselli says that Tell Me How It Ends merely adds one layer of narrative to an ongoing story, one that will have its final version when this generation of children and teenagers is able to write its own stories of forced diaspora. In the meantime, they will benefit from the versions that came before them, that tried to make sense of these experiences and tried to explain this dark moment in immigration history. “As story goes, it’s layer upon layer that ultimately creates history and meaning,” she says. “I see Tell Me How It Ends as one layer toward the telling of that one event and its larger meaning.” Asma Khan tells her stories through food. Khan is an Indian-born British chef whose London restaurant, Darjeeling Express, was featured in the TV series Chef’s Table. She has written two cookbooks, Asma’s Indian Kitchen and Ammu: Indian Home Cooking To Nourish Your Soul, where she combines popular recipes with her own life story. Part of this story is about combating a patriarchal Indian culture that does not value girls as much as boys and often doesn’t value the work of women at all. Khan is as much a social activist as a chef and is known as much for the all-female staff in her kitchen as for her cooking. The first women she invited to be her staff were nannies in her children’s school. Her relocation from Calcutta to London was cold and lonely, and these women became her family. In fact, she so missed her mother’s cooking— the pungent smells and sound of oil crackling— that she began creating elaborate supper clubs. These became so popular that she was invited to open her own restaurant. She hired her circle of friends to be her staff, not only to develop their kitchen skills but also to recognize and value them as women. “Women are feeders of generations, and we are still uncelebrated,” she says. The value she wants her staff to feel extends to pay, so everyone in the restaurant— including Khan herself— makes the same salary. No one should feel above anyone else there. As her popularity grows through her cookbooks and interviews, and her voice reaches more people, Khan talks about extending her activism to women’ s workshops .“I don’ t want to teach them to cook. I want to teach them to lead !” she says. Khan’ s cooking was swept up in a social media tornado of the best kind this year when actors Paul Rudd and Dan Levy stopped into her Co vent Garden restaurant for a bite to eat. A quick snapshot of the smiling trio went viral .“The next day my phone melted ,” Khan told The Independent online. “Asians everywhere were going crazy, and the idea that two big A-lister Hollywood guys were sitting and having a meal that so many could id en tifyw with as their culture, I think was quite incredible .” The superstar vignette gets to the heart of what Khan wants to create through her cookbook, her food and her family stories. “I don’ t want people to get up from my table just having eaten food ,” she said in another interview .“I want them to leave having understood a culture, a cuisine, a religion and an immigrant. That is very important for me .” Sandra Ci sn eros has been inviting people to understand Chic ana culture for decades. After she wrote The House on Man go Street in thelate1980s, about a young girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago, it was quickly banned by the Ar Arizona School Board. “The idea of students learning their suppressed history and taking power back, understanding their origins, felt subversive to them. It was a political awakening of a colonized people .” Ci sn eros admit snow that Man go was written from an angry place ,“but I didn’ t push‘ send’ right away ,’” she says. She took time to con template and craft her message, and to use the power of her words most effectively. Not much has changed since the book was banned. In fact, the situation has gotten worse, Ci sn eros says. She describes derision directed at Mexican people and other people of color, and an ongoing dis empowerment of women .“In their mouth they have fl flamethrowers. We don’ t see leaders telling people how to transform their fear or their rage. We see leaders who throw oil ontheflflame.” Of course, some word smith shave long been addicted to a good and fast repartee, derisive and often cutting, with little thought of the long-term effects. But in today’ s social media frenzy of sending first and thinking later, this can become down right toxic. For lovers of words and young writers especially, Cisneros, a long time practicing Buddhist, recommends the teaching of T hi ch N hat Hanh,a revered Buddhist monk who passed away earlier this year. His book Being Peace transformed her writing, her activism and her life. “It was earth shaking tome, the idea that if I wanted peace I had tobe peace ,” she says .“I had to be peaceful with my neighbors and my mother and the people across town. I had to be peaceful daily. Everyone is upset with Ukraine, but how are we creating peace with each other? Are we really sincere about wanting peace if we’ re being aggressive and care less with language? “We have to be responsible for our words ,” she adds ,“especially aswriters— whenwesendwords, printwords, whenwe communicate. We’ re word workers. We have the power to plant seeds or to kill. It’s a great responsibility .”